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Psychological Aspects
on Peacekeeping on the Ground



By Christian Hårleman , TFF adviser




Traditional peacekeeping operations have become less common in the current international climate. United Nations records show that the number of peacekeeping troops decreased from 75,000 in mid-1994 to 25,000 in mid-1997. The pattern of conflict has changed from inter-state to intra-state, where political and humanitarian complexities prevail. Between 1948 and 1987, the United Nations initiated 13 peacekeeping operations but only five of them were still in existence in 1988, of which four were related to inter-state conflicts and only one to an intra-state dispute. Out of 28 operations established between 1988 and 1996, only eight may be referred to as conflicts of inter-state character and the rest considered as intra-state. As a result, the international community is more concerned with the major causes of systemic and intractable violent conflict such as ethnic, religious and socio-enconomic factors, with less emphasis on preventing or containing conflicts between nations. Experience indicates that the Member States are less inclined to be involved in operations which are considered politically sensitive or might develop into costly undertakings or loss of lives and thus create difficulties in national politics. However, compared with previous and traditional peacekeeping operations this second Ageneration of peacekeeping@ (Mackinlay & Chopra, 1992, 1993) has also witnessed a dramatic increase in civilian participation.

Although security and stability remain a major problem for the international community, the means to this end have changed dramatically. Today there is a new political context which requires a broad and collaborative approach, incorporating traditional notions of diplomacy along with the socio-economic development of nations and peoples involved in conflict. However, whatever means are to be used, the peacekeeping soldier will continue to represent a physical presence of the world's effort to maintain international peace and security. His or her appearance and performance are essential for current and future peacekeeping operations.

In light of this, this chapter outlines some of the conditions where psychological factors may affect a peacekeeping soldier. In this chapter I will describe some operational activities and their psychological conditions in which the peacekeepers operate.



Current peacekeeping employs soldiers at all levels from all over the world. Their professional background as well as the cultural heritage varies and their social and educational experiences are likewise different. They are brought together far from their own settings and asked to work in an unknown and foreign culture and a sometimes hostile climate. Peacekeepers may operate in dangerous and volatile environments, where they may be exposed to ambushes, land mines, and exchange of fire between warring parties. As a third party, their role is to bring peace and, under an international political chapeau, make all efforts to ease conditions for suffering groups. These situations frequently force the peace-keepers to encounter sometimes traumatic situations for which they have never been trained. Contacts with home and loved ones are sparse and their native language is not understood. The pressure on these individuals is obvious and preparation and screening must include both their psychological and physical fitness. In spite of Spartan and uncomfortable conditions and pressure from conflicting parties, they are obliged to remain impartial and rely on their wits rather than their weapons.

In order to understand these conditions one has to appreciate the essence of peacekeeping, which does not always adhere to the normal tactical behavior of a soldier. Operationally, a peacekeeping mission is a static operation with the purpose of monitoring activities and reacting in a way that will de-escalate the conflict by peaceful means. Although the conditions may be predictable and monotonous, they may suddenly change with potentially traumatic consequences for the individual peacekeeper. A peacekeeping soldier must therefore possess not only a high standard of professionalism but also a sense of psychological firmness and flexibility in order to withstand unexpected changes and violence. An operation does not only involve military units but may also include civilian organizations with a wide range of activities. Therefore, peacekeepers at all levels are required to establish and nurture an active transparency, not only with the conflicting parties and their soldiers, but also with individuals working within the operation as well with the local population. Transparency also includes the visibility enhanced by wearing distinctive, easily recognized, United Nations headgear, badges, signs and insignia. Visibility is probably one of the main ways to create confidence and a secure environment since it provides a visible legitimacy to the operation. It also provides protection as hostilities against individuals or assets under UN markings are regarded as violence against the international community. Thus, the operational objectives should be achieved through an active, visible, overt and coordinated performance--an unfamiliar tactical behavior for a soldier, and one which differs from normal military tactics. In a hostile environment these may cause psychological dilemmas for the professional soldier who has been transformed into a peacekeeper.



