A new article in Middle East Policy contends that UN missions have largely failed and that rich countries are paying the financial cost but passing the casualty burden to others.
Peacekeeping, and the conflicts to which it is applied, have evolved since the United Nations began these operations in 1948. Today, the UN has 90,000 peacekeepers deployed around the world in 12 operations that cost the international community $6.5 billion a year. Half of these missions have been going on for a combined total of three centuries, with no solution in sight to any of them. Five of the remaining six are in response to violent extremism. In those missions, a steadily growing number of peacekeepers are being killed despite the fact that they are unable to make any significant contribution to successfully combating the extremists. UN peacekeeping has therefore become either endless or impossible, and the peacekeepers have neither the carrots nor the sticks to effectively promote peace or punish those who are preventing it. It is time for the international community to rethink how it strives for international stability in conflict situations. To have a serious discussion, however, would require the UN member states to place a higher priority on peace than on their individual national interests.
On February 21 of this year, three soldiers died and five more were gravely wounded when an improvised explosive device demolished their vehicle. It is a shame that those deaths and injuries went largely unnoticed.
The bigger tragedy is that their sacrifice accomplished nothing. They were UN peacekeepers in a country where there is no peace to keep. And that is the fundamental problem with peacekeeping today: It no longer effectively promotes peace. In fact, peacekeeping encourages intransigence and stalemate rather than an end to the conflict that created the need for intervention.
It is time for the international community to consider why that is, why peacekeepers are being killed and injured at a much higher rate than before, and what can be done to lessen such losses in the future. Unfortunately, such a reckoning is unlikely. The international community understandably and laudably feels compelled to do something about conflict situations and the humanitarian disasters they cause. That those efforts are not only ineffective but counterproductive is something that the UN and its member states are unwilling to admit, however, because they have no better answer that they are willing to try.
The rich countries will continue to bear the vast majority of the $6.5 billion annual cost of the 12 UN peacekeeping operations under way, while the poor countries suffer nearly all the casualties.1 Why this is the case requires reviewing the evolution of peacekeeping and understanding the limits of what it can accomplish.
THE THREE PHASES OF UN PEACEKEEPING
Although there is no mention of peacekeeping in the charter of the United Nations, the organization was only three years old when it launched its first such intervention. Since then, more than one million men and women from 125 countries have served in 71 missions around the world. While some of the operations have failed, there have been enough successes to sustain the belief that it is a good way to promote international peace and security. Unfortunately, that is not the impact in 11 of the UN's 12 current peacekeeping operations (see Table 1). They have become either endless or impossible. This situation has come about, in part, due to the evolution of the conflicts to which peacekeeping is applied and the resulting demands placed on peacekeepers.
|Phase||Mission||Year Initiated||Area of Operation||Fatalities||Annual Budget (millions USD)||Total Personnel (as of 2/2023)|
|3||MONUSCO||2010||D.R. of Congo||259||1,123.3||17,753|
|3||MINUSCA||2014||Central African Republic||176||1,116.7||18,486|
Over the last 75 years, peacekeeping has gone through three distinct phases. The first began with territorial wars between countries. The six oldest of the operations are still in that phase: Jerusalem, Kashmir, the Golan Heights, southern Lebanon, Western Sahara, and Cyprus. They were established between 1948 and 1991, and they account for more than three centuries of peacekeeping efforts. Yet in none are there any negotiations under way that would resolve them. In other words, they are endless.
The second phase began when peacekeepers started to be deployed to help end civil wars. Those missions have all concluded, with one minor exception: a small remnant of the mission in Kosovo. Established in 1999, this mission had a contingent of more than 4,000 in its early years but has gradually diminished in size and scope. About 95 percent of the 350 remaining staff are civilians; their task is mostly limited to promoting human rights and the rule of law. The military aspects of peacekeeping have been left to a NATO-led force, which also began in 1999. These 4,000 troops were augmented by an additional 700 in June 2023 because of an outbreak of violence between Serbs and Albanians in the northern part of Kosovo.2 Second-phase operations have generally disappeared because their termination is usually tied to specific events. A civil war can end when a determination is made as to who has the political power and the right to govern. If that happens after an election, a government is established, and if all sides accept the outcome, the peacekeepers can go home.
