Strife Series on United Nations Peacekeeping: Peacekeeping has never been harder – Introduction

By Felix Manig

The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) peacekeepers on the field (Credit Image: UN News)

The year 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of United Nations Peacekeeping, one of the organisation’s primary tools for maintaining international peace and security. Over 110,000 peacekeepers currently serve in 15 missions around the world. Based on the three basic principles of consent, impartiality, and non-use of force except in self-defence and defence of the mandate, peacekeeping helps countries navigate the difficult path from conflict to peace.

Long gone are the Cold War days when peacekeepers were deployed to act as neutral observers of peace processes between warring state actors. Today, the Blue Helmets operate in more complex and high-risk environments than ever before, facing armed militant groups, terrorists, and organised criminal gangs. The contemporary multidimensional operations are tasked not only to keep the peace but also to protect civilians and human rights, to promote political dialogue, or to assist in the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants. Given the increasing risks linked to deployments, a December 2017 UN study commissioned by the Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support concluded with the sobering statement “The blue helmet and the United Nations flag no longer offer ‘natural‘ protection”.

Questions of effectiveness have always accompanied UN Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKOs), from successes like in 1992, when a UN-brokered settlement ended a decade-long civil war in El Salvador, to tragic failures such as in Rwanda, where the UN failed spectacularly to prevent the 1994 genocide. Today, as major conflict and humanitarian crises persist in Yemen and Syria, threats of funding cuts, and the deadlock affecting the UN Security Council over geopolitical interests, the UN peacekeeping architecture faces one of its most serious challenges to date.

Over the coming weeks, the five-part Strife Series on United Nations Peacekeeping will highlight the changing and increasingly asymmetric threat landscape peacekeepers find themselves in and what the future of UNPKOs may look like as hard power geopolitical competition appears to grip the UN General Assembly and Security Council. The upcoming articles by researchers from King’s College London, the United Nations University, as well as the private sector will offer a detailed analysis of both the efforts and missteps of the UN to maintain international peace and security in the twenty-first century.

First, Dr Samir Puri highlights how geopolitical competition and national interests play out in the UN Security Council and decide the fate of UNPKOs. The War Studies Department lecturer cautions that the UN must prepare itself for stronger geopolitical winds.

The second piece, written by Lenoy Barkai, addresses the security challenges facing UNPKOs in high-risk environments today. By examining some of the key criticisms of the December 2017 study, she explores how peacekeepers can maintain the moral high ground over their opponents but still fight back effectively.

Third, Ortrun Merkle and Diego Salama of the United Nations University take us on a thought experiment. With seven years into the Syrian civil war, the authors examine what a future peacekeeping mission in the war-torn country may look like and how it could be mandated.

In the fourth article, Caitlyn O’Flaherty evaluates the role of women in conflict prevention and mediation. Using UNMISS in South Sudan as a case study, Caitlyn highlights key challenges and opportunities when it comes to gender in UNPKOs.

In the final piece, Felix Manig looks at the future of UNPKOs. With a focus on strategic partnerships, emerging technologies, and increased participation of women in operations, Felix examines what the UN can and must do to effectively sustain peace in the twenty-first century.

Happy reading!


Felix Manig is a postgraduate in International Relations at King’s College London. He focuses on global governance, conflict resolution strategies, and cybersecurity. Outside of academia, he is Series Editor at Strife and writes for the Peacekeeping Project at the United Nations Association of Germany. You can follow him on Twitter @felix_manig

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