The future of UN peacekeeping and women, peace and security
10 Mar 2023|

To make peacekeeping safer in an increasingly dangerous world, countries contributing troops to United Nations peacekeeping efforts need to embrace emerging technology more readily, and they must involve many more women on operations.

Today ASPI’s Policy, Guns and Money podcast discusses these issues with three strong advocates for both. General Birame Diop is military adviser in the UN Department of Peace Operations , Australian Major General Cheryl Pearce headed the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, and Group Captain Jarrod Pendlebury is Australia’s defence attaché to the UN in New York.

Around 90,000 peacekeepers are currently deployed across 12 operations.

Diop, a former chief of staff of the Senegalese armed forces, says the use of technology such as small commercial drones as very effective weapons in Ukraine has demonstrated the importance of protecting peacekeepers against a much wider range of threats while giving them the opportunity for increased situational awareness they need to safeguard themselves.

He says that demonstrates the need for the Strategy for the digital transformation of UN peacekeeping. ‘Peacekeeping cannot keep improving if we do not take advantage of the new technology of information and communication to improve the safety and security of our peacekeepers, and also to improve our performance.’

Peacekeepers are already using microdrones to gather intelligence on operations such as route clearance to ensure the safety of UN convoys, Diop says. ‘What is happening in Ukraine is proving to all of us that the future of peacekeeping will involve the bigger use of new technology of information and communication, and notably microdrones.’

In the strategy, the UN says its peacekeepers are confronted by technologies used to spread disinformation, misinformation and incitement to violence through hate speech, to carry out surveillance of the blue helmet forces, for recruitment into armed groups, and to launch cyber and other attacks.

Diop says that the widespread use of improvised explosive devices and the involvement of non-state groups that are often extremely violent adds to the dangers faced by peacekeepers. ‘Wearing the blue beret or wearing the blue helmet is not a guarantee of protection for peacekeepers anymore, given that many non-state actors do not recognise our legitimacy to intervene on behalf of the international community, do not recognise our impartially. So they are targeting us the same way they are targeting their adversaries and their enemies.

‘We are losing a lot of peacekeepers due to the use of IEDs,’ Diop says.

‘What we can do about that is to make sure that, within the missions, we take the necessary measures to improve the safety and the security of our peacekeepers. But also we need to train our peacekeepers better to protect themselves before they even deploy.’

More than two decades after the UN passed resolution 1325 on women peace and security, Diop, Pearce and Pendlebury say there is much more to be done to involve women more closely in peacekeeping. ‘The UN is well aware that if we do not take the necessary measures to make sure that women are part of what we are trying to achieve in peacebuilding and peacemaking, it will be extremely difficult for us to be successful,’ says Diop. The two goals are to ensure that women are part of on-the-ground operations and to make sure women are better protected from conflict-related sexual violence.

The UN aims for 25% of staff officers, military observers or other military experts and advisers to be women by 2028. The target for women in units on the ground is 15% by 2028.

Having men and women together under the right conditions will always make units on peacekeeping operations more capable, says Diop. Women who are victims in conflict are more likely to reach out to female peacekeepers, he says.

‘The more women we have in all levels of responsibility, the more efficient we will be.’

Peacekeeping relies a lot on intelligence-gathering, he says. ‘The presence of women will also facilitate the trustful interaction that needs to be there for the populations to give the information they know to the peacekeepers.’

Pearce commanded diverse UN forces in Cyprus from 2019 to 2021. The operation was complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which limited movement and restricted her access to her own forces. Her role was to stop a recurrence of fighting, to reduce tensions and to maintain calm and stability so that a political solution could be realised.

Soldiers from many nations acted as ‘strategic corporals’ aware that their actions on the ground could have an immediate political effect, she says.

Covid hit the peace process hard, and both sides used it for their own advantage. Crossing points over the buffer zone between the north and the south, which had been hard-fought over for a decade, were all closed. ‘We talk about the command and control. I had command of my forces in the north, but I lost control of them,’ says Pearce. ‘I couldn’t reach them, they couldn’t get back into the buffer zone. They were locked into their bases. We couldn’t get resupplies to them and so they couldn’t conduct their duties.’

The challenge then was to enable the troops to carry out their mandate while the Turkish and Greek forces used Covid for their advantage, says Pearce. There were significant violations and both sides used the opportunity to gain more presence on the ceasefire lines.

Her most important goal was to pull everyone together, working with the permanent staff of the UN to have an integrated mission. With troops from many nations operating in a very fluid environment, the creation and review of standard operating procedures was a priority to ensure they reached an agreed mission position on the ceasefire lines.

Pendlebury advocated at the Security Council last year for the effective use of strategic communication to maintain the UN’s visibility in an increasingly contested information space. That’s nowhere more evident than in peacekeeping, he says, with disinformation easily disseminated on social media. The UN can no longer rely on the competitive advantage it had in the past, which was presence and visibility.

Peacekeepers have to be able to counter claims that they are there to steal resources or to change society in malign ways. He noted that General Diop had said many times that unless the UN forces had the support of those they were there to help, ‘there is no peace to keep’.

While Australia doesn’t have large numbers of troops to commit to peacekeeping missions, its Defence Innovation Hub, for example, could help the UN deal with threats. ‘Innovation will help us think ahead, anticipate, so that we are not in a reactive mode all the time.’