The bad behaviour of UN peacekeepers can undermine the integrity of individual peacekeeping missions but also the reputation of the UN itself. Norrie MacQueen examines an issue which has become a growing problem for the organisation in recent years and suggests measures which might make the difference. 

The very notion of “abusive peacekeepers” seems like a bizarre oxymoron. How could it even be thinkable that what we’ve been taught to see over the past decades as blue-helmeted heroes, putting themselves at hazard to protect the innocent and resist those that would harm them, might themselves at times behave in appalling ways? Yet the charge-sheet has been growing and cannot – and must not – be ignored. In June this year, for example, the UN secretary-general António Guterres announced that a contingent of more than 600 troops from Congo-Brazzaville was to be repatriated from the peace operation in the Central African Republic (CAR).

It wasn’t a sudden decision, nor was it the first of its type. The UN commander in CAR, General Balla Keita of Senegal, had already sent six “letters of blame” to the Congolese contingent commander relating to sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), fuel trafficking, and generalised lack of discipline. By mid-2017, according to General Keita, “the battalion (was) no longer trustable because of poor leadership, lack of discipline, and operational deficiencies”. In 2016 more than a hundred Congolese soldiers had already been removed from the operation amidst SEA accusations relating to local children.


The problem goes much further than one operation and one contingent. Personnel from several countries across a range of geographically dispersed UN operations from Africa to south-east Asia to the Caribbean have been accused of the most shocking crimes against the populations they had been deployed to protect. A paedophile ring among serving UN personnel in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been alleged. Peacekeeping personnel in Bosnia were involved in trafficking women. Pakistani peacekeepers were found guilty after an investigation of SEA in Haiti. I myself was made aware of people trafficking by Nigerian peacekeepers while working with the UN mission in Timor-Leste in 2012.

To be clear, these offences don’t relate to operational effectiveness or even dereliction of duty by peacekeepers. In both the Rwanda genocide in 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre the following year, and more recently over the deaths of civilians and aid workers in Congo and South Sudan, UN peacekeepers have to a greater or lesser degree been at fault. Similarly, the devastating cholera epidemic that began in Haiti in 2010 began with inadequate sanitation arrangements at a Nepalese peacekeeping base. But these were operational failings, albeit horrendous ones (usually aggravated by official denial and evasion). Here, the issue is one of straightforward gross criminality by individuals and groups.

LocationStrengthFirst Deployed
Central African Republic12,8702014
Abyei (Sudan)4,7692011
South Sudan13,4242011
Democratic Republic of Congo18,3162010*
Darfur (Sudan)19,2482007*
Western Sahara2451991
Golan Heights8291974
Location, number of troops, and deployment dates of current UN Peacekeeping missions (* Continuation Mission) (Source:

The problem is far from new, with the first serious allegations of misbehaviour by peacekeepers emerging in the 1990s. In 2005 when the issue was coming to wider attention, the then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan reported to the General Assembly that the Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) had received 89 formal complaints of SEA by peacekeeping personnel during the previous year. It goes without saying that given the conditions of most peace operations this must have represented only the absolute tip of the tip of the iceberg of the abuse that had actually taken place. The situation has not noticeably improved in recent years. If anything, it has worsened. The reasons for the apparent growth in this peacekeeper criminality are complex and disputed.


There is a debate around the changing nature of the contingents involved in peacekeeping. The great majority of peacekeepers today come from troop contributing countries (TCCs) of the global South. This contrasts sharply with the old Cold War image of blue helmets from predominantly from “progressive” western countries like Sweden, Norway, and Canada, the so-called “middle powers”. Generally, this shift in the nationalities of peacekeepers has been welcomed rather than regretted. It armours the UN against an ever-present suspicion that the peacekeeping project has always had an element of neo-colonialism.

From the early years of peacekeeping deployments, especially since the Congo operation in the early 1960s, the accusation has been that regardless of pious rhetoric, such deployments are designed to impose “superior” western norms on the benighted, conflict-ridden South. The changed contributor base has also been essential for the basic performance of peacekeeping as western contributors have become increasingly reluctant over the past twenty years or so to commit their forces to UN duty.

