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Peacekeeping Work: Part I

Critical State takes a deep dive into the rationale behind peacekeeping missions.

Words: Sam Ratner

A political science Voltron came together recently. Three of the world’s leading scholars on peacekeeping, Barbara Walter, Lise Morje Howard, and Page Fortna, wrote a major article in the British Journal of Political Science, taking stock of what we know about the processes and conditions necessary for third-party peacekeeping to be effective. This week and next, Deep Dive looks at recent papers cited as key to helping future policymakers make better choices and bring conflicts to a close.

One thing scholars of peacekeeping actually do agree on is that peacekeepers do reduce violence against civilians. Conflicts that have international interventions from peacekeepers consistently see a drop in violence against civilians — often a quite substantial drop. Some research even shows a close relationship between the number of peacekeepers and civilian safety: the more blue helmets around, the fewer civilian combat deaths.

That’s encouraging news, but there is still a nagging issue. Peacekeeping missions typically take place because peacekeepers are invited in by at least one of the parties to the conflict — usually the government party, in the case of a civil war. Is it possible that parties to the conflict invite international intervention in the first place because they expect levels of violence to drop anyway? Is the dread god Endogeneity skewing our beliefs about whether peacekeeping works?

One thing scholars of peacekeeping actually do agree on is that peacekeepers do reduce violence against civilians.

An article forthcoming in the journal International Organization says probably not. Political scientists Allison Carnegie and Christopher Mikulaschek dug into the actual mechanisms by which peacekeeping missions are generated and discovered an opportunity for a tidy, natural experiment about peacekeeping effectiveness. The UN Security Council is the most important body in determining when, where, and to what degree UN peacekeepers are deployed. Council membership outside of the five permanent members turns over frequently due to term limits, and the non-permanent seats are allotted to specific regions. Once the Council members are set, the Council presidency rotates each month, in alphabetical order — that is, for the purposes of measuring the Council’s effect on international conflict, basically at random. Because Security Council membership and leadership are related to the size of peacekeeping operations but are unrelated to the state of any particular conflict that might be a target for peacekeeping operations, the Council’s makeup allowed Carnegie and Mikulaschek to use Council membership and leadership as random variables to test peacekeeper effectiveness.

Their results are stark and speak to both the way peacekeepers are apportioned and who they actually protect. When a state in a certain region holds the Council presidency, Carnegie and Mikulaschek find, the Council sends more peacekeepers to conflicts in that region. For every hundred of those additional peacekeepers, who, regardless of conflict conditions, would not have been there if a regional state wasn’t in the Council presidency, peacekeepers prevented an average of 17 additional civilian casualties each month. Similarly, every hundred additional peacekeepers that arrive due to a country from a certain region being on the council produce another 12 prevented casualties each month. In other words, states do act to get the international community to increase stability in their neighborhoods and peacekeepers do help deliver that stability.

Carnegie and Mikulaschek also found, however, that those civilian casualty preventions weren’t evenly distributed. The reduction in civilian casualties that peacekeepers bring is only reflected in civilian casualties caused by rebels. Peacekeepers have basically no effect on civilian killings by government forces. This is the flip side of the peacekeeping model — peacekeepers are invited into conflict areas and serve there, to a certain extent, at the pleasure of the host government. The incentive, therefore, is for peacekeepers to exert much more energy cracking down on abuses by rebels, who get no representation on the Security Council, than on abuses by a government that might decide that supporting the peacekeeping mission is no longer worth it. The international community, it turns out, is very good at restraining violent behavior, but only if its members aren’t the ones doing the shooting.

Sam Ratner


Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers southeast African security issues, and a founding editor of Fellow Travelers Blog. He earned his MPA in international security policy from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He tweets at @samratner.


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