The visual appearance of a professional peacekeeper has a clear psychological impact. A professional and overt behavior based on an accepted code of conduct creates a positive atmosphere not only within his own organization but also among the soldiers of the conflicting parties. His behavior contributes to a climate of trust and confidence which will be advantageous when problems or hostilities arise. The United Nations has experienced some military units whose performance has created an undesirable image of the Organization. This is unacceptable. Therefore, a professional peacekeeper must possess an innate level of mental stability strengthened through training and additional preparation. On the other hand, this kind of stability relies on factors that no training alone can provide, no matter how extensive it may be. The existence of a family or loved ones, a healthy social life, a sound economy, and an absence of personal dilemmas are conditions that contribute to a good soldier. It provides a psychological resiliency and firmness which will assist in sound solutions of difficult situations that may be encountered. (United Nations Stress Management Booklet, 1995)

Training prior to deployment on a peacekeeping operation is a necessity and there is no doubt that appropriate training will greatly enhance the soldier's ability in the peacekeeping area. The objectives of such training are challenging with clear psychological impacts. The training objective for normal soldiering in combat is to produce a well-prepared and professional soldier who has developed both the mentality and skill which enable him to eliminate an enemy. This requires a heightened degree of aggression and desire to prevail over an adversary through violence. The trainer preparing a soldier for deployment on a peacekeeping mission has to change this attitude into a less aggressive form and simultaneously furnish the soldier with an understanding and perspective which allows him to accept the new objectives and conditions. The training has to be exercised with caution. An overly offensive training may contribute to an aggressive behavior which may create unpredictable and dangerous situations not only for the soldier but also for others who may be involved. Since the soldier is one of thousands, he represents a large group, and therefore, it is essential that all training among the troop-contributing countries be cohesive and that the psychological factors not be underestimated. Although peacekeeping is a non-offensive operation, there are missions that require a more robust performance than the more traditional ones. In these cases the training has to be adjusted accordingly. As a consequence, it is neither recommended to re-deploy soldiers from an enforcement operation to a peacekeeping operation, nor to deploy peacekeepers to combat activities. Such re-deployment has to be preceded by adequate training. Although most of the troop-contributing countries provide peacekeeping training, their training focus is on the operational and technical aspects and not the psychological issues which in fact determine the behavior of the soldier.



The development of a hostile act depends to a certain extent on the roots and causes of a conflict. The interpretation and assessment of such an act is the responsibility of the higher echelons within the peacekeeping force. Nevertheless, it is helpful for the soldier on the ground to have some understanding of the root causes of the conflict. It might be argued that these questions are more at the political level and do not affect the operational or tactical level where the soldier is to be found. However, the soldier on the ground represents the peacekeeping operation and as such, his or her behavior and tactical performance is not the expression of an individual but rather the military collective. In the context of the national defense, the soldiers are (or at least should be) trained in a cohesive and coherent way in accordance with well-established and defined operational plans. Subsequently, the soldier is familiar with the environment, the plans and what is expected of him as a soldier. Simply, he acts as a professional soldier and as a member of a team, and any psychological aspects of the combat action are for him of less importance. However, in order to prepare for a possible encounter with a hostile activity in a peacekeeping operation he should not only recognize a physical threat but in addition be aware of the psychological factors that might further aggravate the threat. Doing so he might be better prepared for a proper and more flexible response.

Conflicts have their own identities and there are numerous attempts to define and establish different categories of conflicts. It is not within the scope of this chapter to identify or define a conflict but more to indicate some differences that have to be understood by the soldier. The cause of local hostility and its level of violence may depend on the root causes of the conflict. A hostility fueled by religious diversities may have an intensity and unpredictable course of action which may be difficult to understand--at least for the soldier on the ground. On the other hand, if the soldier becomes aware of the root causes he might better appreciate the approaching intensity and perception of a possible hostility and he might also recognize the emotional behavior prior to the violence which probably will affect his response.