From the early years of peacekeeping deployments, especially since the Congo operation in the early 1960s, the accusation has been that regardless of pious rhetoric, such deployments are designed to impose “superior” western norms on the benighted, conflict-ridden South.

But inevitably this shift in TCCs has led to questions about the “quality” of peacekeeping in the field. There has been concern some TCCs have been driven by factors beyond a purely altruistic commitment to peace. The UN pays for its peacekeepers. The rates might mean little to relatively prosperous western states but they have clear economic benefits to small poor ones. Beyond the financial incentive, there are other motivations which are potentially more concerning from the perspective of peacekeeper behaviour. It’s been suggested that some less stable regimes see peacekeeping duties as a way of taming their ill-disciplined armies (or, to use an academic euphemism, “socialising” them). According to this thinking, by having less disciplined contingents rub operational shoulders with more professional, better behaved national units in multinational operations their bad conduct will be overcome by good example.

Burkina Faso2933
Ten Leading Contributing Countries to UN Peacekeeping at 30 June 2017 (UK=37th, providing 700 personnel) (Source:

But these arguments – with their own hint of neo-colonial prejudice – don’t really stand up to an examination of the abuses in the field. The misbehaviour hasn’t by any means been restricted to TCCs of the global South. French troops, some relatively high ranking, were accused of the most disgusting abuse of children in CAR in 2014. And even those paragons of exemplary international behaviour the Canadians have had cases to answer. A group of their peacekeepers faced courts martial for the torture and murder of a Somali teenager in 1993. These are examples of only the most serious of many incidences of abuse by peacekeeping personnel from the global North.

The problem then has its roots somewhere other than simply in the nationalities of the guilty parties. The changing nature of peacekeeping itself is perhaps the most important element in this. The classic peacekeeping operation of the early UN years generally involved a mixture of military observation and “interposition” between hostile armies from different enemy countries. As a consequence, contact with vulnerable civilian populations was minimal. All this changed after cold war when peace operations became much more complex and multidimensional. Henceforth the UN tended to be deployed within countries to deal with different violent factions and help build peace in the aftermath of civil conflict. In the jargon, they became predominantly “intra-state” rather than “inter-state”. Today this is the dominant type of peacekeeping among the UN’s fifteen current operations worldwide.


Whatever the conditions which have allowed it to develop, abuse by peacekeepers has so far been an intractable problem for the UN. A shelf-full of reports has been produced since the beginning of the century. One after another, Secretaries-General have indulged in public breast-beating and the General Assembly and the Security Council have passed unanimous resolutions on the issue. But the extent of the UN’s hand-wringing has seemed to be in inverse proportion to its effectiveness in dealing with the problem. How so? Fundamentally, it comes down to the question of the balance of power between the UN and its TCCs.

The difficulty for the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York is that the organization has no authority in international law to impose discipline on, and where necessary punish, national contingents in peacekeeping operations. This remains the responsibility of the TCC itself. It is here perhaps that the identity of the contributing state can be significant. Although, as we’ve seen, the nationality of the peacekeeper may be no determinant of good or bad behaviour, national reactions to this behaviour do vary. It is telling perhaps that both France and Canada were quick to deal with the wrong-doing of their personnel.

Other countries, for various reasons, have not been so decisive. The difficulties in doing so may be both psychological and practical. There may be a tendency towards denial in relatively young countries, sensitive about their international reputations. For many TCCs of the global South the peacekeeping role is a mark of good global citizenship and a marker of their place in the international system. This prestige will not be lightly jeopardised by publicly admitting to, and dealing with, the misbehaviour of their personnel. Additionally, in some TCCs military establishments too often enjoy a degree of impunity from control by insecure political leaderships. In this situation, disciplinary action, even where governments might accept that it’s needed, is just not a realistic political possibility in the dynamics of national power.

