From the period of June 1948 to December 2000, non-United Nations (UN) actors implemented 53 peacekeeping operations, a figure identical to that of the number of operations deployed by the UN during the same period. Since the turn of the century, moreover, the number of peace operations deployed by regional organisations and coalitions of states has surpassed that of those initiated by the UN. This historic, and burgeoning, proliferation of non-UN peace operations has solicited an enduring and seemingly strategically important research agenda seeking to determine whether UN or regional peace operations are better-equipped to intervene in civil wars. This article contends that the prevailing conceptual dichotomy between UN and non-UN peace operations is in large part an illusory one. Through an analysis focussed primarily on regional/UN operations on the African continent, the article posits first that an increasing level of UN support for regional operations blurs distinct analytical lines between the two. Second, regional and UN peace operations often operate according to a de facto division of labour, meaning some comparative statements pit UN/regional operations against one another according to false standards. Third, the increasing regionalisation of UN peace operations renders the UN/non-UN dichotomy a weak one.
The UN/non-UN Playoff
While large-n quantitative studies charting the track record of UN vs. regional peace operations can identify valuable broad-scale patterns, these studies reap often inconsistent results. This is in part due to the fact that such investigations are ultimately contingent upon how authors define and code peacekeeping operational success, amongst other variables. For instance, one quantitative analysis argues that, controlling for ‘mission difficulty’, UN and non-UN operations have a similar ‘success’ rate, yet a similar study finds UN operations to be more successful than non-UN operations whilst controlling for the same variable. Furthermore, a 2020 study concluding that only UN operations curb violence against civilians committed by non-state actors is contrasted by recent research finding that non-UN peace operations limit rebel-caused violence.
Speculative theoretical stances attributing innate premiums to either regional or UN peace operations are similarly contradictory. Primordialist accounts recite the UN’s alleged intrinsic global moral authority over peacekeeping, premised upon its unique mandate for the maintenance of international peace and security, claims to the UN’s transcendent impartiality, and the belief that, ultimately, ‘peacekeeping is UN business’. In contrast, proponents of regional solutions to regional problems tout the inherent pre-eminence of non-UN intervention based on the idea that the people and governments of one region have a natural affinity with others in that region and an intrinsic distrust of external intervention. Ultimately, advantages in political will, legitimacy, and rationalist-material factors are ascribed equally to either regional actors or the UN, depending on who is doing the ascribing. One common theme throughout these conflicting inferences, however, is that they subscribe to a binary UN vs. non-UN taxonomy of peace operations. In practice, this taxonomy is much more convoluted.
Past the Regional/UN Dichotomy
Whilst the UN has sought its own resource-based support from some regional organisations – the European Union, for example – it provides an increasing degree of quasi-institutionalised support to regional peace operations on the African continent. For instance, the United Nations Support Office for the African Union Mission in Somalia (UNSOA) uses assessed contributions for peacekeeping to directly support a non-UN peace operation: the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Mounting debates over the creation of a similar support office to finance the G5 Sahel Joint Force coalition using assessed peacekeeping contributions point to a more widespread, growing interconnection between UN and non-UN operations. Indeed, some forewarn of a new type of UN peace operation, led by the Department of Operational Support, as a result of this trend. Thus, while the case of the hybrid African Union (AU)-UN operation in Darfur epitomises explicit UN-regional organisation cooperation, relationships between the two operate on a much broader scale. Unprecedented support structures emerging from the UN dictate that more regional peacekeeping also effectively means more UN peacekeeping; the two are by no means divorced from one another.
Furthermore, there often exists to some extent a temporal division of labour between UN and regional peace operations. The AU, for example, has often demonstrated a clear preference to deploy interim operations that act deliberate precursors to UN intervention. AU operations in Mali (2013) and the Central African Republic (2014) were recast as UN missions within one year of their deployment, and the AU explicitly demanded the deployment of a UN follow-up mission to the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) within six months of AMISOM’s implementation in 2007. That this did not come to fruition does not alter the reality that the AU at least conceives of its peace operations as short-term measures. As such, assessing regional operations directly against UN operations fails to account for key differences in mandated objectives and the comparative advantages held by each in line with this temporal division of labour.
What is more, UN operations themselves have frequently emerged as a preferred form of regional peacekeeping, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2009, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proclaimed that African troops in UN operations were ‘helping to find African solutions to African challenges’, appealing to the popular mantra coined to underscore the benefits of regional intervention. This sentiment echoes an enduring tendency for neighbouring states to supply the bulk of troops for UN peace operations. For instance, in August of 1999, Nigeria insisted upon a phased withdrawal of troops from the regional Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) peace operation in Sierra Leone, offering instead to subsume these troops into a new UN operation (UNAMSIL). The same regional troops were effectively rehatted under the auspices of the UN. In a similar vein, ECOWAS countries plus Chad provide nearly two thirds of the UN operation in Mali’s military personnel, reflecting a tendency for regional states to compose a large bulk of UN troops.
This regionalisation is also reflected in the data. Throughout the 2000s, sub-Saharan African contributions to UN peacekeeping increased significantly. Notably, though, the majority of this increase in contributions was disproportionately channelled towards UN operations within the continent; from 2001-2009, sub-Saharan Africa’s commitment remained relatively stable to an ever-increasing number of military personnel deployed outside the region, with the figure remaining between 680 and 1,120 troops. In contrast, sub-Saharan African contributions to UN peacekeeping within the African continent rose from 8,441 troops in 2001 to 20,677 in 2009, a 145% increase. As such, while sub-Saharan African participation in UN (global) peacekeeping ascended rapidly in the early 21st century, it in fact became more localised and regional.
While failing to acknowledge distinctions between UN and non-UN peace operations is clearly unproductive, increasingly blurred lines between the two divulge a fundamental tension inherent in the conceptual UN/regional peacekeeping binary. There is a spurious homogenisation inherent in arranging a vast and diverse scope of peace operations into a taxonomy of UN vs. non-UN-sanctioned interventions, meaning ‘non-UN’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘UN’ as categories of peace operations require considerable further disaggregation in order to be able to draw meaningful comparisons. Paul Diehl’s 1993 observation that the success of regional peacekeeping is contingent upon many of the same factors as UN peacekeeping has withstood the test of time; regional peacekeeping is not the antithesis of UN peacekeeping and vice versa.