Who Will Protect the Safety and Health of the Peacekeepers?

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Who Will Protect the Safety and Health of the Peacekeepers?


HE Yin


This year marks the 70th year of the beginning of the UN peacekeeping mission.


On May 29, 1948, the UN sent its first group of peacekeepers to the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in the Middle East.


Over the past 70 years, peacekeepers from the Member States have contributed to the world’s peace and security. Some of them even sacrificed their health and lives.


As of May 2018, 3733 peacekeepers have lost their lives in their service for the UN peacekeeping operations, including 17 Chinese military and police personnel.


In 2002, The International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers was established by the UN General Assembly to pay tribute to the peacekeepers who sacrificed their lives as well as to express appreciation for the contribution made by all the peacekeepers.


How to protect the safety of the peacekeepers? It is worthwhile to ask this question on the 16th International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers.



Four Safety Threats

At the end of 2017, supported by the China-UN Peace and Development Fund, a panel of experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General completed a report entitled Improving Security of United Nations Peacekeepers: We need to change the way we are doing business (Cruz Report).


However, the report focuses mainly on the violence encountered by peacekeeping operations, while other factors that threaten the security and safety of peacekeepers are ignored.


Statistics of the UN show that among the 3733 peacekeepers who died in operations, only 21% lost their lives due to acts of violence, while 35% died of accidents and 31% of diseases.


Whats more, psychological stress is another crucial factor that threatens the peacekeepers.


Acts of Violence

In the post-Cold War era, lethal weapons are rampant in many peacekeeping missions. Peacekeepers face the risks of armed conflicts, terrorist attacks, riots, ambushes and other criminal activities.


In the Sahel and Great Lakes region of Africa, some illegal armed groups and terrorist organizations possess such heavy weapons as artilleries and rocket launchers, some of which are even more sophisticated than those of the peacekeepers.


Restricted by the existing rules on the exchange of fire and the limited capacity to act, peacekeepers can only take defensive stance and can only open fire for self-defense in the face of violence, which makes them easy victims of violence.



The most common life-threatening accident is traffic accident. Poor road conditions, inadequate maintenance of vehicles, careless driving habits of some peacekeepers and the local people’s ignorance of traffic safety pose great challenges to peacekeepers.


Peacekeepers often need to travel by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. But air crashes occur frequently due to poor facilities, aging aircraft and other reasons. On June 29, 2004, 24 peacekeepers lost their lives in a helicopter crash in Sierra Leone.


Another type of accidents is natural disasters, including hurricanes, earthquakes, flood and its secondary disasters. The fragility of houses and other infrastructure in the mission areas that fail to effectively withstand the extreme conditions expose the peacekeepers and the local people to danger. 


In 2010, the Haiti earthquake leveled the headquarters of the UN Stabilization Mission, killing dozens of people, including 8 Chinese, peacekeeping police and officials from Ministry of Public Security.


Port-au-Prince, capital of Haiti, is located in an earthquake zone. Two devastating earthquakes have occurred over the last 100 years. It is doubtful whether the UN had carefully conducted the seismic assessment before it located the Headquarters for the Mission.


In addition, depleted uranium and white phosphorus shells used by American forces in the Balkans and Iraq have contaminated the local environment, which poses a threat to the health of the peacekeepers in those areas.


According to some reports, some NATO soldiers who served in the peacekeeping operations in the Balkans have suffered from radiation sickness after returning to their countries. When I conducted my research in Northern Europe, I also learned about similar cases.


Moreover, in primitive areas, peacekeepers are often threatened by animals and poisonous insects.



Since 2000, 2079 peacekeepers lost their lives and almost half of them died of diseases. During this period, the UN has deployed 10 major peacekeeping missions in Africa. All of these missions are located in the tropical area, where a variety of tropical diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever and African trypanosomiasis threaten the health and safety of peacekeepers.


Strenuous and stressful peacekeeping mission may also lead to primary diseases or latent diseases. Whats more, some peacekeepers cannot get timely and effective treatment due to inadequate medical conditions.


In February 2018, a commander of China’s peacekeeping force in South Sudan suffered serious illness and led to liver failure. His life was saved only after he was transferred back to China where he got the right treatment


Psychological Stress

There are two kinds of psychological stress. One is accumulated stress and the other is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Violence, accidents and diseases might lead to anxiety and even fear on the part of some peacekeepers. They may also have homesickness while living far away from their families and friends for a long time. Other factors, such as narrow living spaces and poor conditions can also affect their mentality.


