Oxford Handbook tells the History of UN Peacekeeping’s Successes and Failures

© Oxford

Alexandra Novosseloff

"The central message of the Handbook is that peacekeeping is much more successful than we all assume."


The Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (2015) provides in-depth analysis of all UN peacekeeping operations since 1948 until 2013 as well as thematic chapters on UN and non-UN peacekeeping trends and developments. The following is an edited transcript of an interview by Alexandra Novosseloff (CIC Senior Visiting Fellow) with two of the four editors: Joachim Koops and Paul D. Williams. Their conversation about the Handbook and peacekeeping is a contribution to an ongoing debate about current UN and non-UN peacekeeping operations concerning the recommendations of the High-level Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) report for improving the effectiveness and outcomes of peacekeeping and peace operations in general.

Alexandra Novosseloff: You have just published a major work of historical and contemporary research: The Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (2015). How did this book come into being?

Joachim Koops: I think we’ve all thought about the gap in the peacekeeping literature and the selection bias for some time. We felt a handbook could perhaps provide a good basis for a more comprehensive and nuanced debate on peacekeeping’s successes and limitations. I remember when, as an undergraduate working on my first term paper on peacekeeping, there was no single book that dealt with all UN operations. So after my PhD, it was always something I wanted to do. A concrete opportunity arose more than four years ago when Thierry Tardy and I got together for a workshop in Geneva and decided to give it a try. However, we realized that such an endeavor would be impossible without Paul and Norrie [MacQueen]. We were extremely fortunate to have had such a great editorial team and an extremely knowledgeable group of more than 50 contributors, all of whom got together to dig deeply into every single UN peacekeeping operation launched between 1948 and 2013. We tried to apply more or less the same framework for each chapter in order to allow the reader to compare the successes, failures, and other aspects over the course of each operation, systematically, across more than six decades of peacekeeping. The framework includes a brief historical background to each conflict the UN sought to address with the mission in question; the mission’s mandate; what the mission set out to do and how it changed; a quick overview on how the mission unfolded; and finally, the mission’s achievements and to what extent there were lessons to be learnt for the wider body of knowledge on peacekeeping operations.

Paul Williams:We also decided on the addition of a few thematic chapters. We believed it was important to not only have the history of peacekeeping as the story of the individual missions, but also to look at some of the key themes that link many of them. So we have chapters on trends in peacekeeping operations, international law, inter-organizational relations in peacekeeping, and the distinction between peace operations and humanitarian interventions. One chapter also discusses the question of success vs. failure. Inevitably, particularly when politicians or the broader public discuss peacekeeping, missions are very quickly going to be judged as either successes or failures. Hence we also included a chapter on the complexities and challenges of evaluating missions. And then we added the editors’ introductions, because even though we don’t all agree with the idea that there are distinct chronological generations of missions, we still wanted to make it clear that peacekeeping missions take place in a particular historical context and follow a particular historical debate.

JK: We deliberately wanted to have a chronological story told with each mission in succeeding chapters to allow readers to draw their own conclusions about recurring themes, successes and failures. Also, which lessons learned from previous missions were implemented – or, failing that, which missions seemed to have merely repeatedly reinvented the wheel. There was a big debate among all four co-editors whether we should provide one definite definition of success and failure for all authors to follow, or whether we should allow contributors to follow their own views on success and failure. In the end we opted for plurality, since anyone who has dealt with the challenge of evaluating peacekeeping knows how nuanced – and controversial − any debate on evaluating success or failure turns out. Hence we asked Paul Diehl and Dan Druckman, who wrote an excellent book on the difficulties of evaluating peace operations, to write a chapter on this for our thematic parts of the handbook. We then let the mission contributors more or less decide for themselves how they would determine and judge the success or failure of a mission.

AN: At the end of these four years, what is your own evaluation of where UN peacekeeping stands today? What are some of the main accomplishments, achievements and challenges for the years ahead?

PW: A few things stand out. Number one: roughly seventy years after the UN invented peacekeeping, it’s still around. So the first question to ask is what are the reasons that explain the durability of UN peacekeeping as an institution? There is often no real better alternative when it comes to international forms of conflict management, despite all the changes we’ve seen in the global governance arena and debates about UN reform.

