Are Militaries the Most Appropriate Peacekeepers?

By Ed Horgan, World BEYOND War, February 4, 2021

When we think of militaries, we mostly think of war. The fact that militaries are also almost exclusively used as peacekeepers is something we should take time to question.

The term peacekeeping in its broader sense includes all those people who endeavour to promote peace and oppose wars and violence. This includes pacifists, and those who follow the early Christian ideals even if too many Christian leaders and followers subsequently justified violence and unjustified wars under what they called the just war theory. Likewise, modern leaders and states, including European Union leaders, use bogus humanitarian interventions to justify their unjustifiable wars.

Having been an active military officer for over 20 years and then a peace activist also for over 20 years I tend to be viewed as a warmonger turned peace-monger. This is at best only partly true. My military service from 1963 to 1986 was in the defence forces of a genuinely neutral state (Ireland) and included significant service as a United Nations military peacekeeper. I joined the Irish Defence Forces at a time when 26 Irish peacekeepers had been killed over the previous few years in the ONUC peace-enforcement mission in the Congo. My reasons for joining the military included the altruistic reason of helping to create international peace, which is the primary purpose of the United Nations. I considered this to be important enough to risk my own life on several occasions, not only as a UN military peacekeeper, but also subsequently as a civilian international election monitor in many countries that had experienced serious conflicts.

In those early years of UN peacekeeping the UN, especially under one of its very few good Secretaries General, Dag Hammarskjold, who tried to play a very genuine neutral role in the broader interests of humanity. Unfortunately for Hammarskjold this clashed with the so-called national interests of several of the most powerful states, including several of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and probably resulted in his assassination in 1961 while trying to negotiate peace in the Congo. In the early decades of UN peacekeeping, it was normal good practice that peacekeeping soldiers were provided by neutral or non-aligned states. Permanent members of the UN Security Council or members of NATO or the Warsaw Pact were usually excluded as operational peacekeepers but they were allowed to provide logistical backup. For these reasons Ireland has been frequently asked by the UN to provide troops for peacekeeping and has done so on a continuous basis since 1958. This onerous duty has come a significant cost. Eighty-eight Irish soldiers have died on peacekeeping duty, which is a very high casualty rate for a very small army. I knew several of those 88 Irish soldiers.

The key question I have been asked to address in this paper is: Are militaries the most appropriate Peacekeepers?

There is no direct yes or no answer. Genuine peacekeeping is a very important and very complex process. Making violent war is actually easier especially if you have overwhelming force on your side. It is always easier to break things rather than to fix them after they have broken. Peace is like a delicate crystal glass, if you break it, it is very difficult to fix, and the lives you have destroyed can never be fixed or restored. This latter point gets far too little attention. Peacekeepers are often installed in buffer zones between waring armies and they do not normally use lethal force and rely on dialog, patience, negotiation, persistence and lots of common sense. It can be quite a challenge to remain at your post and not respond with force went bombs and bullets are flying in your direction, but that’s part of what peacekeepers do, and this takes a special type of moral courage as well as special training. Major armies that are used to fighting wars do not make good peacekeepers and are prone to revert to making war when they should be making peace, because this is what they are equipped and trained to do. Since the end of the Cold War especially, the US and its NATO and other allies have used bogus so-called humanitarian or peace enforcing missions to wage wars of aggression and overthrow the governments of sovereign members of the United Nations in gross breach of the UN Charter. Examples of this include the NATO war against Serbia in 1999, the invasion and overthrow of the Afghan Government in 2001, the invasion and overthrow of the Iraqi Government in 2003, the deliberate misuse of the UN approved no-fly-zone in Libya in 2001 to overthrow the government of Libya, and the ongoing attempts to overthrow the government of Syria. Yet when real genuine peacekeeping and peace enforcement was needed, for example to prevent and stop the genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda these same powerful states stood idly by and a number of the permanent members of the UN Security Council even provided active support for those who were committing the genocide.

There is scope for civilians also in peacekeeping and in helping to stabilise countries after they have emerged from violent conflicts, but any such civilian peacekeeping and democratisation missions must be carefully organised and regulated, just as it is vital that military peacekeeping must also be carefully organised and regulated. There have been some serious abuses by both civilian and military peacekeepers where such controls are inadequate.

