Professor Lisa Howard
Evidence, gathered in 16 peer-reviewed studies, shows that peacekeepers — or “blue helmets,” as the name suggests — significantly reduce civilian casualties, shorten conflicts, and help ensure peace deals last.
In fact, the majority of UN peacekeeping missions achieve their primary goal, which is to stabilize societies and end wars.
“If we look at the records systematically, most of the time peacekeeping works.” That is the verdict of Professor Lise Howard of Georgetown University in Washington DC. Her recently published book Power in Peacekeeping is based on extensive field research at various UN peacekeeping missions.
“If we look at the missions completed since the end of the Cold War, two-thirds of the time peacekeepers have been successful in fulfilling their mandate and on departure,” Professor Howard said in an interview with UN Video.
“It does not mean that in all these cases in the countries everything is perfect. But it means they are no longer at war.”
“Peacekeepers reduce the likelihood of civil wars,” she continues. “They also help to reach peace agreements. Where peacekeepers are promised, we are more likely to see a peace deal and peace deals lasting.”
Millions of lives saved
Most importantly, UN peacekeepers save lives: Professor Howard says millions of lives have been saved since the creation of peacekeeping in 1948.
The concept of using soldiers not to wage war but to keep the peace arose in 1948 during negotiations in the Middle East, when the newly founded State of Israel was at odds with its neighbors.
One of the most important creators of peacekeeping was Dr. Ralph Bunche, an American diplomat who was a senior official at the UN.
“This idea was an innovation in human history—that troops would march impartially, lest they take sides. They would be deployed with the consent of the belligerents, so the belligerents would actually ask peacekeepers to help them implement peace agreements.”
For his help in negotiating a truce between Egypt and Israel in 1948, Dr. Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.
UN Photo/M. Grant
Case study: Namibia
One of Professor Howard’s case studies is Namibia. In 1989, a UN peacekeeping mission helped end a civil war and supported the first free and fair elections in the country’s history. This was anything but an easy task.
“Namibia is a country that has experienced tremendous hardship,” says Professor Howard. “It had several colonizers. It had genocide. It fell victim to a regional war, a civil war. But surprisingly, Namibia has not fallen victim to this tremendously difficult history.”
Today Namibia is a stable, middle-income country with a functioning democratic system – an extraordinary achievement in this historical context.
The UN mission in Namibia was innovative for its time. 40 percent of the staff were women. And Professor Howard argues that UN peacekeeping is most effective when it doesn’t simply rely on armed force.
power of persuasion
“The most important form of power they exercised was persuasion. Peacekeepers were there to help reform the political system. No one had ever voted in an election before. Peacekeepers helped educate citizens about their rights and what it means to elect your own leaders.”
In the complex operations of civil wars, peacekeepers not only monitor ceasefire lines, they also help to rebuild the basic institutions of the state.
They help demobilize troops. They help reform the judicial and economic systems so that when disputes arise, people do not have to resort to violence again to resolve them.
Another central task is the protection of civilian lives. During South Sudan’s civil war, UN peacekeepers opened their facilities to hundreds of thousands, offering them sanctuary amid intense violence.
There have been times when UN peacekeepers have inflicted immense harm on civilians – the polar opposite of protecting them. A small minority have sexually exploited and abused vulnerable citizens.
The UN has taken action to prevent peacekeepers from committing acts of sexual violence. Entire battalions have been sent home and mechanisms are in place to ensure victims feel safe to report sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers.
The UN has also raised more than $4 million to support victims of sexual abuse and exploitation in Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Haiti and Liberia. The Trust Fund helps Member States to help victims and children of sexual exploitation and abuse.
Case study: Lebanon
The UN mission in Lebanon is another example of peacekeeping being achieved by means other than military force. The mission, dubbed UNIFIL, is located in a highly volatile area near the Israel-Lebanon border. On one side are the Israeli armed forces. On the other hand, Hezbollah and other armed actors.
One of UNIFIL’s main missions is to help keep the peace and reduce tensions between the Israeli Defense Forces and the Lebanese Army. But, says Professor Howard, the primary form of power used by peacekeepers today is incitement.
“UN peacekeepers help keep the peace, not because anyone fears them, but they see the benefit of UN peacekeepers getting people moving towards peace.”
Professor Howard observed peacekeepers in Lebanon first hand during her field research.
“In southern Lebanon we often see peacekeepers patrolling on foot. They go through the local churches. You visit the markets. You talk to people. You will speak to the Imam. You will talk to other local guides. They will set up a medical clinic or provide dental services. They also provide many jobs in southern Lebanon.”
In other words, UN peacekeepers provide a channel for talks and defusing tensions. They get to know the local communities and also offer services. They demonstrate the benefits of peace and stability.
From war to peace
Professor Howard argues that UN peacekeeping is most successful when it uses persuasion and incentives, rather than direct military force. But whatever the theory behind the success, data from extensive, systematic studies shows that UN peacekeeping operations are effective most of the time.
“If we look at the cases systematically, peacekeepers are helping people in their daily lives to move from a situation of war and violent conflict to a situation where there is more peace.”