The third phase of peacekeeping consists of the five most recent operations, all launched between 2010 and 2014. They are located in Mali, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mandate given to them by the Security Council is to protect civilians and help stabilize countries that are beset by violent extremism. The problem is that this requires these forces to become war fighters, something they will never be able to do effectively. As a result, these missions are impossible and deadly. The eight soldiers killed and injured on February 21 were Senegalese peacekeepers attempting to carry out that mandate in Mali.3
Each of these three phases has dramatically changed what is asked of the peacekeepers. The first-generation missions followed wars between countries over territory. Since the fighting involved well-organized armies, civilians were not usually targeted, and most of the casualties were men in uniform. Once a ceasefire was negotiated, the task for peacekeepers was simple and straightforward. They were inserted between the opposing forces to monitor the demilitarized zone between the two sides to ensure that neither used the pause in the conflict to improve their military position. This confidence-building measure could help buy time to negotiate a peace agreement that would permanently resolve the conflict.
Such an agreement often included having an international organization decide where the border should be. But once a border is demarcated, there will always be those who fiercely oppose accepting it. They will claim their country lost some of the territory over which the war was fought and is rightfully theirs. For political leaders faced with the prospect of having their grip on power threatened by such criticism, it is an easy choice. There is no cost to their allowing the conflict to go unresolved, but there is significant risk in agreeing to settle. The presence of peacekeepers only makes that choice even easier.
The main reason offered for continuing these missions is the belief that peacekeepers will decrease the chance of a resumption of fighting. Neutral forces can help facilitate communications since the two sides will often refuse to talk to each other. But this could be done with just a handful of personnel. The reality is that when a country wants to restart a war, peacekeepers are easily brushed aside and are not going to prevent it.
THE ENDLESS PEACEKEEPING MISSIONS
The six first-generation operations demonstrate how little impact the peacekeepers have and why their missions are endless. The problem of the Western Sahara, for instance, will never be solved. King Mohammed VI of Morocco has staked his throne on making the territory part of his country. He is strengthening his claim to the region by encouraging hundreds of thousands of settlers to move there in the same way Israel is in the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
President Donald Trump's December 2020 proclamation recognizing Morocco's sovereignty over the territory further cemented the deadlock.4 Trump had no interest in the dispute, but he did want the king to join the Abraham Accords and establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel. That step was bound to be very unpopular in Morocco, as public opinion strongly supports the Palestinian cause. The US declaration of sovereignty was the incentive necessary for the king to take the step.
The independence movement in Western Sahara, the Polisario Front, also has reason to avoid compromise. It refuses to consider a federation where Western Sahara would be a province of Morocco with a degree of autonomy. The Polisario instead demands a referendum on complete independence and rejects anything less because it has the backing of Algeria—which provides that support because it sees the conflict weakening Morocco, its regional rival. In the face of intransigence on both sides, the UN has been able to do nothing more than appoint a series of special envoys. Each, including former Secretary of State James Baker, came to understand the UN has no leverage and the parties have no flexibility. They then resign, only to be replaced by an equally ineffective successor.
In Cyprus, the situation is similar. The breakaway northern part of the island has been recognized as an independent nation by Turkey, the only country in the world to do so. Turkish Cypriots are outnumbered two to one by Greek Cypriots, and the former are not going to settle for being a permanent minority with a mere province under their control. Since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to prevent the country's unification, which would favor Greece—and because he covets the island's offshore resources—there will no resolution of that conflict, either.
Trump also recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, even though Syria will never give up its desire to regain its territory. As a result, Israel is expanding the number of its citizens living in the area and creating facts on the ground, just as it continues to do in the West Bank. The Israeli government announced in December 2021 that, due to Trump's move and the Biden administration's acquiescence, it intends to double the number of Israelis living in the Golan to 46,000.5 Clearly, Israel is never going to relinquish control over such strategically important real estate to a neighbor that is as hostile as it is unstable. Because of the situation in Syria, the peacekeepers remain mostly in Israeli-controlled territory, merely observing and reporting violations from afar. Talks between Israel and Syria have not taken place since 2008, and there is no chance of their resuming in the foreseeable future. With no peace or any prospect for it, this is another mission that will never end.
