Neutrality and Impartiality of the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations

(Research essay about the UN in International Conflict Resolution and Peacekeeping)

A-M Johannessen 12 June 2007

United Nations peacekeeping operations have traditionally followed three core principles; the consent among the parties to the conflict, the neutrality and impartiality of the UN forces deployed and the use of force by UN personnel only in cases of self- defense. (Mingst and Karns, 2007, Krasno, 2004)
This essay will discuss the principles of neutrality and impartiality of United Nations peacekeeping operations. It will ask what it means to be neutral and impartial and what the difference between these two principles is.
The essay will also analyse and discuss the principles of neutrality and impartiality and to what degree they are maintained and still valid in contemporary UN peacekeeping operations. It will ask to what degree the UN can be neutral and apolitical in different peacekeeping operations and look at the challenges and consequences when they are no longer perceived as being neutral and impartial in a conflict. It will also look at the obstacles and the opportunities these principles represent to the UN in fulfilling its mandate.
It will examine how issues such as terrorism and the ‘war on terror’ are linked to this, and will focus especially on peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The essay will claim that the principles of neutrality and impartiality are increasingly difficult to follow, due to the variety of roles and tasks undertaken by UN peacekeeping operations as well as the highly political nature and implications of their work in conflict situations. The call for increased engagement in conflict prevention and conflict transformation by UN operations, as well as issues regarding proportionality have affected the real and perceived neutrality and impartiality of UN operations.

The principles of neutrality and impartiality have often been interlinked but they do have different meanings and significance. Neutrality usually means not taking sides with warring parties and impartiality refers to nondiscrimination and proportionality. (Weiss, 1999) Neutrality is often associated with passivity and inaction. (Donald, 2002, Thakur, 1998)
The principles of neutrality and impartiality have traditionally been regarded as essential for UN peacekeeping operations. (Osmancavusoglu, 2000, Krasno, 2004) Chapter VII, Article 40 of the Charter of the United Nations is considered to be the legal basis of peacekeeping operations and its principles. (UN A/55/305, 2000, Boulden, 2005) It states that “In order to prevent an aggravation of the situation, the Security Council may… call upon the parties concerned to comply with such provisional measures as it deems necessary or desirable. Such provisional measures shall be without prejudice to the rights, claims or position of the parties concerned.” (UN Charter, 1945)
This expressesion of a non- prejudicial attitude has been interpreted into the ideas of neutrality and impartiality. (Boulden, 2005)
The idea of a peacekeeping force intervening (into a country) in order to stabilize a conflict area, was developed in the Security Council in response to the Suez crisis in 1956. (Mingst and Karns, 2007, Krasno, 2004) It was considered crucial that the UN acted impartially since some of the permanent members of the Security Council were involved in the conflict. (Mingst and Karns, 2007, Boulden, 2005)
When the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) was established in 1956, the principles of neutrality and impartiality were reaffirmed. (Krasno, 2004) Then Secretary- General Dag Hammarskjold outlined these principles in a report saying that the operation would not “influence the military balance in the present conflict and thereby the political balance affecting the efforts to settle the conflict.” (Hammarskjold, 1956)
The idea that the UN should be neutral and impartial, was strongly emphasized during the Cold War, when tension between the two superpowers, the U.S. and Russia, created conflicts regarding peacekeeping operations around the world. (Boulden, 2005, Mingst and Karns, 2007) Neutrality was then regarded as important in order to maintain cooperation between the superpowers in the Security Council. (Mingst and Karns, 2007)
In the post- cold war period, the changing international environment, as well as expanded roles and tasks of UN peacekeeping operations have affected the principles of neutrality and impartiality. The dilemmas of these principles were increasingly debated and questioned. (Donald, 2002,Weiss, 1999, Weller, 1997)

Resolution 46/182 of the UN General Assembly (1991) talks about humanitarian emergency assistance and claims that “Humanitarian assistance must be provided in accordance with the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality”. In a humanitarian crisis it is important for the UN peacekeeping operation to be impartial regarding the civilians and all the victims of violence, that is, to treat them equally, without any discrimination regarding who they are. (UN, 46/182, 1991, UNOCHA, 2003) Impartiality, in this sense, is building on the essential idea that everyone is equal and entitled to assistance and help when suffering. No matter what side of the conflict they belong to and what political, religious or ethnic groups they belong to, they are seen as inherently equal and entitled to the same rights. This is an important value of the UN.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) claims that humanitarian assistance must be provided according to the principle of neutrality, defined as acting “without engaging in hostilities or taking sides in controversies of a political, religious or ideological nature.” It also states that humanitarian assistance must follow the principle of impartiality, defined as acting “without discrimination as to ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political opinions, race or religion.”
However, UN peacekeeping operations today are involved in a variety of activities besides strictly humanitarian relief work. (Donini, Minear, Walker, 2004, Donald, 2002) There is an increasing need to deal with underlying causes for conflicts and to engage in conflict prevention and conflict resolving and transformation. (Donald, 2002)
Weiss (1999) and O’Brian (2004) talk about a “political humanitarianism” where the political and humanitarian aspects of peacekeeping operations are interlinked and inseparable. In some highly politicized conflicts around the world it is especially difficult to follow the principles of neutrality and impartiality. (Anderson, 2004, Tsagourias, 2006) The crisis in Iraq is an example of a conflict where the lines between humanitarian and political action have been blurred and consequently affected the principles of neutrality and impartiality. (Donini, Minear and Walker, 2004) This case will be looked at later in this essay.

