United Nations Peacekeeping Forces

Nobel Lecture

Nobel Lecture, January 9, 1989

by Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I should like first of all, to once again thank the Norwegian Nobel Committee for the award they have made to the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. Their decision has been acclaimed all over the world. I take this opportunity also to express once again my deep gratitude to the countries which have contributed troops or provided logistical support to these operations. It is to their willing cooperation that we owe the success of this great experiment in conflict control.

Peace – the word evokes the simplest and most cherished dream of humanity. Peace is, and has always been, the ultimate human aspiration. And yet our history overwhelmingly shows that while we speak incessantly of peace, our actions tell a very different story.

Peace is any easy word to say in any language. As Secretary-General of the United Nations I hear it so frequently from so many different mouths and different sources, that it sometimes seems to me to be a general incantation more or less deprived of practical meaning. What do we really mean by peace?

Human nature being what it is, peace must inevitably be a relative condition. The essence of life is struggle and competition, and to that extent perfect peace is an almost meaningless abstraction. Struggle and competition are stimulating, but when they degenerate into conflict they are usually both destructive and disruptive. The aim of political institutions like the United Nations is to draw the line between struggle and conflict and to make it possible for nations to stay on the right side of that line. Peacekeeping operations are one very practical means of doing this. What we are trying to create in the United Nations is a world where nations recognize at the same time the ultimate futility of war and the collective responsibility which men and women everywhere share for ensuring a decent future.

All human experience seems to show that in international, as in national, affairs, the rule of law is an essential ultimate objective for any society which wishes to survive in reasonable conditions. We now recognize that all humanity – the whole population of this planet – has in many respects become, through the revolutionary force of technological and other changes, a single society. The evolution of, and respect for, international law and international authority may well be decisive in determining whether this global society is going to survive in reasonable conditions.

We have come a long way in the forty-three years since World War II. With the creation and ratification of the United Nations Charter it seemed that governments had, at last, learned the lessons of two world wars. However, in the forty years of ideological strife, tumultous change, and evolution which followed, the initial enthusiasm for the Charter largely evaporated. Even the possibility of an orderly international future began to be questioned. The Cold War paralyzed the United Nations, which was founded on the assumption that the great powers would be unanimous in dealing with matters of international peace and security. Regional conflicts defied the authority of the world organization. The arms race proceeded at full speed at all levels.

In spite of these discouraging developments, the basic will to peace of the world community survived. A third world war – which at times seemed imminent – was avoided. The UN played an important role in preventing regional conflicts from escalating into an armed confrontation between East and West. Improvisations, including new techniques of peacemaking and peacekeeping and a large expansion of the role of the Secretary-General, to some extent filled the gap caused by the absence of great power unanimity. In this process, a practical reassessment of the realities of international peace and security has gradually emerged. Sixteen peacekeeping operations and countless good offices missions by successive Secretaries-General have been the backbone of this effort.

In the last eighteen months a new and mild international climate has relaxed the rigors of the Cold War and calmed the storm of regional conflict. The prospect of realizing the dreams of 1945 seems better than at anytime in forty years. At last we have an opportunity to assess our situation, to consider the revolutionary changes that have taken place to cooperate in making plans for a better future.

This opportunity has not come a moment too soon. Modern warfare has become a lethal and unacceptable anachronism. Even the most powerful states are finding that preparations for modern warfare are prohibitively expensive. An improvement in the way the existing system of international stability and security operates is urgently needed, and may now at last be within the bounds of political reality.

But, there is another compelling challenge to the community of nations – a challenge which will not respect nor wait upon the disputes and disagreements of nations. We are now encountering a new generation of global problems which can only be faced effectively through an unprecedented degree of international cooperation. Our capacity to face these problems will determine the nature and conditions of life on this planet in the next century. Clearly this task requires outstanding leadership and an extraordinary concentration of resources and political energy. We shall have to study our existing international mechanisms and decide in what way they need to be strengthened and coordinated.

In dealing with both sets of issues-peace and stability, and global problems – the key question will be the extent to which collective responsibility and international authority can be exercised and respected. We now have a world of more than 160 independent sovereign states. This is a new situation which clearly demands an acceptable, but effective, degree of international authority in matters of common concern. The nature and evolution of this authority will be the key to building a better world and dealing with the global threats we now face.

Forty-three years ago the international organization was primarily preoccupied with international peace and security. The evolution of thinking and practice on this essential question may give some clues as to the basis upon which international authority may rest in the future.

As regards international peace and security the United Nations Charter sets out a process which, in its first stage, is based on the renunciation of force in international relations and on the peaceful settlement of disputes. If these principles are rejected, the Charter provides for collective enforcement action by the world community through the Security Council. Such action ranges from various forms of sanctions and embargoes to the use of military force by the Security Council.

