The year 2018 marks the 70th year of U.N. peacekeeping. Against the backdrop of ongoing and intense violence in places such as Syria and Congo, what happens next for this form of conflict intervention?
Various proposals are on the table in the lead-up to an overhaul of the United Nations peace and security architecture by 2020. The splashiest scheme, announced recently in a report to the U.N. secretary general, recommends that U.N. peacekeeping “troops should use overwhelming force and be proactive and preemptive” as a way to safeguard the safety and security of U.N. troops. This report, spearheaded by retired Lt. Gen. Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, is known as the “Cruz report.”
The Cruz report goes against peacekeeping principles
Here’s the problem: Using massive, preemptive force contradicts the basic tenets of U.N. peacekeeping — not to mention the laws of war. Peacekeeping differs from other forms of military action because it remains grounded in three principles: impartiality, consent of the warring parties and the use of force only in self-defense.
Cruz and his co-authors have proposed shifting peacekeeping to war-fighting because they contend that peacekeeper deaths are on the rise. This claim appears to be the primary reason for the proposal that peacekeepers employ force to take out rebel groups even before they might attack peacekeepers or civilians.
The report makes some logical recommendations — such as improving policing capacities, intelligence gathering and field hospitals. The Cruz report’s most sensational suggestions, however, misread some well-documented trends in U.N. peacekeeping. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Peacekeeper deaths have declined — they are not on the rise
There is a widespread perception in U.N. circles that peacekeeper deaths have been on the rise. However, as Northwestern Prof. Marina Henke and others have demonstrated, when controlling for troop deployment numbers, U.N. fatalities have in fact decreased over time since the 1990s.
The Cruz report counts absolute fatalities, stating that “since 2011, peacekeeping fatalities due to acts of violence are rising with 2013-2016 establishing a plateau. 2017 ends the plateau with significantly higher fatalities.” It does not take into account the basic question of changes in the number of troops over time. The overall number of peacekeeping troops has increased since 2003, but the ratio of fatalities to troops has not.
2. What caused the spike in peacekeeper deaths in 2017?
U.N. documents and the Cruz report reveal a 2017 spike — reflecting the high casualties in the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). If the MINUSMA deaths are removed from the data, that 2017 spike disappears.
So what happened in Mali? MINUSMA is categorically different from other U.N. peacekeeping missions. Before this mission’s deployment, French and West African troops banded together to fight Islamist extremist groups in northern Mali.
The U.N. Security Council mandated the French and West African troops for explicit counter-insurgent (COIN) and counterterrorist missions. When MINUSMA deployed in 2013, approximately half of its troops were “re-hatted” from the COIN and counterterrorist missions — creating a blend of peacekeeping and war-fighting.
COIN and counterterrorism employ the proactive use of force to counter enemies, which means that both sides can expect significant casualties. In Mali, this blended mission led to unusually high peacekeeper fatalities.
A key point here is that the increase in peacekeeper deaths has occurred where U.N. peacekeepers acted precisely as the Cruz report recommends — they used proactive force. If peacekeeping continues on this path, we may expect more, not fewer, peacekeeper deaths.
3. Peacekeeping is not counterinsurgency
By its very definition, COIN necessitates siding with the government in a conflict — and using force against rebels to help the government win. COIN’s founding principles and practices lie in opposition to those of peacekeeping.
COIN missions are not impartial, they do not deploy with the consent of the warring factions, and they are designed around the use of force to achieve goals. Although COIN is often ineffective, recent research demonstrates that COIN can be successful when employing overwhelming force — but that’s not true for peacekeeping.
4. Peacekeeping has been effective because it is not COIN
My research, and that of other scholars, has shown that, in contrast to COIN, U.N. peacekeeping has an excellent track record at achieving strategic goals. And peacekeepers generally accomplish their goals without resort to force. Scholars have demonstrated that peacekeepers reduce the risk of violence recurring, and they shorten the duration of conflicts.
Peacekeepers are associated with reductions in both combatant and civilian deaths. Although we know that civil wars tend to spread across borders, peacekeepers reduce the potential for interstate conflicts. Peacekeepers also decrease the geographic sweep of violence in civil wars.
Peacekeepers achieve many goals, but not by using force. Currently, all complex U.N. peace operations are authorized to use force to protect civilians. The U.N.’s own internal investigations, however, show that “peacekeeping missions with protection of civilian mandates focus on prevention and mitigation activities and force is hardly ever used to protect civilians under attack.”
This means peacekeeping has proven effective, but not because peacekeepers use force.
In Mali, peacekeepers and others have tried, unsuccessfully thus far, to use force to stop the fighting. These efforts have left 155 U.N. peacekeepers dead. To extrapolate from this high death toll that all peacekeepers should therefore change their “mind-set . . . beliefs and values” just doesn’t match up to current research on the sources of effectiveness in peacekeeping.
Millions of people in 15 different conflict zones rely on peacekeepers doing their job well. Peacekeeping has been successful, and may continue to be, as long as it does not morph into weak counterinsurgency.
Lise Morjé Howard is associate professor of government at Georgetown University. She is the author of “UN Peacekeeping in Civil Wars” and the forthcoming book, “Power in Peacekeeping,” both with Cambridge University Press.