There is also a territorial dispute between Israel and Lebanon, though it is trivial. The real problem is the domestic politics of Lebanon, which has become a failed state in no small part because of the interference of Syria and Iran and the long-running sectarian conflict between Lebanese Muslims and Christians. In addition, Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization, controls southern Lebanon and a large part of the country's government. Hezbollah and Iran, its principal sponsor, would find peace a threat to their military and political power, so they have no incentive for peace. According to Israeli authorities, Hezbollah has stored tens of thousands of rockets near the border. Although peacekeepers make hundreds of patrols each month, such actions are useless, as they are not allowed to search for weapons in vehicles or buildings.6 On more than one occasion, the peacekeepers have had to call in the Lebanese Armed Forces to save them from the local population the peacekeepers are supposedly protecting. The sole contribution to peace of the roughly 10,000 UN personnel in Lebanon is organizing group yoga sessions.7
The only significant deterrent to a major war between Lebanon and Israel is therefore the mutually assured destruction that both sides would inflict on each other if one broke out. When both sides see it in their interests, cooperation can happen in limited ways. A dispute over the sea boundary between the two countries became an issue that raised tensions because it affected who had the right to exploit offshore gas deposits. An American mediator was able to help both sides reach an agreement.8 Even this modest accomplishment may not survive a new outbreak of violence or actions by those politicians who wish to see it ended.9
The other two first-generation peacekeeping missions are the oldest. The one headquartered in Jerusalem has been going on since 1948. It contributes military observers to other missions in the region but nothing else. It is supposed to be promoting peace between Israel and its neighbors but has had no measurable impact. The other, in Kashmir, seems to be doing even less, but the hope is that it will help keep two nuclear-armed nations, India and Pakistan, from going to war. Once again, however, mutually assured destruction is the most significant incentive to avoiding a war. While it could be argued that the presence of the peacekeepers helps the parties communicate, it could also be argued that it may cause the parties to underestimate the risk of provocative actions.
All six missions are making no contribution to preserving peace because they have no means to incentivize it or to punish the parties for their failure to negotiate. While these six first-phase operations may never end, a new one of this type seems unlikely. The Russian invasion of Ukraine notwithstanding, wars between countries over territory have become rare. One other recent exception, however, demonstrates how irrelevant peacekeepers can be.
From 1998 to 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought over the area around the town of Badme. The two countries were able to reach a ceasefire and agreed to the establishment of an international arbitration commission to decide on the border. UN peacekeepers were deployed to monitor the zone between the two armies in a traditional first-phase operation. But when Ethiopia concluded that the process was not going its way, it started obstructing the demarcation. Eritrea, frustrated over the delay and wanting more international attention on the issue, decided to make it impossible for the peacekeepers to do their job by cutting off their fuel supplies. Even when faced with a lack of support from the parties to the conflict, the UN is always reluctant to admit that it is time to give up and leave. In this case, it did: The peacekeepers were pulled out when they could no longer operate. Their absence did not preclude peace. If anything, it helped bring the war to an end, as both sides had to suffer the costs of continuing the conflict. After a few rounds of new fighting, Ethiopia finally accepted the loss of territory, and the dispute was resolved.
While the current first-phase peacekeeping operations have become endless, the second generation did have some positive results even though the missions required tasks that were numerous and complicated. After civil wars, the key to peace was often to hold an election to determine who had the legitimacy to govern. To prepare the country to do that, the peacekeepers had to gather the combatants, demobilize most of them, and help them reintegrate into civilian life. The remainder had to be formed into a new, unified national army. Voting had to be organized and conducted fairly. Assistance had to be given to people displaced by the war, and economic reconstruction initiated. All this was necessary to help make the difficult transition from war to peace. The advantage of this type of peacekeeping operation was that once the election was successfully held, the peacekeepers could declare victory and go home.
Second-phase peacekeeping did have some spectacular failures. One of the most notable was in 1995, when Dutch peacekeepers failed to protect about 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica from being murdered by Bosnian Serb forces. This and other incidents prompted the UN to re-examine peacekeeping.
ROBUSTNESS AND INCREASING RISKS TO PEACEKEEPERS
In 2000, the UN released the findings of its study, the Brahimi Report. It noted that when one party to a peace agreement violates its terms, and the UN fails to distinguish victim from aggressor, the peacekeepers are at best ineffective and at worst “complicit with evil.”10 To avoid that, the report called for more “robust” peacekeeping and an expansion of the use of force, allowing it to be used when necessary to carry out the operation's mandate.