In the political and military conditions of the post-war world, forceful international action has not proved to be a practical proposition. Sanctions and embargoes have rarely been agreed on, and military enforcement action never, apart from the exceptional case of Korea. Instead the Security Council and the Secretary-General have pioneered a different route – the route of consensus, conciliation, good offices, diplomatic pressure and non-forceful, cooperative peacekeeping.

This last concept – peacekeeping – was honored this year with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize. This was a recognition not only of the architects and the soldiers of peacekeeping, but also of an extremely important idea. The evolution of peacekeeping may provide a useful practical indication of how international authority, and respect for it, can be built up.

Before considering the evolution of peacekeeping, however, I would like to say a word about its opposite, enforcement. Chapter VII of the Charter, the enforcement chapter, was a recognition by the authors of the Charter that the failure of the international community to deal with the aggressions of the 1930s had inevitably led to World War II. They were determined that the international community should not make this mistake again.

In the period since World War II aggressors on this scale have, mercifully, not emerged. The measures of Chapter VII have thus not been invoked in order to take forceful action against aggression. The Security Council, in its wisdom, has never seen fit or been able to agree on the full-scale use of Chapter VII. Instead, international disputes and threats to the peace have been, for the most part, dealt with by non-forceful means. That should not mean that Chapter VII should be forgotten, It is all well and good to evolve a design for international peace and security based not on forceful techniques, but on cooperation and persuasion. But we cannot say for certain that the world will never again be threatened by irrational aggressors. The capacity to react forcefully, and in time, to such a contingency must therefore be maintained, while we pursue the option of peacemaking and peacekeeping as the normal approach to international disputes or threats to the peace.

The essence of peacekeeping is the use of soldiers as a catalyst for peace rather than as the instruments of war. It is in fact the exact opposite of the military action against aggression foreseen in Chapter VII of the charter. Although the arms race continues, it would seem that the majority of nations have, in practice, opted for the rule of international authority and law in their relations with each other. The only sanction for this authority is usually persuasion, the moral force of international authority and diplomatic pressure. In addition, international authority can be symbolized in conflict areas by non-fighting soldiers, the UN’s peacekeepers.

These are soldiers without enemies. Their duty is to remain above the conflict. They may only use their weapons in the last resort for self-defense. Their strength is that, representing the will of the international community, they provide an honorable alternative to war and a useful pretext for peace. Their presence is often the essential prerequisite for negotiating a settlement. They have, or should have, a direct connection with the process of peacemaking.

The peacekeeping and peacemaking route has been pioneered even as governments also follow the course of armaments and military alliances. I have a feeling that self-styled experts and realists, who are not always farsighted, have tended to regard the UN’s peacekeeping and peacemaking efforts rather patronizingly as something of a sideshow. Certainly, some major powers, including the Soviet Union, were for many years highly sceptical of – and even actively opposed to – UN peacekeeping operations.

Recent changes in Soviet policy on peacekeeping, as well as on other important matters, mean that for the first time there is virtually a unanimous international constituency for promoting the concept of international authority through consensus and joint action, by the non-forceful techniques of peacemaking and peacekeeping.

What are the practical prospects of making this approach to international peace and stability effective? It is perhaps worth recalling how, in nation states, the evolution of civilian police as the guardians of public safety and the symbols of the law helped many states to cross the line from lawless violence and tyranny to civil authority and respect for the law in the common interest of all citizens. When they were first introduced, the police were often resented or not taken seriously. They were the butt of many jokes and demonstrations. When however, they gained the support both of the governmental establishment and of the vast majority of the populace, they became a trusted and indispensable institution. They were an institution which did not depend on physical force but on the support of the authorities and the people and on the majesty of the law.

Some of the factors which allowed the emergence of the police as guardians of the law and protectors of public safety may have begun to be present in the international world of today. There is a widespread weariness and disgust with violence and a heightened consciousness that the use of force seldom solves, and usually exacerbates, problems. Our powers of destruction have increased to the point where it is madness to use them. The necessity of the rule of law in our crowded, interdependent planet is becoming increasingly evident. It is clear that if we fail to act together on many matters, we may lose the capacity to act at all. At the superpower level we are seeing the first practical steps of disarmament – a recognition of the undoubted fact that war is no longer a practical instrument of national policy.

These factors would seem to indicate that the way to peace and security might in future generally be based on consensus and cooperation rather than on the use of force. Peacekeeping operations would be an important visible symbol and monitor of such a system, although, as I have said, we must also preserve some collective capacity to deal with aggression.