Certainly, there are both political and psychological differences between a hostile act caused by diverging religious interests compared with conflicts of socio-economic character. Mohammed Sahnoun (Representative of United Nations and Organization of African Unity to the conflict in Central Africa) has suggested five realistic root causes to future conflicts. Some of them may be argued as irrelevant but the lessons learned indicate that violence may be a potential outcome of all of them. Briefly they can be described as:

(i) failure in creation of nation-states where a slow process of national integration may experience a dangerous process;

(ii) products of a colonial legacy are mostly linked with border disputes;

(iii). products of Cold War legacy where liberation wars or social revolts became compounded and where old links are still maintained to dubious forces in the outside world;

(iv) conflicts of religious character where the population is separated along religious lines; and

(v) conflicts of socio-economic character where the conditions are wrongly perceived and violence is a potential outcome in the absence of a democratic system.

Some of these conflicts seem to be more frequent than others. In the last ten years, the international community has experienced the frequency and power of religious conflicts which have a psychology of their own. Being aware of the underlying causes of the conflict, a soldier may be better prepared to address how an individual act of violence is to be countered--and to understand the causes of violence.

Although conflicts originate from various causes, a violent act (violence) depends on several local factors such as basic needs for food, shelter, or water. Pure frustration, corresponding response (violence spiral) and revenge may be other causes. In addition, alcohol or drug abuse may contribute to expressions of individual violence. Although a violent situation caused by the "survival need" (David Last. 1995) for food and water or too much alcohol are rather understandable, there are other settings where psychological mechanisms exist but may be barely understood. For example it has been argued that "fighting is a psychological response learned through success" (John Paul Scott, 1958) meaning that a series of successes will make local commanders more likely to seek their objectives with force. There might be others. For the soldier on the ground it is a necessity to explore the local "tradition" and adjust his preparations accordingly.



A hostile action may escalate out of control if not appropriately encountered. One can normally identify some psychological factors that should be taken into account in order to limit the degree to which hostility escalates. The history of previous violence may guide the peacekeeper in determining how to limit a repeat of the escalation. If the experiences indicate that local outbursts of violence have a tendency to be of short duration and the peacekeepers are not affected, responses other than an immediate reciprocation of violence, should be considered. A feeling of being unknowledgeable about the consequences, an inability to escape, or a sense of being cornered, are psychological factors that may escalate a hostile act to an uncontrollable level. (David Last, 1995) The peacekeeper may become the trigger that inadvertently initiates a local act of violence. Lessons learned from several peacekeeping operations show that unprofessional behavior had been the igniting spark for some tragic events. The accidental or careless display of weapons at checkpoints have in some cases created a physical and psychological climate which quickly escalated into a deadly use of force with resulting fatalities.

Truly, one has to accept that the environment and the conditions at a checkpoint are the essence of most peacekeeping operations. The soldier makes spot checks on personnel and vehicles entering or exiting a controlled area and normally there are no problems. On the other hand, the checkpoint itself may create a psychological tension. The problem arises when their is a general tension in the mission area, and particularly when parties attempt to enter a controlled area bringing contraband or other forbidden material through the checkpoint. Under these conditions there might be one or several psychological factors that determine the course of events. General frustration over the United Nations may lead to aggressive behavior when passing the checkpoint and when the checkpoint is considered as the physical manifestation of United Nations. Frustrated individuals may need to assist the "other" side by e.g. smuggling weapons where the checkpoint and its soldiers are the last physical obstacle on a long and dangerous journey. The misinterpretation of the situation and a lack of awareness of the consequences is another example where peaceful situations have escalated into the use of armed force. The physical appearance of the soldiers is likewise important. As a representative for an intervention force, although peaceful, a peacekeeper has an initial a psychological advantage over personnel passing the checkpoint. Tough-looking body language might be considered as psychologically aggressive and could be interpreted incorrectly under certain conditions. To keep drivers and passengers under gun point may cause unexpected aggression in some cases but in others may be the correct performance. The checkpoint can be considered as the location for a psychological message at the micro level and soldiers at all levels need to be more attentive to these circumstances.

