The fortunes and reputation of United Nations peace operations have ebbed and flowed since the organisation was founded after the Second World War. During the Cold War, peacekeeping was a regular source of East-West friction – somewhat ironically, as it had been designed in part to manage that friction. Peace operations then expanded dramatically with the end of the Cold War as the UN was left to deal the conflicts that arose in the aftermath.

Over the past 30 years, the public impression of UN peacekeeping operations has broadly been one of failure, fed by the collapse of Somalia, the genocide in Rwanda, and the massacres in Bosnia. Yet the notion of ‘failure’ shouldn’t perhaps be taken at face value in these, and other, UN missions; the calculus is usually very complicated. And there have also been some clear and unquestioned successes: in Namibia; in Mozambique; in Timor-Leste; among several others.

UN operations impact the peacekeeper as well as the ‘peacekept’. The role of troop contributor has always presented both military challenges and certain political opportunities for the states involved. Much of the recent discussion around appropriate post-independence roles for the new Scottish defence forces has involved the possibilities offered by the peacekeeping role. The Scottish government’s 2014 White Paper explicitly held up prominent peace-brokers like Sweden, New Zealand, and Finland as desirable models, and proposed equipping the forces of an independent Scotland for a special role in peace operations.

In a new series for CABLE, entitled THE BLUE ON THE MAP, Norrie MacQueen explores the origins, performance, and prospects of all 14 UN peace operations deployed at the end of 2017.

The series begins by looking at the Truce Supervision Organization for Palestine (UNTSO) and the Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP). These were the first UN uniformed operations to be established. Both remain in the field today.

I‘m slightly embarrassed to admit to being part of a recent, anorak-clad debate online about when the term ‘peacekeeping’ was first used. After a collective poring over UN documents in a process of one-upmanship peculiar to the historical profession, the best suggestion was 1961 at the time of the huge operation in the former Belgian Congo. If correct, this means that UN peacekeeping as an activity predated UN peacekeeping as a named ‘thing’ by about thirteen years.

As with many things, there was a long gestation period before peacekeeping became fixed as a regular, and more or less definable, phenomenon. The first ventures were really ad hoc responses to particular crises. And without a crystal ball, it was impossible to mark them out as the seedlings of what would grow into something that would come, for many people, to epitomise the United Nations as a whole.

In 1948, and then again the following year, when the still-infant UN was called on to respond to regional wars and their repercussions in the Middle East and in South Asia, it had no fixed and familiar lines to follow. It had to start from scratch. There were, it was true, some vague League of Nations precedents from the 1920s and 1930s, but these were not very relevant and the new UN was reluctant to follow the lessons (in this and other areas) of the now ‘toxic brand’ of the old, failed League.

The United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in Palestine and the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) were therefore pioneering ventures – ones which had no expectation of necessarily pioneering anything.

That both Palestine and the issue of Kashmir are still close to the top of any list of world conflicts underlines the enduring legacy of European imperialism, and explains the continued deployment of UN missions in each region after almost seventy years.

Tellingly, both operations followed what were in essence crises of decolonization and post-colonial adjustment. This would prove to be the basis of the majority of the UN’s peacekeeping activities over the next couple of decades: in Lebanon; in the former Belgian Congo; in West New Guinea; and in Cyprus.

UNTSO came after the Arab-Israeli war which followed the declaration of the state of Israel which in turn was a consequence of Britain’s relinquishment of the old League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. Post-war exhaustion in Britain and its declining taste for the realities of imperial power also underlay the creation of UNMOGIP. This followed the Indo-Pakistan war of 1948 which had been triggered by the end of the Raj and the subsequent Partition of the old Indian empire.

That both Palestine and the issue of Kashmir are still close to the top of any list of world conflicts underlines the enduring legacy of European imperialism, and explains the continued deployment of UN missions in each region after almost seventy years.


What has come to be known as the First Arab-Israeli War broke out on 14 May 1948, on the day of Britain’s formal withdrawal from its mandate responsibilities for Palestine. To no one’s surprise, Israel immediately moved into the resulting power vacuum by asserting its statehood. Its Arab neighbours, having earlier rejected a UN plan for the partition of the territory into Israeli and Arab entities, immediately attacked the new state. The short, sharp war lasted to the end of the month when, after both the United States and the Soviet Union had recognised the new state of Israel (this was before the Middle East had been sucked into the Cold War), a UN-brokered ceasefire was agreed.