A United Nations peacekeeper from Sri Lanka participates in an operation to distribute bags of rice to Haitians. February, 2010. Image: SMCC Spike Call

Almost by definition, the host country – the “peacekept” – will be incapable of imposing its own legal remedies on peacekeeper criminality. If it were, then it is unlikely that it would have required the presence of a UN operation in the first place. And, even where host government capacities might be robust enough to challenge abuse, peacekeeping operations are governed by status of forces agreements by which UN personnel (for generally sound reasons) have immunity from legal action by host states.

This all means that the responsibility therefore tends to fall on the third leg of the peacekeeping stool: the United Nations itself. Left to deal with the problem, the only sanction available to the United Nations (and the one finally imposed on the Congolese battalion in CAR) is to require the withdrawal of all or part of a national unit. This though is a nuclear option that the UN is understandably very wary of using. The consequences are potentially grave for the peacekeeping project as a whole. In cases where the abuse was relatively isolated and untypical of the contributing country’s usual standards, national amour propre may mean that the country withdraws, either from the operation in question of from peacekeeping more generally. There may also be a knock-on effect on other TCCs unhappy with the risk of future public shaming if their own troops should offend.

The difficulty for the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York is that the organization has no authority in international law to impose discipline on, and where necessary punish, national contingents in peacekeeping operations.

In the field, where authority lies with the UN force commander (acting with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General) who has overall responsibility for the mission, there are further, more immediate reasons for avoiding difficult discussions with TCCs. The impact of public investigation and potential shaming of units and individuals is likely to have an impact on both relationships with the local population and on the overall morale of the mission.

Given firstly, the reluctance of many TCCs to tackle the problems among their own forces, and secondly, the limits on the national authority of “peacekept” states, along with, thirdly, the constraints on the UN itself, are we just faced with a problem without a solution? Is abuse by peacekeepers simply the price to be paid for multinational peace operations? Is it a fair price for embracing the range of the UN’s membership and (as in the case of the Central African Republic and other Sub-Saharan missions) exploiting the benefits of having regional neighbours in a central role? The answer, based on both morality and practicality is assuredly ‘no’. But remedies which are balanced, effective, and not self-defeating, have to be carefully formulated. Certainly, the idea proposed by some development agencies of a public international tribunal to deal with individual incidents is an ambition too far at this stage – for all the reasons just outlined.


But there are mid-range measures that, if carefully and sensitively applied, could deal with the worst of the abuses. More importantly in the long-term, they might help to shift the underlying operational culture of peace operations in a positive direction.

Firstly, the UN’s mechanisms for both uncovering abuse and its investigation need to be dramatically overhauled. Permanent, well-resourced supervision and enquiry units should be created. These should have a high degree of autonomy both from TCCs and from the peacekeeping bureaucracy in New York. They could, for example, report via a coordinating body directly to the Security Council (which via its resolutions is the mandating body for peace operations). Alternatively, in extreme cases, reports could be directed to the International Criminal Court if formal indictments were appropriate in particular cases.

These supervision and enquiry units should be permanently attached to each UN operation and should have high visibility in the field. They should be composed of trained legal, police, and military personnel drawn from countries other than the TCCs comprising the particular peacekeeping operation. They should be proactive in overseeing behaviour, conducting regular local inspections rather than merely being reactive to complaints received. Critically, given the nature of SEA complaints, women should compose at least fifty percent of the personnel of the investigatory units. (Fortuitously, this would mesh with current UN policy to maximise the number of women peacekeepers.)

The findings of these units, along with their routine reports, should be published as official documents of the Security Council. The Council should bind itself to respond appropriately to these findings, up to and including removing entire national contingents from specific operations. The political difficulties of achieving the necessary Security Council unanimity shouldn’t be underestimated, but in dealing with cases investigated and publicly reported upon by its own investigatory mechanism there would be only limited room for political partiality. Moreover, the fact that it is the Security Council, the dominant principal organ of the United Nations, leading the initiative in this way should deter TCCs whose personnel are at fault from misjudged or disproportionate reactions. In this way, Security Council leadership in the process would have a leavening effect on behaviour across both member states and their peacekeeping contingents.

