When people refer to Second-Generation Peacekeeping, the term is often used in reference to peacekeeping that started after the start of the 1990s. War and conflict had truly changed- and in many cases, this sudden change led to events where innocent civilians were now at risk instead of militaries.

The UN was often called upon to handle these missions. While the missions themselves had mixed success, it is important to remember their purpose and how many lives were saved, despite the UN’s challenges.

Starting in the 1990s, conflict rarely took place between states; instead, they were divided among ethnic, religious and political lines. In many cases, these divisions meant that the warring groups had little interest in peace. Jane Boulden describes the conflicting parties as:

“A large number of warring groups, not all of whom come to the negotiating table to negotiate the ceasefire or peace agreement.  Even those that do come to the negotiating table don’t always feel obliged to stick to their commitments once they go back out into the field, which adds to the complexity of the environment.”

With this kind of challenge, the UN could no longer use its normal tactics; simply observing the peace process was not enough.

To rise up to this challenge, the UN changed its approach. In this second generation of peacekeeping, UN peacekeepers would become widely known as a humanitarian force. Rather than focusing on keeping enemies apart, they ensured the protection of civilians, the stabilization of conflict areas and the human rights and dignity of those within host countries.  

This transition was by no means an easy one. As the UN adjusted to the modern realities, it had to pull out of several missions without fully accomplishing their mandate. However, the help they gave was crucial and prevented the conflict from spiraling into far worse situations. Professor Walter Dorn explains it well when he says:

“They are not an easy solution, but they are an important part of that solution, and some missions have failed spectacularly, but even those failures have shown that peacekeepers provide valuable assistance.  General Dallaire’s mission in Rwanda showed how with just 200 peacekeepers on the ground they could save over 20 to 30,000 lives during the reign of the genocide. 

In Bosnia, after much effort with the UN, the European Union and NATO, the peace was able to finally create stability, eventually bringing peace where many had thought that it was impossible.”

In the entries following this one, it may seem that the UN experienced failures as it adjusted to address the realities of modern conflict. However, UN peacekeepers proudly wearing the UN’s blue helmets were able to save countless lives and bring stability where many thought there was no peace to keep.

Going forward, it is important to remember the lessons learned during this era of peacekeeping, and the lives that UN peacekeepers were able to save.

The next entry in this series will examine the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and Bosnia, which is widely considered to be the first instance of this second-generation peacekeeping.