Thus peacekeepers must be able to read not only signals and behaviors of confrontation, but also the psychological pattern of local history. All this has to be linked to his general awareness of the conflict and knowledge of the local causes of violence. Peacekeeping operations should always be underscored with the assumption that the approach for solving the conflict should be of a de-escalating nature instead of an armed solution. This is the essence of peacekeeping on the ground, as the solo and junior peacekeeper brings reality to the words of the UN Charter: Aarbitration, mediation, conciliation@ and AThe Pacific Settlement of Disputes@ (UN Charter, Chapter VI).



De-escalation is a process which applies to both macro and micro levels (Bett Fetherston. 1993). The macro level can correspond to the strategic level and micro level to where the peacekeepers encounter or interact with the parties. In general terms the de-escalation process may develop into five phases of activity:

- stop the hostilities;

- control the situation;

- create a culture of confidence;

- negotiate an assurance for cease-fire; and

- conciliation.

In theory the same should apply to the soldier on the ground but in practical terms it is more complicated. If the peacekeeper is the target for fire, he/she has generally four possibilities:

- use of armed force to put an end to the fire;

- call for attention by various communication means;

- simply wait until the fire has stopped; or

- escape

The same may apply for hostilities not directed towards the peacekeeper. The next phase is critical and assumes that the peacekeeper has the knowledge and tools to be used in controlling the situation.

Should he use physical power such as use of deadly force or expose himself using the psychological advantage of being a representative of the international community? In both cases it requires a psychological courage since the outcome is still unpredictable and may result in wounded or killed soldiers. If the peacekeeper has been successful in his attempts he has already gained some psychological benefits since the achievement is due to the peacekeeper's courageous and decisive interaction--probably also appreciated by the conflicting party. The achieved result should be utilized in the next two phases, creation of a positive and confident atmosphere and negotiation. The peacekeeper should take advantage of his recently gained success and use it as a psychological tool in the forthcoming negotiation.



Negotiation is the most common procedure within an operation in order to settle a dispute. Negotiations can be carried out from the highest level down to the soldier on the ground but mediation, arbitration and reconciliation frequently take place at the policy level. A dispute should almost always be down-played. It does not mean that substance should be ignored or neglected but rather that an issue should not be brought up to a level where the question may be considered as a matter of principle. Lessons learned show that a problem, in general, should be solved at the level it occurred. Negotiated settlements can only take place with the agreement of the local parties. Planning for negotiations is not too complex but requires some preparation, tact, and courtesy. If a peacekeeping unit and its soldiers have maintained a good collaboration and liaison with the local authorities, the negotiation should be a pleasant affair. If not, some more careful preparation needs to be made. United Nation Military Observers Handbook provide some useful advice. It might include a plan for the negotiation: what to discuss; what to achieve; who are the negotiators on the "other" side; who will take the notes; what kind of promises can be given; and follow-up activities, etc. However, regardless of previous friendship and good relations it is essential during the negotiation to maintain dignity and politeness and to remain respectful towards everyone. During the conduct of negotiation one has to recognize that both parties have a stake and a share in peaceful settlement of their dispute, but also that a successful outcome may not by itself represent the end to the dispute.

The psychological game can be intensive. To convince, to impress, and to threat are some of the methods used. The soldier on the ground will experience the same set of dynamics but perhaps in a less sophisticated way. The representatives from the conflicting party should be encouraged to start the negotiation and suggest constructive solutions. It is important and provides some advantages just to listen and not interrupt and only state the actual facts (supported by evidence) with no argumentation. The United Nations' point of view (facts only) should be stated and if there are differences these should be noted. If one of the parties expresses a negative view about either the United Nations, the opposing party's morals, politics, or methods, the peacekeeper=s response should be measured and restrained.