This desire for robustness brought about the third phase, in which peacekeepers were asked to protect civilians and help the local government defeat the insurgents. Because this requires a substantial increase in the number of peacekeepers, these five third-generation deployments are the largest of the 12 current missions, except for southern Lebanon. Together, the five account for 84 percent of the total number of personnel deployed in all current operations. There are two striking differences between the first- and third-phase operations. The latter are much more deadly, each averaging 16 peacekeeping deaths a year versus an average of only two for each first-generation operation (see Table 2).
|Period||Deaths from Malicious Acts||Total Deaths||Average Annual Deaths|
The reason for the higher death toll is that, in trying to ensure the safety of the peacekeepers, the UN traditionally adhered to three guiding principles. Robust peacekeeping has caused the abandonment of all three. First, according to the traditional principles, the parties to the conflict had to consent to their presence. Second, the peacekeepers had to be impartial and show no favoritism. Third, they could use force only to protect themselves. When third-phase peacekeeping expanded the use of force “in defense of the mandate,” peacekeepers were compelled to take the government's side, making them targets for violent extremists.
That has led to the second difference, which is a change in the countries that are willing to supply soldiers for these missions. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a group of 38 wealthy, democratic countries. They contribute 42 percent of the forces serving in the first-phase operations but fewer than 3 percent of those in the more dangerous third-phase protection and stabilization missions. While OECD members pay 86 percent of the billions spent annually on UN peacekeeping, they leave it to the world's poorer countries to suffer the casualties.
That toll continues to mount. More than 4,100 peacekeepers have died over the last 75 years; in nearly every decade, the death toll increased over that of the previous 10 years. That upward trend will continue thanks to the third-phase missions. And it is not just UN peacekeepers dying in phase-three missions. The UN, tired of trying to bring order to Somalia, handed off that conflict to the African Union (AU). Since the AU began its operation there in 2007, more than 3,500 of its soldiers have died and hundreds more have been wounded trying to defeat al-Shabab militants.12
If there is any lesson to be learned from the American defeats in Afghanistan and Vietnam, it is that even the world's most powerful army cannot prevail against insurgents when a country's population does not support its government. No matter how much those in UN and AU headquarters wish to have robust peacekeeping, forces largely made up of a ragtag assortment of African armies have no chance whatsoever.
There is no popular support for governments in the countries where phase-three missions are under way because they are among the most inept, corrupt, and repressive in the world. Their rankings for governance, corruption, and political and press freedom, as measured by the Ibrahim Index, Transparency International, and Freedom House, make that clear. These governments care about holding on to power far more than they do about their own people. That is demonstrated by Mali's and the Central African Republic's hiring the ruthless Russian mercenaries, the Wagner Group, and allowing them to act with impunity.13
Even with hired killers, an unpopular and uncaring government is not going to be able control all of its own territory. And UN peacekeepers will never be able to “stabilize” such a situation. As for protection, that is possible only if the civilians are standing near a peacekeeper. In Mali, for instance, there is only one uniformed peacekeeper for every 82 square kilometers. Soon there will be none. The Malian government, angered by a UN report that blamed the armed forces and “foreign security personnel” for the deaths of more than 500 civilians in the village of Moura in 2022, demanded all peacekeepers leave the country. On June 30, 2023, the Security Council unanimously approved a resolution that provided for their withdrawal by the end of the year.
There is also an economic reason for the hopelessness of the phase-three missions. The wars against violent extremism the peacekeepers are working to end have been described as ones where various militias, insurgents, and even government officials work to prolong them as a means of bargaining over resources.14 They are not fought over territory or political power. They are business opportunities and ways to protest bad governance. The international community is doing nothing to change that dynamic.
It would simplify the discussion of peacekeeping if there were a parsimonious and broadly applicable theory for why it fails. The variety of conflicts and ways peacekeeping has been applied make that impossible. The recipe for peace does consistently require three ingredients. If a country's leaders do not want peace, it will not happen. If control of a country's resources provides the incentive for war, then there will be no peace. If neighboring states and other countries see it in their interests to promote continued conflict, then it will not end. The reality is that peacekeeping alone has very little impact. The answer is not robust peacekeeping but robust efforts by the international community to meet these three conditions.
What would those measures look like? First, the countries where peacekeeping operations take place should pay for their cost. Instead, there is an economic incentive for them to keep these forces in place. A significant portion of the multi-billion-dollar cost is spent locally, and scores of people are hired to do jobs that the UN does not require an expatriate employee to do. Shutting a mission down therefore means ending a significant source of commerce and employment.
