Overcoming the deadlock: UN peacekeeping in Eastern Ukraine

The purpose of the UN and the idea of “Blue Helmets” in Ukraine

The United Nations (UN) was established with the purpose to maintain international peace and security and to that end to bring about adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of peace. Currently, the UN has deployed more than 110,000 peacekeepers in 14 ongoing operations around the world led by the Department of Peace Operations. Whether successful or not, the “blue helmets” aim to provide stability. They strive to facilitate the transition from confrontation to peace and permanently divert unresolved conflicts and the root causes that drove them from the military to the political arena. Thus, a solution can be found and human rights ensured.

For the first time, Ukraine promoted the idea of sending UN peacekeepers to Donbas in early 2015. However, this proposal was blocked by Russia at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Then, Kiev decided to submit an updated version of the first draft. However, no success was achieved either due to the same reasons. On the 5 September 2017, Russia, on its own, introduced a draft UNSC Resolution, suggesting a UN mission to protect the observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), operating in east Ukraine. A consensus on the respective draft resolution was not achieved as well.

The OSCE plays a crucial role in ameliorating tensions during the current crisis in Ukraine. For instance, a Special Monitoring Mission to the country was deployed on 21 March 2014, following a request to the organization by Kiev and a positive decision by all 57 participating States. Moreover, an observer OSCE mission was established at the Gukovo and Donetsk (Ukraine) checkpoints, following a request by Moscow.

The case of Ukraine

The Ukrainian crisis is a leading political factor in the system of international relations which has been on the agenda for five years now. Its manifestation marked a new stage in the dynamics of the global system and in the development of the dialogue between the great powers in the world politics. In reality, the development of the situation in Ukraine represents the strongest confrontation between Russia and the West (embodied by the US) since the end of the Cold War.

The problem which challenges the international relations regarding the case has proven its severity beyond reasonable doubt, and is embodied in the fact that the relations between the US and Russia have reached its lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, for the first time since the end of the WWII, a territory of a sovereign and independent state has been annexed by another state. Paradoxically, the annexation has been conducted by a state which is a permanent member of the UNSC and has the solemn duty to protect the international order and the configuration of the system of international relations.

In light of the foregoing, the tensions in Eastern Ukraine (Donbas) escalated into an armed conflict between the separatist forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (supported unofficially by Russia) and the Ukrainian authorities. The separatist forces do not want to recognize the government as legitimate. At the moment, human rights organizations and others such as the UN and OSCE are trying to ameliorate the tensions and to provide a solution to the current state of affairs which entered into a deadlock.

Admitting that the suggestion for peacekeepers is a breakthrough, nonetheless, it is debatable how this mission will actually contribute to the peaceful resolution of the crisis, and defend the human rights of the Ukrainian population in the region.

Ukraine and Russia perspectives on the matter

From the Russian perspective, the UN peacekeepers should only be deployed along the contact line and only for the purpose of protecting the OSCE observers while carrying out their inspections. Kiev insists on a broader mandate, which should encompass the deployment of ‘blue helmets’ in the whole conflict zone to the Russian-Ukrainian state border.

Kiev argues that the Russian proposal is inadvisable since it cannot contribute to the unconditional withdrawal of foreign military personnel and mercenaries in the region. Thus, the civilian population in the region will continue to suffer.

The statistics as of 15 February 2019

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), based on the work of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU), has issued 25 reports on the situation of human rights in the region since the beginning of the confrontation. According to the last document, the HRMMU reported 315 human rights violations only between 16 November 2018 and 15 February 2019. Even though the OHCHR noted a trend of decreasing conflict-related civilian casualties during the last months, the total civilian death toll since the beginning has reached at least 3,321 as of now. People’s rights to life, liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience continue to be violated on a daily basis.

While NATO, Germany and OSCE welcomed the Russian call for UN peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine, the United States advocated the Ukrainian position for a “broader mandate” which can establish the socio-economic foundations of long-term peace and guarantee the human rights of locals.

Gearing up for peace

The Russian perception so far is that the “blue helmets” should be equipped with light weapons and small arms. Their main responsibility should be to guarantee the security of the OSCE special monitoring mission observers who must exercise 24-hour monitoring in the conflict zones where forces and equipment have been disengaged from the de facto line of contact between the warring parties. In relation to this, the UN lightly armed troops should not be granted a mandate to use force. The mission must be accountable for ensuring the OSCE groups protection while performing their functions, not only along the line of disengagement but during inspections at other places.

As the international community cannot be certain of the real purpose or intent of the Kremlin in reference to such an idea, the potential for a UN mission and the aspects of the mandate – whether it is a peacekeeping, peace-building mission or only an initiative to protect the respective OSCE personnel, certainly, it seems as the only way forward. But the idea must be expanded and carefully refined.

Refining the plan?

If the plan is to only be based on the protection of OSCE groups, the peacekeepers would not be able to ensure a complete ceasefire or the withdrawal of heavy weapons. Neither would it be feasible to establish a political and institutional framework of long-term peace, nor to address the structural violence and the root causes of the conflict and to support psycho-social recovery.

They would not be able to deal with artillery shells and incursions by combat troops. Thus, they shall not be able to fulfil the main purpose of peacekeeping which is to provide security and public order. Furthermore, this objective includes the necessary contribution to the protection and promotion of human rights through action and the ability to empower the Ukrainian population to claim their universal rights. Finally, the main purpose of peacekeeping is to enable all parties engaged in the conflict to implement their human rights obligations and uphold the rule of law.

Therefore, while considering the ambiguous mandate of the mission, the international community must concentrate on the human rights components of the potential mission and find the balance between international and internal interests. Certain questions must be taken into account, such as which actors have to be recognized, what kind of political system will shape the peace and how this mission will impact the locals in Donbass, their values and culture.

Finding the right balance between means and ends.

A complete cessation of violence in south-eastern Ukraine, in accordance with the package of measures to alleviate the ongoing conflict in the Donbas region (also known as the Minsk Agreement), requires nothing less than a full-scale peacekeeping operation authorized by the UN Security Council and deployed throughout the conflict zone to the borders with Russia.

Whether light-armed or heavy-armed, the mandate of the mission should be carefully defined. Certainly, to stop any violations of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, ensure the withdrawal of heavy weapons, protect the human rights of the locals and the implementation of the Minsk Agreement, or to open fire in self-defence, it would be necessary to carry more than just “small arms and light weapons”.

On the other hand, the use of force as a vital component of every conflict resolution strategy, if not in accordance with a broader and better political strategy, might endanger the UN’s impartiality and might contribute to potential militarization that could worsen the situation in the region.

Therefore, while considering the armament of the ‘blue helmets’, their capacity and rules of engagement, the right balance between means and ends must be discovered. The decision to consider a UN mission that could be deployed in the region of Donbas is a step in the right direction, toward which the international community should be looking forward.

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