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Is Being 'Partial to the Peace Agreement' the Same as 'Protecting the People'?

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Recent years have seen two important shifts in international attitudes towards military interventions for human rights and humanitarian purposes, especially among the leadership of the UN and Western nations. The traditional peacekeeping principle of “neutrality” has lost ground to “impartiality.” In addition, there is growing acceptance of an international “responsibility to protect” civilians threatened with grave human rights abuses. Both conceptual shifts represent a concern to make peacekeeping, especially UN peacekeeping, more assertive. But their relationship is not simple. The Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations’ (the “Brahimi Report”) first explanation of “impartiality” is in terms of a peace agreement to be upheld: “where one party to a peace agreement clearly and incontrovertibly is violating its terms, continued equal treatment of all parties by the United Nations can in the best case result in ineffectiveness and in the worst may amount to complicity with evil.”2 Later, however, impartiality is explained in more explicitly moral, human rights protection terms: “Such impartiality is not the same as neutrality or equal treatment of all parties... In some cases, local parties consist not of moral equals but of obvious aggressors and victims.” In such cases, impartiality means using force to “oppose obvious evil.”3 The easy shift between the language of mandates and peace terms and aggression and evil on the other – a feature of many discussions of impartiality, not just the Brahimi Report – implies that using force to support a peace agreement and using force to protect civilians are equivalent. I will argue that they are not equivalent, and in fact will often not even be compatible. 

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