The Blue Beret

Representations and Symbolism of UN Peacekeepers’ Uniforms



How to Cite

Strungaru, S. (2023). The Blue Beret: Representations and Symbolism of UN Peacekeepers’ Uniforms. M/C Journal, 26(1).
Vol. 26 No. 1 (2023): uniform
Published 2023-03-14 — Updated on 2023-03-14

When we think of United Nations (UN) peacekeepers, the first image that is conjured in our mind is of an individual sporting a blue helmet or a blue beret (fig. 1). While simple and uncomplicated, these blue accessories represent an expression and an embodiment resembling that of a warrior, sent to bring peace to conflict-torn communities. UN peacekeeping first conceptually emerged in 1948 in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war that ensued following the United Kingdom’s relinquishing of its mandate over Palestine, and the proclamation of the State of Israel. “Forged in the crucible of practical diplomacy” (Rubinstein 16), unarmed military observers were deployed to Palestine to monitor the hostilities and mediate armistice agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbours. This operation, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), significantly exemplified the diplomatic and observational capabilities of military men, in line with the UN Charter’s objectives of international peace and security, setting henceforth a basic archetype for international peacekeeping. It was only in 1956, however, that peacekeeping formally emerged when armed UN forces deployed to Egypt to supervise the withdrawal of forces occupying the Suez Canal (informally known as the ‘Second Arab-Israeli’ war). Here, the formation of UN peacekeeping represented an international pacifying mechanism comprised of multiple third-party intermediaries whereby peaceful resolution would be achieved by transcending realist instincts of violence for political attainment in favour of applying a less-destructive liberal model of persuasion, compromise, and perseverance (Howard). ‘Blue helmet’ peacekeeping operations continue to be regarded by the UN as an integral subsidiary instrument of its organisation. At present, there are 12 active peacekeeping operations led by the UN Department of Peacekeeping across the world (United Nations Peacekeeping).

Fig. 1: United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) sporting blue berets (

But where did the blue helmets and berets originate from? Rubinstein details a surprisingly mundane account of the origins of the political accessory that is now a widely recognised symbol for UN peacekeepers’ uniforms. Peacekeepers’ uniforms initially emerged from the ad hoc need to distinguish UN troops from those of the armed forces in a distinctive dress during the 1947 UNTSO mission by any means and material readily available, such as armbands and helmets (Henry). The era of early peacekeeping operations also saw ‘observers’ carry UN flags and paint their vehicle white with ‘UN’ written in large black letters in order to distinguish themselves. The blue helmets specifically came to be adorned during the first peacekeeping operation in 1956 during the Suez crisis. At this time, Canada supplied a large number of non-combatant troops whose uniform was the same as the belligerent British forces, party to the conflict. An effort to thus distinguish the peacekeepers was made by spray-painting surplus World War II American plastic helmet-liners, which were available in quantity in Europe, blue (Urquhart; Rubenstein).

The two official colours of the UN are ‘light blue’ and ‘white’. The unique light “UN” blue colour, in particular, was approved as the background for the UN flag in the 1947 General Assembly Resolution 167(II), alongside a white emblem depicting a map of the world surrounded by two olive branches. While the UN’s use of the colour was chosen as a “practical effect of identifying the Organization in areas of trouble and conflict, to any and all parties concerned”, the colour blue was also specifically chosen at this time as “an integral part of the visual identity of the organisation” representing “peace in opposition to red, for war” (United Nations). Blue is seen to be placed in antithesis to the colour red across several fields including popular culture, and even within politics, as a way to typically indicate conflict between two warring groups. Within popular culture, for example, many films in the science fiction, fantasy, or horror genres, use a clearly demarcated, dichotomous ‘red vs. blue’ colour scheme in their posters (fig. 2). This is also commonly seen in political campaign posters, for example during the 2021 US presidential election (fig. 3).

Fig. 2: Blue and red colour schemes in film posters (left to right: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Captain Marvel (2019), and The Dead Don’t Die (2019))

Fig. 3: Biden (Democratic party) vs. Trump (Republican party) US presidential election (

This dichotomy can be traced back to the high Middle Ages between the fourteenth and seventeenth century where the colour blue became a colour associated with “moral implications”, rivalling both the colours black and red which were extremely popular in clothing during the eras of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance (Pastoureau 85). This ‘moral metamorphosis’ in European society was largely influenced by the views of Christian Protestant reformers concerning the social, religious, and artistic use of the colour blue (Pastoureau). A shift in the use of blue and its symbolic connotations may also be seen, for example, in early Christian art and iconography, specifically those deriving from depictions of the Virgin Mary; according to Pastoureau (50), this provides the “clearest illustration of the social, religious, and artistic consequences of blue's new status”.

