This week the United Nations honours and remembers its fallen peacekeepers. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines the daunting challenges facing today’s’ blue helmets.

It was an act of selfless heroism. Under heavy gunfire from rebel fighters and seeing a comrade pinned down and wounded, Private Chancy Chitete ran through a fusillade of bullets before dragging Corporal Ali Khamis Omary to cover.

As he then tried to attend his comrade’s wounds and administer first aid, Chitete himself was shot and killed.

Both men were UN peacekeepers or “Blue Helmets” as they are more commonly known because of their distinctive light blue berets or helmets the colour of the United Nation’s flag.

Chitete, a Malawian, and Omary, a Tanzanian, were both part of one of the largest contingents of UN peacekeepers in the world, tasked with combatting armed rebels who terrorise civilians and disrupt the UN’s ongoing efforts to treat, and halt, the spread of the deadly Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Last Friday, in recognition of his “brave and selfless” action under fire back in November 2018, Private Chitete was posthumously honoured with the UN’s highest peacekeeping award.

Officially named the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage, the award was first established in 2014 for uniformed and civilian personnel who meet the criteria. It takes its name from the late Senegalese UN peacekeeper Captain Mbaye Diagne, who saved hundreds of lives during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 before being killed by shrapnel from a mortar shell.

Despite the nomination of several peacekeepers for exceptional service over the past four years, the awarding of the medal to Private Chitete will mark the first time the actions of a UN peacekeeper have been found to meet the standard set by Captain Diagne.

It’s not that the Blue Helmets are rarely placed in testing conditions that challenge their courage, far from it. These days UN peacekeepers are being killed at higher rates than ever before, with 2017 the most deadly year of peacekeeping since 1993.

Over this past week alone, a Nigerian peacekeeper was killed in an attack on the UN’s stabilisation mission in the West African country of Mali while, in a separate incident, three Chadian peacekeepers were also wounded when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.

Next Wednesday – May 29 – marks what is known as the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, a time to pay tribute to all the men and women who have served and continue to serve in UN missions across the world.

The Peacekeepers Day commemorations come at a moment when demands on the UN have become more complex and calls intensify for them to be more robust and proactive in situations where civilians may be at risk.

The Blue Helmets are no strangers to such pressure.

In the 71 years since the first UN peacekeeping mission was sent to oversee the agreement that ended the Arab- Israeli war, more than 70 UN peacekeeping missions have been deployed around the world.

As Jean-Marie Guehenno, the then UN under secretary general for peacekeeping operations, outlined in a major review back in 2008, this role has since become multi-dimensional.

Simultaneously, it has evolved into one of the main tools used by the international community to manage complex crises that pose a threat to global peace and security.

Beyond simply monitoring ceasefires, today’s peacekeeping operations are called upon to facilitate the political process through the promotion of national dialogue and reconciliation, protect civilians, assist in disarmament, demobilisation of combatants, support the organisation of elections, protect and promote human rights, and assist in restoring the rule of law.

All this, of course, has not been plain sailing with the 1990s and early 2000s a period of extremes for UN peacekeeping.

On the one hand, the UN saw some of its most demoralising catastrophes with the genocide in Rwanda, massacre in Srebrenica and civil war in Somalia looming large on the list of the international body’s failings.

But there were important successes too with the completion of UN operations in Cambodia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Tajikistan, with none of these relapsing into conflict. And in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Timor-Leste, Liberia and Kosovo, UN peacekeeping has played a crucial part in the transitions from war to relative peace.

That said, not all UN peacekeepers have been harbingers of good with some deployments mired in scandal and controversy.

Too often the sacrifice of so many has stood in stark contrast to the behaviour of a small minority of Blue Helmets responsible for acts of sexual exploitation and abuse that have damaged the credibility of UN missions in places like the Central African Republic (CAR) and DRC. “The Blue Helmet has become black and blue through self-inflicted wounds. We will not sit still until the lustre of that Blue Helmet is restored,” insisted Jane Holl Lute, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping back in 2005 following allegations of sexual abuse in DRC.

In what former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan denounced as “an ugly stain” on the world body, some peacekeepers have been found guilty of committing crimes against the very people they are supposed to protect.

According to one 2017 investigation by the Associated Press (AP), between 2004 and 2016 the UN received almost 2,000 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against its peacekeepers.

In other places such as in the beleaguered Caribbean island of Haiti, cases of negligence and incompetency have also bedevilled UN personnel.

It was there after being deployed to assist with emergency rescue work in the wake of the 2010 Haitian earthquake that some UN peacekeepers were identified as the source of a cholera outbreak that killed over 10,000 Haitian civilians and infected hundreds of thousands more.

It was not until 2016 that the UN got around to making a formal apology for its role in the outbreak.

Today, however, the UN has taken a tough line and gone to considerable lengths to address such damaging issues as it faces other pressing challenges in its peacekeeping role in an increasingly volatile and troubled world.

