United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG): A Turning Point in Civilian Policing?

By the end of the Cold War, United Nations Peacekeeping (UNPK) operations had entered a second generation. During the Cold War, UNPK had been largely military and “with the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, threats to peace have taken on a new character,” challenging the nature of peacekeeping. The United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) was deployed to Namibia in 1989, during the “transformation of the international system”, a year after “the new readiness of the United States and the Soviet Union to work together, [which] created a renewed demand for peacekeeping.” The revival of relations, in some way, reflected the nature of the mission of UNTAG. It too marked a revival of its own, in which UNPK attempted to engage “in multidimensional conflict after the demise of the Congo operation (ONUC) in 1964.” 

UNTAG established its position within UN peacekeeping history for its “political primary means and purpose”, which differed from the previous “military purpose” of peacekeeping missions. The mission was regarded to have been a success, “creating the conditions for ongoing political stability in Namibia.” However, to understand why UNTAG is a turning point in UN peacekeeping history it is important to explore the innovations within the mission itself and consider the ways in which UNTAG established vital peacekeeping concepts and mechanisms. In analyzing UNTAG and its position within UNPK history, Howard highlights the role of civilian policing as a “significant” factor in innovating vital peacekeeping strategies and mechanisms “that are still in use today.” Civilian policing or otherwise known as CIVPOL in UNTAG stood out because it “represented a challenging new type of peacekeeping.” 

Civilian policing was not new to UNPK and UNTAG was in no way the inaugural implementation of civilian policing in UNPK missions, being the fifth mission with a CIVPOL component and the first in the post-Cold War context. Before UNTAG, the scope of civilian policing within Cold War peacekeeping history was of modest size and had been carried out to various degrees of success amidst controversy and debate. However, it was the success of UNTAG which impacted and highlighted the potential of civilian policing, influencing “subsequent decisions to include CIVPOL components in peacekeeping operations.” UNTAG pioneered and spearheaded innovations by expanding the discipline of civilian policing, which found itself a revitalized role due to the success in UNTAG impacting future peacekeeping mandates. 

Under an experienced command, UNTAG was able to further the role of civilian policing in UNPK to much flexibility and creativity. It was due to the novelty and vagueness of what was to be expected of its tasks in UNTAG that many designs were given to CIVPOL, influencing the prominence of its future role. New policing divisions were created along with the mission in accordance with what the UN special representative and Police Advisor suggested were needed on the ground For instance,  “police training programmes” were established which looked to implement sustainable opportunities to maintain stability in Namibian policing after UNTAG’s departure. These innovations “would later be replicated in other parts of the world.” 

Howard demonstrates the impact of UNTAG’s CIVPOL management on modern-day peacekeeping, arguing it was because of such amendments to CIVPOL “thus, UN civilian policing as we know it today was born.” The influence of UNTAG’s CIVPOL in UNPK is supported by Chappell and Evans, who argues, “there is no doubt that their success in this mission was also an influential factor in deciding to use police, in preference to the military, in a growing range of peacekeeping activities during the 1990s.” In addition, they highlight the impact of UNTAG’s CIVPOL, suggesting that the “Namibian experience was in part responsible for the significant CIVPOL component” in future UN peacekeeping missions. For instance, United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC)’s mandate “reflected a new optimism and confidence” drawing from the newfound success of the role of CIVPOL that UNTAG achieved. UNTAG, therefore, impacted the role of UNPK in moving “well beyond its traditional role” and into an “expanded peacekeeping.”

UNTAG’s contributions to furthering the role of modern-day civilian policing in peacekeeping history were profound and unparalleled in expanding traditional peacekeeping. Yet, in order to recognize whether it really represented a turning point in UNPK history it is important to look at later UNPK missions and evaluate the impact of UNTAG’s innovations within the field of civilian policing in continuing an optimistic commitment towards sustaining and implementing CIVPOL.  

By Justine Fung 

Justine is a third-year Politics student in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London and a Working Group Member of the Defense & Diplomacy Policy Center at King’s Think Tank. Her main areas of interest are United Nations peacekeeping, intergovernmental strategic communications, campaign and electoral communications and political marketing.  

The featured image (top) is by United Nations Photo on Flickr. It is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).


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