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Last Updated: 01/18/2013
Ethical Issues in Peacekeeping Operations in Africa
Oluwaseun Bamidele

In this paper, Oluwaseun Bamidele initiates a dialogue on the fundamental issue of ethics in peacekeeping operations in Africa, particularly as it influences the adoption of a professional code of conduct. Theoretical concerns are treated in depth, various criticisms and arguments are raised, and each stage in the process of planning, implementing, and evaluating operations is considered.


In Africa today, we need ethical peacekeepers with critical attitude and a rational temper of mind for the social behavioral transformation of the society. In this paper, I intend to initiate a dialogue on this fundamental issue of ethics in peacekeeping operation in Africa; but this can only be an exploratory not a conclusive treatment of a concept that is so diverse and so susceptible to controversy. Specifically, I intend to explore the concept of ethics, with particular reference to certain professions (to which peacekeeping aspires); and highlight the rational and the ethical concern in peacekeeping operations in Africa. The immediate intention is not to legislate or prescribe a code of conduct, but rather to raise conscious awareness of the ethical implications of our involvement in peacekeeping operations activities as “professionals”. The ultimate intention is to improve operations since “knowledge is virtue” (i.e. knowledge produces excellent operations).


The story of peacekeeping in Africa after the Cold War is partly a story of trying to professionalize peace operations. Since peace operations are a reflection of international society’s assumptions and priorities about conflict management, an analysis of peacekeeping in Africa is also an analysis of the extent and depth of international engagement with armed conflicts on the continent.

African peacekeepers are at their best when working with internal conflict, youth violence, community clashes and other issues that can be dealt with at the individual level, as opposed to larger manifestations of organized violent conflict, which usually involve more heavily armed groups. African State officials are better suited to handle such situations related to the maintenance of law and order, as are some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who promote non-violent social change. Most of the NGOs, however, adopt peacekeeping operation methodologies in working with violent groups or parties. These approaches to peacekeeping operations include attempts to understand the human conditions in Africa, the causes of such conditions, and translating such understanding of how people function into principles for problem resolution. Like medical doctors, the work of peacekeepers involves diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. “Diagnosis” involves finding out what the problem is, “prognosis” requires a critical investigation of where the problem is now and where it is likely to degenerate to later, and “treatment” is the application of the right kind of intervention.

Some African peacekeepers have, however, used their positions to abuse vulnerable populations. They do this by patronizing prostitutes, engaging in human trafficking, and having indiscriminate sexual relations. This compounds the difficulties nations face. Such behavior is illegal and morally unacceptable and cannot be tolerated in peacekeeping operation in Africa.

Thus, this essay is to some degree a protest against the indifferent attitudes of intellectuals and professionals, the result of which I see in the paradox of life. It is also based on my personal observation that the more technical, developed, modernized or “civilized” the society becomes, the less caring and the more de-personalised, dehumanized and anti-social it also seems to become. Peacekeeping, after recognition as a profession with a solid academic and intellectual base; must also watch this attitude of benign neglect to ethics? By the nature of the operation of peacekeeping, can it leaves its ethical base unexamined, forgetting the Socratic dictum that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’? The primary role of peacekeeping operation is ethical education. The professionals of peacekeeping operation in Africa must be the champion in the process of assisting the vulnerable population to have a clear knowledge and understanding about the real meaning of life. In this essay, I try to establish that ethics are crucial to the profession of peacekeeping operations in Africa in terms of defining the relevant concepts being used, articulating the assumptions behind peacekeeping operations, and providing justifications for models in use. Specifically, I tried to analyze the concept of ethics and have examined possible models that can be used as its implementation strategy and suggest the justifications for the adoption of ethics in peacekeeping operations in Africa.

