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Enough with the Pessimism about Peacekeeping

By Page Fortna

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MONUSCO conducts joint operation with Congolese forces in Beni, a city in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. By United Nations Photo.

The recent story from the New York Times about United Nations peacekeeping is typical of the pessimistic pieces one tends to see in the press. While the article acknowledged that “in some places…the presence of peacekeepers has saved lives”,  it focused overwhelmingly on peacekeeping’s ineffectiveness, and worse — places the UN failed to stop the killing, allowed civilians to be killed, contributed to the spread of disease, or actively abused the civilians peacekeepers are meant to protect.

Make no mistake, incidents of sexual abuse by peacekeepers are inexcusable and should not be whitewashed, nor should the places where peacekeepers have struggled to establish peace and safeguard civilians go unreported.

But the article leaves an impression about peacekeeping that grossly mischaracterizes its overall effects. Its failures are inherently newsworthy (“if it bleeds, it leads”), while its successes seldom make headlines. Rarely is it considered that in the war-torn places peacekeepers deploy, things would likely be much, much worse without peacekeepers present.

Fortunately, scholars (myself included) have been studying the effects of peacekeeping systematically for many years now, and study after study shows the effectiveness of peacekeeping.  We have strong evidence that:

  • the more peacekeeping troops, the fewer the battlefield deaths (Hultman et al. 2014) — that is, peacekeeping reduces the intensity of fighting; and
  • the more peacekeeping troops and police deployed, the fewer the civilian deaths (Hultman et al. 2013) –that is, peacekeeping saves civilian lives.

This doesn’t mean peacekeeping is a silver bullet – that any time peacekeepers are deployed, everything will magically be peaceful and peachy. But peacekeeping’s contributions to lessening the level of violence, protecting civilians, and maintaining peace are well established.

Yes, peacekeeping can be improved — it is perennially and woefully underfunded and understaffed. Peacekeeping troops and personnel need better training and should be deployed more quickly. Operability (and even basic communication) among contingents could be much better. And yes, missions need to crack down on any and all incidents of predatory behavior by individual peacekeepers.

There is nothing wrong with noting the need for reform. But by focusing almost exclusively on the eye-catching failures – while ignoring the larger story of the remarkable effectiveness of peacekeeping – such stories are likely to discourage the support the UN needs to improve peacekeeping’s efficacy and impact. Who would want to pour more resources into peacekeeping if it is such a failure?

But it is not a failure. The surprising thing about peacekeeping — the real story — is that, despite its many problems, it works.

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