Up until the eighteenth century, the colour blue, specifically ‘sky blue’ or light blue tones resemblant of the “UN” shade of blue, had minimal symbolic or aesthetic value, particularly in European culture and certainly amongst nobility and the upper levels of society. Historically, light blue was typically associated with peasants’ clothing. This was due to the fact that peasants would often dye their clothes using the pigment of the woad herb; however, the woad would poorly penetrate cloth fibres and inevitably fade under the effects of sunlight and soap, thereby resulting in a ‘bland’ colour (Pastoureau). Although the blue hues worn by the nobility and wealthy were typically denser and more solid, a “new fashion” for light blue tones gradually took hold at the courts of the wealthy and the bourgeoisie, inevitably becoming deeply anchored in Western European counties (Pastoureau). Here, the reorganisation of the colour hierarchy and reformulation of blue certainly resembles Pastoureau’s (10) assertion that “any history of colour is, above all, a social history”. Within the humanities, colour represents a social phenomenon and construction. Colour thus provides insights into the ways society assigns meaning to it, “constructs its codes and values, establishes its uses, and determines whether it is acceptable or not” (Pastoureau, 10). In this way, although colour is a naturally occurring phenomenon, it is also a complex cultural construct. That the UN and its subsidiary bodies, including the Department of Peacekeeping, deliberately assigned light blue as its official organisational colour therefore usefully illustrates a significant social process of meaning-making and cultural sociology. The historical transition of light blue’s association from one of poverty in and around the eighteenth century to one of wealth in the nineteenth century may perhaps also be indicative of the next transitional era for light blue in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, representative of the amalgamation or unity between the two classes. Representing the ambitions not only of the organisation, but rather of the 193 member-states, of attaining worldwide peace, light blue may be seen as a colour of peace, as well as one of the people, for the people. This may be traced back, according to Pastoureau, as early as the Middle Ages where the colour blue was seen a colour of ‘peace’.

Colours, however, do not solely determine social and cultural relevance in a given historical event. Rather, fabrics and clothing too offer “the richest and most diverse source of artifacts” in understanding history and culture. Artifacts such as UN peacekeepers’ blue berets and helmets necessarily incorporate economic, social, ideological, aesthetic, and symbolic aspects of both colour and material into the one complete uniform (Pastoureau). While the ‘UN blue’ is associated with peace, the beret, on the other hand, has been described as “an ally in the battlefield” (Kliest). The history of the beret is largely rooted in the armed forces – institutions typically associated with conflict and violence – and it continues to be a vital aspect of military uniforms worn by personnel from countries all around the globe. Given that the large majority of UN peacekeeping forces are made up of military personnel, peacekeeping, as both an action and an institution, thus adds a layer of complexity when discussing artifact symbolism. Here, a peacekeeper’s uniform uniquely represents the embodiment of an amalgamation of two traditionally juxtaposing concepts: peace, nurture, and diplomacy (often associated with ‘feminine’ qualities) versus conflict, strength, and discipline (often associated with ‘masculine’ qualities). A peacekeeper’s uniform thus represents the UN’s institutionalisation of “soldiers for peace” (Howard) who are, as former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold proclaimed, “the front line of a moral force” (BBC cited in Howard). Aside from its association with the armed forces, the beret has also been used as a fashion symbol by political revolutionaries, such as members of the ‘Black Panther Party’ (BPP) founded in the 1960s during the US Civil Rights Movement, as well as Che Guevara, prominent Leftist figure in the Cuban Revolution (see fig. 4). For, Rosabelle Forzy, CEO of beret and headwear fashion manufacturing company ‘Laulhère’, the beret is “emblematic of non-conformism … worn by people who create, commit, militate, and resist” (Kliest).

