Are New Robust Mandates Putting UN Peacekeepers More at Risk?

Original post with IPI Global Observatory may be found here.

In the days leading up to today’s International Day of UN Peacekeepers—a day which “honors the memory of peacekeepers who have lost their lives in the cause of peace”— the Department of Peacekeeping Operations had the unenviable task of reporting an incident in Darfur which had left one Rwandan peacekeeper dead and three others injured. The peacekeepers had been mediating a local dispute when Arab militia elements became hostile and opened fire. This incident, emblematic of the daily work and risks faced by UN peacekeepers, brings home the dangers of trying to build peace in parts of the world still wracked by hostility and conflict. It appeared to be the latest in a long line of attacks on UN peacekeepers in recent months.

In April 2013, eight Indian peacekeepers were killed when armed militia attacked a convoy they were escorting in Jonglei state, South Sudan. A few months later, seven Tanzanian peacekeepers were killed in Darfur when militia attacked their base. Three more Indian peacekeepers were killed in Akobo in Jonglei state in December, when militia attacked a UN base sheltering civilians. At around the same time, anti-balaka militia in the Central African Republic killed a UN peacekeeper from the Republic of the Congo.

These incidents have given rise to concerns that the adoption by the Security Council of new robust mandates for the protection of civilians in semi-hostile environments, combined with the innovation of integrated missions that have aligned peacekeepers more closely with contestable political objectives, has dramatically increased the risks confronting UN peacekeepers. Operating in pursuit of political objectives set by the Security Council in situations that are deeply unstable and characterized by the presence of multiple armed groups, many of which oppose the Council’s objectives, contemporary peacekeepers operating in South Sudan, Darfur, Mali, the DRC, CAR and elsewhere can no longer rely on their perceived neutrality and impartiality to guarantee their own safety. In addition to increasing the direct risks confronted by UN peacekeepers, there are fears that the politicization of peacekeeping might also place in danger those who seek the UN’s protection. It might also inhibit humanitarian access. This is a point made directly by several contributors to a soon-to-be published special issue of the journal Global Responsibility to Protect on the relationship between R2P and humanitarian action.

Along with these operational issues, there is also a significant force generation problem. Several of the troop/police contributor profiles developed for the Providing for Peacekeeping project have identified concerns about the potential for casualties as a significant political obstacle to contributing to UN missions. If peacekeeping is becoming more dangerous, it will become more difficult for the UN to recruit the forces it needs.

But are these concerns borne out by the statistics? Has the adoption of integrated missions and robust protection mandates increased the number of UN peacekeepers killed as a result of hostile action? The answer is a complex one, but as yet, there seems to be no clear connection.

 chart (1)Based on DPKO statistics; 2014 figure estimated based on data to April 31, 2014

The UN’s basic data on deaths caused by malicious acts tells us two things.

First, that this is not a new phenomenon. Though to differing degrees, peacekeepers have always faced these risks. With roughly equal numbers of peacekeepers deployed, the number of fatalities caused by hostile action is significantly lower today than it was from 1993-1995. Going back further, 1961 was almost as disastrous as 1993 in terms of peacekeeper fatalities, with some 105 peacekeepers killed by malicious actions in Congo (ONUC).  Moreover, the general level of fatalities today was experienced in some individual years in the period between 1995 and 2012, especially 2003 and 2005 when the overall number of peacekeepers deployed was only around two-thirds the number deployed today.

Second, to the extent that there has been a recent increase in UN peacekeeper fatalities by malicious action, it has been a thankfully small one by recent historical standards and, should 2014 continue as it has started, relatively short-lived.

These figures give us only part of the picture, however. For example, variations may simply result from the number of peacekeepers deployed rather than from any particular set of issues. Given month-by-month variations in the numbers of UN peacekeepers deployed (for example, in 1995 alone, the total number of UN peacekeepers varied from over 60,000 to a little over 30,000), it would take some complex mathematics to calculate malicious deaths per 1,000 peacekeepers with any degree of accuracy. As a proxy, we might consider instead the proportion of overall fatalities caused by malicious acts.

chart Based on DPKO statistics; 2014 figure estimated based on data to April 31, 2014.

It bears noting that, with the exception of 1993, peacekeepers are much more likely to die as a result of an accident or illness than by hostile action.

While the proportion of fatalities caused by malicious action since 2011 is higher than the trend between 2007-2010, it is nonetheless broadly consistent with general trends from 1991 through to 2000 and the year 2003. This would seem to support the view that whatever increase is being experienced is relatively modest thus far and not out of step with previous experience.

A final point to make is that peacekeeping fatalities by malicious actions have always been concentrated in particular missions, and there is no evidence that broad changes in the nature of peacekeeping have had more generalized effects. In the 1960s, the spike in death by malicious action was a product entirely of ONUC. In the 1990s, the most dangerous mission by a significant margin was UNOSOM, followed (some way behind) by UNPROFOR and UNTAC, and then UNAMIR. Today, two missions—UNAMID and UNMISS—account for the lion’s share of fatalities, though there are real concerns that the situations in Mali and the CAR and the mandates of the missions being deployed there will make MINUSMA and MISCA at least as equally challenging in this respect.

This leaves us with the need to explain why there is no simple connection between developments in UN peacekeeping and fatalities caused by malicious action. Among the reasons are no doubt significant improvements in operating practices, information gathering and communications, and peacekeeper capabilities. But another explanation may lie in the way mission leaders translate robust protection mandates into practice. A recent Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) report found that UN peacekeepers typically refrained from using force to protect civilians despite having mandates to do so, preferring instead to limit the use of force to self-defense. Moreover, it found that they were often not present in the most dangerous situations. One result of this is that, despite their mandates, UN peacekeepers are typically not engaged in proactive action to protect civilians or diminish the capacity of armed groups to target them. Hence, they are not necessarily putting themselves in greater danger than they otherwise would. This is perhaps borne out by the fact that many of the casualties described earlier were sustained in the course of regular peacekeeping duties—mediating disputes, escorting convoys, protecting UN bases from attack—rather than in new types of action relating to enhanced protection mandates.