In Bosnia when the war ended in 1995, the country was almost over-run by NGOs rushing in inadequately prepared and in some cases doing more harm than good. Conflict and post-conflict situations are dangerous places, especially for the local population, but also for strangers arriving unprepared. Well-equipped and well-trained military peacekeepers are often essential in the early stages but can benefit also from the addition of well-qualified civilians provided that the civilians are included as part of the structured overall recovery process. Organisations such as the UNV (United Nations Volunteer Program), and OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and the US based Carter Center do some excellent work is such situations, and I have worked as a civilian with each of them. The European Union also provides peacekeeping and election monitoring missions, but from my experiences and research there has been some serious problems with many such European Union missions especially in African countries, where the economic interests of the European Union and its most powerful states, take precedence over the genuine interests of the people in these countries whose conflicts the EU is supposed to be solving. European exploitations of African resources, amounting to blatant neo-colonialism, takes precedence over maintaining peace and protecting human rights. France is the worst offender, but not the only one.

The issue of gender balance is of critical importance In peacekeeping missions in my view. Most modern armies do pay lip-service to gender balance but the reality is that when it comes to active military operations very few women tend to serve in combat roles, and sexual abuse of women soldiers is a significant problem. Just as an unbalanced engine or machine will eventually get seriously damaged, likewise, unbalanced social organisations, like those that are predominantly male, tend not only to get damaged but also to cause serious damage within the societies in which they operate. We in Ireland know to our costs the damage that has been caused by our unduly patriarchal Catholic clergy and male dominated Irish society since the foundation of our state, and even before independence. A well-balanced male/female peacekeeping organisation is far more likely to create genuine peace, and far less likely to abuse the vulnerable people that they are supposed to be protecting. One of the problems with modern military peacekeeping operations is that many of the military units involved now tend to come from relatively poor countries and are almost exclusively male and this has led to sone serious cases of sexual abuses by peacekeepers. However, there have also been serious cases of such abuse by French and other western armies, including US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, who we are told were there to bring peace and democracy and freedom to the Afghan and Iraqi people. Peacekeeping is not just a matter of negotiating peace with the opposing military forces. In modern warfare civilian communities are often far more damaged by conflicts than are the opposing military forces. Empathy and genuine support for civilian populations is a vital element of peacekeeping that is far too often ignored.

In the real world a certain proportion of humanity driven by greed and other factors are prone to using and abusing violence. This has necessitated the need for the rule of law to protect the vast majority of human society from abusive violence and police forces are necessary to apply and enforce the rule of law in our towns and countryside. Ireland has a well-resourced mainly unarmed police force, but even this is backed up to an armed special branch because criminals and illegal paramilitary groups have access to sophisticated weapons. In addition, the police (Gardai) in Ireland also have the support of the Irish Defence Forces to call on if needed, but the use of military forces within Ireland is always at the behest of the police and under the authority of the police except in the case of a serious national emergency. Occasionally, police forces, even in Ireland, abuse their powers, including their powers to use lethal force.

At the macro or international level, human nature and the behaviour of humans and states follow very similar patterns of behaviour or misbehaviour. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Unfortunately, there is, as yet, no effective global level of governance or policing beyond the anarchic international system of nation states. The UN is perceived by many as being such a global governance system and as Shakespeare might say “oh would that it were so simple”. Those who drafted the UN Charter were primarily the leaders of the USA and Britain during World War 2, and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union as France and China were still under occupation.  A clue to the reality of the UN is contained in the first line of the UN Charter. “We the peoples of the United Nations …” The word peoples is a double plural (people is the plural of person, and peoples is the plural of people) so we the peoples does not refer to you or I as individuals, but to those groups of people who go to make up the nation states who are the members of the United Nations. We the people, you and I as individuals, have virtually not authoritative role within the UN. All member states are treated as equals within the UN General Assembly, and Ireland’s election to the UN Security Council as a small state for the fourth time since the 1960s is indicative of this. However, the system of governance within the UN, especially at Security Council level, is more akin to that of the Soviet Union rather than to a fully democratic system. The UN Security Council, and especially the five UN Security Council permanent members, exercise a stranglehold over the UN. To make matters worse, the drafters of the UN Charter gave themselves a double locking system or even a quintuple locking system by virtue of their veto over all important decisions of the UN especially with regard to the primary objective of the UN, which is spelled out in the UN Charter, Article 1: The purposes of the United Nations are: 1. To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: etc, …”

The power of veto is contained in Article 27.3. “Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members;”. This innocent sounding wording gives each of the five permanent members, China, USA, Russia, Britain and France absolute negative power to prevent any important decision of the UN that they consider may not be in their national interests, regardless of the larger interests of humanity. It also prevents the UN Security Council from imposing any sanctions on any of these five countries regardless of any serious crimes against humanity or war crimes that any of these five countries may commit. This veto power effectively places these five countries above and beyond the rules of international laws. A Mexican delegate to the proceedings that created the UN charter in 1945 described this as meaning: “The mice would be disciplined and while the lions will run free”. Ireland is one of the mice at the UN, but so is India which is the largest genuine democracy in the world, while Britain and France, each of which has less than 1% of the world’s population, have far more power at the UN that India with over 17% of the world’s population.

There powers enabled the Soviet Union, USA, Britain and France, to seriously abuse the UN Charter throughout the Cold War by waging proxy wars in Africa and Latin America and direct wars of aggression in Indo China and Afghanistan. It is worth pointing out that with the exception of the occupation of Tibet, China has never waged external wars of aggression against other countries.

The United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which has been ratified and came into force on the 22 January 2021 has been widely welcomed across the world.[1]  The reality however is that this treaty is likely to have no impact on any of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council because each of them will veto any attempt to curtail their nuclear arsenal or to curtail their use of nuclear weapons if, as may well be likely, they decide to use nuclear weapons. In reality also, nuclear weapons are being used indirectly daily by each of the nine countries that we know have nuclear weapons, to threaten and terrorise the rest of the world. These nuclear powers claim that this M.A.D Mutually Assured Destruction strategy is maintaining international peace!

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the so-called Cold War international peace should have been restored and NATO disbanded after the Warsaw Pact was disbanded. The opposite has occurred. NATO has continued to operate and expand to include almost all of eastern Europe right up to the borders of Russia, and to wage wars of aggression including the overthrow of the sovereign governments of several UN member states, in gross breach of the UN Charter and NATO’s own Charter.

What bearing has all this on peacekeeping and who should be doing it?

NATO, led and driven by the USA, has effectively usurped or side-lined the primary role of the UN for creating international peace. This might not have been a bad idea if NATO and USA did actually take over and implement the UN’s genuine role in maintaining international peace.

They have done the exact opposite, under the guise of so-called humanitarian interventions, and later under the additional guise of the new UN policy known as R2P Responsibility to Protect.[2] In the early 1990s the US intervened inappropriately in Somalia and then precipitously abandoned that mission, leaving Somalia as a failed state ever since, and failed to intervene to prevent or stop the Rwandan genocide. The US and NATO intervened too late in Bosnia, and failed to adequately support the UN UNPROFOR mission there, indicating that the breakup of the former Yugoslavia may have been their real aim. From 1999 onwards the objectives and actions of the US and NATO seemed to become more overt and in more obvious breach of the UN Charter.

These are huge problems which will not be easily solved. Those who support the existing international system, and this probably includes the majority of political science academics, tell us that this is realism, and that those of us who oppose this anarchic international system are just utopian idealists. Such arguments might have been sustainable prior to World War 2, before the first aggressive use of nuclear weapons. Now humanity and the whole ecosystem on planet Earth face possible extinction because of out-of-control militarism, led primarily by the USA. However, let us not forget that three other nuclear powers, China, India and Pakistan have had violent conflicts over border issues even in recent times, which could easily lead to regional nuclear wars.

Peacekeeping and maintaining international peace were never more urgent than it is right now. It is vital that humanity must utilise all its available resources to create a lasting peace, and civilians must play a significant role in this peace process, otherwise the civilians of this planet will pay a terrible price.

With regard to the alternatives to military as peacekeepers it is likely to be more appropriate to apply far more strict controls over what types of military are used for peacekeeping, and far more stringent regulations governing peacekeeping operations and over the peacekeepers. These should be combined with the addition of more civilians in peacekeeping rather than replacing military peacekeepers with civilian peacekeepers.