Two Malaysian peacekeepers at work. © Norrie MacQueen. All Rights Reserved.

It is essential though, to first reduce the necessity of these measures by focusing preventive action back to earlier phases in the genesis of abusive behaviour by peacekeepers. It goes without saying that appropriate human rights training must be the starting point. This already exists at mission induction level but needs to be fundamentally reframed. The United Nations should formalise and deliver relevant training programmes which go beyond routine induction in the field prior to operational duty. A carefully formulated, though flexible, generic training programme (which might emphasise SEA issue above others) should be provided by UN trainers to the individual before deployment. In other words, each member of a peacekeeping mission should be required to “qualify” for the role after undergoing a properly rigorous training and having successfully undergone assessment at the end of it. This qualification would be transferrable from mission to mission once achieved, though it would obviously have to be time-limited to take account of gradually changing training priorities.

Apart from the inherent value of such training, by giving the process high public prominence, the UN would be developing a distinct peacekeeping culture and ethos across national contingents and the individuals of which they are comprised. This culture could be enhanced at the national governmental level by introducing pre-deployment “contracts of standards”. These would have a standing in international law similar to the status of forces agreements negotiated with the host states. If violated, they would constitute a breach of international law. Clearly, these agreements would be difficult to enforce by sanction. But this is a problem across all international law and, as with other such areas, the contracts would tend to be self-enforced by states anxious to avoid public reputational damage.

Day-to-day, hour-by-hour observation by peers of other nationalities creates what might be described as a “network of witnesses”, hostile to the development of abusive attitudes and practices.

Finally, in relation to the military “socialisation” spin-off sought by some governments from their peacekeeping contributions, the structure and composition of operational sub-units should be carefully arranged. The balance between the inherent efficiencies of nationally structured units on the one hand, and the behavioural benefits of a high degree of multinational integration on the other, should where possible favour the latter. Day-to-day, hour-by-hour observation by peers of other nationalities creates what might be described as a “network of witnesses”, hostile to the development of abusive attitudes and practices. One difficulty here lies in the general retreat from peacekeeping by the more highly trained police and militaries of the North that we’ve already noted. Discussion about the re-involvement of these UN members in peacekeeping has tended to focus on the maximisation of their contribution in specialised roles (advanced weapons and technology, transport and logistics, “bridging” and over-the-horizon capacity). Inevitably, such roles physically separate these national contingents from the generality of the UN boots on the ground. The socialising function of contingent-to-contingent experience, that’s to say the opportunity for the transfer of proper peacekeeping norms between TCCs, mustn’t be neglected in pursuit of tactical efficiencies.

It is, of course, relatively easy to produce this type of wish-list while the practical and political difficulties in implementing the mechanisms are formidable. Nothing can change the fundamental balance of power on the side of the voluntary TCCs against the supplicant United Nations when forces have to be raised for often potentially dangerous operations from wary contributors within fiercely demanding timeframes. But it is possible, slowly and steadily, to change underlying cultures and modes of behaviour. More than this, it’s not only possible but essential. Peace operations by their nature succeed, when they do succeed, largely on the basis of their moral authority and not their war-fighting prowess. Successful peacekeeping consists of the use of armed forces without the use of armed force. The credibility of this paradox has developed, not always smoothly, over the past seven decades. To sustain this essential credibility amidst a continuing crisis of abuse will require much more than pious words and rhetorical aspirations.

Norrie MacQueen is the author of several books on the United Nations, peace operations and humanitarian intervention. He is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations which has recently appeared in paperback, and he is on the editorial board of the Journal of International Peacekeeping. He was part of the Democratic Governance Support Unit of the UN integrated peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste during 2012 in the final phase of the operation. Norrie is on Twittter at: @NorrieMacQueen Contact him at:  

Feature image: UN ‘Blue helmet’ soldiers. Image: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]