Ethics: A Conceptual Overview

In popular discourse in Africa, ethics is used synonymously with morals or morality: if an action or issue is described as ethical, it must be moral. There is obviously a close but complex interrelationship between ethics and morality such that the use of the word “ethics” quickly conjures up in our minds the word “morality”. The concept of ethics, philosophically speaking, however, goes beyond this. Ethics in philosophical discourse, for example, refers to talks, discussions, analyzes, judgments and discourses on morality and immorality; it is the description or analysis of that action, not the action itself. It is in that sense a meta-moral concept. What features or characteristics make an action moral, immoral or even amoral are appropriately discussed under “ethics”. But, it must be conceded that this is only a fine distinction that popular or common language most often fails to appreciate and professional talks so often tend to forget.

The word “morals” itself is also ambiguous, as it may refer to the mores and traditional operations of a group of people. Aspects of these, which may be thoroughly xenophobic, for example, may not be immoral per se, being mechanisms for group interest and solidarity. So also, we often loosely apply the word “moral” to such things as etiquette, social trends, and many matters pertaining to sex and sexuality. The purpose of ethical discourse is usually to disentangle the moral from the immoral, the moral, and the amoral, often resulting in a set of criteria for making more accurate moral judgments.

Most importantly for us here, ethics is a word that is commonly used to describe principles of belief and action and codes of conduct. These sets of principles rule and regulate human actions within a formal or professional context. While such principles and codes may have moral undertones or intentions, they may not necessarily be moral and may even be patently immoral. Professional ethics and codes of conduct belong to this category. They are regular features of professional discourse; but they do not necessarily advocate or refer to the morality of the group or individual, as we shall soon see. Peacekeepers are members of this professional circuit. Hence, our need to explore the concept of professional ethics in peacekeeping operations in Africa.

Professional Ethics and Morality

The origins of a code of conduct in what came later to be designated as professionalism date back at least as far as the Hippocratic Oath in the 5th century BC, which the disciples of Hippocrates, the father of ancient medicine, used to take on their graduation. Medical practitioners continue to take the oath today, asserting that the practice of medicine is predicated upon the saving and preservation of life and keeping good relationship with patients, not the contrary. That is patently moral; but not so, or not exactly so, with the professional ethics that metamorphosed from it. In fact, the idea or concept of profession originated from the ancient Roman Societas (guilds), which were associations of practitioners in the same occupation, sworn to preserve their monopolies and defend their corporate interests against non-members. They developed codes of operation and conduct that bound guild members together against competitors or, at times, the public at large.

On the other hand, it is a plausible conjecture to say that a code of ethics became a feature of the guilds and later professions precisely in order to moderate their monopolistic and protectionist excesses and make them somewhat morally accountable to other group interests. This is particularly the case with the so-called “service-oriented” or “helping” professions such as social welfare, peacemaking, humanitarian services, and of course, peacekeeping. But it is also the case that these may be regarded as amoral, or even arguably, immoral, as such a code of conduct provides a self-serving image of professional expertise and competence, and, by extension, the protection of individual and corporate interests.

Also disquieting is that many professions in the pre-service and peacekeeping operations concentrate more on the amoral/non-moral aspects such as technical competence, proficiency and service delivery efficiency, as opposed to explicitly moral concerns.

Political powers, satisfied in the image of professionalism put forward in a given organization’s code of conduct, may then enact laws that vest the control of other group member in the peacekeeping education/field and prohibit the practice of the profession by those who have not passed through its laid-down training education or who do not practice in conformity with stipulated techniques.

And most importantly, most of the so called “helping professions” take decisions on behalf of the clients, and impose on them such decisions at times without due consultation or involvement in the process. Hence, Robert Carlson (in Brockett 1988) concludes:

Code[s] of Ethics and their concomitant professional[s], it would seem, are more oriented towards narrowness, profiteering and totalitarianism than toward enlightenment, client protection and democracy. Associated with such codes are politically motivated ‘Professional Ethics’, professional monopoly, centralized control through licensure and re-licensure, a concentration of power in the hands of elitist and politically-oriented professional[s] who control [a] majority of the practitioners and increase dependency upon the profession by the public.

