Crisis management: Role of observers in UN Peachkeeping Missions

--Col. Md. Shah Jahan Molla (Retd)

12. Molla 1

The United Nations (UN) took up its first peace initiative using the military personnel in the year 1948 in the form of supervising the truce following the Arab Israeli War (United Nations Truce Supervision Organization-UNTSO). Since then as on today number of missions was launched in the different part of the world to uphold the mandate of the missions.

A peacekeeping mission comprises the military contingents and the Observers and some of the missions have only observers. The contingents are equipped with required weapon, equipment and logistics whereas the Observers are not. The Observers remain self-contained and they are not logistically supported.

The UN military Observers in the mission area often come across hostile situations arising from the cease-fire violation, atrocities, ethnic clashes etc. Such situation mostly prevails in the civil war scenarios leading to unpredictably dangerous and life threatening events. It is believed that the Military Observers are adequately trained and generally capable of managing the crisis since they are carefully selected from the professional officers of different Armed Forces of the world.

The crises are multi-dimensional and their solutions are not also identical. Therefore during crises, the Observers are to use their wit and ingenuity basing on the experience and professional ability. Failing to foresee and assess the crisis, the Observers’ group may step into serious danger ending up in life-threatening or hostage taking situations. Therefore understanding of military situations by the Military Observers and their actions there in are of great importance for the implementation of UN mandate and for their own safety as well.

Impediments to the Observers’ assignment are directly related to the success or failure of the UN peace making effort. Since 1988 Bangladeshi military personnel are assigned with the peacekeeping task and had earned commendations in different missions. In the coming days more Observers are likely to be deployed who needs to be conversant with the hostile situations likely to be faced by them. Understanding of the potential dangers would allow them to take appropriate measures at the correct moment. The scope of this topic has been kept limited to the crisis management by the Military Observers in overt conflict scenarios.

The military observers

Generally, Peacekeepers function under a Mission Headquarters (HQ) through its Political, Military and Administrative wing. The Military Observers represent the Military wing to oversee the military problems that work in a group of 4-9 observers (known as Team) at a given area of responsibility. The Team members are drawn from different nationals as accepted by the host nation/conflicting parties signing the mandate. The mandate guarantees the safety, security and the freedom of movement of the UN personnel in their area of responsibility.

The UN lays special emphasis on safety and the security of the Observers. The Observers are guided by the strict rules of engagement (not to carry and use weapons) and their main weapon is the UN insignia on a blue flag or white car. The tasks assigned to them are to monitor, report cease-fire violation and in some cases to assist humanitarian agencies. Normally patrols are sent out from a Team or HQ comprising minimum two Observers, interpreter and in some cases liaison officer from the warring groups. Standby patrols are kept ready at the HQ/Team site to meet contingencies. All the assignments of the observers are tasked, monitored and supervised from the HQ through staff officers.

Limitations of the observers

The Observers work in an unfamiliar territory in an alien culture and the members in a Team work with colleagues who are not personally or culturally harmonious and they may have varying degrees of peacekeeping experience or no experience at all. Being away from the home, family and national culture, the Observers may suffer from psycho-socio isolations. The long duration of one’s stay without break or leave may be stressful. The living condition may be uncomfortable especially when deployed in a rural area in unfriendly climate. Some missions, particularly with overt conflict and those involving disaster reliefs, have a very high potential for exposure to mass death, injury, suffering and bereavement of the survivors. The peacekeepers may be exposed to extreme atrocities from which they are prohibited to intervene.

The Observers adherence to the strict rules of engagement and the assurance of security guarantee from the host parties cannot always be ensured due to various reasons. The prevailing situation bars the Observers to enjoy such rights and privileges leaving scope to be killed or taken as hostages. That means they generally rely solely on common sense, diplomacy and moral authority symbolized by their blue helmets and white vehicles. The reality of those occurrences especially hostage situations must be explained beforehand to avoid panic during the crises. Casualties from hostile action may cause battle fatigue and the Observers may resort to negative stress behavior. This kind of behavior could lead to disregard of security orders which ultimately may expose the peacekeeper and his colleagues to unnecessary catastrophe.

