Where are the peacekeepers?

Unilateral pledges of resources are meaningless without multilateral consensus formed through painstaking political bargains and compromises.

UNDOF peacekeepers [file] (photo credit: REUTERS)
UNDOF peacekeepers [file]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the past lessons of genocide in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Sudan suggest – and as the current events in Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan can attest – the international community often fails to bring peace and stability to areas ravaged by armed conflict.
At the United Nations General Assembly, US President Barack Obama recently promised to increase US contributions to peacekeeping operations and join a coalition of 50 countries pledging to increase the total number of peacekeepers by more than 30,000.
Foreign leaders ranging from China’s Xi Jinping to India’s Narendra Modi promised to increase their countries’ contributions in a rare moment of global cooperation.
Before we declare victory for global peace, these leaders must answer an important question: Where will the peacekeepers go? There are currently 16 UN peacekeeping operations, stretching from the Western Sahara to the India-Pakistan border. Nine are in Africa, three are in the Middle East, one is in South Asia, one is in Latin America and two are in Europe. The work of these peacekeeping missions is crucial as they protect civilians against the threat of violence around the globe.
While peacekeeping failures and instances of peacekeeper abuse remain concerns, academic studies have mostly found that peacekeeping missions are a force for good in troubled regions. The research has demonstrated that peacekeepers can decrease the potential for conflict relapse and keep a conflict from spilling into nearby states by providing a level of stability to a war-torn country.
Much more troubling, though, is where the peacekeepers are not deployed.
The peacekeepers are not in Nigeria, where 1.4 million children have fled Boko Haram. They are not in Libya, where more than 435,000 people have fled the violence since 2014. They are not in Yemen, where civil war risks becoming a regional armed competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
And, aside from an unrelated monitoring force in the Golan Heights, they are not in Syria, where Islamic State and the Assad regime race to see who can commit the most egregious crimes against humanity.
These are humanitarian crises with international implications, so where are the peacekeepers? The primary responsibility of determining when and where peacekeepers are deployed falls upon the UN Security Council. The council has been reluctant to deploy peacekeepers to “hot” conflicts because the primary role of peacekeepers is to enforce existing cease-fires and actualize political goals, not necessarily stop the violence itself. Moreover, the Security Council is reluctant to authorize missions to states without the explicit consent of the sovereign government.
Regions of the world where the security situations looks grim could benefit from a greater UN presence and international solidarity. If the world’s blue-helmeted troops are to meet Obama’s goal of establishing “security where order has broken down,” they need to be sent to the most hazardous areas and to where the existence of a sovereign government with legitimate authority is threatened.
And while world leaders pledge to send their armed forces to peacekeeping missions, the Security Council often struggles to find common ground on where to deploy the peacekeepers.
The permanent five members of the Security Council – the US, UK, France, Russia and China – all have veto power over Security Council resolutions.
A failure of these five countries to agree on common objectives and to cede some of their unilateral influence to an international mission helps explain why there’s no robust peacekeeping missions in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
France has recently proposed a solution: Security Council members pledge not to exercise their veto in cases of mass atrocities and potential genocide. This proposal is a nonstarter – asking countries to relinquish their veto may lead dissenting countries to take individual actions that subvert UN peace processes rather than confer legitimacy to UN efforts. More practically, Security Council members should commit to negotiating at the highest levels of government – and not just among their UN diplomats – to reach the types of compromises that are necessary for consensus on how to address humanitarian crises.
Unilateral pledges of resources are meaningless without multilateral consensus formed through painstaking political bargains and compromises.
The military resources stand at the ready to address a world troubled by broken cease-fires and rampant instability. Will the Security Council squander this opportunity?
Kyle Beardsley is an associate professor of political science at Duke University.
Emma Campbell-Mohn is a graduating senior at Duke doing an honors thesis in political science and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.