The Third Side: What Do Peacekeepers Do?

What Do Peacekeepers Do?

The central tasks of peacekeepers include:

  • interposing between parties,
  • enforcing the peace, and
  • preempting violence before it starts

Interposing Between Parties

Interposing, or stepping in between fighting parties, is perhaps the most obvious step a peacekeeper can take to halt an escalating conflict. For example:

  • When two men brawl in a public place, their peers can drag them off each other. When rival gangs in Los Angeles started to eye one another, a group of mothers would regularly interpose themselves; after a gang member was killed, they shepherded his "brothers" from the funeral ceremony safely through the enemy gang's territory.
  • Neighbors can intervene as well. The owner of a small moving company in Lincoln, Nebraska, routinely fields emergency calls from the local Rape-Spouse Abuse Crisis Center. He promptly shows up with his truck and helps the victims of domestic violence escape with their possessions. It can be dangerous work. In one instance, he recalls, "We knew the husband carried guns and might be back. 'Look, if you see your dad returning, you need to call the sheriff.'" Fortunately, they all got out before the husband came back.
  • Thankfully, there is the sheriff. When a fight breaks out, people can summon the police. "Okay, that's enough! Let's break it up!" is a familiar cry. To avert violence, police in New York and other cities patrol gang-troubled neighborhoods at night, working together with the community to ensure that teenagers on probation are off the streets.
  • In hot spots around the world, interposing is perhaps the chief role for international peacekeepers, who establish and occupy buffer zones between hostile forces, helping to maintain and monitor a ceasefire. From Africa to Central America, and from Europe to Asia, men and women from dozens of nations, many of whom are former enemies, work together as peacekeepers, risking their lives so that others might survive.
  • In addition to verifying compliance with ceasefire agreements, peacekeeping forces also monitor agreements about troop withdrawal, oversee the disarmament of both parties, and assist in the demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants.
  • Peacekeepers also help to provide secure conditions for humanitarian aid and peacebuilding functions, including democratization, social structural change, the development of civil society, and other post-war reconstruction efforts. Thus, they help conflicting parties to take a crucial first step toward stable peace.

Enforcing the Peace

Some believe that peacekeepers should remain impartial and that they should not actively intervene in the fighting. These theorists hold that peacekeepers should have the consent of the conflicting parties and that they should use force only in self-defense. However, others believe that the community sometimes needs to go further and use actual force to protect the innocent and stop the aggressor. No matter how strong any single aggressor, community members, police officers, and international peacekeeping forces are potentially stronger.

Consider how a group of young women freed another young woman being forcibly abducted by six youths in a working-class neighborhood in Mexico. "She was screaming and kicking," reports anthropologist Laura Cummings. "Then some of these young cholos, four or five girls, came along and were yelling at the fellows to let her go. All but one did. So the girls picked up stones and sticks and started pelting the guy who was dragging the girl. He let go of the girl... The fellows who were with him stood in a circle and did not intervene." The power of numbers helped liberate the victim while the legitimacy of the young womens' intervention helped neutralize the attacker's allies.

Experiments with peace enforcement are occurring on an international scale. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1991 and refused to withdraw his troops, the forces of thirty-eight countries from around the world, operating under a mandate from the United Nations, expelled the Iraqi forces and liberated Kuwait. Not only did the world community establish a precedent for repelling aggression against another nation; it also set a bold and remarkable precedent for intervening to defend an endangered minority within a nation. For when Saddam Hussein dispatched his surviving army units to crush the Kurds who had risen up against him, the world community intervened a second time in order to create a protected zone for the Kurds in the North of Iraq. While both instances were exceptional and their success was mixed, together they point toward a possible day when genocide and massive human rights violations will be stopped by the armed will of a united world community.

Preempt Violence Before it Starts

In general, however, most people believe that peacekeepers should seek out enforcement mechanisms that employ as little violence as possible. However necessary at the time, a peace enforcement effort such as the Gulf War is always accompanied by tragedy. Much better than stopping an ongoing fight is preempting it before it breaks out. Ideally, peacekeepers will be lightly armed and will have the consent of the parties involved. Their main goal is to stop violence over the short term, thereby allowing more long-term peace processes, such as peacemaking and peacebuilding, to become effective, eventually bringing about a stable peace situation.

Adequate early warning is a key to early intervention. Had international peacekeepers, for instance, been dispatched to the Kuwait-Iraq border during the week Iraqi troops stood poised for invasion, they might not have been able to physically stop the Iraqi troops from crossing the border, but they would have sent an unmistakable signal to Saddam Hussein of what he could expect if he proceeded with the invasion. Hussein, a ruthless but calculating man, might well have decided to call off his troops.

Efforts to prevent violence at the international level might include: (Click on links for more information)

At lower levels, efforts (which can all help to keep the peace between angry people or factions) might include:

For More Information

Much of the material on this user guide is drawn from Thanks to William Ury and Joshua Weiss for giving us permission to republish their material here.