HomeArticleAre UN peace operations effective?

Are UN peace operations effective?

By Cedric de Coning

Quantitative studies of United Nations peace operations generally conclude that they are effective. However, the findings of these studies have been questioned on the basis that they show correlation, but fail to identify the causal mechanisms that can explain these results in specific cases. Despite the positive conclusions of these statistical studies, not enough is known about how peace operations contribute to reducing violence and sustaining peace in specific cases.

A global research consortium—the Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network (EPON)—has set out to address this gap. Through research into the effectiveness of specific peace operations in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mali, South Sudan, and others, it is possible to identify some cross-cutting trends and observations on the effectiveness of UN peace operations.

Assessing Effectiveness

At the outset, it is important to define effectiveness. In the context of these studies it is the overall strategic impact of a peace operation, understood as reducing conflict dynamics in the area of operation over a particular period of time, in the context of its mandate and resources. This can be assessed with three analytical tools: a context analysis, an identification of effects, and a review of explanatory factors. Context analyses help to understand the environment in which the peace operation is intended to produce positive effects. Identifying and examining effects involves assessing whether a peace operation prevents violent episodes, increases stability, protects civilians, reduces sexual and gender-based violence, or builds and fosters sustainable peace, if so mandated. Reviewing explanatory factors helps determine why these effects were generated by the peace operation.

The methodological approach of these studies is based on a set of six explanatory factors: political primacy; mandates and resources; people-centered approaches; legitimacy and credibility; coordination and coherence; and women, peace, and security.

One overall observation is that the systematic collection, management, and analysis of data on the actions and performance of peace operations, and the effects on the people and institutions they are meant to protect and support, would significantly improve assessments of the effectiveness of peace operations.

Unfortunately, data is currently not systematically organized, analyzed and shared within the organizations responsible for deploying international peace operations. In this regard, the recent introduction of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment System (CPAS) in UN peacekeeping operations represents a positive development.

What follows are broad observations and trends from the analysis of a few peace operations in the areas of: preventing large-scale violent conflict; ending violence conflict; protecting civilians; women, peace, and security (WPS); politics; people-centered approaches; and the role of headquarters and international actors.

Prevention of Large-Scale Violent Conflict

Three of the peace operations studied by EPON so far—the African Union (AU) Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), and the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)—have made significant contributions to preventing major civil wars and large-scale conflict. A broad range of stakeholder communities in the DRC, Mali, and Somalia agree that the level of violent conflict in these countries would have been significantly worse if these peace operations were not present. Their actions are thus widely understood to have had a deterrent effect and their presence has contributed to preventing larger-scale violent conflict. For example, local communities in eastern DRC or central Mali experiencing violence or the risk of violence are seeking the protection of the UN because they believe a UN presence will have a deterrent and preventative effect.

The UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is an exception in that a large-scale conflict or civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013, and relapsed again in 2016 while the operation was deployed. Its presence and actions were thus not a sufficient deterrent to prevent the outbreak of war in the country. After the conflict broke out, UNMISS protected hundreds of thousands of people in and around its protection of civilians (POC) sites and provided support to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-led peace agreement implementation process. However, it was prevented from, for instance, providing security in Juba via the Regional Protection Force, which could have contributed to an earlier return of opposition parties and more confidence in the implementation of the revitalized peace agreement.

Ending Violent Conflict

Analysis of MONUSCO, MINUSMA, UNMISS, and AMISOM suggests that peacekeepers are not able to bring about an end to violent conflict in the countries where they are deployed, on their own. Other peace operations, such as those in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Timor Leste, to mention a recent few, have been able to withdraw after successfully implementing their mandates.

One significant factor that is different in the DRC, Mali, Somalia, and South Sudan is the absence of a viable political, governance, or peace process that can realistically be expected to bring about an end to violent conflict in these countries. Without such a process in place, the peace operations themselves cannot be expected to end the violent conflict in these countries. These missions simply do not have the political leverage and support, requisite mandates, resources, or capacity to end, or even successfully suppress, violent conflict at the scale required. Ultimately, sustainably bringing an end to violent conflict can only be achieved politically.

The UN Security Council and other authorizing bodies can also be more explicit about the contribution that peace operations are anticipated to make, and to give more attention to the political, governance, and developmental dimensions required to bring about an end to violent conflict and achieve sustainable peace, as well as the inter-linkages between these dimensions.

Protection of Civilians

MONUSCO, MINUSMA, AMISOM, and UNMISS have not met local and international expectations when it comes to POC. The operations have protected many civilians directly and indirectly, but they simply do not have the resources and capacity to protect all civilians at all times.

One aspect to note in this context is the important role that non-military initiatives, or means other than physical protection, have played in most of the above peace operations. A range of conflict resolution, good offices, and local peace initiatives have made a notable contribution to preventing violent conflict and reducing risks to civilians in many instances. The work of most of these operations in areas such as child protection (where the role of MONUSCO in the reduction of the use of child soldiers in the DRC is especially noteworthy), human rights, and conflict-related sexual violence is commendable.

