As with the USG’s interpolation of the term “torture,” I am worried about the use of the term “peacekeeper” at foot in the war of words between Georgia and Russia, a misleading use with which the media should try not to be complicit.

A United Nations peacekeeping mission, UNOMIG, has been in place in Georgia since 1993, but as of this year it included only 149 total uniformed personnel, including 134 military observers and 15 police, these hailing from 31 countries besides Russia. (The UN Secretariat’s decision to allow Russia, a country with an arguable stake in the conflict, to contribute troops to what should have been perceived as a “neutral” mission, should be critically evaluated in light of recent events.) The UNOMIG mission mandate is here.

Since the conflict re-ignited this week, the Russian “peacekeepers” in S. Ossetia have been continually evoked by diplomats and the media, but are they actually members of UNOMIG at all? Russia’s involvement in the region also includes a different, much larger force, not exactly following standard UN rules of engagement for peace missions. Vladimir Socor of Eurasia Daily Monitor has been following developments in the region, where Georgia has long scoffed at Russia’s claims to be “peacekeeping”: he characterized the international presence in Georgia this way in May:

“UNOMIG with its 133 unarmed military observers is in no sense a peacekeeping operation. Rather, it is a passive bystander to Russia’s now 3,000-strong, heavily armed “peacekeeping” contingent.

Socor has got it backwards, though: UNOMIG is the definition of a peacekeeping mission – lightly armed observers whose job is to monitor a ceasefire, remain neutral, fire only in self-defense. If he’s correct about the nature of the so-called Russian “peacekeepers” in Georgia prior to August 8th, it’s disingenuous to refer to these as peacekeepers at all. Even moreso is Russia’s latest assertion that troops entering Georgia, which is now in a formal state of war with Russia, are also “peacekeepers.” In fact, there is no state of peace between the two countries now; these are military personnel engaging in armed combat, which is the very opposite of the concept of a peacekeeper.

All of this is not just academic: it has an important legal bearing on the nature of the armed conflict and the responsibilities of the parties. From Human Rights Watch:

“Peacekeepers, who are partaking in a peacekeeping mission in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, are not parties to the conflict and for the purposes of international humanitarian law are treated as civilians and are protected from being objects of attacks… However, peacekeepers are required to maintain neutrality and not become a party to the conflict… If Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia act in a manner that is not neutral and become a party to the conflict by taking a direct or active part in hostilities, they lose the protection afforded them as civilians… Peacekeepers who use their protected status to carry out attacks are acting perfidiously, which is a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”

In other words, if Georgia purposely targets peacekeepers associated with UNOMIG, it is considered a violation of the laws of war. Russian troops separate from UNOMIG and operating offensively, however, can be considered legitimate targets. And if Russia attempts to use peacekeeper status as a conceptual or tactical shield from behind which to launch attacks, it’s considered perfidy under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, to which both Russia and Georgia are signatories.

So far the shield, of course, is more rhetorical than tactical, for Georgia isn’t fooled. Neither should commentators be. In particular, the global media should avoid using the term “peacekeeper” to refer to Russian armed forces that have been deployed within Georgia since August 8th; and it should actively seek to clarify the distinction between neutral UN missions and military incursions by contiguous states in seccessionst conflicts. Conceptual confusion is the enemy of genuine peacekeeping forces everywhere.