Professional ethics had earlier been cynically characterized by Ivan Illich (1973) as:

Rhetorical facades of public service erected to preserve and enhance a profession’s independence and monopolistic control over an area of social interaction.

All these reinforce the point I have been making that what is “ethical” may not necessarily be “moral” just as what is legal may not always be ethical and many professional ethics may well be self-serving or more concerned with technical competence and efficiency in their operations. Professions do not usually regard themselves as moral institutions or keepers of their members’ moral consciences.

Peacekeeping Operations and a Code of Ethics

With the above criticisms of professional codes of ethics, should peacekeeping operations in Africa still struggle to be accepted as a profession? Or, of more direct concern here, does it really need a code of ethical conduct or principles of good practice?

Without intending to get sucked into the thick of these criticisms, one may observe that the battle really rages around ideological beliefs and commitments. The pragmatists/utilitarians who first advocated a set of principles for good peacekeeping operations were simply saying that the peacekeepers must take all necessary steps to see that the parties come out of the dialogue/ meeting situations with concrete behavioral changes for the sake of which they converged in the dialogue session in the first instance, that is, that they have value for their interests, needs and positions. On the other hand, those who denounce the principles as a narrowing and reductionist distortion of the true aim of peacekeeping education are merely reiterating the idealist and generalist ideological perspective (Paterson 1979), that peacekeeping should be a liberation of people, allowing them to follow whatever cultural direction they like, not an equivalent of the people with professional skills. In fact, according to one of the exponents of this, ‘peacekeeping more accurately defined begins where professional education leaves off’ (Lindeman, 1961).

So, the question still is: does peacekeeping need a set of guidelines for good operation? If so, what are the justifications? And what form should the guidelines take? Before answering these questions, it should be noted that ‘ethics’ is being used here in the broad trans-moral sense of norms and values that we have defined above, because there is no empirical or other credible evidence of any type that peacekeeping education workers are any more or less moral in their activities than any other group of professionals. Similarly, we may wish to use the phrase ‘good practice’, in which the concept of ‘good’ covers both moral and non-moral values. As an example, a good peacekeeper is one who carries out his/her practices efficiently and effectively and achieves desired/desirable results. We would, of course, also expect that that peacekeeper is at the same time a good citizen (though not necessarily a super-or hyper-moral individual): kind, considerate, acting with adequate regard for other people’s needs. Social workers are, first and foremost, committed to people, their wellbeing, and to the enhancement of quality of life. In other words, the goal of peacekeeping is to help people in “difficult circumstances” overcome their social problems. A problem cannot be solved, however, unless it is properly understood.

Does the practice of peacekeeping then need a code of operation? Yes, I would think it does, provided the guidelines for good operation are not regarded as normative ideals or monolithic ones (i.e. applicable in all circumstances and under all conditions). Rather, they should be regarded as suggestions and basic rules for rational and flexible application. There is need for such a code by the very nature of peacekeeping operations in African countries. Such operations are characterized by a diversity of programmes, sponsors, actors (each with his own motives), clientele, settings, procedures, and techniques. To compound the situations, there are presently, in most African states, an amalgam of actors, humanitarian personnel, intergovernmental, governmental and non-governmental actors dictated in many cases by motives which are an unstable mixture of the ideal/humanitarian and the materialistic/commercial. Again, most of them operate outside of the control of the African Peacekeeping Missions/United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, which have not been able to either evolve appropriate policies to monitor their practices or muster enough resources to supervise them. Thus, much is left to the private conscience and sense of social responsibility of the individual peacekeeping operators, with the relative freedom and flexibility that should characterize the field; anything goes!

Again peacekeeping practice is, by nature and by reputation, a field of activities dedicated to the elevation of the disadvantaged, the underprivileged, the unserved and underserved, the wretched of the earth, the internally displaced persons, the refugees, the poor, the oppressed, the neglected and the helpless of society. A peacekeeping operation or activity is contractual by nature; the peacekeeper is contracted, often for a fee, to achieve at least some of the operation’s objectives.