Women, Peace, and Security

The effects of the efforts to promote the WPS agenda have been mixed. While there have been modest gains in improving the participation of women in peace operations and representation of women in the countries in question, the overall effect has been negligible to date. And while the overall number of sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA) allegations have been low and declining, the inability of these institutions to prevent SEA—despite their stated zero-tolerance policies—and their inability to find a solution to the issues of jurisdiction when it comes to punishing those guilty of offenses, is disappointing and unsatisfactory.

Some work has been done within the mission to raise awareness of the link between gender sensitivity and gender mainstreaming on the one hand, and the effectiveness of peace operations on the other. However, the promotion of gender sensitivity and gender mainstreaming has been very limited, in some cases due to a lack of mandate provisions in this area.

MONUSCO, MINUSMA, AMISOM, and UNMISS have all been more successful during periods when they enjoyed coherent political support, i.e., when there was alignment among a sufficient number of members of the UN Security Council or the AU Peace and Security Council, among key troop- and police-contributing countries, and between the host state, key stakeholders, regional organizations, and the peace operation itself.

An implication of this observation is that peace operations have weak leverage on one of the most important factors that will influence their effectiveness, as a large portion of the work necessary to bring about and sustain such coherent political support needs to happen in the political bodies that have mandated these missions, and at the level of the strategic headquarters that have deployed these operations. Much more attention needs to be devoted to building and maintaining coherent political support for any given operation if that mission is going to be effective.

It is thus of concern that MONUSCO, MINUSMA, AMISOM, and UNMISS all lack a clear political project aimed at resolving their respective conflicts. Instead, each has a conflict management mandate focused on stability, and in some cases on POC. The bulk of their efforts are devoted to essentially keeping the situation from deteriorating further. Ironically, the more effective these operations are, the less incentive there is for the political elites in power to seek a political settlement.

Other actors—major powers, the UN Security and AU Peace and Security Councils, special envoys, and mediators—are expected to pursue a political settlement. Development and humanitarian actors, such as international financial institutions, international donor partners, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, and philanthropists, are expected to improve overall human and economic development. To a limited degree, the missions in the DRC, Mali, and Somalia also have some responsibilities for reforming and strengthening governance, especially in the security and rule of law sectors, but these lines of operation are not undertaken at a level of intensity and scale that have been able to bring about significant changes in the periods that the missions have been deployed.

Peace operations theorists will need to reconsider how the contemporary focus on the protection of civilians and stabilization can be sustained without trapping peace operations in situations where this conflict management approach serves to entrench political elites, undermine the social contract, and serve as a disincentive for long-term settlement.

People-Centered Peace Operations

One of the four key recommendations of the UN High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) in 2015, was for a shift to more people-oriented peace operations. This is also one of the central lessons that has emerged from the critical peacebuilding literature over the last two decades—namely that many peace interventions failed because they were too top-down and template driven.

The peace operations EPON has studied are all still predominantly state centric and much more needs to be done to operationalize and implement the HIPPO call. Most are focused on supporting the host government and state institutions, or threats to them. Although POC mandates have brought about more engagement with local communities, these efforts are mostly concentrated around managing risk. Apart from the civil affairs function, missions are very weakly connected to the people whom they are meant to protect, and whose lives the missions are meant to influence.

MONUSCO, MINUSMA, AMISOM, and UNMISS are all very weak when it comes to involving social and civic representatives in assessments, analysis, planning, coordination, and evaluation or performance assessments. Missions rarely make an effort to assess their impact on the societies they are meant to protect and serve.

Headquarters Accountability and International Actors

When assessing the effectiveness of peace operations a distinction has to be made between, on the one hand, the effectiveness of a given operation—given that it has a specific mandate, limited resources, and an evolving context—and, on the other hand, the role of the authorizing and deploying bodies and the role of international actors. Analyzing the roles of these bodies and actors is also part of assessing peace operations effectiveness.

The authorizing bodies in the cases of MONUSCO, MINUSMA, AMISOM, and UNMISS are the UN Security Council and the AU’s Peace and Security Council and their respective secretariats. These councils have the option of changing an operation’s mandate and enhancing its resources. Their options are informed by a specific geopolitical context and the resources they can allocate are not unlimited. However, the extent to which they have been able to mobilize and sustain political and material support for a given course of action has varied considerably over time. Some missions have been deployed at a much more significant scale and with much greater political clarity and sustained attention than others. The ability of these headquarters to provide clear guidance and support is critical to a given mission’s effectiveness.

International actors, including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and regional development banks, multilateral donors, bilateral partners and donors, and regional organizations, also play an important role alongside national and local actors.

It is the combined and cumulative effect of all of these national and international actors together that constitute the larger political project. Peace operations need to understand their role in this larger political project, and they need to have the capacity to support the effort necessary to coordinate, track, and take stock of it. The performance of peace operations also depends on the degree to which a peace operation and their strategic headquarters contribute to shaping and maintaining the strategic political coherence of the larger national and international effort to sustain peace in a given country or region.


Ultimately, an assessment of whether a peace operation is effective must account for a range of factors, some of which are in a given operation’s control, some of which are not. Effectiveness also depends on the larger political context and the coherence of all efforts to sustain peace in a given country. This reality presents peace operations with a significant challenge to achieving their mandates, and it is for this reason that more research is needed to determine when and how these operations have been effective. Relief Web

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