On the other hand it should be a clear policy to convince the "other" side about the validity of the mandate (agreement) and the solution it promotes. The venue and time for a negotiation also have some psychological aspects. The negotiators concerned should be in the right frame of mind and have the necessary time available. The venue should be where most appropriate and in a peaceful setting. Pleasantries should be exchanged and some food or refreshment should be available as appropriate. The representation has its own psychological importance but the peacekeeper team should neither be under- represented nor over-represented. To do the opposite will immediately create an unnecessary tension.



Confidence-building activities are probably the most important mechanism available to promote peaceful settlements and normal conditions. The activities encompass all levels of an operation, from the single soldier, his appearance and performance, to rebuilding of a country=s infrastructure. It aims to create trust, reconciliation and normal relations among the parties in the conflict as well as those concerned within an operation. At the local level, which mostly concerns the peacekeeper, confidence-building should be regarded as an activity to prevent violence. An active liaison, a friendly and overt relation where efforts to help and comfort those suffering from the emergency, are basic tools of these activities.

Although disputes and a tentative provocation or outburst of violence may occur, it is important to establish an air of confidence. The peacekeeper's appearance and behavior will in a very substantial way contribute to such development Consequently, liaison, collaboration and information are important issues. To provide logistics, support and technical assistance not as a permanent assistance but more as a temporary help, in order to show a good intention, also promote a favorable climate for improving relations. However, the basic elements of interpersonal communications are important: to make contacts, to talk to people, to say hello and to be concerned, are human behaviors we normally exercise very frequently at home. These same activities--getting to know people and addressing them by name--provides a psychological trust which can be used if an unexpected confrontation should arise. Under such a condition the possibility to call a soldier from the conflicting party by name is an advantage and from the psychological point of view it is difficult to maintain a hostile attitude when this occurs. Although the kind of making-contact attitude has improved considerably, much more should be done. All this is well known by personnel involved in peacekeeping, military observer or civilian police missions, humanitarian operations and other similar initiatives. However, to commence and maintain these conditions are essential and critical in sensitive operations that do not have the visible weight of the international community, or where the parties are unfavorable towards the United Nations presence.



The psychological aspects of a combat operation are stressful but unambiguous, and steps are taken to prepare soldiers for the confrontations of battle. However the psychological factors of peacekeeping should also be the concern of peacekeeping personnel, since these factors have an impact on the capacity of peacekeepers to be effective and the well-being of these soldiers on the ground. Peacekeepers must face the political and human complexities of the conflict, sometimes in an environment of threat or violence. Often the peaceful resolution o f the dispute at the local level will depend on the peacekeeper on the ground being able to apply the psychology of peacekeeping.



Mackinlay, J., & Chopra, J. (1992). Second Generation Multinational Operations. Washington Quarterly 14(3), 113-131.

Mackinlay, J., & Chopra, J. (1993). A Draft Concept of Second Generation Multinational Operations. Providence, RI: Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies.

Scott, John Paul. (1958) Aggression (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) p. 126. Cited by Last.

Bett Fetherston. (1993). Toward a Theory of UN Peacekeeping. Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, Peace Research Report Number 31, February. pp 60-61.

David N. Last. (1995). Theory, Doctrine and Practice of Conflict De-escalation in Peacekeeping Operations

Mohamed Sahnoun. (1996). Talk given at the UK based Catholic Institute of International Relations. October.

United Nations. (1995) United Nations Military Observers Handbook - First Draft (UN NY, Department of Peace-keeping Operation/Office of Planning and Support - Training Unit)

United Nations. (1995) United Nations Stress Management Booklet (UN NY, Department of Peace-keeping Operations/Office of Training and Support - Training Unit)




Part of this article has been included in:

Hårleman, Johnson and Sumit (1998) Report on United Nations Guard Contingent in Iraq, presented to Department of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations

Hårleman (1998). Civilian Peace Monitors - A Challenge for the Future. An article presented to ACCORD, South Africa.



© TFF & the author 2001  


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