Currently, two-thirds of UN peacekeepers are deployed in places where large-scale violence is ongoing, without a peace agreement, or where peace processes have visibly broken down.

“Active conflict in Mali, DRC, South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) has meant that peacekeepers are often confronted with direct threats, violent extremist fighters, and transnational criminal networks operating well beyond the UN’s deployment areas,” says Dr Charles T Hunt, a researcher in peace operations who works with the Australian government.

He points to the fact that there is no direct mention of peacekeeping in the UN Charter. As a result, the doctrine governing UN peacekeeping has evolved over time but remains firmly rooted in the three principles of consent of the parties, minimum use of force and impartiality.

But the pressing question now is whether these core principles still provide real working parameters and to what extent today’s role of the UN peacekeeper has changed compared to before.

“The peacekeeper of the old Cold War days just wouldn’t recognise his counterpart today. Back then, he (and it always was a ‘he’) had very minimalist tasks, limited by the polarised international politics of the time,” says Norrie MacQueen, visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations and once a civilian UN peacekeeper himself.

Security Council mandates were generally restricted to military observation and "interposition" acting as a buffer between hostile national armies, says MacQueen.

He highlights the fact that today’s "multifunctional" and "integrated" operations can see peacekeepers involved in a huge range of tasks, from post-conflict reconstruction to aid delivery to street policing.

“Peacekeepers now may also, more controversially, find themselves in offensive counter-insurgency roles, for example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and the Central African Republic,” says MacQueen, adding that today’s UN peacekeeper is no longer exclusively male as the number of women engaged in field operations has grown over the past years.

The increasingly important role of women in this capacity is echoed by others including Retno LP Marsudi, an Indonesian diplomat who recently presided over the United Nation’s Security Council (UNSC).

“Investing in women equals investing in peace. Female peacekeepers are more effective in winning the hearts and minds of local populations, providing comfort for those traumatised by conflicts,” observed Marsudi in a speech this month on peacekeeper training.

“There is also strong evidence that women’s participation in peace processes increases the likelihood of sustained peace by 20% as well as contributing to longer and more resilient peace,” added Marsudi, who says that UN peacekeeping is a portrait of multilateralism at its best.

On Friday, the UK’s Defence Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, reaffirmed Britain’s commitment that women make up at least 15% of UK personnel on UN peacekeeping missions by 2028. Currently the UK has around 600 personnel deployed on UN peacekeeping operations around the world, including approximately 270 in Cyprus and 300 in South Sudan.

But despite the continuing global commitment to the Blue Helmets, questions remain as to whether they are up to the challenges they currently face.

“So far, the extent to which the UN has successfully met them is still up for argument,” says MacQueen.

“As peacekeepers now frequently find themselves in combat roles, the old question about how far soldiers are willing to die for ‘the UN’ rather than their own nations comes up and the evidence so far isn’t altogether encouraging,” says the Scottish researcher and author.

MacQueen outlines how one approach, most commonly in Africa, has been to establish joint operations between the UN and neighbouring countries or regional organisations on the basis that local interests mean greater commitment.

He stresses, however, that this is obviously a double-edged weapon, highlighting again the relatively new problem of contemporary peacekeeping meaning close contact between peacekeepers and vulnerable civilian populations and the concerns over misbehaviour that accompany such a relationship.

It’s worth remembering too that the UN only deploys peacekeeping operations when the permanent members of the Security Council, China, France, the Russian Federation, the UK and US authorise troop funding, which is then subject to General Assembly approval.

The UN has no standing army. Member states provide troops for the operation on a voluntary basis.

Observers also point out that when operations are given the green light, the UN is now often deploying personnel into countries where the line between peacekeeping and warfare is very blurred and the role of such contingents is at best peacemaking not peacekeeping.

The dangers here are obvious in that they could further become part of the conflict as combatants and the implications this would have for the legal protection afforded as peacekeepers. More and more, the direct targeting of the Blue Helmets has underscored how some belligerents perceive the UN as a party to the conflict.

Ten years on from its last major review of the principles of peacekeeping, now is a good time to for the UN to reflect on it methods, rather than assuming they can continue to be reinterpreted for today’s settings.

Seven decades after the first UN peacekeeping operation was deployed, 14 remain in place to this day.

Of these, the so-called “big five” missions in Mali, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Darfur and South Sudan represent some of the greatest challenges ever encountered by peacekeeping.

So where does that leave the Blue Helmets in the future?

“With peacekeeping under pressure, it is more useful to recalibrate expectations, learn from what has worked over the past seven decades, and refocus the UN on the more limited – but achievable – tasks that peacekeeping can deliver,” observed Adam Day, head of programmes at the United Nations University recently.

This prevailing sense of realism is more pressing than ever.

On Wednesday, the UN, at its headquarters, will honour the more than one million men and women who have served as peacekeepers since its first mission in 1948 and remember the more than 3,800 personnel who paid the ultimate price.

Out in the field, meanwhile, the Blue Helmets continue to pay a heavy price for the work they do.