If the psychological stress cannot be relieved, it might accumulate and eventually have a negative impact on the dispositions and behaviors of the peacekeepers. For example, accidents occur due to lack of concentration when they handle weapons and vehicles.


PTSD is a mental disorder that develops in some people who have witnessed or experienced a serious violent event or accident.


Both accumulated stress and PTSD, if serious enough, can cause depression and even mental collapse. Some patients may even have suicidal tendencies and behaviors.


General Romeo Antonius Dallaire, commander of the UN Peacekeeping Force during the Rwanda massacre in 1994, suffered from PTSD and attempted to suicide.


Robust Peacekeeping Leads to Greater Danger

In recent years, the UN has adopted NATOs security operations rules in some countries, including Afghanistan, to establish strong stabilization missions in the D.R.Congo, Mali and Central Africa, which ushered in the era of robust peacekeeping.


The UN Security Council authorized the use of “all means”, including force, to accomplish the mandates of the above-mentioned missions.  The Cruz Report also recommends a more robust pattern of actions, such as the use of more sophisticated weapons and a more proactive and pre-emptive approach to deal with violence against the peacekeepers.


In the D.R.Congo, the UN Intervention Brigade is equipped with heavy weapons such as attacking helicopters and artillery to carry out robust peacekeeping mandates. However, the security situation in the country has not significantly improved. Instead, the peacekeepers are often caught in violent attacks.


In Mali, the peacekeeping operations are in a dilemma: neither can the peacekeepers fight against terrorists nor can they maintain peace in conflict areas.


Since 2013, 104 peacekeepers have died due to various acts of violence, in particular terrorist attacks, accounting for about half of the death toll of peacekeepers in the same period.


The 70 years of the UN peacekeeping history has shown that robust peacekeeping will only make the peacekeeping conditions even more dangerous.


How to Deal with Security Risks?

To improve the safety situation of the peacekeepers, we need to have a more comprehensive understanding of security risks and take more effective measures while reflecting on the effect of robust peacekeeping.


Redesigning Robust Peacekeeping

The political advantage of UN peacekeeping cannot compensate for the disadvantage of its low capability to act. The robust peacekeeping operations should be redesigned politically and strategically, and it should be separated from peacekeeping operations. When necessary, the UN Security Council can delegate relevant regional, sub-regional organizations or multinational forces to sustain peace through necessary military operations.


Improving the Capability to Address Violence

When confronting illegal armed groups or terrorist organizations, peacekeepers must make sure that they have advantages both in weaponry and capability so as to deter potential violence. When necessary, they can exercise their right of self-defense in line with the principle of the use of force in order to respond effectively to malicious acts of violence.


However, proactive and preventive measures should not be taken to eliminate security threats. Such actions amount to military operations which, if necessary, should be left to purely military forces, otherwise peacekeeping operation will lose its spirit of peace.


Strengthening Accidents and Diseases Prevention

All stakeholders in peacekeeping operations should recognize the potential threats of accidents and diseases and enhance peacekeepers’ safety awareness in pre-deployment and pre-service training by helping them understand the frequently-occurred accidents and tropical diseases in the mission areas as well as teaching them how to prevent and deal with these risks. Moreover, the UN should urge troop-contributing countries (TCCs) and police-contributing countries (PCCs) to actively share the responsibilities of safety management in peacekeeping operations.


Addressing Mental Health of Peacekeepers

Peacekeepers should undergo rigorous psychological assessments before their deployment. People with mental disorder cannot carry out any peacekeeping operations. In addition, psychological tests need to be regularly conducted during the mission.


For peacekeepers with mental problems, psychological intervention should be carried out. Those with serious problems should be recalled.


TCCs and PCCs should be urged to create a healthy and positive environment for camp building and team management, and a vacation system should be implemented. After the peacekeepers complete their missions and return to their home countries, the follow-up psychological care should continue.


Improving the Pension System

For a long time, The UN does not pay enough attention to pension and compensation paid to the families of peacekeepers who died, injured or seriously ill. Some peacekeepers have relapses after they return to home countries, but they do not get any assistance from the UN. Instead, they can only rely on social aid and governments subsidies.


The UN, TCCs and PCCs can improve their work by buying commercial insurances for the peacekeepers. Heroes who make great sacrifice for peace deserve better lives.


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