In all of this, it is obvious that there is a mal-distribution of power between the sponsoring organizations and peacekeepers and the people they “serve”, between those who have and those who have not, with the latter of course in a vulnerable position and open to abuse and manipulation by unscrupulous peacekeepers. In addition to this, is the fact that the field of peacekeeping bristles with controversies and ethical dilemmas, with the dividing lines between right and wrong, the ethical and the unethical, the very faint and the vague on many issues. As Brockett (1988) in the preface to his edited book, has remarked: “As a field characterized by extreme diversity in both operation and ideology, peacekeeping often serves as a stage for controversy and moral conflict”.

The field of Peacekeeping, in the form that we practice it today, is relatively new in the developing countries, especially in Africa. While many peacekeepers may be skeptical or even cynical about the need for a code or some principles of peacekeeping operation in their communities (experienced and entrenched as they are already in the defense of individual’s rights, freedom and behavior), in the cultural context of developing states, such codes of good operation may be a great assistance in guiding the steady development of the profession, and in moderating the relationship between the peacekeeping professionals and other concerned operators. Many a novice peacekeeper in the field in Africa will welcome some guidance and direction as to how the field operates, and what its hidden pitfalls and traps are. Others may also use the guidelines to monitor their own interpretations and performances. While not assuming a super-moral stance, we cannot afford to adopt the principle of emptor caveat.

Points of Ethical Concern in Peacekeeping Practices/Operations

Having argued above that peacekeeping operation in African countries, at least in the developing world, should welcome some ethical codes or principles of good operation, let us now look at the points of contact between it (in theory and operation) and morality. The peacekeeping profession in Africa states may place a premium on technical efficiency and make morality a poor or distant cousin but the helping professions like social welfare, social service and humanitarian service cannot afford that luxury. Their inter-connection with morality is more directly on the surface in that they not only involve deeper interpersonal contacts and relationships, they also seek to modify the personality of that other person. Morality is deeply ingrained in the very conception of their operation.

Take education for example: what makes education acceptable (and not indoctrination, mesmerism, or hypnotism) is not the mere efficiency of influencing the behavior, attitude, outlook and personality of the clients, but rather that of doing so morally, i.e. in a morally acceptable manner. What makes indoctrination and its sister concepts unacceptable is the immoral method of achieving the influence or the change that they seek to produce in the people. Peacekeeping operations in Africa belong to the concept of humanitarian service, and therefore, shares with it this moral coloration and involvement – perhaps, in an even more acute form. Peacekeeping is for vulnerable groups (however defined) and whoever is engaged in it is necessarily operating in a sensitive environment. The clientele being disputants may not brook moral obtuseness or insensitivity in their dialogue relationship. What then are the moral contact points in the practice of Peacekeeping? In the typical operation for Peacekeeping in Africa, there are usually steps to follow such as conceptualization; design and planning; consent and publicity; implementation proper; and evaluation/monitoring.

There may be more (or less) steps; depending upon the particular type of peacekeeping operation that is involved; and there may also be modification(s) in the logical or chronological occurrence of the steps. Let us now turn to the ethical issues that arise from each of them, apart from the efficiency and economy with which each has to be carried out and from each step contributes to the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire operation. Neither the cataloguing nor the treatment of the points can be regarded as exclusive, given the wide variety of operations that come under the concept and operation of peacekeeping in Africa.


The very first in any peacekeeping operation is determining what operation to plan for. Whether one is working in one’s area of professional expertise or not, the type of operation that one chooses to mount is much influenced by one’s personal “philosophical outlook”, or rather by one’s pre-conceptions and prejudices and of course, interest. It is often assumed that those who are engaged in peacekeeping missions “for the right reason” must be people concerned with mankind, that is, those who share the lot of the disadvantaged and underprivileged, who are moved to help other people to realize the best in them, and who have a deep feeling for justice, equality, freedom and fairness. That may be true, but it is also true that peacekeeping operations are not always for the downtrodden. A peacekeeping operation in Africa may be designed for the honing of skills and expertise among the elite and the talented, for enhanced productivity. A peacekeeper in Africa may prefer to operate at that level than grovel with the wretched of the earth.

