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Time for a Permanent United Nations Prevention Force?

Commentary, 25 August 2011
International Institutions
The desperate situation in East Africa once again highlights the potential utility of a permanent United Nations intervention force. The idea has resonance at a time of austerity, when nations are actively considering a pooling of defence resources.

The desperate situation in East Africa once again highlights the potential utility of a permanent United Nations intervention force. The idea has resonance at a time of austerity, when nations are actively considering a pooling of defence resources.

By Matthew Willis for

UN Peacekeepers

The UK government's Strategic Defence and Security Review White Paper of October 2010 emphasises the importance of prevention as an element of national defence policy. Prevention means here early intervention to avert a political crisis from developing into widescale violence. NATO's new Strategic Concept of November 2010 similarly stresses the importance of using the military instrument to 'help manage developing crises'.

The Weaknesses of a System Dependent on National Contingents

History shows there are seven main weaknesses of the current UN system, which a permanent intervention force would be designed to circumvent:

  1. Delays in force deployment;
  2. the inadequacy and lack of standardisation of deployed forces' kit, materiel, logistics capability, etc.;
  3. conflicts of doctrine and ethos among, and inconsistent quality of, the national contingents supplied;
  4. inefficient and mission-hampering command and control arrangements;
  5. the threat of revenge: terrorist actions against homelands of nations providing contingents. For example, the 2010 Kampala bombings;
  6. dangers of national governments threatening to pull out their contingents when their troops are criticised, as in the case of Rwanda; and
  7. refusal by sovereign governments to supply contingents because they disagree with the military or political aspects of a deployment. 

Such statements suggest tacit acceptance of the value of some sort of permanent, presumably collective, intervention force that could be deployed in time to prevent emerging conflicts. The concept is an old one, most commonly associated with the UN, whose popularity has waxed and waned with time. Certainly, in view of the prevalence of conflict around the world and the difficulties the international community faces in maintaining peace, a UN intervention force would not likely be left idle. Despite such a force's widely recognised utility in theory, however, Afghanistan and Iraq will have left nations like the United Kingdom, the United States and their NATO allies reluctant to embark on experiments that risk long-term embroilment.

Attempts to Create Rapid Reaction Forces

The establishment of a military intervention force under the control of the United Nations has long been the subject of discussion and, occasionally, of action. Successive re-imaginings have transformed an expeditionary army for use in quelling inter-state conflict into an agile fast-reaction unit with peace enforcement expertise ideal for intra-state action. The desperate security situation in Somalia and recurring requests by East African leaders that a UN force be deployed there point to the concept's continued relevance, but also to the need for its clarification in the light of dynamic security trends.

The concept of a permanent military force for the United Nations was embodied in Article 43 of the original UN Charter, in the form of a stand-by force of national contingents 'on the call' of the Security Council but remaining under contributing countries' control. The idea remained very much alive into the 1960s, and

each new crisis elicited high-level interest in the creation of some form of military force under the UN banner. Secretaries-General, foreign ministers and heads of government engaged in earnest discussions, and serious consideration was given to various ways of making the idea a reality. Despite genuine interest in many quarters, however, the idea never materialised.

Spectacular UN peacekeeping failures in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s re-ignited interest in ways of remedying a model that was evidently not working. Since then, a number of studies and proposals have been drafted. Most recently, Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark - working with the UN Secretariat - came up with proposals for a rapid-reaction capability. The Danish government-led study recommended the establishment of a UN Stand-by Forces High Readiness Brigade (SHIRBRIG), which duly came into being with the participation of over a dozen member countries. SHIRBRIG was perhaps the closest the UN ever came to an 'in-house' intervention force. It was initially intended to react within 30 days of participant countries' decision to contribute, be self-sufficient for 60 days and deploy for a maximum of six months. The Brigade was disbanded in 2009.