On 29 May 1948, the UN Security Council created UNTSO with the purpose of monitoring the ceasefire and helping create the conditions for a long-term peace settlement. While the mission was effective in its immediate task, self-evidently the broader ambition of a general Middle East settlement has proved far beyond the capacities of any external intervention. However, that initial role in maintaining the immediate ceasefire shouldn’t be underestimated; the possibilities for a resumption of fighting were rife in the middle of 1948.

On 29 May 1948, the UN Security Council created UNTSO with the purpose of monitoring the ceasefire and helping create the conditions for a long-term peace settlement.

Subsequently, UNTSO has performed a number of important, if low profile, roles and has continued to do so despite a sequence of major wars between Israel and its neighbours in 1956, then in 1967, and in 1973. These roles have involved not just local functions, but also the broader provision of peacekeeping in the Mediterranean area and even a contribution to global diplomatic processes.

Firstly, the simple presence of a widely drawn international presence is in itself important (although a relatively small mission in peace operation terms, as the table indicates, a remarkably large number of UN member states contribute personnel to UNTSO). Over the decades this has served the central peacekeeping role of providing what might be described as ‘witness with leverage’. In other words, the behaviour of local actors has almost certainly been constrained by the presence on the ground of so much (and so significant a range of) foreign state representation.

As with so many judgement calls on the value of peacekeeping, the key question here is the counterfactual one: not what the mission itself has actively ‘done’, but what might have been done by others in its absence. More proactively, however, from its headquarters in the old Government House in Jerusalem, UNTSO has provided at crucial points over the years an indispensible back channel of communication between Israel and its neighbours, when more formal diplomatic routes have been either blocked or inappropriate.

UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim (centre) stands with colleagues from UNTSO. Damascus, Syria, 28 August 1973. UN Photo/George Nehmeh

On the broader peacekeeping plane, UNTSO’s geo-strategic position and long duration have seen it used over the years by the UN as a planning and logistical base for other (often much larger) peace operations in the region. UNTSO’s administrative machinery and its personnel have been diverted to the establishment of subsequent missions in Suez, Cyprus and Lebanon, facilitating and accelerating their deployment.

Finally, the mission has been both a vehicle for, and a marker of, superpower relationships. Uniquely during the Cold War, US personnel were involved in front-line roles with UNTSO. This was largely due to the fact that the Cold War hadn’t really taken hold, at least not in the Middle East, when the operation began in mid-1948. But it was significant that during the high-water mark of East-West détente in the early 1970s, it was to UNTSO that the first Soviet personnel were sent, ending a long period of Eastern bloc suspicion of the entire peacekeeping project.

The United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO)

First deployed: June 1948; Total strength (June 2017): 365; Military personnel: 151; Military contributors: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bhutan, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, USA; Fatalities: 51

Interestingly, at no time since 1948, despite the repeated global crises the region threw up, has there been any serious proposal to bring UNTSO to an end. Fundamentally, its simple presence on such sensitive ground is enough to justify its (admittedly not very high) costs. In this, UNTSO underlines a central rule of peacekeeping – discerned by many of us who have spent long, hot, tedious days in the field, apparently not achieving anything very tangible: “to be is to do”.


At the end of January 1949, just seven months after their counterparts had been deployed in Palestine, the first UN military observers arrived on the borders of India and Pakistan. As the recent seventieth anniversary commemorations remind us, virtually nowhere along the lines of partition set by Britain between the two new states was free of difficulties, which were often horrific in scale. But the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir posed special problems. The local ruler was Hindu but sought total independence for the territory whose population was predominantly Muslim rather than absorption by either India or Pakistan. When this was ruled out, he opted for India, thus provoking a backlash both from the local population and the new Pakistan. The reverberations of this fatal decision have not faded and have been felt in recurrent crises between the (now) nuclear-armed states.

The Military Observer Group (UNMOGIP) first came into being in the aftermath of the first full-scale war over the territory in 1948.

The Military Observer Group (UNMOGIP) first came into being in the aftermath of the first full-scale war over the territory in 1948. This followed what was either, depending on one’s sympathies, a popular uprising against Indian rule or the invasion of the territory by non-Kashmiris abetted by Pakistan. After India took the issue to the UN Security Council, cease-fire lines were agreed, with the territory in essence partitioned between the two rival nations. Resentment continued, though, as this arrangement still left a large Muslim population under Indian rule.