The principles of neutrality and impartiality are closely connected to the principle of consent. (UN, GA/SPD/120, 1997, Donald, 2002) In cases where the UN peacekeeping operation has retained absolute consent from the conflicting parties, they can more easily claim to act according to the principles of neutrality and impartiality toward the parties. ( UN, GA/SPD/120, 1997 Boulden, 2005,) However, in conflicts involving ethnic- based issues, political struggles or the collapse of State Institutions, the UN has lacked a clear consent from the parties to the conflict. (Osmancavusoglu, 2000) When there is no consent, the principles of neutrality and impartiality become more problematic. This is the situation in conflict areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq today.

Although the principles of neutrality and impartiality have been interlinked and regarded as synonymous, or even as inseparable, they need to be clearly distinguished. (Annan, 1999, Donald, 2002) Impartiality has been regarded as a foundation of UN peacekeeping operations. (Mingst and Karns, 2007) The United Nations General Guidelines for Peacekeeping Operations (of 1995) says that “Impartiality must not promote inaction. Peacekeepers must discharge their tasks firmly and objectively, without fear or favour. Neither side should gain unfair advantages as a result of the activities of a peacekeeping operation.” It also says that “It is the Security Council mandate which manifests the legitimate will of the international community.”
This definition talks about both the impartiality regarding the Security Council Mandate as well as the impartiality of the implementation of the mandate. Peacekeeping activities must be in conformity with the mandate. They need to be evenhanded and regarded as not discriminating towards either of the parties to the conflict. (Boulden, 2005, Kuhne, 2001) This can be problematic in cases where the UN is taking action against one side of the conflict. For example, in cases where the UN operation is using force against one side of the conflict in order to prevent mass murder, rape, ethnic cleansing or genocide, it is regarded as not acting impartially, but as simply acting according to the mandate. (Kuhne, 2001)

The Report of the panel on United Nations Peace Operations (the “Brahimi report”) in 2000 states that “Impartiality for the United Nations must mean adherence to the principles of the Charter and to the objectives of a mandate that is rooted in those Charter principles.” (UN General Assembly, A/55/305, 2000, p.9) It claims that when one of the parties to a conflict or to a peace agreement is violating international law, the UN Operations cannot continue equal treatment but must take action to prevent further violations. Former Deputy Secretary-General, Louis Frechette claimed that the UN cannot be impartial between “those who respect international, humanitarian and human rights laws and those how grossly violate it.” (UN, DSG/SM/242, 2005)
Thus it seems important to make the distinction between impartiality regarding the Security Council Mandate and impartiality of the implementation of the mandate, that is, the operational level of peacekeeping. (UN, GA, A/55/502, 2000, Boulden 2005) The impartiality of a Security Council Mandate depends on whether the political considerations of the Security Council is favoring one side of a conflict or are making decisions without any prejudices and according to the UN Charter. (Annan, 1999, Boulden, 2005) Some of the Security Council mandates might not be seen to adhere to the principle of impartiality. This depends on the nature of the conflict. Peace agreements and agreements of cease- fires are often intending to be impartial in nature. (Boulden, 2005) Also strictly humanitarian mandates might be aiming to be impartial. Whenever the mandate has clear political objectives, it can no longer claim to be truly impartial. There are a lot of ‘grey areas’ where impartiality is problematic and where it is not possible to act according to the principle of impartiality due to the political nature of the conflict. (Anderson, 2005, Weiss, 1999)
The Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (2000) talks about the importance of providing peacekeeping operations with clearly defined mandates. It also talks about the importance of a strong cooperation between “those who plan, mandate and manage peacekeeping operations and those who implement the mandate.” This might make it easier to follow the principle of impartiality.

The principle of neutrality is questionable regarding UN peacekeeping operations. The UN Charter is not neutral as it upholds specific agendas of preventing war, protecting human rights, promoting justice, equality and social progress. (Annan, 2005) Thus, it demands respect for certain basic values and norms which are not neutral. (Kuhne, 2001, Annan, 1999)
Neither are the mandates given by the Security Council neutral. To claim neutrality in peacekeeping operations is therefore problematic.