The basic prerequisites for the success of the peacekeeping technique are now present to a far greater extent than before. Successful peacekeeping requires a strong and supportive international consensus, starting in the Security Council. I must add that this support must include the necessary financial and logistical support. The cost of peacekeeping is usually infinitesimal by comparison with the cost of war, destruction and disruption. Nonetheless, the sums involved are considerable by diplomatic standards, if not by military standards. The present uncertain situation about financing is deplorable. It puts an intolerable burden on the countries which provide the troops, and is also harmful to the essential principle of collective responsibility. It sends a feeble and wavering message, when what is required is confidence and strong support. Collective governmental responsibility for the financing of peacekeeping operations is an essential basic principle. However, if governments decide that the financial burden is too heavy for them to bear alone, other means of financing may have to be considered. In some cases, those who benefit financially from the results of a peacemaking and peacekeeping operation might be asked to share in the costs. A reserve fund for peacekeeping emergencies has also been suggested. A more far-reaching idea has been floated, embracing the concept of using some of the money spent on war to pay for peace through an appropriate international levy on all overseas arms sales. This money could be used to build up such a fund. As long as, regrettably, the arms trade continues, we would at least be robbing war to pay for peace. It is an interesting coincidence that the figure of 1.5 billion dollars, often mentioned as the possible bill for peacekeeping in 1989, is almost exactly one percent of the official arms exports for 1987 – 164 billion dollars.

A peacekeeping operation must have a workable and realistic mandate fully supported by the international community. It must also have the cooperation, however grudging, of the governments and authorities in the area of conflict, and their understanding that the operation serves their long-term interests, no matter what their short-term political difficulties may be.

A peacekeeping operation needs disciplined and broadly representative contingents and an effective integrated command. The operation must be guided at all times by the Secretary-General and kept on course with the objectives of the Security Council.

The nonviolent nature of peacekeeping must be understood by the soldiers and respected by the parties to the conflict. A peacekeeping force that uses its weapons for purposes other than strict self-defense quickly becomes part of the conflict and therefore part of the problem. It loses its essential quality of being above the conflict.

These essential conditions seem to be present to a far greater extent than any time in the past forty years. Indeed we have come a very long way since 1948, when Secretary-General Trygve Lie’s suggestion of “a small guard force” for Palestine was dismissed without serious discussion.

The situation in the Security Council is particularly encouraging. For the first time the permanent members seem to be becoming a collegial body working together with the non-permanent members and with the Secretary- General to evolve common approaches and solutions for problems of international peace and security. This development opens up new possibilities of a more general nature in arms control and disarmament and in the settlement of international disputes, as well as in the development and use for the technique of peacekeeping.

Here the change in the Soviet attitude is particularly encouraging. New Soviet proposals, both as regards the future development of peacekeeping and the wider use of such operations, indicate that a major obstacle to progress has been removed. The Soviet proposals aim at seeing “the positive experience and practice of United Nations peacekeeping operations consolidated and further developed and put on a more solid legal and financial basis” so that they can be used “more extensively for the implementation of Security Council decisions as well as for the prevention of emerging armed conflicts”.

This new consensus behind peacekeeping comes at a time when important operations are imminent – in Namibia and Western Sahara1, for example. These operations should provide a practical testing ground for strengthening the foundations of this important technique.

The long-term aim remains what it has always been – to evolve a collective system of international peace and security, reliable and strong enough that governments in trouble or under threat will choose to bring their problems to the United Nations rather than trying to go it alone in unilateral efforts which usually end in disaster. To achieve this goal the member states of the United Nations should make deliberate and practical efforts to foster the growth of collective responsibility, international confidence, operational capacity, and respect for the decisions and operations of the United Nations. Such an effort could give the phrase “international peace and security” a reality which it has so far lacked.

In a larger perspective, we must work towards a time when war will cease to be an acceptable option of national policy or a possible means of settling disputes, and when a reliable and respected international system will take its place. In this perspective the development of international peacekeeping has an essential place. Just as the concept of civil police was essential to the development of the rule of law within nation states.

When we talk of peacekeeping we are, at the present time, referring to one area of international activity. But the principles and techniques involved in peacekeeping may be applicable and relevant to other areas and other problems: the principles of impartiality and objectivity; the symbolic representation of international authority; the process of securing compliance through cooperation; the providing of pretexts for conforming to international decisions; the capacity for fact-finding; the monitoring of the implementation of agreements; the developing of a capacity for preempting disasters or preventing conflicts. These are all essential elements of the peacekeeping technique which need further development. They may also prove to be an important basis for dealing with the global problems which now present an urgent challenge to the international community.

I hope that the attention now being given to peacekeeping, which is symbolized by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, will not only strengthen our capacity to conduct the affairs of nations in a more peaceful and just manner. I hope it will also stimulate a wider effort to consider the new means and the new institutions which we shall need if we are to ensure our common future.

1. In April 1989 the United Nations Transitional Assistance Group (UNTAG) began operations in Namibia. It was not until 1991, however, that the United Nations Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1981-1990, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Irwin Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1988

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MLA style: United Nations Peacekeeping Forces – Nobel Lecture. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Fri. 29 Sep 2023. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1988/un/lecture/>

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