* co-authored with my research associate, Rebecca R. Friedman
With NATO operations in Libya entering their third month and no conclusion in sight, it is improbable that the civil war will resolve decisively in either side’s favor. Most likely, any ceasefire or stalemate will be tenuous and easily combustible; it will require monitoring, if not enforcement, by an international force capable of serving as an honest broker. In Libya, as in most conflicts since the end of World War II, the United Nations will be the only viable option to keep the peace.
Sunday, May 29 is the ninth International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers and there has never been a more appropriate time to acknowledge the immense contribution that UN peacekeepers make to peace and security. Last year was a banner year for the blue helmets: in 2010, the UN deployed more peacekeepers than ever before, with more than 100,000 troops, police, and observers serving in fifteen peacekeeping operations. Sadly, this heavy lift was not without sacrifice; 173 UN peacekeepers died in 2010 and 45 lives have already been lost in 2011.
Peacekeepers are deployed to many of the most dangerous corners of the world, where they are charged with supervising ceasefires, protecting at-risk civilians, and creating space for economic development and good governance. As an international body with universal membership, blue helmets are often welcomed where no one else is permitted.
Nowhere has UN peacekeeping been more impactful than Africa, where the UN has repeatedly proven the only actor willing to intervene to stop bloodshed.
Take, for instance, Sudan, where the UN Mission in Sudan (known as UNMIS) has monitored the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) between North and South Sudan since 2005, when that country’s most recent civil war ended. Perhaps the most controversial element of the CPA was a referendum to determine whether South Sudan would separate from the North. Indeed, this January, the South voted to secede by an overwhelming 98.8% margin. Given the country’s troubled past, many expected carnage, possibly even genocide. But with UNMIS’s careful shepherding, South Sudan paved its way to independence with limited violence—a truly remarkable feat in a nation plagued by civil strife for all but eleven of the years since its independence in 1956.
The Ivory Coast is another example of the UN’s capacity to mediate conflict. In November 2010, Ivorian incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo lost an internationally certified presidential election to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, but Gbagbo refused to cede power. Several months of increasingly bloody violence ensued and Gbagbo defied intense international pressure to step down. It was only through joint UN-French airstrikes against key Gbagbo positions that the president relinquished power, bringing an end to months of hostilities.
Outside of Africa, UN peacekeeping missions underpin stability in hotspots such as Lebanon, Haiti, and the Indo-Pakistani border region of Kashmir. And they help prevent the resurgence of violence in post-conflict areas like the Sinai desert and Kosovo.
Of course, UN peacekeeping is not without its flaws. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) lacks adequate resources and well-trained personnel to carry out complex, often-unrealistic mandates, and has struggled to work with other agencies and regional partners.
The persistence of these shortcomings has inspired some UN critics to suggest that in today’s climate of financial austerity, peacekeeping should be on the chopping block. Such an approach is misguided—if anything, peacekeeping operations deserve more funding, not less. Peacekeeping is the most cost-effective way to address violent conflict because it entails burden sharing among member states, capitalizes on a preexisting infrastructure, and facilitates cooperation with regional partners. Moreover, leaving conflicts to fester is far more expensive: the World Bank estimates annual global economic costs of conflict to be $100 billion, whereas the UN only spends $7.83 billion to maintain all of its peacekeeping missions each year.
Rather than budget cuts, the time is ripe for renewed focus on improving UN peacekeeping. Member states must work together to evaluate DPKO’s capability gaps and identify where troop and police contributing countries can fill them. Member states should also insist on baseline training standards for peacekeepers, selection of leaders on a merit basis, and more resources dedicated to increasing civilian expertise.
The UN selected May 29 to honor peacekeepers because it marks the anniversary of the first peacekeeping mission: the UN Truce Supervision Organization, created to monitor the ceasefire after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and still in existence today. Last week, Palestinians acknowledged that war’s end in a different fashion, marching by the thousand to breach Israel’s borders from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank. With tension between Israel and its neighbors reaching the highest level in decades, and the Middle East roiled by the Arab Spring, it’s easy to imagine that Libya will not be the only place needing peacekeepers in the not-so-distant future.