Fig. 4: Berets worn by political revolutionaries (Left to right: Black Panthers Party (BPP) protesting outside of a New York courthouse (, and portrait of Che Guevara)

In a way, the UN’s ‘blue beret’ too bears a ‘non-conformist’ visage as its peacekeepers neither fit categorisations as ‘revolutionaries’ nor as traditional ‘soldiers’. Peacekeepers personify a cultural phenomenon that operates in a complex environment (Rubinstein). While peacekeepers retain their national military (usually camouflage) uniforms during missions, the UN headwear is a symbol of non-conformity in response to sociological preconceptions regarding military culture. In the case of peacekeeping, the implementation and longevity of peacekeepers’ uniforms has occurred through a process of what Rubinstein (50) refers to as ‘cultural’ or ‘symbolic inversion’ wherein traditional notions of military rituals and symbolism have been appropriated or ‘inverted’ and given a new meaning by the UN. In other words, the UN promotes the image of soldiers acting without the use of force in service of peace in order to encode an image of a “world transformed” through the contribution of peacekeeping toward the “elaboration of an image of an international community acting in a neutral, consensual manner” (Rubinstein, 50). Cultural inversion therefore creates a socio-political space wherein normative representations are reconfigured and conditioned as acceptable. Rubinstein argues, however, that the UN’s need to integrate individuals with such diverse backgrounds and perceptions into a collective peacekeeper identity can be problematic. Rubinstein (72) adds that the blue beret is the “most obvious evidence” of an ordinary symbol investing ‘legitimacy’ in peacekeeping through ritual repetition which still holds its cultural relevance to the present day.

Arguably, institutional uniforms are symbols which profoundly shape human experience, validating contextual action according to the symbol’s meanings relevant to those wearing it. In this way, uniform symbolism not only allows us to make sense of our daily experiences, but allows us to construct and understand our identities and our interactions with others who are also part of the symbolic culture we are situated in. Consider, for example, a police officer. A police officer’s uniform not only grants them membership to the policing institution but also necessarily grants them certain powers, privileges, and jurisdictions within society which thereby impact on the way they see the world and interact with it. Necessarily, the social and cultural identity one acquires from wearing a specific uniform only effectively functions by “investing differences”, however large or small, into these symbols that “distinguish us from others” (Rubinstein, 74). For example, a policeman’s badge is a signifier that they are, in fact, part of an exclusive group that the majority of the citizenry are not. To this extent, the use of uniforms is not without its controversies or without the capacity to be misused as a tool of discrimination in a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ scenario. Referring to case regarding the beret, for example, in 2000 then US Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shineski, announced that the black beret – traditionally worn exclusively by specialised US Army units such as ‘Rangers’ – would become a standardised part of the US Army uniform for all soldiers and would denote a “symbol of unity”. General Shineski’s decision for the new headgear symbolised “the half-million-strong army’s transition to a lighter, more agile force that can respond more rapidly to distant trouble spots” (Borger). This was, however, met with angry backlash particularly from the Rangers who stated that they “were being robbed of a badge of pride” as “the beret is a symbol of excellence … that is not to be worn by everybody” (Borger). Responses to the proposition pointed to the problem of ‘low morale’ that the military faced, which could not be fixed just by “changing hats” (Borger).

In this case, the beret was identified and isolated as a tool for coordinating perceptions (Rubinstein, 78). Here, the use of uniforms is as much about being external identifiers and designating a group from another as it is about sustaining a group by means of perpetuating what Rubinstein conceptualises as ‘self-legitimation’. This occurs in order to ensure the survival of a group and is similarly seen as occurring within UN peacekeeping (Joseph & Alex). Within peacekeeping the blue beret is an effective symbol used to perpetuate self-legitimacy across various levels of the UN which construct systems, or a ‘community’, of reinforcement largely rooted on organisational models of virtue and diplomacy. In the broadest sense, the UN promotes “a unique responsibility to set a global standard” in service to creating a unified and pacific world order (Guterres). As an integral instrument of international action, peacekeeping is, by extension, necessarily conditioned and supported by this cultural model whereby the actions of individual peacekeepers are strategically linked to the symbolic capital at the broadest levels of the organisation to manage the organisation’s power and legitimacy.

