Blue Helmet Bureaucrats: UN Peacekeeping Missions and the Formation of the Post-Colonial International Order, 1956-1971

  • Margot Tudor

Student thesis: Unknown


This thesis examines the legacies of colonialism in the history of United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations during the period of decolonisation from 1956 (when the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) responded to the Suez Crisis) to 1971 (when UN secretary- general, U Thant, left office). It focuses, in particular, on the first four armed UN missions – UNEF deployed in Egypt, Opération des Nations Unies in Congo (ONUC), United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA) in West Papua, and United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). Although these operations are often criticised for their colonial underpinnings, we lack a clear understanding of the ways in which colonial actors and ideas influenced peacekeeping on the ground. Drawing on a wide range of archival material, this thesis transcends UN headquarters-centred approaches that currently dominate the historiography of international organisations to access the role of mid-level peacekeeping bureaucrats in shaping the post-colonial international order. In doing so, this thesis traces unexplored continuities between late colonial administrations and the dramatic rise in peacekeeping missions from the late twentieth century onwards. Adopting a comparative approach, this thesis examines how the UN Secretariat redefined the principles of its involvement during the Suez Crisis and ‘invented’ peacekeeping missions to respond to growing demands emerging from Afro-Asian member-states. Member-states in the Afro-Asian bloc used the UN’s deliberative forums to amplify their criticism of colonial powers and draw attention to specific cases of post-colonial conflict resulting from decolonisation. They demanded that the UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld stabilise these territorial disputes before they engulfed neighbouring states or superpower nations. Seeking to demonstrate reactivity and adaptivity, the UN Secretariat leadership ‘invented’ multilateral peacekeeping missions as the foremost impartial, international, and specialist response to resolve complex political disputes. UN field-based peacekeeping staff, buoyed by technocratic rhetoric and a lack of precedent, used peacekeeping missions to experiment with governance and, later, repair the reputation of the UN following the controversy of the ONUC mission. As the organisation expanded its functions into increasingly complex conflict contexts, the mission leadership struggled to navigate evolving geopolitical interests, regional instability, and its own role in international security. Peacekeeping practices and staff cast post-colonial sovereignty as simultaneously inviolable and violable, depending on a state’s geopolitical position. UN field-based personnel played an integral role in the uneven distribution of post-colonial sovereign protections, such as non- interventionism, across the member-states of the UN General Assembly. Whilst peacekeepers reinforced the nation-state framework through their mandates and mediation efforts, they also paved the way for international interventions into post-colonial spaces under the guise of technical assistance and peacebuilding. From technicians to politicians, civil servants to mediators, the mid-level UN bureaucrats who managed peacekeeping missions made highly political decisions about the future of the host states’ territorial integrity, diplomatic alignment, and self-determination. The UN officials’ political allegiances, previous career experiences, and racial prejudices influenced their approach to each peacekeeping mandate and, also, shaped their colleagues’ strategies and decision-making in future missions. This thesis illuminates these patterns, continuities, and ruptures in peacekeeping practices during the first four armed missions and highlights the multifaceted functions that mid-level UN bureaucrats performed in the formation of the post-colonial international order.
Date of Award31 Dec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorRoisin Read (Supervisor) & Laure Humbert (Supervisor)


  • Humanitarianism
  • International Security
  • Decolonisation
  • Peacekeeping
  • United Nations

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