Potential crises

Common crisis begins with the sudden violation of cease-fire agreement in the form of all-out hostility. In that case peacekeepers enjoy some reaction time and flexibility for the timely assessment of the situation and execution of a deliberate relocation. Even then some of the Teams may not be able to relocate as per plan due to unforeseen roadblock and encirclement by the rival groups. In isolation there may be hostility in a particular area or region where enough indications will seldom be available. The regional, ethnic or religious leaders mostly dominate such gray areas who may not have signed the UN mandate and their personality clash springs hostility within no time. The Observers are likely to be trapped in such crises having no reaction time. There may be small groups operating in a particular area who averted from any one of the parties would make effort to create chaos and confusion. Their main instrument would be restricting the freedom of movement or harassing the UN personnel in quest of money, military uniform, optical and communication equipment etc. They are very swift to act and retreat before being intercepted by the authorized security forces supporting UN mandate. Such dissident groups are often utilized by either of the groups to defame or accuse each other for the violation of cease-fire.

In a mission area the general discipline of the combatants are very poor since they don’t represent the conventional army. The conscripts serve the government under compulsion and morally not willing to fight against their own men. If the fighting men don’t find righteousness of the cause for what they are fighting are reasoned to be hackneyed. Such ill-disciplined combatants do not care for the rules and sub rules of the UN mandate. In most of the cases the rules are interpreted as per their convenience that causes serious impediment to the UN activities in the form of restricting freedom of movement and life threatening attempts etc.


There may be problems initiated by the small group leaders taking the advantage of disconcerted command or disjointed chain of command. They prefer to be in the directed net of the central leadership, which is probably in exile, and are not capable of imposing direct command. Their views on UN activities are not uniform that makes the Observers’ assignment difficult. At time either of the parties attempts to use the UN car and personnel as shield against the rivals attack. The Observers are likely to be taken hostages along with other government or International personalities though they are not the main targets. They try to exploit the UN communication facilities and seek UN assistance for mediation. The UN personnel are likely to be under detention for indefinite period till such time their demands are fulfilled.

Crisis management

Proper understanding of the nature of the mission, the causes of the conflict, the area, demography, is a prerequisite for a peacekeeper to know during pre deployment training and briefing. A close liaison with the local people and the conflicting groups brings the UN Observers nearer to them that gives dividend at the time of crises. Respect shown to the local custom and the religion is always reciprocated through good hospitality and mutual confidence. A commuted friend in need will always extend his hand during a crisis in the form of providing food; shelter and safe escape route.

The Observers must maintain a good link with the warring parties but neutrality must not be compromised. If misunderstood by either of the parties the Observers’ life will always be at stake. The Observers’ familiarity and good friendship may generate over enthusiasm that must be avoided. When hostility springs, a projectile doesn’t care a friend or foe. In one of the missions an Austrian Lieutenant Colonel was killed in crossfire of the rival groups to whom he was well known and friendly, impregnated by the friendship he went to negotiate the rivalry ignoring the clear instructions from the mission HQ. It may be mentioned here that, it was the last day of his tour of duty in the mission area.

Tactfulness and professional skill combined with past experience enables an Observer to read and manage a crisis at the appropriate time. Physical, cognitive and emotional energy needs to be conserved to cope with the stress. Nervousness of any one of the team members may put the whole team into more danger in a threatening situation.

Local interpreters support most of the Observer teams. Team members must be aware of his activities and the translation he is making. The interpreter’s previous occupation and activities vis-à-vis his role in the civil war may contribute positively in teamwork or it may be other way round. In one of the missions wherever a particular interpreter (a former intelligence officer of Russian Army) accompanied the team life threatening situations used to occur and Observers had to make their way out by diplomacy and tactfulness. Recently unknown-armed groups killed that interpreter along with other three mission members that indicated his negative role in his previous occupation.

Observer Teams are to have contingency plan if possible with proper rehearsal. HQ must equip the Observers with accurate, appropriate, sensitive, sincere and pragmatic information. A sound communication system and modern equipment always keeps the Observers and HQ well connected. Training in techniques of negotiating disputes in the context of the local culture must be added before deployment. Group cohesion is necessary to arrive at an explicit decision to face a crisis assertively. Aggressiveness will always be futile, the transport and equipment must be kept roadworthy, usable and a Team must be self sufficient logistically in terms of food, fuel etc. Patrol kit, emergency medicine, bulletproof jacket, satellite phone must be carried with the patrol that will raise the moral and ensure safety. Lucrative military items should not be exposed to the public that may allure them to acquire. Camera, binoculars or any other optical equipment to be used so carefully that doesn’t give them the idea that their activities are registered. In a number of cases, crisis initiated when the combatants accused the Observers for offensive use of optical instruments.

