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UN forces toughen up

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"Neutrality" and "impartiality" are principles that have undergirded the United Nations since its inception 60 years ago.

But a fundamental shift is under way within UN peacekeeping: the blue helmets are getting a stronger mandate, pushing the boundaries of impartiality in an effort to restore lost credibility.

After a string of failures in the 1990s in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia, the UN is beginning to employ more "robust peacekeeping" to protect civilians and go after so-called spoilers of peace agreements. The result is more UN troops on the ground than ever before. And a new report, funded by Congress and to be released Wednesday, calls for the creation of a rapid-reaction UN force.

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) currently has 17 missions around the world, including five launched over the past 22 months:

Liberia (September 2003), Ivory Coast (April 2004), Haiti (June 2004), Burundi (June 2004), and Sudan (March 2005). Some 67,000 troops are currently on duty, up 48 percent from a year ago.

And pressure is building to strengthen peacekeeping even further. While Wednesday's report, produced by the United States Institute for Peace, a Washington think tank funded by Congress, stops short of recommending a standing UN army, it says member states should be more willing to commit money and troops to UN missions.

"Member states must substantially increase the availability of capable, designated forces, properly trained and equipped, for rapid deployment to peace operations on a voluntary basis," the report says.

This shift comes after decades of a hands-off approach. From the creation of the UN in 1945, peacekeepers were mostly "observers" - unarmed, only sent with the consent of combatants, to stand between parties that had already agreed to a cease-fire. UN peacekeepers played important roles in the Suez Canal crisis (1957), the Belgian Congo (1960-64), and in Cyprus, where they were first deployed in 1964 and still patrol the divided island today.

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