The Crisis of Peacekeeping

Why the UN Can’t End Wars

A UN peacekeeper on a patrol in Kiwanja, Democratic Republic of Congo, November 2008 Emmanuel Braun / REUTERS

In nearly 50 conflict zones around the world, some one and a half billion people live under the threat of violence. In many of these places, the primary enforcers of order are not police officers or government soldiers but the blue-helmeted troops of the United Nations. With more than 78,000 soldiers and 25,000 civilians scattered across 14 countries, UN peacekeepers make up the second-largest military force deployed abroad, after the U.S. military.

The ambition of their task is immense. From Haiti to Mali, from Kosovo to South Sudan, UN peacekeepers are invited into war-torn countries and charged with maintaining peace and security. In most cases, that means nothing less than transforming states and societies. Peacekeepers set out to protect civilians, train police forces, disarm militias, monitor human rights abuses, organize elections, provide emergency relief, rebuild court systems, inspect prisons, and promote gender equality. And they attempt all of that in places where enduring chaos has defied easy solution; otherwise, they wouldn’t be there to begin with.

Unfortunately, this endeavor has a spotty track record. Global leaders continue to call on “the blue helmets” as the go-to solution whenever violence flares in the developing world. U.S. President Barack Obama praised UN peacekeeping as “one of the world’s most important tools to address armed conflict,” and the UN itself claims that it has “helped end conflicts and foster reconciliation by conducting successful peacekeeping operations in dozens of countries.” But in fact, UN peacekeepers too often fail to meet their most basic objectives. On many deployments, they end up watching helplessly while war rages. On others, they organize elections and declare victory, but without having fixed the root causes that brought them there—making it all too likely that fighting will flare again before long.

Part of the reason for this failure is a lack of resources. It is hard to fault the UN for that, since it relies on contributions from its members. The larger problem, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding about what

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