UN Peace Keeping Operations – Challenges and Perspectives

De Minister van Defensie sneed op 29 mei in de Koninklijke Militaire School een onderwerp aan dat omwille van de toestand in Syrië actueler is dan ooit: de Verenigde Naties.

UN Peace Keeping Operations – Challenges and Perspectives

Minister of Defence Pieter De Crem

Royal Military Academy, May, 29th, 2012



Distinguished members of the international defence and security community,

Admirals, Generals,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


On this International Day dedicated to the United Nations Peacekeepers, it is my pleasure to address you here today at the Belgian Royal Military Academy and to discuss a topic which has proven to be essential for international peace and security since the end of the Second World War: Peace Operations under UN Auspices, and some of the challenges we have before us.

On this very moment, 120.000 peacekeepers are serving in 17 different UN-missions in some of the world’s most volatile environments. Their task is often difficult, complicated, and not without risk. On this day, we remember also the more than 2.900 peacekeepers who have lost their lives over the past years. They have made the greatest sacrifice possible to bring peace and stability in this world.  In their honour, I would like to ask all of you to rise and observe a minute of silence.

……………Minute of silence……………..


Ladies and Gentlemen,


From the first UN Peacekeeping Mission deployed in 1948 to observe the ceasefire in the Arab-Israeli war, to the most recent Supervision Mission deployed in Syria, from traditional military peacekeeping to multi-dimensional peacekeeping, the landscape of national and international conflicts and the way to deal with them has changed fundamentally. 


The demand of field missions, their complexity, and their cost have risen constantly confronting the UN and its member states to difficult challenges.  Each component of a mission – the military, the police, and the civilian – has a specific role to play in filling the global mandate.  This needs coordination.  The UN Peacekeeping Mission needs to apply an integrated approach with the other actors on the ground: the UN Country Team, the Host Government and other national partners, other international organisations, national and international NGO’s.  This is today’s complex reality on the ground. 


With the experience present here in the audience and in the panel, I’m confident we will be able to discuss and deepen the “Challenges and Perspectives of UN peacekeeping Operations”.


As far as I’m concerned I would like to share with you some thoughts about the very start and basis of any UN Peacekeeping mission: the UN Security Council mandate, and more precisely, the recent evolution we have observed in terms of implementation of the Responsibility to Protect or R2P principle.  I will also briefly deal with our experiences in Afghanistan and some perspectives on further cooperation.


At the World Summit in 2005, the United Nations established the concept of Responsibility to Protect.  The concept has rapidly grown and gained strength. It focuses on preventing and halting genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. Safeguarding populations from these crimes becomes more and more a reality. The concept R2P holds States responsible for shielding their own populations from these crimes and requires the international community to primarily assist and if necessary to step in whenever this obligation is not met.

This possible UN-intervention raises questions about national sovereignty. Obviously, a military intervention is the final solution possible, only to use when diplomatic and other means of pressure have failed.  In its Governmental Agreement of December 2011, the Belgian Government stated that it adheres to the principle of the Responsibility to protect.  The implementation of this principle is also an EU priority.  For some UN Member States although, R2P remains a controversial issue.


On March, 23, 2011, the United Nations Security Council approved the Resolution 1973 which reiterated the responsibility of the Libyan authorities to protect their population. Military action has been taken by a coalition of countries, including Belgium. It is my opinion that using the last possible solution in the R2P concept, the use of a military intervention, was justified.  At the time that NATO was authorized to take action, the Gaddafi regime was violently suppressing peaceful and legitimate protest by its citizens.

All other means of pressure had been taken to stop the violence used by the regime against its own population.  We could no longer sit idly by while a regime descended into chaos and started an offensive against its own population. Operation Unified Protector was able to protect the population while minimizing the risk for collateral damage and casualties.  The military pressure resulted in the fall of the regime, which was not a purpose as such, but a logical consequence of the confrontation between that regime and its own population, supported by the international community. Of course, the transition to democracy will remain a period of great challenges.


We must indeed proceed very cautiously within this concept. The international community bears also a responsibility to protect in regard to the political situation in Syria. The uprising in Syria is part of the same broader Arab Spring protest movement that has toppled the Gaddafi regime.