The image of the peacekeeper, however, is fraught with problems and, as such, UN peacekeepers’ uniforms represent discrepancies and contradictions in the UN’s mission and organisational culture, particularly with relation to the UN’s symbolic construction of community and cooperation amongst peacekeepers. Given that peacekeeping troops are made up of individuals from different ethnic, cultural, and professional backgrounds, conditions for cultural interaction become challenging, if not problematic, and may necessarily lead to cross-cultural misunderstandings, miscommunication, and conflict. This applies to the context of peacekeeper deployment to host nations amongst local communities with whom they are also culturally unfamiliar (Rubinstein, "Intervention"). According to Rubinstein ("Intervention", 528), such operations may “create the conditions under which criminal activities or the institution of neo-colonial relationships can emerge”. Moncrief adds to this by also suggesting that a breakdown in conduct and discipline during missions may also contribute to peacekeepers engaging in violence during missions. Consequently, multiple cases of misdemeanour by UN peacekeepers have been reported across the years including peacekeeper involvement in bribery, weapons trading, and gold smuggling (Escobales). One of the most notorious acts of misconduct and violence that continues to be reported in the present day, however, is of peacekeepers perpetrating sexual exploitation and abuse against host women and children. Between 2004 and 2016, for example, “the UN received almost 2,000 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse” (Essa). According to former chief of operations at the UN’s Emergency Co-ordination Centre, Andrew Macleod, this figure may be, however, much more disturbing, estimating in general that approximately “60,000 rapes had been carried out by UN staff in the past decade” (Zeffman). An article in the Guardian reported that a

12-year-old girl had been hiding in a bathroom during a house search in a Muslim enclave of the capital, Bangui [in the Central African Republic] … . A man allegedly wearing the blue helmet and vest of the UN peacekeeping forces took her outside and raped her behind a truck. (Smith & Lewis)

In the article, the assailant’s uniform (“the blue helmet and vest”) is not only described as literal imagery to contextualise the grave crime that was committed against the child. In evoking the image of the blue helmet and vest, the author highlights the uniform as a symbolic tool of power which was misused to perpetuate harm against the vulnerable civilian ‘other’. In this scenario, like many others, rather than representing peace and hope, the blue helmet (or beret) instead illustrates the contradictions of the UN peacekeeper’s uniform. Here, the uniform has consequently come to be associated as a symbol of violence, fear, and most significantly, betrayal, for the victim(s) of the abuse, as well as for much of the victim’s community. This discrepancy was also highlighted in a speech presented by former Ambassador of the UK Mission to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, who stated that “when a girl looks up to a blue helmet, she should do so not in fear, but in hope”. For many peacekeepers perpetrating sexual exploitation and abuse, particularly transactional sex, however, they “do not see themselves as abusing women”. This is largely to do with the power and privileges peacekeepers are afforded, such as ‘immunity’ – that is, a peacekeeper is granted immunity from trial or prosecution for criminal misconduct by the host nation’s judicial system. Over the years, scholarly research regarding peacekeepers’ immunity has highlighted a plethora of organisational problems within the UN, including lack of perpetrator accountability, and internal investigation or follow-up. More so, it has undoubtedly “contributed to a culture of individuals committing sexual violence knowing that they will get away with it” (Freedman). When a peacekeeper wears their uniform, they are thus imbued with the power and charged with the responsibility to properly embody and represent the values of the UN; “if [peacekeepers] don’t understand how powerful a position they are in, they will never understand what they do is actually wrong” (Elks).

As such, unlike other traditional institutional uniforms, such as that of a soldier or a police officer, a peacekeeper’s uniform stands out as an enigma. One the one hand, peacekeepers channel the peaceful and passive organisational values of the UN by wearing the blue beret or helmet, whilst at the same time, they continue to sport the national military body uniform of their home country. Questions pertaining to the peacekeeper’s uniform arise and require further exploration: how can peacekeepers disassociate from their disciplined military personas and learnt combat skills if they continue to wear military camouflage during peacekeeping missions? Is the addition of the blue beret or helmet enough to reconfigure the body of the peacekeeper from one of violence, masculinity, and offence to that of peace, nurture, and diplomacy? Certainly, a range of factors are pertinent to an understanding of peacekeepers’ behaviour and group culture. But whether these two opposing identities can cohesively create or reconstitute a third identity using the positive skills and attributes of both juxtaposing institutions remains elusive. Nonetheless, the blue beret is a symbol of international hope, not only for vulnerable populations, but also for the world population collectively, as it represents neutral third-party member states working together to rebuild the world through non-combative means.


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Author Biography

Simona Strungaru, University of New England

Simona Strungaru is a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology at the Department of Social and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of New England, Australia. Her thesis critically explores the prevalence of sexual exploitation and abuse within UN peacekeeping through a power elite framework. Simona is broadly interested in human rights and children’s rights, international law, and Middle Eastern studies, however, she also shares a love of film and popular culture which allows her the opportunity to engage in expansive and interesting research spaces.