The second conclusion for me is that often the United Nations has to deal with some of the most challenging and protracted conflicts on the planet − both in a geostrategic and a local political sense. So in one sense it is remarkable that there is actually any good news to report about UN peacekeeping. We need to keep context in mind. The tendency for the UN to have to deal with crises that nobody else wants to own means there’s a sort of selection bias: by definition, wherever a UN peacekeeping mission ends up being deployed, it’s probably because other alternatives are judged to not really be feasible or legitimate. Or, no one wants to expend the resources themselves to solve the problems.

A third conclusion is that there has never been a bigger need for UN peacekeepers. Over a 70-year period we’re currently at record numbers of peacekeepers. So it is a good time to conduct a deeper analysis of lessons learnt from the past.

That leads to my fourth overall conclusion: we have got to remember that peacekeeping operations are just instruments. They’re not political strategies of conflict resolution. A continual theme that emerges is that political success really revolves around having a strategy for reconciliation and conflict resolution between the belligerent factions. Peacekeeping operations can be an important part of that political strategy, but they’re never synonymous with it and should never be a substitute for it. So I think that the failures we’ve seen in UN missions are usually quite predictable, and have tended to follow occasions when we’ve deployed missions in the absence of a clear political strategy. One of the starkest examples from the Handbook is the mission in Syria: four months in duration, trying to monitor a nonexistent ceasefire with belligerents that aren’t committed to really working towards a peace in a genuine sense. Finally, UN peacekeeping is a reflection of the story of international politics more broadly – it’s a story about why geopolitics has unfolded in the way it did.

JK: Picking up on that, look at the history of peacekeeping in terms of what it can tell us about the global history of conflicts. Since the beginning of peacekeeping in 1948, which emerged with the still-unresolved Palestine-Israel conflict, you can see that every major explosion of conflicts across the globe was always at some point followed by a blue helmet peacekeeping operation. So in many ways the history of UN Peacekeeping – the deployments in the Middle East and Kashmir in the 1950s; Cyprus and Congo in the 1960s; Central America, Central Asia, the Balkans and particularly Africa since the 1990s – is also the history of major and often intractable conflicts. Peacekeeping was used particularly during the Cold War as a tool by the major world powers to insulate regional crises from spreading to the (nuclear) global level, but it was also employed in complex conflicts and regional crises that remain unresolved to the present day. Thus, UN peacekeeping operations in Kashmir, Cyprus, the Middle East or Congo still remain in place where all other political efforts continue to fail.

Another interesting result emerging from our study of the entire history of almost 70 UN peacekeeping operations is that nothing in contemporary peacekeeping is truly ‘new’. In fact, many things that we now think are novel in the 21st Century already have been tried in the 1960s and 1970s. The Handbook shows that in Cyprus, for example, there was an attempt to create a safe area around the Nicosia airport – something that was later picked up in Bosnia with the tragic outcome that resulted. We also have currently a strong debate about the use of force in UN Peacekeeping missions that go beyond the narrow idea of ‘using force in self-defense’. Again, however, it was already in the context of the Cyprus operation in 1964 when [former UN Secretary-General] U Thant first formulated guidelines for peacekeepers on when force could be used not just for defending peacekeeping troops, but also to defend the mandate. The idea of temporary administrations − i.e. the UN being directly responsible for the territorial administration of a country − which was applied in its most challenging version in Cambodia in the early 1990s, as well as Kosovo and East Timor a decade later, had already been tried by the UN Temporary Executive Authority/UN Security Force in West Guinea in 1962. Similarly, this force also foreshadowed the importance of policing tasks, something that would become an ever more important part of UN Peacekeeping in the post-Cold War era. Finally, the much-debated relationship between the UN and regional organizations first manifested itself in a tiny mission in the early 1960s in the Dominican Republic, wherein a small operation tried to keep the US-led Organization of American States mission in check.

So, in the Handbook we try to show that many issues that are discussed now, and seem new, have already been tested in various ways and there are important lessons to be learnt from them.

The central message of the Handbook is that peacekeeping is much more successful than we all assume or talk about in current debates. Also, while it might not be a particularly new conclusion, we also show in the Handbook that the most successful operations were those where major powers backed it, had a regional strategy, and worked together regionally despite their differences to solve that conflict. In these cases peacekeeping, particularly when combined with a high level of flexibility on part of the troop contributing countries and UN senior leadership to react to changing situations on the ground, was very successful.