In order for the UN to make a difference on the world arena, it must be clear about its values and about fulfilling its mandate in a conflict situation.
Kofi A. Annan criticized some of the UN peacekeeping operations in the 1990’s, such as in the case of the Rwandan genocide, saying that “Impartiality does not - and must not - mean neutrality in the face of evil” (Annan, 1999) In a visit to Rwanda in May 1998, Annan said that “In the face of genocide, there can be no standing aside, no looking away, no neutrality - there are perpetrators and there are victims, there is evil and there is evil’s harvest.” (Annan, 1999)
It is crucial that the UN is not being neutral towards human rights abuses, violence, oppression, torture and genocide, as its mandate is to prevent this from occurring.
It is questionable whether it is really possible for the UN to (in effect) be neutral in situations of humanitarian crisis and genocide. For example, when the UN peacekeeping operation in Rwanda (UNAMIR) left just as genocide was happening, the result was the slaughtering of about one million civilians and thus relinquished victory to the perpetrators. When the UN peacekeepers left, they handed the civilians directly over to mass murderers. The actions or inactions of the UN do have consequences and this makes the idea of neutrality dangerous. UN peacekeeping operations have to make choices about a situation and thus they are not being neutral. They are often operating in situations where they have to take political considerations. There is often a strong link between political and humanitarian parts of UN peacekeeping. (Donald, 2002, Anderson, 2004)
The inability of the UN to take action and prevent genocide, such as in the case of Rwanda, is a gross failure of the UN in fulfilling its mandate. The tragedy of the passivity of some past peacekeeping operations has emphasized the need for a more active UN peacekeeping. (Annan, 1999, Donald, 2002) It has also made clear that the principle of neutrality is not necessarily valuable in UN peacekeeping operations and thus called for a reassessment of the conceptual basis for peacekeeping. (Donald, 2002)
There has been a shift in attitudes towards the principles of neutrality and impartiality during the past years, where the emphasis is now more on impartiality and much less on neutrality. For example, the Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (2000) says that “consent of the local parties, impartiality and the use of force only in self- defense should remain the bedrock principles of peacekeeping.” (UN General Assembly, A/55/305, 2000, p.9) Also, the General Assembly’s Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations has chosen to emphasize impartiality alone instead of the traditional view of both neutrality and impartiality. (UN, GA, A/55/502, 2000)

At the same time there has been a shift in focus from a humanitarian based action following the principle of neutrality to a more human rights based action, which includes a broader agenda for peacekeeping operations. (O’Brian 2004, Annan, 2005, Donini, Minear and Walker, 2004) Peacekeeping operations now include a variety of tasks including protection of civilians, protection of human rights, monitoring of cease- fires, monitoring of elections, preventative deployment and state reconstruction. (Donini, Minear and Walker, 2004) Peacekeeping action has thus undergone a shift from adhering to the principle of neutrality to becoming more politicized. (Donini, Minear and Walker,2004, Anderson, 2004) Modern peacekeeping participating in conflict resolution and in nation- building, needs to address political, economic and cultural issues which are not neutral at all. This can be problematic. An example of this is the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraqi, by belligerents in August 2003, which caused the death of 23 UN peacekeepers. (UN News Centre, 2003) The attack was later described as a “blow to the neutrality and impartiality of the UN flag.” (Anderson, 2004, p.53)
The UN operation in Iraq in 2003 was facing the critical challenge of being involved in a highly political conflict and a humanitarian crisis. The UN faced the dilemma of standing in the middle of a conflict between the U.S occupying force and Iraqi belligerents. It faced the dilemma of needing to interact with the coalition forces whose intervention it regarded as illegitimate. (Donini, Minear and Walker, 2004, O’Brien, 2004) The fact that the UN peacekeeping Mission was working with the occupying power who was also its prime founder, caused trouble for the peacekeeping mission in being able to, as well as being perceived as, acting impartially. (O’Brien, 2004)
The peacekeeping operation in Iraq was confronted with a highly contested political environment as well as a security crisis, which caused difficulties in remaining true to their principles. The UN was in a difficult position, wanting to be seen as neutral and impartial while at the same time undertaking efforts to rebuild an Iraqi State.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which was deployed in March 2002 had the tasks to “coordinate all UN activities, support the transition process, fulfill the Bonn Agreement and manage humanitarian relief.” (Krasono, 2004, p.266) These activities include political engagement in a very complex operation. At the same time, the UN supported the U.S. war against Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. (Wolter, 2007) In both Iraq and Afghanistan, UN operations were working for democracy, pluralism and human rights and thus not being seen as neutral. (Anderson, 2004)

