The 29th May is the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, a day designated to remember those who have lost their lives in the service of peacekeeping operations and pay tribute to those who have served and continue to serve in such missions. First established in 1948 as unarmed military observers, peacekeeping missions have evolved massively, seeking to guarantee ceasefires, support peace agreements and intervene in conflict to create peace and stop hostilities. Peacekeeping was originally envisaged as straight forward ‘thin blue lines’ of lightly armed United Nations (UN) soldiers to separate combatants. Canadian diplomat, and future Prime Minister between 1963 and 1968, Lester B. Pearson, was instrumental in pushing the first armed mission, the United Nations Emergency Force deployed to Egypt in 1956. Nowadays the doctrine of peacekeeping has expanded and become more complex to include new missions based on ideas such as peacebuilding, peace enforcement, peace-making and interventions for peace. Many operations now have human rights strengthening and civilian protection mandates as well as ‘traditional’ peacekeeping duties. The actors involved in such operations are also no longer exclusively UN as other multilateral organisations, including the African Union and European Union, as well as ad hoc groupings of national forces can be involved.

Int Peacekeeping day poster

Today over 120 countries contribute 122,000 personnel to 16 UN peacekeeping operations alone. This comprises military, police and civilian personnel. Of the 104,279 military experts, police and troops currently serving in UN peacekeeping missions around the world, 45,291 (approximately 43%) come from Commonwealth countries. The proportion is roughly the same when you disaggregate by gender. Of the top five troop contributing countries in the world four are members of the Commonwealth (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Rwanda). Relative to population the Commonwealth is therefore over represented in current UN peacekeeping missions, despite the fact that only 2 of the 16 UN missions are deployed to Commonwealth countries (Cyprus and the Indian-Pakistan border). Outside of the UN framework 50% of the African Union Mission in Somalia is from Commonwealth countries, namely Kenya, Sierra Leone and Uganda. In the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), which is finishing its deployment in June 2017, the majority of the troops came from Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and Papua New Guinea. Unfortunately the Commonwealth is also over represented in the number of fatalities in UN peacekeeping missions. Since 1948, 40% of fatalities are from Commonwealth countries with, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ghana, Bangladesh and Canada having lost more personnel than any other country. This further underscores the need to remember those who served in the cause of peacekeeping. 

One possible explanation for the Commonwealth’s overrepresentation in peacekeeping is its own history of multilateral military operations and peacekeeping. During the time of the British Empire forces from the dominions and colonies fought together in both World Wars. Since the advent of the modern Commonwealth, multinational forces badged as Commonwealth were deployed to Korea from 1951-4 and Malaysia in 1954. While these were conventional military operations, the Commonwealth has also been invoked in two badged peacekeeping operations. The first was the Commonwealth Monitoring Force deployed to Zimbabwe/Southern Rhodesia in 1979-80 to oversee the elections. It was made up of 1,500 largely UK troops, but also included Australians, Kenyans, Fijians and New Zealanders. In 1994 the Commonwealth Observer Mission in South Africa was complemented by the Commonwealth Peacekeeping Assistance Group. The mission was much smaller and shorter and provided training to the National Peacekeeping Force which was formed to reduce conflict, particularly between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party. Training included crowd control, electoral procedures, maintenance of law and order, mediation, riot prevention, and use of minimum force. In 1998-9 the Commonwealth provided training support to the Sierra Leonean police.

For developing countries, peacekeeping does provide certain advantages in terms of receiving funding and providing deployment experience for large standing armies, as well as providing remittances for troops and their families. This might explain the large contributions of countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Rwanda. However, it does not explain the large historical role of Canada and the UK evidenced by their comparatively large numbers of fatalities in UN missions. The UK has also gone beyond UN-led missions in the context of Sierra Leone where 1,900 UK troops were deployed under UK command to support a failing UN mission in the late 1990s. There are some parallels to be drawn with RAMSI (mentioned above) in terms of large military powers intervening in fellow Commonwealth countries. A final factor that must be considered is that of values. While certainly not without controversy or allegations of violence and human rights violations, peacekeeping at its heart is an attempt to protect, reinstate or consolidate peace, usually by multilateral intervention. It is often also carried out with a human rights promotion mandate. Perhaps the Commonwealth’s high representation in peacekeeping is a sign that its members do have a greater interest in multilateral international policy and upholding human rights, peace and security around the world than some other countries. Either way today is an important opportunity to mark the service of those who have done their part to uphold peace.