Let’s take for example the operation in Tajikistan, with its rather violent and regionally problematic civil war in the mid-1990s. A terrible conflict, with an estimated 50,000 killed and up to 1.2 million civilians displaced. In current peacekeeping literature, it remains a rather obscure case study. Yet it was highly successful, at least in terms of security stabilization. You had Iran, Russia, and the West, as well as a variety of regional organizations, working together for one strategic purpose. You had a contact group that politically put pressure on the different warring parties and worked rather effectively together. UNMOT, the UN’s blue helmet operation, adapted from its beginnings as an observer mission to a DDR [Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration] mission and then phased into peacebuilding. So for us, the advantage of having a handbook that focuses also on ‘lesser-known’ operations is clear: it provides the reader with the full picture and full spectrum of failures, but also the successes of UN Peacekeeping throughout history.

AN: The book was finished before the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) report was released. In relation to what you have written in the Handbook, what struck you about the HIPPO recommendations and its major conclusions?

PW: From our research I would strongly recognize and endorse a few key themes that also came up in the HIPPO. Number one, what they call the primacy of politics; I completely endorse that. It comes through very clearly that in the absence of an effective political strategy, peacekeeping missions can at best do something called damage limitation. They can limit the worst symptoms of violent conflict but they can’t resolve its underlying causes.

A second thing that stands out to my mind, although it wasn’t a major focus of the Handbook, is the importance of designing a bureaucracy that can help deliver the political tasks that peacekeeping operations are being mandated to deliver in the field. Part of the story we tell in the Handbook is the growing professionalization of UN peacekeeping. A little-known fact for people who don’t engage extensively in peacekeeping research is that there wasn’t even a Department of Peacekeeping Operations at the UN until 1992. A good point of reflection from the HIPPO is that bureaucratic systems need to be designed to deliver the political tasks in the mandate. This means being sensitive to what peacekeepers in the field conclude, rather than developing all the key decisions in New York.

A third point would be regarding the mandates themselves. We organized the Handbook to make clear what specific mandates were given to each mission. I would tend to agree with the HIPPO report’s conclusion that if mandates are simply long lists of tasks − and they have become increasingly long lists of tasks – then this is not a very helpful way of defining effective strategies. What we need is some element of prioritization. We need a way of thinking about the allocation of resources to particular tasks, and also we need to think about the relationship between lots of different mandated tasks operating simultaneously. In the Handbook it becomes clear that the most effective missions were those with senior political leadership that could draw connections concerning the various aspects of the mandate. These missions were able to prioritize what was most important, because they were able to see connections between different types of mandated tasks and allocate their limited resources around them.

Finally, concerning the HIPPO, I would strongly agree with the emphasis on partnerships, questions about the reasons for peace operations, and who the real beneficiaries should be. I think we get lost if we see this as a story about New York or other bureaucratic centers. We have to remember that the primary purpose has to be dealing with the local effects of armed conflict on the ground, and that the ultimate goal should be to improve the situation of the people on the receiving end. So it’s the ‘peace kept’, or the local populations that peacekeepers work with, that should be our top priority. To my mind that’s something the UN still hasn’t got right and needs to think much more about. How do we best engage with local populations to deliver results on the ground? And how, really, can we design tasks and mission mandates that work with good ways of engaging a local population rather than against them?

JK: We were very honored and pleased that the HIPPO panel actually requested and used some of the handbook’s chapters during their regional consultations, and we sincerely appreciated the exchanges with some of the panel members. I think overall we have to be very honest and frank about what peacekeeping can and cannot do, and whether we maybe want to dampen expectations of what blue helmets can achieve even if it contradicts our own wishes or impulses. Of course we would like to see blue helmets protect civilians from threat in every single situation. But I think it’s important to have a more honest debate about the limits of the Protection of Civilians (POC) mandates, especially given some historical examples and contemporary challenges.

Second point concerning the HIPPO: partnerships. Partnerships between the UN and regional or other organizations have increased in terms of numbers, intensity and institutionalization. We have between the UN and the EU, for example, one of the most densely institutionalized relationships that exist between two autonomous organizations, with action plans, steering committees and also activity on the ground. Similarly, the UN has advanced significant cooperation schemes with the African Union and even NATO or the CSTO. But the interesting point here again that is often missed is that sometimes it’s not a partnership but two entities with diametrically opposed interests. And that’s something also to be aware of when we talk about coordination, and the problems of collaboration between the UN and international organizations. So perhaps we have to be a little bit more careful when we use the term ‘partnerships’ when describing the wide range of complicated inter-organizational relations.

