UN Peacekeeping: Successes and Challenges

Matthew Kronborg –


Matthew Kronborg

The International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, May 29, is a dedicated annual observance occasion to pay tribute to all the men and women who have served and continue to serve in United Nations peacekeeping operations. It respects their high level of professionalism, dedication, and courage and honours the memory of those who have lost their lives in the cause of peace for the benefit of all humanity. Currently more than 125,000 troops, civilians and police are deployed on 16 operations around the world as UN Peacekeepers. The deployment of UN Peacekeeping forces is one of the world’s most effective tools that can be drawn on to assist with the restoration and maintenance of peace in troubled lands.

The first UN peacekeeping mission was in 1948 to monitor Israel and its Arab neighbours during the Armistice Agreement, and since then, the UN has deployed 69 operations to facilitate the reconciliation of peace in countries like Guatemala, Cambodia, Sudan, Yugoslavia and East Timor.

However, despite all its achievements, UN Peacekeeping has also been accompanied by a plethora of particularly wicked challenges.

Deployed peacekeepers come as voluntary contributions from member countries of the UN with a diversity of backgrounds, levels of experience and training. Some countries send their best, other countries have been known to send their worst. Human rights abuse allegations by a minority of peacekeepers came to the attention of the international community in the 1990s during operations in the Balkans. The UN has been heavily criticised for allowing such violations to occur under its mandate. Missions in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and South Sudan experienced the highest number of accusations. Over the years, the United Nations has made numerous attempts to review and reform procedures involving its peacekeepers, the Brahimi Report in 2000 being a good example, but have faced great difficulties in dealing with the issue in a meaningful way due to the limitations and structure of peacekeeping and recruitment.

Abuses by a minority of peacekeepers have considerably sullied the overall reputation of UN peacekeeping operations and have been referred to by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as a “cancer in our system.” Most disturbingly, the bulk of these allegations have involved sexual abuse, with a report by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) finding that between 2008 and 2013 there were 480 reports of sexual abuse, of which a third were alleged to involve minors. Transactional sex has been found to be particularly prevalent, as local populations have used it to obtain goods like medication and food, whilst allegations of rape and trafficking have also been widespread. In one publicised case UN peacekeepers in Liberia were known to regularly visit a brothel called ‘Little Lagos’ which employed girls as young as 12 years old.

One of the several fundamental issues in addressing the misconduct of UN peacekeepers has been the difficulty in prosecuting offenders due to effective immunity. The UN has no legal authority to enforce prosecution in the peacekeeper’s country of origin, despite it only being binding there. Varied and unknown outcomes, prolonged delays and severely deficient victim assistance further exacerbate these difficulties. The OIOS in 2015 found that “very few victims have been assisted due to lack of dedicated funding and the slow enforcement process.”

In response to the calls for more stringent, thorough recruitment policies, in 2012, the UN put in place a screening policy requiring troop-contributing governments and potential individual recruits to confirm clean human rights records. However, amongst the highest suppliers of troops to UN peacekeeping missions are countries that are infamous for their human rights abuses. Given that the demand for peacekeepers exceed the supply, the UN still remains dependent on these countries to contribute staff for its operations as a desperate trade-off consideration.

Greater representation and importance given to the women in peace processes is also crucial to improve effectiveness, and the UN has made some steps towards this goal. Although there is yet much progress to be made, as an example of a success, in 2007 when the UN’s first all-female peacekeeping contingent was deployed in Liberia, it was found that this led to increased reporting of sexual violence by the local populace and consequently, a decrease in the frequency of these crimes.

Nonetheless, despite these wicked challenges and other wider issues not mentioned, such as Security Council veto powers, it is imperative that we recognise the valuable role that UN peacekeepers have played in upholding peace and security around the globe overall. UN peacekeepers are deployed to operate in the most unstable and risky locations where others are afraid to tread and are often exposed to the very worst of humanity, yet usually achieve great things. The UN’s history of overall peacekeeping success, which resulted in it once receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, represents the selfless hard work and bravery of its people. UN peacekeeping remains the world’s only true global mechanism for foundational security enabling humanitarian and political restoration, and despite its issues, the world would be a vastly worse place without the UN and its peacekeepers.