Second, the UN needs to rethink how peacekeeping is conducted, what it can realistically achieve, and what is necessary for peace. It should pressure the leaders of governments to negotiate peace in good faith to end the first-phase missions. And it must insist that countries be governed better if it wants to end the third-phase missions. It is not enough to simply criticize governments that obstruct peacekeepers and govern badly, as the United States did recently with regard to Mali.15 There must be real consequences.
Third, those consequences should include ending all economic, military, and even humanitarian aid to countries that threaten international peace and stability by leaving long-running conflicts unsettled and providing a breeding ground for violent extremism. That should apply not only to countries where peacekeeping operations are taking place but also to the regional actors who encourage a continuation of the conflict.
The UN, however, has no army; it has only the power accorded by its member states. When those countries do not act in concert, there is little the UN can do but make high-minded declarations that fall on deaf ears. The international community should not reject walking away simply because of the false hope that the mere presence of peacekeepers will somehow make things better. To improve the chances for peace, the member states must place international order above their national interests. Unfortunately, there is about as much chance that will happen as there is that peacekeeping will produce peace.
1 “The 2022 UN Peacekeeping Budget: Signs of Progress or a Fleeting Moment of Consensus?” Reliefweb, July 20, 2022, https://reliefweb.int/report/world/2022-un-peacekeeping-budget-signs-progress-or-fleeting-moment-consensus.
2 Fatos Bytyci and Andrew Gray, “EU, US Tell Kosovo to Back Down in Serb Standoff or Face ’Consequences,'” Reuters, June 7, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/eu-us-tell-kosovo-back-down-serb-standoff-or-face-consequences-2023-06-07.
3 “Three UN Peacekeepers Killed in Mali Blast,” Al Jazeera, February 21, 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/2/21/three-un-peacekeepers-killed-in-mali-blast.
4 Donald J. Trump, “Proclamation on Recognizing The Sovereignty Of The Kingdom Of Morocco Over The Western Sahara,” December 10, 2020, White House Archives, https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-recognizing-sovereignty-kingdom-morocco-western-sahara.
5 “Israel sets goal of doubling number of Jewish settlers on Golan Heights,” Reuters, December 26, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israel-sets-goal-doubling-number-jewish-settlers-golan-heights-2021-12-26.
6 David Schenker, “The UNIFIL Follies Turn Deadly on the Israel-Lebanon Border,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, January 24, 2023, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/unifil-follies-turn-deadly-israel-lebanon-border.
7 “Indian Peacekeepers Organize Group Yoga Session,” United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, June 22, 2018, https://unifil.unmissions.org/indian-peacekeepers-organize-group-yoga-session.
8 Patrick Kingsley, “Israel and Lebanon Reach Landmark Maritime Agreement,” New York Times, October 11, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/11/world/middleeast/israel-and-lebanon-maritime-deal.html; see also Daniel Sobelman, “Hezbollah's Coercion and the Israel-Lebanon Maritime Deal,” Middle East Policy 30, no. 2 (Summer 2023).
9 Yossi Verter, “Netanyahu Says He'll Quash the Gas Deal—and the Country and World Can Burn,” Haaretz, October 7, 2022, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/2022-10-07/ty-article/.premium/water-fight/00000183-aee2-d5eb-a3af-fef652b50000.
10 “Brahimi Report,” United Nations Peacekeeping, August 21, 2000, https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/brahimi-report-0.
11 “Fatalities,” United Nations Peacekeeping, https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/fatalities.
12 Harun Maruf, “At Least 3,500 AU Soldiers Killed in Somalia Since 2007,” VOA News, April 11, 2023, https://www.voanews.com/a/exclusive-at-least-3-500-au-soldiers-killed-in-somalia-since-2007/7045982.html.
13 Declan Walsh, “Putin's Shadow Soldiers: How the Wagner Group Is Expanding in Africa,” New York Times, May 31, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/31/world/africa/wagner-group-africa.html.
14 Jason K. Stearns, “Rebels Without a Cause,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2022.
15 Edith Lederer, “US to Mali: End Restrictions on UN Peacekeepers, Seek Peace” AP News, https://apnews.com/article/mali-un-peacekeepers-elections-russia-d238900f1b35b4b76fcffd1c9c218158.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Jett, D. Why Peacekeeping Does Not Promote Peace. Middle East Policy XXX. no. 3 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1111/mepo.12700
©2023, The Author. Middle East Policy published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of Middle East Policy Council.
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