Finally, I read with great interest that the HIPPO report also talks about the failures in having some kind of standing capacity, a nucleus element, some kind of start-up capability ready to deploy rapidly for peacekeeping operations. If you look at any peacekeeping operation that was assembled under time pressure and the resulting slow trickling in of troop contributing countries − as has been the case in the majority of all UN operations − it becomes clear how speedy deployments can make or break an operation. Yet, again, what is often forgotten in these contemporary debates is that during the last 70 years we’ve already had 14 multilateral attempts to establish a rapid reaction force for the UN. And as the Handbook chapter on the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea [UNMEE] shows, there has been one successful example of trying to come close to the idea of a ‘UN army’, if not standing, then at least on standby: the Standby High Readiness Brigade for UN Operations (SHIRBRIG), which contributed to the planning and deployment of UNMEE in 2000. Indeed, the co-author of the UNMEE chapter, Patrick Cammaert, used to be SHIRBRIG’s Commander and later became an avid supporter of enhancing and expanding the brigade as an effective rapid reaction force. Unfortunately, for a variety of understandable and not so understandable reasons, SHIRBRIG was dismantled in 2009. The fact that the HIPPO report now talks once more about the need for a rapid reaction force highlights the ongoing importance of connecting historical dots, and the need for improving existing instruments, rather than dismantling them too quickly. SHIRBRIG could not only have been a useful rapid reaction tool, but it was also used as a ‘rapidly deployable headquarters’ in the Liberia mission (UNMIL) in 2003 and conducted pre-mission planning for the Sudan and Ivory Coast operations. As the current situation and the HIPPO report make clear, future challenges to UN Peacekeeping will require even more strong planning capacities and robust, cohesive and well-trained rapid reaction forces.

AN: Our conversation has pointed out major challenges and necessities for improving peacekeeping, but also the successes and potential of peacekeeping missions. Where does this leave us?

PW: One of the things that stands out quite clearly concerning global military expenditure is how few financial resources have really been devoted to the world of UN peacekeeping and other forms of conflict management. We spend a pittance on giving peace a chance, and huge sums on preparing for war.

JK: An exercise that really puts the underfunding of UN peacekeeping in perspective is to remind ourselves of what other countries spend in total on conflicts that are in their direct strategic interest. For example, on Afghanistan alone the U.S. used to spend 3.5 billion dollars per month. That’s half of the entire annual UN Peacekeeping budget spent in a single month, by one UN member, on one single country.

AN: For Afghanistan, at the height of the mission, the U.S. expenditure was the equivalent of the UN peacekeeping budget.

PW: And yet, despite the relative lack of positive resources, UN peacekeepers have still been able to deliver. The various chapters in the Handbook highlight many impressive results and achievements despite relatively constrained and limited resources that have been spent on UN peacekeeping. Concerning the rise in peacekeeping budgets over the last few years, it is important to note that expenditures have risen in large part because of the locations where we’ve been deploying peacekeepers and the difficulty of getting supplies delivered in areas where there are no good roads, no good airports, etc. If UN peacekeeping had historically been deployed only in places like Cyprus, we would have had a much smaller budget. But when the history of peacekeeping includes deployments in Congo, Western Sudan, Northern Mali, etc., then I think that’s important to remember.

JK: A final remark: The UN has over the last 67 years deployed 71 missions around the globe, In other words, more than one mission per year, addressing the most intractable conflicts around the world. And it had to do so despite a variety of political, structural and resource constraints. Now imagine what peacekeeping could achieve if it was given all the resources it would need – which would still be far less than the resources deployed by coalitions of willing or unilateral state-led missions. The success of UN peacekeeping would probably shock us all.

Alexandra Novosseloff is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation | Twitter: @DeSachenka

Joachim A. Koops is Dean of Vesalius College, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Research Professor at the VUB’s Institute for European Studies and Director of the Global Governance Institute (GGI). | Twitter: @JoeKoops

Paul D. Williams is associate professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. | Twitter: @PDWilliamsGWU

Norrie MacQueen js an Honorary Research Fellow, School of International Relations, University of St Andrews. | Twitter:@NorrieMacQueen

Thierry Tardy is a Senior Analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. | Twitter: @thierrytardy