The lesson here seems clear. There has not yet been a dramatic increase overall in fatalities caused by malicious action as a result of the adoption of new mandates by UN peacekeepers largely because these mandates have not been interpreted as requiring the adoption of greater risks by peacekeepers. If one of the consequences of the OIOS report is that pressure builds for a rethinking of the strategic guidance offered to missions on this point, and if this translates into tactics that place more peacekeepers in harm’s way more frequently, then it is reasonable to expect that the rate of fatalities due to malicious action will increase.

To prevent that from happening, it might be worth considering how protection might be strengthened without heightening risks to peacekeepers (for instance, through the use of technology), inviting the Security Council to reflect more deeply on how it expects its protection mandates to be implemented, and reviewing precisely what capabilities would be needed to achieve these effects—and from where they could be secured.

Alex J. Bellamy is Professor of International Security at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, Australia; Honorary Professor of International Relations at the University of Queensland, Australia; and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. He is a non-resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.

The Future of UN Peacekeeping May Lie in the Past

Vanessa Newby



Putin’s recent attempted annexation of Crimea brings back sharp memories of the Cold War for those of us old enough to remember it.  The media reports that the US is now conducting ‘training exercises’ in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.  Is the Crimea crisis the actions of a powerful president gone ‘rogue’ or a signal of a slow slide back to a new Cold War?  This question becomes pertinent when considering the implications for UN peacekeeping missions.  The literature on peacekeeping in the past twenty years has focused heavily on the new missions that have involved ‘wider’ peacekeeping or peacebuilding remits – such as the holding of elections, building institutions, and liberalising the economy.  There is very little scholarship to be found that looks at older style peacekeeping – termed classic or traditional missions.  There is an assumption that these missions have little to offer in terms of informing the trajectory of future missions.  Most are dismissed as being limited in the introduction section of books detailing missions launched after the break up of the Soviet Union.

But if indeed the balance of power is shifting back towards a traditional ‘balance of power’ scenario, then what are the prospects for peacekeeping missions in the future?  From 1948 until 1989, only 15 peacekeeping missions were launched by UN Security Council because the US and Russia (predominantly) were opposed to the idea of each other exerting their influence in any given part of the world; particularly in areas considered to be of strategic importance. The ONUC mission in the Congo (1960-64), which took a form more similar to that of the more modern missions, was shut down as a result of the perception by great powers that either side wielded too much influence in the internal workings of the state.  As a result, peacekeeping missions launched during the Cold War were necessarily kept simple and did not involve interference in the workings of the receptor state.  Their duties were generally limited to monitoring simply observing borders and conflict zones.

Whilst the literature on peacebuilding is full of critiques of modern peacebuilding missions, there has always been the assumption that their form will remain complex or become more so.  It is possible in light of Syria and now the Crimea, that we may be seeing a return to proxy wars within states that will fester and be long-drawn out owing to the tacit support of external interested powers.  In these scenarios, it is possible that civilian deaths will trigger calls from the international community to do something to stem the bloodshed.  If so, in my opinion it will be likely that the only missions that will be able to be launched in the current political environment will be ones that carry what is termed a ‘light footprint’.

What exact form this ‘light footprint’ will take is a question this blog cannot answer, but it could well resemble the older missions that currently exist in Lebanon and Cyprus.  Despite often being dismissed as a failure, the UNIFIL mission in South Lebanon has thus far maintained peace and security in its area of operation since Resolution 1701 in 2006 and it does engage in some peacebuilding activities whilst remaining distant from national politics.

The mission has achieved this by working quietly at the sub-national level with the use of Political Officers (PAOs), Civil Affairs Officers (CAOs) and Civil Military Cooperation Officers (CIMIC), whilst engaging at the international, national and local levels.  It is possible that this model may suit future missions whereby UNSC members are keen to ensure that the balance of power within a state is not unduly influenced by the presence of a peacekeeping mission.  

The UNIFIL mission has been running since 1978, but UNIFIL II as it is known has been operational since 2006 after the Israel/Hezbollah conflict of that year.  Unlike the earlier form of the mission it comprises elements of peacebuilding at the national level by working to increase the capacity of the national army – the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and to bolster the legitimacy of the municipal government in the area of operations.  At the international level, UNIFIL has brought together the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and the LAF into a tripartite mechanism that enables both sides to air their grievances, and work on building mutual trust through the creation of micro-security arrangements.  The security this engendered has filtered down to the local level where the region is now witnessing the growth of local tourism and new business start-ups.  At the local level UNIFIL uses CAOs and CIMIC to work closely with the local population, funding Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) but also in strategies to help civilians develop local business and agriculture initiatives.  Whilst the larger political dispute that engulfs the region continues to be at a stalemate, UNIFIL has managed to maintain peace and security to the point where the south is now considered by many to be the safest part of the country.

The UNIFIL mission has demonstrated the important role subnational actors can play in assisting an area within a state which suffers the fallout of intractable political struggles at the international level.  The light footprint approach has managed to keep UNIFIL out of the national vicissitudes and ensure civilian protection. In sum, the peacekeeping literature has failed to take into account the possibility that international relations may come full circle, rather than continuing on a linear path.  This neglect in understanding the workings of older missions may prove to have been an oversight when new peacekeeping missions are launched (which inevitably they will be).