In other words, one can be in the peacekeeping practice or operation with idealistic, altruistic, pragmatic, materialistic, or even for sadistic motives. It is ethical to examine oneself (gnothi sauton ‘Know thyself’, as the ancient Greeks would counsel), and to know, understand and express clearly the springs of one’s actions and attitudes. So often, especially with peacekeepers, the overwhelming consideration is that of financial returns; the determining factor or consideration is as to what type of operation will make their ‘practice’ a success; and what ‘subject’, in case of rehabilitation classes, for example, will be heavily patronized, etc. Such considerations have led to the proliferation of operations in fields that could easily yield financial returns such as rehabilitation and counseling courses. The real motives for mounting peacekeeping operations will inevitably surface over time, however cleverly they may be disguised.

Design and Planning

The success or failure of any peacekeeping practice or operation in Africa starts with design and planning. Whether one is conducting a needs assessment survey to design an operation or joining the bandwagon of an already successful operation in the field, there are ethical considerations at every step. The question of why or to whose advantage (cui bono?) is always present; the questions of transparency, honesty and conscientiousness are not always far from the surface. Take for example, the commonly recommended conduct of a “needs assessment survey” (NAS). It looks reasonable and technically and politically correct, but the exercise bristles with ethical consideration. How is the NAS being conducted: scientifically (objectively), or slanted to prove a point or confirm a pre-conceived or pre-determined set of pre-conceived beliefs and actions? From the “findings” of such a NAS, a set of operations may be ‘justified’ but how objectively neutral can such a justification be? In the very fact that “facts” have to be selected as evidence, there is already a loophole for the interplay of assumptions and of pre-conceptions. The fact that the search is for the deficit (the needs!) in the group’s repertoire of knowledge and skills also introduces another ethical point. And finally, who determines what? How far is the surveyed group involved in determining their owna deficits? How much of the deficit is a product of the surveyor’s interpretation? Even when we have come up with a “good and relevant” operation, what authority have we to change or seek to change other people’s lives and personalities, what moral authority do we have and how was it derived? How are we sure of the superiority of the new change to the old? How are we sure we are doing the correct thing and doing so in the correct way? These are questions that conscientious peacekeepers and operators must be asking without creating them into a block against positive action to change an iniquitous situation.

When it comes to planning, there is another set of ethical questions. Once a set of objectives has been enunciated, how faithfully are they allowed to guide operations? What resources will be needed to realize the objectives? How will the content, duration and quality of offering be affected by the quantity of resources actually available or that can be generated from the mission field? Again, what should be the determining factor for the operation to be mounted: the amount of fees that participants can pay or the absolute requirements of a quality operation? Or some balance between both? Is it justifiable to make the rich pay more for the same operation that is offered at lesser cost to the poor; or to offset the loss in one operation with the surplus profit from another? Finally, how are the peacekeepers to be selected? By criteria of absolute qualification and competence or of acquaintance and friendship, or the basis of who is ready to offer services at the voluntary rate? These are options, each with its own relative merits and disadvantages. All decisions, however minor, are products of such considerations, whether consciously articulated or better articulated and consciously resolved than otherwise.

Implementation Strategies

This is still in the area of planning, but beyond the stage of theoretical planning. It is the stage of putting together what has been planned, such as drawing up an operation schedule, empanelling peacekeepers, allocating roles and responsibilities and other welfare arrangements and such other details. Conscious attention to such details (or its opposite) can make great difference to the success (or failure) of the actual implementation. Each of them also involves decisions between options that may not rest on mechanical or arithmetical calculations alone. Above all, they involve interpersonal relationship and actions that are fraught with moral-ethics.

