how they work and the challenges they face

UN peacekeeping missions aim to build lasting security and peace in countries affected by conflict. They also have to deal with the complex international politics, resources and management of the mission itself.

Since the end of the Cold War, UN peacekeeping operations have been designed to end wars early, protect civilians and actively support longer-term peace and security. This requires military action and diplomacy to help enforce peace agreements. Large military and police forces can be deployed to help protect civilians. Large programs are often needed to meet human needs, support the implementation of the peace agreement and address the root causes of conflict.

Read more: Sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers in DRC: Fatherless children speak out about the pain of abandonment for the first time

However, international support for UN peacekeeping is declining – and challenges, such as heightened international tensions and critical scrutiny, are mounting. Protests against UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have resulted in violence and deaths in recent weeks.

The experience of peacekeeping missions conducted between 1991 and 2011 taught that in order to stand a good chance of success, they had to address a wide variety of issues in countries emerging from war. In addition to military peacekeeping, reconstruction and humanitarian operations, UN missions have increasingly taken on other roles.

These range from police, justice and the demobilization and disarmament of armed groups to the establishment of legitimate and stable post-conflict governments and public services, the return of refugees, the protection and empowerment of women, and job creation. In the process, the UN has moved from previous “peacekeeping” doctrines to more robust and comprehensive “peacebuilding” approaches.

Group of people in army uniforms
Peacekeepers of the Malaysian army before joining the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon in 2014.

The decision to send a peacekeeping mission to a country is made by the UN Security Council, and the UN Secretariat is then responsible for developing and executing the detailed strategy for the mission. They typically hire thousands of employees to lead and manage the mission. Some are seconded by UN departments and agencies, but most come from international rosters of specialists and advisers.

UN member states are requested to contribute military and police personnel under UN command, for which they are paid from UN funds. This is an important source of income for the armed forces of various developing countries. Other interested states, such as the US, UK or France, can send their own separate armed forces. These troops support the objectives of the UN mission, but are not under UN command.

Some missions are large and lengthy. For example, UN missions to the DRC started small in 1999, but quickly expanded after 2004, with the aim of stabilizing the country, demobilizing armed groups and protecting civilians. Although this has been scaled back over the past two years, by the end of 2021 there were still 17,783 people deployed to the DRC, including 12,384 troops.

Organizational Challenges

The UN and other international and local agencies set up projects and programs to support the range of issues addressed by each mission. State governments and international NGOs set up their own programs in a similar way. This can quickly add up to hundreds of organizations employing tens of thousands of foreigners and many more local personnel – all more or less trying to contribute to the UN mission, but with their own specific approaches and priorities.

Unsurprisingly, the UN coordination of this complex peacebuilding venture is often more of an ambition than a reality. Although a senior UN representative is appointed to lead and coordinate each mission, in practice they are at best “first under equals” in a continuous process of negotiation and persuasion.

Inconsistent and bad practices have arisen. There have been scandals where the UN missions seem to have not done enough on corruption. In other cases, UN peacekeepers have failed to act to protect civilians from violence, such as in South Sudan. UN and associated personnel have also abused their position to obtain sexual and other services, as highlighted in this new DRC interview report.

Such issues are difficult for the UN Secretariat to address due to its lack of power. Soldiers deployed on UN missions are accountable to their own national commanders and governments. Despite UN orders, they may not want their troops to engage in potentially dangerous actions to protect civilians. Likewise, some governments have been slow to take action to address abuses that may have been committed by their own citizens.

Reduced support

Since 2011, international support for UN peacebuilding has weakened. Some influential states, including India and China, remain lukewarm about comprehensive approaches to UN peacebuilding. Western support has also become more patchy, especially after changes in US policy and funding under the Trump administration.

In this context, efforts to identify and address risks of bad or abusive practices to improve future UN peacekeeping missions can also be used to discredit the whole approach to peacebuilding.

A return to more modest UN peacekeeping missions seems politically and financially beneficial. However, this would mean that less attention is paid to sustainable peacebuilding, human security and the protection and empowerment of women, minorities and other vulnerable groups. These have been important parts of improving the effectiveness of UN peacebuilding over the past 30 years.

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