As in Palestine, the operation in Kashmir was mandated to monitor and report on the post-conflict cease-fire, and to contribute to the establishment of an enduring peace. As in Palestine too, however, Kashmir had not in any sense reached a ‘post-conflict’ stage and the religious and territorial issues involved there were such as to defy even the most determined third party peace-making efforts.

Soldiers from the Indian Army stand next to a destroyed Pakistani Army tank during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Image: Public Domain.

A second major conflict took place in 1965 and ended with a restatement of the existing cease-fire lines. Then a more serious India-Pakistan war broke out in 1971 in which Kashmir was just one element. Although the more prominent aspect of this war was the secession of East Pakistan and its emergence as Bangladesh, Pakistan also suffered a setback to its ambitions in Kashmir. By the Simla agreement, the old 1948 ceasefire lines became the ‘Line of Control’ and both sides agreed to accept the status quo.

A further war in 1999 also made no meaningful difference to the balance of power – though by now, with both sides armed with nuclear weapons, the world took the conflict with a new seriousness. Since then violence and tension have been permanent features of the region, though major international war happily hasn’t recurred. UNMOGIP has been a significant, though low profile, actor in all of these episodes (and during the 1965 war was bolstered by a separate, short-lived UN India-Pakistan Observer Mission – UNIPOM).

Peacekeepers from UNMOGIP at the Line of Control that separates India and Pakistan. UN Photo/Evan Schneider.

Smaller in scale than UNTSO in the Middle East, the India-Pakistan operation has nevertheless served similar functions over the years. Apart from its immediate role in cease-fire monitoring, UNMOGIP has also served as a conduit for military communication between the sides at times of particular tension. In contrast to UNTSO, however, the continuation of UNMOGIP has been challenged.

After the Simla agreement at the end of the 1971-72 war, India called for UNMOGIP to be withdrawn on the basis that its mandate was no longer relevant with the new, bilaterally agreed Line of Control. Henceforth, India argued, the issue should be managed without third party involvement. The Security Council has resisted this, though the withdrawal of Indian cooperation has obviously hampered UNMOGIP’s effectiveness. But as with UNTSO, the ‘witness’ function of UNMOGIP remains important, even if it doesn’t apply to the most important locations crying out for this: the urban areas under Indian control.

Despite the formally hostile position of India, there appears to be an appreciation by Indian forces on the ground of the value of a UN presence. For example, UNMOGIP has maintained a limited presence on the Indian side of the Line of Control. This pragmatism, along with Security Council support for perhaps the least expensive of all ongoing UN operations, means that even in the face of the marked Hindu nationalist ideology of the current Indian government, UNMOGIP will probably remain in place for the foreseeable future.

The United Nations India-Pakistan Observer Mission (UNMOGIP)

First deployed: January 1949; Total strength (June 2017): 114; Military personnel: 44; Military contributors: Chile, Croatia, Italy, Philippines, Romania, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Uruguay; Fatalities: 11

These first UN peace missions have been small in scale, particularly in the case of UNMOGIP, and their mandates have been relatively narrowly framed as observer missions. In short, they are peacekeeping operations but they are not peacekeeping ‘forces’. The first of these, properly described, would come in 1956 after the Anglo-French invasion of Suez. Future ventures would be much larger in scale. The ill-fated Congo operation in the 1960s, which first saw the UN in a military enforcement role would dwarf anything that had come before. And that in turn would look modest compared to some of the massive integrated missions of the 1990s and 2000s.

But UNTSO and UNMOGIP have had the double distinction of being the first and the most enduring of the UN’s missions. They are also important for having pioneered the key principles of classic peacekeeping, or the ‘holy trinity’ as it’s been called, of consent, neutrality and the non-use of force. Peace operations may, for better or worse, have come a long way since the 1940s but their founding principles were established then, in the deserts of the Middle East, and in the mountains of Kashmir.

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. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of International Peacekeeping. Norrie 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 also a Contributing Editor at CABLE. He’s on Twittter at @NorrieMacQueen Contact him at: 

Feature Image: United Nations flag waving with highly detailed textile texture. Image: Danish Institute for Human Rights.