Interview and the question technique if not conducted properly there may be misunderstanding between the Observers and the interlocutor that may ultimately be over blown during a crisis. There is no alternative to training. Special training on negotiation, liaison and mediation technique may be included as a routine of the Team activities. Last but not the least Team and individual discipline and moral values must be upheld.

Role played by the Bangladeshi observers

For more than a decade Bangladesh had been contributing Observer Teams and contingents in different missions. The countries first participation was in Iraq-Iran border that was an Observer mission (UNIMOG). Since then Bangladeshi Observers are making positive contribution in different missions that is being praised at home and abroad. The reasons for Bangladeshi Observers success were mainly for their discipline, competency and national pride. Major Abdur Rahman (now serving Major General) was a pioneer observer to manage a crisis in the Iraq-Iran border whose initiative effectively sealed the possibility of escalation of war. From my own experience I would like to cite two incidents pertinent to the scope of this paper. In Tajikistan, the Russian Border Forces (RBF) guard the Tajik-Afgan border on contract basis in favor of the government. Once the arrest of a regional opposition leader by the RBF created a volatile situation in the whole country. There were the possibility of all out hostility with the RBF and riot among the ethnic groups. Major Ziaur Rahman, the only observer present in the Team site (others remained in another Team site on resupply mission whose return became uncertain due to roadblock) timely intervened and mediated the incident. In another incident, UNMOT (United Nations Missions of Observers in Tajikistan) patrol was detained by the government forces with the intention of using the UN personnel and white car with blue flag as a shield during an attack against the Oppositions.

The Observers and the interpreter were tortured, humiliated, threatened to be killed and finally compelled to move ahead of the attacking column. The patrol leader Commander Shawkat Imran took a bold decision to drive faster to enter into the opposition held territory and ultimately succeeded to achieve a clean break in spite of the risk of crossfire and minefield. On reaching to the desired location the danger was not over as the opposition leaders (Muslim extremists) did not believe them and they were arrested. Later, Commander Imran convinced the leaders (Bangladeshi goodwill and Imrans religion worked well) and they were escorted to the next Team site through a safe passage through canyon. There are many more incidents related to Bangladeshi Observers crisis management that all are not possible to ink in this paper. However those may be useful as a case study for discussion in the Peacekeeping Training Centre if possible in the presence of the observers concerned.


The military Observer serves the UN mission as a representative of the UN Secretary General in a particular conflict area. In a foreign country and in a group of multinational and multi-cultural environment the Observers are vouched together for peace making effort. The commitments to the objective and the mandate of the mission cannot dictate a peace unless Observers’ whole-hearted effort combining discipline, national pride and professionalism are put in. In a life threatening moment a cohesive Team may overcome the crises through ingenuity, experience and strong moral courage with the spirit of establishing peace armed by the blue helmet and flag.



1.         United Nations Stress Management Booklet Published by Department of Peacekeeping Operations, New York.

2.         Article written by Major General Syeed Ahmed, BP awc, psc on Nations Training Curriculum and Regional Cooperation for Training Peacekeepers of third world countries, Bangladesh Army Journal, 26th issue December 1997.

3.         Discussion with Commander Shawkat Imran, psc, Bangladesh Navy and Captain Hans Schalk, Austrian Army, Observer in UNMOT.

4.         Discussion with Major Ziaur Rahman, East Bengal, Bangladesh Army, Observer in UNMOT.

5.         Discussion with Ms Kiki Shiotani Desk Officer, UN HQ, Department of Peacekeeping Operation.

About the Author

Colonel Md Shah Jahan Molla, psc was commissioned from Bangladesh Military Academy on 25 December 1977 in East Bengal (Infantry) Regiment. He was holding Regimental, command and staff responsibilities in different capacities. Colonel Shah Jahan Molla was an instructor and staff in the Bangladesh Military Academy. He graduated from Defense Services Command and Staff College Mirpur in 1987. The author was the head of Bangladesh Contingent in United Nations Missions of Observers in Tajikistan (UNMOT), and UNMEE ( Ethiopia – Eritrea). He was a freedom fighter as a member of Gano Bahini during the War of Liberation 1971. Presently he is engaged in Real Estate Business. He is a regular writer in national Dailies, Journals etc. His three books were published so far.