Proper Implementation

Implementation involves the deployment of human resources and seeing how long-planned events now unfold and materialize. This is the coalface action point, which is usually the main or sole focus of evaluation and judgment. With some room for chance, luck or coincidence, this stage usually manifests the solidity, thoroughness and adequacy of the behind-the-scene preplanning. At the same time, it is a stage which involves a lot of human interaction and therefore susceptible to ethical problems.

Monitoring the gradual unfolding of events can dictate decisions to be made on the spur of the moment and supervising implementation of roles and duties by assistants will involve a lot of ethical decisions. Interaction with the clients is also important for the organizer, e.g. to be in the best of one’s good manners and pleasantness, which must not just be a mere ‘put-on’ as this can be quickly detected. Finally, it is a stage of tension and anxiety during which stupid mistakes can be made simply out of the pressure. Eventually the most durable success of an operation may consist in the friendship and acquaintance that one has been able to make in the process of operation implementation.

Monitoring and Evaluation

When all plans have been made and planned strategies acted out, the final crux is the satisfaction of the vulnerable, howsoever measured, which in turn may constitute the lasting satisfaction of the organizers. Evaluation is not necessarily the last chronological stage of operation implementation. In fact, it should start with the conception and design of operations as needs assessment and diagnosis, progress with planning and implementation as monitoring or formative evaluation and end all the stages as summative evaluation. It is a continuous stage with its continuous ethical issues. Such issues include the neutrality and objectivity of evaluation. Even though evaluation is traditionally defined as the collection, organization and processing of information for decision-making, the question is: can the exercise ever be value-neutral? Who should evaluate? How should evaluation be conducted, internally or externally, or both? What are the merits and demerits of each option? What about the collection and organization of data and the interpretation of ‘findings’? Finally, what use is made of the results of the evaluation? Who needs the feedback and what type: the sponsor, the organizer, the team, or the institution? What about the participants (i.e. the vulnerable), are they just the “guinea pigs” and the objects of evaluation? Should they not also benefit from the results? Answering these questions involves reasoning and justifiability because no one answer can be the only or the absolutely correct answer; yet one would not wish to state that they depend merely only on taste, whims and caprices, or that each is as good as any other.


With the galaxy of ethical issues raised both in the theoretical and in the practical sections of this essay, it should be apparent that the issue of ethics cannot be easily pushed aside, whether it is called “professional ethics” or a “code of good conduct” or a “professional code” or “principle of good practice”. What may be objectionable is the imposition of a universal code as the only criterion of measurement. But certainly needed is a conscious awareness of these ethical issues that can occur in the operation and in the sensitization of one’s moral consciousness toward them. The conduct of peacekeeping operations in Africa cannot be a matter of routine or a mindless application of received rules and regulations. Peacekeeping operations in African States vary widely in many aspects; including the levels of vulnerable sensitivity and levels of their impeachment on the moral domain.

Thus, a rigid prescription cannot and should not be made for all situations. Their variety of situation also calls for a variety of creative responses. Finally, the fact that it is the disputants who are at the receiving end and therefore most likely to be morally aware, must put the peacekeeping experts and organizers at their best ethically. Peacemaking or conflict resolution, like its ‘grandfather’, peacekeeping, is a thoroughly morally imbued enterprise; those who are in it cannot afford to be morally obtuse or insensitive. As they plan, implement, and evaluate their practices, they must always keep the ethical question in mind.


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Oluwaseun Bamidele is an Independent Researcher, Senior Civic Education Tutor and Head of Civic Education Unit at the Department of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Faith Academy, Canaanland, Ota, Ogun State, Nigeria. He focuses on Governance, Society and Values, Peace and Conflict, and his main research interests are the Conflict Analysis, Civic/Peace Education, Interfaith Dialogue, Conflict Resolution and Political Science.