What we have witnessed last Friday in Houla will bring the Syrian crisis into a new phase. Up to now we were into the second pillar of the R2P that consists of assisting the Syrian government in assuring the protection of its population.
The international community has made important efforts : there was the designation by the UN and the Arab League of Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan ; the adoption on 16 March of his 6 point peace plan that called for a cease fire and, I quote "an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people" end of quote ; this was followed very quickly, on 25 March, by the commitment by both the Syrian government and the opposition to implement this plan ; there was finally, on 21 April, the adoption of resolution 2043 of the Security Council establishing the UN Supervision Mission in Syria. All these steps have constituted a very serious international attempt to resolve the Syrian conflict in a diplomatic manner.


With the peace plan for Syria, the international community has taken its responsibility. The UN has demonstrated the world’s concern, commitment and solidarity with the Syrian people.

But we need to acknowledge the negative signals too: the violence has increased; there is no dialogue between government and opposition; even worse, the opposition is now more divided than before as was showed by the recent resignation of the leader of the main opposition group. Last week’s report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry to the Human Rights Council established that gross human rights violations are still committed by the Syrian army and security forces, in particular through the use of lethal force against demonstrators and extra-judicial executions. Last Friday (25 May), the first report of the UN Supervision Mission was issued and highlights - I quote - "the deepening crisis on the ground and the risk for a full scale civil war".

In the second place, let me say a word about Afghanistan, as we come back from the NATO summit in Chicago where we very much focused on the future of this mission.   My point is the following: peacekeepers must be early peacebuilders and there is a time for the international community to fully re-invest the national authorities with the full exercise of power.


The ISAF-mission, created to assist the Afghan government in rebuilding the country, in accordance to various UN-resolutions, exists more than ten years by now, and will come to an end in 2014. Since the beginning, Belgium has participated as a reliable international partner. In this case, the time has come to take a step back. The decade of military presence has demanded considerable efforts of the contributing nations and has also affected the daily life of the Afghan population. Now is the time to withdraw.  We will do this in an orderly way, not by running away. During the next two years, the international military presence will decrease; the Afghan security forces, but also the Afghan civil society will reclaim its place in the country. Sovereignty will be given back fully to the national authorities. The Afghan society must continue to grow and become stronger. There is still a long way to go in protecting civilians, securing the rights of women, and tackling humanitarian concerns that continue to afflict the country.


But these are challenges that the Afghan people will not have to face alone. Last week, at the NATO-summit in Chicago, the will of the international community has been expressed to assist the Afghan government during this transition period. And in time, even this assistance will not be needed anymore, once the Afghan state has become strong enough to ensure law and order. Our primary task is to assure that all the victims of this conflict have not fallen in vain. Peacekeepers need to be early peacebuilders.  A strong and stable Afghanistan, adhering to democratic values and principles would be a beacon of hope for the entire region.


Let me conclude by highlighting a last challenge which is not new but deserves our attention today.  The international community is composed of a high number of actors and organizations. Regional organizations are crucial in peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts. They are often a key to success.  They give the UN peacekeeping the needed flexibility. 

Think of the role played by the League of Arab States in Libya and now in Syria.  It is a challenge for all these actors to learn working closely together, on a regional and international level, in order to reinforce our efficiency and effectiveness. Good examples exist already of close cooperation between the United Nations and regional organizations as the Arab League and the African Union in Darfur and Somalia and the European Union in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Effective forms of cooperation should be imitated in other theatres. Triangular cooperation between organizations, such as the EUTM-mission in Uganda that prepares AMISOM-soldiers for their deployment in Somalia under the banner of the African Union, backed up by a resolution of the UN Security Council, also deserve to be further explored. I have witnessed personally the advantages of such cooperation and am convinced that the contacts between regional organizations and the international community should be deepened and reinforced at all levels.


Peacekeeping is a global partnership. Working closer together, not only as countries but as institutions will truly allow us to let our alliances thrive and show the world that united, we can reach our goals.


In the beginning of the past century, the French politician Georges Clemenceau already stated that: “He doesn’t know whether war is an interlude during peace or peace an interlude during war”.


One thing is for sure: in this world that will become even more intertwined in the future, the United Nations will play an increasingly important role for every living being on this planet. And I can assure all of you that Belgium will continue to take responsibility when asked for, just as we did in the past.


Pieter De Crem

Minister of Defence

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