Advantages and Limitations of a Permanent Force

There is, in fact, historical evidence that a UN intervention force could deploy successfully in complex conditions. The UN-sanctioned, Australian-led mission to East Timor in late 1999 is an example. Deployed to halt the Indonesian government-backed militia campaign against the East Timorese population, INTERFET (Intervention for East Timor) swept away the militia, confiscated weapons and secured the capital, main towns and roads. Over five months, it facilitated humanitarian operations by providing protection as well as logistical and reconstruction support. Unlike a peacekeeping deployment, the intervention was robust and designed to support one side against another. In the words of Taylor Seybolt, the INTERFET deployment showed that:

interveners understood the potential benefit of well-trained military units moving aggressively against poorly-trained and ill-equipped militia. Australian troops rapidly established a dominant presence through active manoeuvres by a small number of soldiers.[1]

However, while workable arrangements can be had through UN-sanctioned but non-UN-led missions - like INTERFET - there are several arguments favouring a permanent independent UN force. First, a coalition, alliance or union effort is virtually always reactive, when what is really needed is a tool for pro-action. Secondly, dependence on individual or collective state commitment sidelines and disempowers the one organisation that has any pretensions to impartiality. Furthermore, a few nations seen as acting on their own initiative make themselves vulnerable to revenge attacks. The UN, in contrast, has the advantage of collective legitimacy, lessening the chances of reprisals.

Of course, there would be obstacles. How to know precisely whether and at what point a case merits intervention is no small matter and the international community has a poor track record on both counts. Unless the UN could get the timing reliably right, it would risk inserting its troops under unfavourable conditions. Moreover, the force would not be designed to remain in theatre for long. It might not buy the UN or individual countries sufficient time to assemble a follow-on force or make diplomatic progress, and in the likely event that events moved faster than expected, it would need to be withdrawn or risk being sucked into the fray. Its utility could be thrown into question very quickly.

The obvious start-point in resolving these problems would be to create 'in-house' capability which, though it might start off small and be deployed cautiously at first, would allow for standardisation, quality control and the gradual fine-tuning of doctrine. In 2008, a scoping piece published by the Royal United Services Institute [2] suggested a robust volunteer force along the lines of the small and versatile US Marine Expeditionary Unit. Consisting of approximately 10,000 men, to allow for roulement, this MIU (Mobile Intervention Unit) would be deployed to stabilise volatile political environments and improve the chances of success for diplomatic or humanitarian initiatives'. UN troops would convey the diplomatic message that they genuinely represented a potentially more powerful follow-on capability than could be deployed by UN-sanctioned national combat forces. The MIU would be able to 'respond tactically to aggression and effect a fighting withdrawal' if necessary. This small force could serve as the foundation of a larger one which would be developed incrementally over time. 


Without doubt there is substance to the call for a 'UN army'. Not only is there the need to contain and, better still, prevent conflicts more effectively, but the UN is uniquely positioned to do so. As the ongoing effects of the financial crisis affect national governments' capacity and will to act alone, the advantages of burden-sharing and resource-pooling could become more attractive.

A recent UK Ministry of Defence report noted, for instance, that '£1 spent on conflict prevention generates over £4 in savings for the international community,' no mean amount considering the straitened circumstances of the world's traditional lead powers.[3] There should thus exist at least an openness to the idea of a collective conflict-response force able to do cost-effectively what individual states are less willing to do alone or in coalitions. A permanent UN force would not diminish in any way the right of sovereign nations to possess their own armed forces, but could in time allow national defence costs to be reduced if it proved successful.

Beyond the relatively simple - because still hypothetical - discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of a permanent intervention force, however, there is another angle worth exploring. How is the UN itself disposed to the concept from a doctrinal perspective? Those who would like to see the idea take concrete shape would do well to examine the UN's recent thinking on the question of intervention. While there is doubtless willingness within the organisation to study models for such a force, its advocates will more likely meet with success if they tailor their proposals to match the UN's current outlook.[4]

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] Taylor Seybolt, Humanitarian Military Intervention: The Conditions for Success and Failure, Oxford: Oxford University Press and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2007, p. 93.

[2] Michael Codner, 'Permanent United Nations Military Intervention Capability: Some Practical Considerations,' RUSI Journal, (Vol. 153 No. 3, June 2008).

[3] Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, 'Future Character of Conflict,' 2010, p. 27, <> (24 August 2011).

[4] See, for example, Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Department of Field Support, 'A New Partnership Agenda: Charting a New Horizon for UN Peacekeeping,' New York, July 2009, (24 August 2011).

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