An important related question we need to ask and answer, which I do in my PhD Thesis completed in 2008, is whether peacekeeping has been successful. My very reluctant conclusions was, and still is, that with a few exceptions, United Nations peacekeeping, and the performance of the UN towards achieving its primary role of maintaining international peace have been serious failures, because the UN has not been allowed to succeed. A copy of my Thesis can be accessed at this link below. [3]

Many civilian organisations are already active in creating and maintaining peace.

These include:

  1. United Nations Volunteers This is a subsidiary organisation within the UN that provides civilian volunteers for a wide variety of peace and development type tasks in many countries.
  2. Non Violent Peaceforce – – Our Mission – Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) is a global civilian protection agency (NGO) based in humanitarian and international human rights law. Our mission is to protect civilians in violent conflicts through unarmed strategies, build peace side by side with local communities, and advocate for the wider adoption of these approaches to safeguard human lives and dignity. NP envisions a worldwide culture of peace in which conflicts within and between communities and countries are managed through nonviolent means. We are guided by principles of nonviolence, non-partisanship, primacy of local actors, and civilian-to-civilian action.
  3. Frontline Defenders: – Front Line Defenders was founded in Dublin in 2001 with the specific aim of protecting human rights defenders at risk (HRDs), people who work, non-violently, for any or all of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Front Line Defenders addresses the protection needs identified by HRDs themselves. – The mission of Front Line Defenders is to protect and support human rights defenders who are at risk as a result of their human rights work.
  4. CEDAW The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women is an international treaty adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly. Described as an international bill of rights for women, it was instituted on 3 September 1981 and has been ratified by 189 states. Such international conventions are vital for the protection of civilians especially women and children.
  5. VSI Volunteer Service International
  6. VSO International – Our purpose is to create lasting change through volunteering. We bring about change not by sending aid, but by working through volunteers and partners to empower people living in the some of the world’s poorest and most overlooked regions.
  7. Love volunteers
  8. International organisations involved in election monitoring in post conflict situations:
  • Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) provided election monitoring missions mainly for countries in eastern Europe and countries formerly associated with the Soviet Union. OSCE also provides peacekeeping personnel in some of these countries such as Ukraine and Armenia/Azerbaijan
  • European Union: The EU provides election monitoring missions in parts of the world not covered by the OSCE, including Asia, Africa and Latin America.
  • The Carter Center

The above are just some of the many organisations in which civilians can play important roles towards creating peace.


The role of peace movements within countries is important but this needs to be expanded to create a much stronger global peace movement, by networking and cooperation between the multitude of peace organisations that already exist. Organisations like World Beyond War can play very important roles in preventing violence and preventing wars taking place in the first instance. Just as in the case with our health services where preventing diseases and epidemics is far more effective than trying to cure these illnesses after they take hold, likewise, preventing wars is many times more effective than trying to stop wars once they occur. Peacekeeping is a necessary application of first aid, a sticking plaster solution to the wounds of war. Peace enforcement is the equivalent of applying triage to epidemics of violent wars that should have been prevented in the first place.

What is necessary is to allocate the resources that are available to humanity on a priority basis towards prevention of wars, making peace, protecting and restoring our living environment, rather than to militarism and making wars.

This is one of the important keys to successfully creating international or global peace.

The estimates for global military expenditure for 2019 calculated by SIPRI, STOCKHOLM INTERNATIONAL PEACE RESEARCH INSTITUTE amounts to 1,914 billion dollars. However, there are many areas of military expenditure not included in these SIPRI figures so the real total is more likely to be in excess of 3,000 billion dollars.

By comparison the total UN revenue for the year 2017 was only 53.2 billion US dollars and this has probably even reduced in real terms in the meantime.

That indicates that humanity spends over 50 times more on military expenditure than it spends on all the activities of the United Nations. That military expenditure does not include the costs of wars such as, financial costs, infrastructural damage, environmental damage, and loss of human lives. [4]

The challenge towards achieving the survival of humanity is for humanity, and that includes you and I, to reverse these spending proportions and to spend far less on militarism and wars, and far more on creating and maintaining peace, protecting and restoring the global environment, and on issues of human health, education and especially real justice.

Global justice must include a system of global jurisprudence, accountability and reparations from states that have perpetrated wars of aggression. There much be no immunity from accountability and justice and no impunity for war crimes, and this required the urgent removal of the power of veto at UN Security Council.







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