22 March 2019

New Challenges Mean Changing Definitions for Successful U.N. Peacekeeping Missions

Are U.N. peacekeeping missions no longer relevant to today’s conflicts? Or do we just need to change the goals? 

There were understandably mixed feelings at the United Nations in June, when the organization marked the 70th anniversary of modern U.N. peacekeeping missions.

The Security Council sent military observers to the Middle East in 1948 to supervise the end of the first Arab-Israeli war, marking the first of over 70 U.N. missions that have become the organization’s trademark. U.N. officials used this year’s anniversary to honor the efforts of today’s peacekeepers to end wars and protect civilians. But the overall mood in New York was sober. 

This was because U.N. operations appear to be entering a new and difficult phase. Over the past two decades, U.N. peacekeeping forces have done a solid if underreported job stabilizing small and medium-sized countries such as Sierra Leone and East Timor. Earlier this year, they wrapped up another broadly successful mission in Liberia. With the closure of these operations, the U.N. now finds itself focusing most of its peacekeeping efforts on five big, problematic operations in Africa. In each case, the blue helmets are thinly spread and face endemic violence. 

Why The U.N. May Have To Settle for Less

From Syria to Myanmar, armed forces are pursuing unrelenting military campaigns and indiscriminately punishing civilians in their search for victory. There is a depressing chance that both countries’ governments will ultimately be able to declare victory over their internal opponents. In both cases, the resulting “peace” will be chaotic. But these crises threaten to upset some of the basic norms that have grown up around the resolution of civil wars in the post-Cold War era. To remain relevant, U.N. peacekeeping will have to adapt to this new post-conflict landscape. 

Is U.N. Peacekeeping More Resilient Than It Appears?

Discussions of United Nations peace operations are always tinged with a sense of crisis. Blue-helmet operations have been through a rough patch in recent years, struggling to stay on top of crises from the Central African Republic and South Sudan to the Golan Heights. This is just one aspect of a broader malaise. The U.N. has endured a long series of revelations about indiscipline, corruption and cowardice among peacekeepers. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has made fixing peacekeeping’s flaws a priority. But if peacekeeping is in a crisis, it is not a new one. And broadly speaking, despite numerous threats and failures, U.N. peace operations manage to rumble along. So perhaps peacekeeping is not in crisis after all—or at least its crises are manageable. Because the evidence of the past decade seems to be that the U.N. peace operations system is much more resilient than it often appears. 

How Data Can Help U.N. Peacekeeping Makes Its Case

Without a convincing story of saving lives, the U.N. is open to attacks by the likes of White House national security adviser John Bolton, who call peacekeeping “unproductive” and push for further cuts to the organization’s already diminished budget. Peacekeeping has proven that it can help reduce threats over time and may even help to diminish overall levels of violence in conflict-prone areas. But when confronted with the question of whether a peacekeeping operation has prevented a specific threat to civilians, most of the time the U.N. is unable to answer. In contrast, critics of peacekeeping can point to the numbers of people killed on the U.N.’s watch. But peacekeeping can—and must—make a case for its own utility, using data already at its fingertips. Measuring and understanding the relationship between personnel deployment and outcomes is not exactly a new science. The problem is that in U.N. peacekeeping, most of the data that is collected gets put in a filing cabinet, or at best a hard drive, instead of being put to work. If peacekeeping is to show that the billions of dollars it spends patrolling war-torn countries does in fact save lives, it should systematically use the cheap and easy tools at its disposal. 

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