The role of United Nations peacekeeping forces – impartial troops that the U.N. deployed to ensure the promotion of human rights and democratic ideals – has been in question for years, especially due to concerns over their efficacy in situations where decisive military action is necessary. It is partly due to these concerns, as well as general opposition to international organizations from the Trump Administration, that American contributions to peacekeeping efforts have waned over the last five years. However, recent evidence shows that American peacekeeping not only plays an important role in the stability of many fragile democracies but that it often serves American interests more efficiently than U.S. military action could.
Controversy Over American Peacekeeping
U.N. peacekeeping efforts have long been the subject of controversy over their efficacy in conflict zones. Peacekeepers bind themselves to neutrality and may intervene only when the country in question invites them and use force exclusively in self-defense.
Traditional peacekeeping operations had the intention of maintaining demilitarized zones between warring parties in order to prevent either party from taking advantage of the other through abuse of cease-fires. An example of this includes the U.N. peacekeeping operation based in Jerusalem to prevent violence between Palestine and Israel. Peacekeeping’s detractors often point to this example as proof of the endless and ineffective nature of peacekeeping, given the failure of the Jerusalem mission to produce a peaceful regional agreement despite being implemented over 70 years ago. A better-known example of inefficacy in peacekeeping is the Rwandan genocide, where U.N. blue helmets – rendered powerless due to orders forbidding them to intervene – became witnesses to the slaughter of over 800,000 people.
Given the failure of the Rwandan peacekeeping mission and the fact that the kind of territorial conflicts the peacekeeping program intended to prevent are becoming less common, many believe that peacekeeping has no future in an era that ideological conflict and extremism define. This perspective, however, ignores blue-helmet successes and peacekeeping’s cost-efficiency in comparison to military interventions.
The Success of Peacekeeping
Blue helmet successes in East Timor and Sierra Leone point towards a new kind of peacekeeping that includes the mandate of military force where necessary in combination with the promotion of locally-led sustainable development initiatives. In East Timor, a country that integration with Indonesia and a desire for independence once tore apart, pro-integration militias began a bloody campaign which resulted in the deaths of thousands and the displacement of many more. After successfully registering hundreds of thousands of citizens to vote in a poll that demonstrated overwhelming support for independence, the U.N. provided peacekeepers with a mandate to restore stability to the region and assist in creating a local government. The multinational forces were successful in their use of force to quell violence in East Timor, and worked with local leaders to implement a new government that the Timorese designed rather than having Western nations force one upon them.
One can also see the efficacy of peacekeeping in the example of Sierra Leone, where a bloody civil war raged over the last decade of the 20th century. In the wake of a conflict that human atrocities characterized, U.N. peacekeeping operations (though initially modest) eventually brought nearly 18,000 troops into the region with the intention of restoring peace and disarming the country’s warring parties. In 2000, the U.N. negotiated a cease-fire under the Abuja Agreement, at which point peacekeeping operations shifted to prioritize the facilitation of fair elections and the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure. Peacekeepers remained in the region until 2005 to ensure stability, and later surveys found that over 80% of Sierra Leoneans approved of the U.N.’s response to the conflict.
American Support for Peacekeeping
Under the Trump Administration, American contributions to the program have decreased from 29% of the American peacekeeping budget to under 25% over the last five years. Despite being the only organization for effective “burden-sharing” in the international effort for security, the Trump budget cuts stemmed from the belief that American contribution to the U.N. was unfairly large. The U.S. is currently the largest contributor to peacekeeping operations. Each country’s participation, however, depends on its size, wealth and veto power.
Despite claims that peacekeeping does not benefit American interests, recent studies show that it can be more efficient than American military intervention. A study by the Government Accountability Office found that, though U.N. peacekeeping operations cost roughly $2.4 billion (USD) over three years in the Central African Republic, a hypothetical American military operation with similar objectives would cost more than twice as much. When one factors this cost-analysis into the benefits to the U.S. from the global security gained by peacekeeping operations, it becomes clear that continued contribution to peacekeeping is in the best interest of American security.
– Kieran Hadley
Photo: United Nations