The UN operation in Iraq in 2003 was seen as having the same objectives as the U.S. that is, reconstruction, democracy- building and establishing control. (O’Brian, 2004) The UN was not regarded as being neutral and impartial but as promoting a specific set of values and promoting the same political ideas as the occupying force, the U.S. Even as the UN wished to be seen as impartial in the conflict, it was regarded as advocating for the U.S occupation. This is seen as a factor contributing to the targeting and bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. (Donini, Minear and Walker, 2004)

Terrorists who want to inflict suffering on civilians, in order to claim their political agenda, are likely to attack humanitarian operations which are there in order to help civilians and minimize suffering. There has been an increase in the targeting of humanitarian aid workers. (Mingst and Karns, 2007)
In Iraq, the attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad resulted in the UN peacekeeping mission leaving, and thus an escalation of insecurity and crisis for the civilian population.
UN peacekeeping operations might be targeted simply because of their mandate of helping civilians. However, in the case of Iraq it seams that the Iraqi belligerents attacked UN partly due to their political tasks, their association with the occupying force and an advocate of ‘Western’ ideals. (Anderson, 2004, O’Brian, 2004)

Global terrorism as well as the global ‘war on terror’ can cause difficulties in upholding the principle of impartiality. Terrorism has created fear and the ‘war on terror’ has created the notion of ‘them’ as opposed to ‘us’. (Mingst and Karns, 2007) This has consequently caused a lot of mistrust which makes the situation for peacekeeping operations increasingly difficult. Furthermore, the ‘war on terror’ might contribute to the tendency that resources are not distributed proportionally regardless of political, religious and ethnic agendas. This has a negative effect on maintaining the principle of impartiality. (Donini, Minear and Walker,2004)
The dialectic notion of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and the tendency of some of the powerful Western States to regard different cultures in the world as either good or evil, creates a challenge for the UN in maintaining proportionality and non- discrimination in peacekeeping operations.
Thus, contemporary regional and global conflicts often represent an obstacle for the UN peacekeeping operations in claiming impartiality. The attacking and targeting of humanitarian agencies by Islamist terrorist groups are threats and obstacles for future peacekeeping operations. (Anderson, 2004)

Belligerents involved in conflict do often regard humanitarian agencies not as impartial but as agents of outside powers. (Donini, Minear and Walker,2004) The bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers which now faces the challenge of being perceived to be on the side of the enemy. (Anderson, 2004, Donini, Minear and Walker, 2004) UN operations face a big challenge in creating trust in their peacekeeping mandate among the population and among belligerents in different conflict situations around the world. Facing this challenging task, the principle of impartiality is important. UN Peacekeeping operations need not only to act according to this principle, but also to be perceived as acting impartially. As the UN is disproportionally influenced by the five permanent members of the Security Council, and especially the U.S., compared to all other member States, this is making the real as well as the perceived impartiality of the UN difficult. The resources delegated to peacekeeping operations as well as the power structure within the UN are influencing UN operations accordingly. Thus, impartiality might be seen as just an ideal and not as reality. Currently, UN operations face these issues in Afghanistan, as peacekeepers have been targeted by terrorists.
Both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, UN peacekeeping operations have faced problems due to a contested environment and security crisis. (Donini, Walker and Minear, 2004) Donini, Waliker and Minear (2004) claims that there has been a lack of a clear UN mandate and the UN has been regarded as taking sides. UN peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have faced the dilemmas of whether to stay and deliver assistance and protection to the vulnerable civilians or to leave due to risk and security issues. (Donini, Walker and Minear, 2004)

The crisis in Afghanistan and Iraq have blurred the lines between humanitarian and political action and thus affected the core principles of neutrality and impartiality. For peacekeeping operations dealing with complex political and contested conflicts, the principles of neutrality and impartiality have been increasingly difficult to follow.
UN peacekeeping operations face challenges as they are seen as targets by some terrorist groups, who regard them as representing the ‘West’, globalisation and the enemy. Thus, UN peacekeeping is not perceived as being neutral and impartial, and it seams unrealistic that they could be. The UN needs to be aware of this dilemma, as it is involved in conflict areas with political, ethnic and ideological factions and is participating in non- neutral activities such as democracy building and construction. UN peacekeeping operations need to have a clear mandate to follow, as well as acting with openness, clarity and transparency as to their mandate and as to the values and agendas they are promoting. They need to act so that they are able to deliver assistance and protection to the most needy. At the same time it is important to deal with the root causes of conflicts and violence in order to engage in conflict prevention, transformation and the creation of peace with justice.
In order to achieve their mandate, it is important that UN peacekeeping operations reach out to the local communities, learn from other cultures, engage in capacity- building and promote an environment of cooperation in order to counteract the dualistic ‘us- them’ attitude. Especially in Iraq and Afghanistan these are issues that need to be addressed.
Acting in conformity with the UN Charter and with clarity about their mandate and about their values, are ultimately more crucial for a successful peacekeeping operation than the traditional principles of neutrality and impartiality.


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