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Does UN Peacekeeping Work? A New Perspective

September 26, 2022
William G. Nomikos


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, William G. Nomikos, an assistant professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, analyzes how the United Nations can increase interethnic cooperation and decrease communal violence

In a recent New York Times op-ed entitled “I Love the U.N., but It Is Failing,” Anthony Banbury, a former top UN official, argues that UN peacekeeping does not accomplish its most important goals. The graphic above the body of the text features the trademark UN flag’s olive branches enveloping a black hole rather than the usual world map. The suggestion is clear: UN peacekeeping operations are international quagmires with minimal or no positive impact. Scholars have echoed this sentiment, and maintained that the UN fails to adequately consult local actors, and relies instead on cookie-cutter approaches that emphasize international best practices over domestic political realities. Some have even suggested that UN peacekeeping operations may unintentionally drag violent conflicts out by empowering corrupt, war-mongering elites. Séverine Autesserre puts it even more bluntly: “the UN can’t end wars.”

Such pessimism is unwarranted. Critics underestimate the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping operations because they overlook peacekeepers’ ability to enforce nonviolent solutions to communal disputes. Civilians usually choose to cooperate to peacefully resolve a dispute when doing so is more beneficial—or less costly—than violent dispute resolution, which is often not the case in conflict settings. Locally deployed peacekeeping patrols can increase civilians’ willingness to cooperate with members of other groups by lowering the perceived risks and dangers associated with cooperation.

UN peacekeepers are uniquely able to limit the escalation of communal disputes because local populations perceive them as relatively impartial. The UN is a multilateral international organization branded as a peacemaker. Indeed, it is an especially diverse international organization with 193 sovereign member states. Unlike former colonial powers or neighboring countries with similar ethnic cleavages, domestic populations do not associate the UN with the interests of specific ethnic, religious, or tribal groups. In addition, the UN’s rules of engagement proscribe violence against civilians. These constraints on its operations enhance the UN’s reputation for impartiality because when international actors commit violence against individuals from a certain group, other members of that group believe the actor is systematically biased against them.

To better understand how UN peacekeepers are perceived, I carried out an experiment in Mali, a West African country with ongoing communal conflicts managed by troops from the UN and France.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance