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Wednesday, 23 August, 2000, 18:49 GMT 19:49 UK
UN peacekeeping record
Nigerian peacekeepers in Sierra Leone
Peacekeeping is often a thankless task
The distinctive blue helmets and blue berets of United Nations peacekeepers are one of the most enduring images of an organisation founded after the Second World War to promote world peace through international co-operation.

UN peacekeeping began in 1956, and since then it has been through some profound changes.

From monitoring ceasefires when the warring parties have already agreed to stop fighting, to peace enforcement and armed intervention, UN soldiers have also learned some painful lessons.

1956: The Middle East

The first peacekeeping force was deployed in the Sinai Peninsula in 1956, at the proposal of Canada's Foreign Minister, Lester Pearson.

He suggested "a truly international peace and police force... large enough to keep these borders at peace while a political settlement is being worked out".

Suez canal incident
Blue helments were chosen to distinguish UN soldiers from withdrawing troops
The peacekeepers were to cover the withdrawal of British, French and Israeli forces from Egypt, following their invasion in the wake of the nationalisation of the Suez canal.

The invading powers agreed to withdraw in return for certain promises which the peacekeeping forces were to guarantee. The UN deployed the United Nations Emergency Force, which kept the peace for 10 years.

However, in 1967, President Nasser of Egypt ordered the UN troops to withdraw. They had no choice but to leave, and within days war broke out again.

When Israel attacked on 5 June, 14 remaining UN soldiers were killed.

1992: Somalia

After the end of the Cold War, the Security Council extended its "peacekeeping" activities to include "humanitarian intervention".

Somali boy points his gun
A Somali points his gun at what he says are clothes torn from a dead marine
However, when peacekeepers arrived in Mogadishu in 1992, they found they were not wanted.

The Somali warlords had little respect for the blue helmets of the UN, or for the US soldiers who were bolstering the UN force.

Some peacekeepers were killed, and the bodies of dead US soldiers were paraded through the streets of Mogadishu.

When a US helicopter was shot down, Washington decided to withdraw its troops.

A year later, in 1995, the UN also withdrew, confessing failure.

1993: Bosnia

Although the UN can claim some successes in the former Yugoslavia, it also suffered humiliating setbacks.

UN tank
The UN was often a target during the Bosnian war
In Bosnia, the world was slow to act as civil war broke out between Serbs, Muslims and Croats.

When Bosnia first asked for UN monitors on its borders with Serbia in 1992, the request was turned down, because there was no precedent for "pre-emptive" peacekeeping.

The result was that Serb military and supplies poured across the border, shelling civilians, and besieging towns like Sarajevo.

The United Nations Protection Force, Unprofor, was only deployed in 1993, when the International Court of Justice ruled that genocide was taking place.

But the Security Council gave the peacekeepers limited firepower, and a weak mandate which made it difficult for them to protect the civilian population against atrocities.

In the summer of 1995, lightly-armed peacekeepers stood by powerless as thousands of men in Srebrenica were murdered in what they had been told was a "safe haven".

Rwanda: 1994

After the humiliations of Somalia and Bosnia, the Security Council was reluctant to get too deeply involved in Rwanda.

Rwanda sculls
The UN was too late to save the genocide in Rwanda
At the time of the first reports of genocide in May 1994, there was already a small UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda.

But it was ill-equipped to deal with the scale of the bloodshed, and most countries immediately withdrew their contingents.

Eventually the Security Council approved a force of 5,500, but most of the troops were not forthcoming.

The UN has since admitted that it failed to prevent the genocide, and ignored warnings of what was to come.

East Timor: 1999

East Timor could yet be seen as a success story for UN peacekeeping - or at least UN intervention.

Clapping East Timorese
Peacekeepers were welcomed by East Timorese
Although the human and economic cost of the conflict was huge, the Australian-led intervention force successfully oversaw the withdrawal of Indonesian troops.

The force had the advantage of a strong UN mandate: to use "all necessary means" to carry out its mission.

However, pro-Jakarta militias managed to destroy most of the country's infrastructure, leaving the UN with an unprecedented challenge to rebuild the country almost from scratch.

The UN has found itself in complete control of a country without a government - a job for which it has limited resources and no experience.

Sierra Leone: 2000

The UN's involvement in Sierra Leone is its largest peacekeeping effort to date.

UN troops in Sierra Leone had a near impossible task
But many of the peacekeepers were ill-equipped and poorly trained.

The rebels managed to steal UN weapons, tanks and uniforms, and kidnap hundreds of UN peacekeepers.

When the Nigerian-led force, Ecomog, withdrew because of domestic pressures, the peacekeeping operation descended into chaos.

The UN force was mainly drawn from sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia - countries which had little experience of working together, and whose soldiers were badly organised.

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See also:

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UN failing in Africa
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