Since 1948, the UN has been sending out peacekeeping forces (the Blue Helmets) for the purpose of maintaining peace. Peacekeeping missions were rarely used before the end of the Cold War, but since that time they have multiplied and become increasingly complex. Because the responsibilities of UN member states are unequally divided, these missions have become subject to much criticism.

“To maintain international peace and security.” These are the words used, in the United Nations Charter to describe the primary goal of this international organization, founded in the aftermath of the Second World War. Its aim was to follow on from the failed League of Nations (LoN) project, in a context of aspirations to achieve lasting peace.

The Capstone Doctrine

The UN’s peacekeeping operations (PKO) were not themselves laid down in the Charter and have developed on an ad-hoc basis since 1948, seeking to achieve this aim while observing three fundamental principles: consent of the parties, impartiality and non-use of force. Deriving their legal basis from Chapters VI, VII and VIII of the Charter, international humanitarian law, human rights and Security Council mandates, they are the main instrument for international peacekeeping endeavors.

The Capstone Doctrine, which outlines the principles behind UN peacekeeping operations, describes the tasks assigned to its early missions as follows: “Observation, monitoring and reporting […]; Supervision of cease-fire and support to verification mechanisms; Interposition as a buffer and confidence-building measure.” As time has passed, the assignments entrusted to the Blue Helmets have become more diverse and more complex, involving the deployment of different types of mission alongside these traditional tasks – while the key concepts of UN peacekeeping have evolved through practice. In parallel to these UN operations, single states, coalitions of states and regional organizations such as NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) also undertake interventions, sometimes unilaterally, in the name of “peacekeeping”.

Since the end of the Cold War, which had limited the Security Council’s role due to the power of veto exercised by its permanent members, changes have been apparent in quantitative, qualitative and geographic terms, including in particular a growing number of what are called multidimensional operations. The aim of such operations, according to the Capstone Doctrine, is to “Create a secure and stable environment while strengthening the State’s ability to provide security, with full respect for the rule of law and human rights; [and to] facilitate the political process by promoting dialogue and reconciliation and supporting the establishment of legitimate and effective institutions of governance.” These operations typically involve a diversification of actors taking part – as in hybrid operations undertaken in collaboration with regional international organizations like the African Union – and activities including support in organizing elections, the demobilization and reintegration of former combatants, or the protection of civilians. They are sometimes based on robust peacekeeping mandates.

The budget allocated to PKOs has increased substantially between 1990 and 2017, too, giving them a central role in realizing and coordinating multiple peacebuilding activities. Significant increases in civilian and police personnel reflect the growth of multidimensional operations. In December 2017, according to its monthly Peacekeeping Operations Fact Sheet, the UN had 15 current operations in hand (out of a total of 71 since 1948), involving more than 106,338 people – including more than 90,000 uniformed personnel from 125 different countries – with a budget of USD 6.80 billion (for the period from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018).

UN peace operations budget, 1990-2017

Source: United Nations, Department of Peace Operations (DPO),

Comment: Before 1990, that is, before the curve begins, the annual UN peacekeeping operations budget was less than 1 billion dollars – the Cold War between the two blocs meant that most attempts at peacekeeping were paralyzed. After an initial peak in the mid-1990s, when operations took place in Cambodia, Somalia, and former Yugoslavia, the budget increased during the second half of the 2000s due to the proliferation of operations in Africa. The diagram shows that in 2017-2018 several large-scale operations (usually more than 10,000 men on the ground) mobilized budgets of over 1 billion dollars (DRC, Sudan/South Sudan, and Mali).

National contributions to UN peace operations (PO), 2018

Sources: United Nations, General Assembly, Resolution A/70/331/Add.1;

Comment: This graph compares the geography of states which contribute to the budget for UN peacekeeping operations with that of states which provide military troops. States in the North pay, while states in the South send men: the top 6 financing states (covering two-thirds of the budget) are in the North (United States, Japan, Germany, France, United Kingdom) or are members of the Security Council (China), whereas the 13 states that mainly supply troops (two-thirds of the contingent) are in the South (South and East Asia and Africa).

Resource constraints and criticisms

As the UN Secretariat highlighted in 2009, the available peacekeeping resources are mismatched with the requirements of increasingly wide-ranging mandates and PKO planning faces the ongoing challenge of adapting to evolving circumstances, demanding a flexibility and capabilities the UN simply does not possess: the UN does not have a permanent army, and Blue Helmets are sent on a voluntary basis by member states. Nonetheless, the challenges confronting PKOs are above all political in nature.

Deployment of Blue Helmets in peace operations (PO), 2018

Source: United Nations, Department of Peace Operations (DPO),

Comment: This map shows peacekeeping operations in which soldiers sent by contributing states were deployed in January 2018. Several operations rallied over 10,000 Blue Helmets: four in Central Africa, one in Mali and one in Lebanon. States on the Indian subcontinent (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal) provided substantial numbers, notably for operations in the DRC, South Sudan, and Darfur. African states also made a considerable contribution to operations in neighboring countries (for example Ethiopia, Rwanda and Egypt in the case of Darfur, Sudan, and South Sudan, and the West African states in the case of Mali). A preference for helping nearby states can also be seen in Europe, which sent troops first and foremost to the operation in Lebanon.

Some studies have deplored a lack of political will on the part of governments to support UN peacekeeping efforts over the long term. Others have criticized an uneven distribution of responsibilities: permanent Security Council members make the decisions regarding operation mandates – yet responsibility for implementing these decisions, constrained by budgets allocated by countries of the North, falls to the developing countries that contribute most of the troops involved. The political, military and strategic risks fall upon those states least able to bear them.

United Nations peacekeeping operations, 1948-2017

Source: compiled from the website of each peacekeeping operation, United Nations, Department of Peace Operations (DPO),

Comment: There were very few UN peacekeeping operations between its creation (1946) and the end of the Cold War, with the exception of a few cases (mainly the Middle East, India/Pakistan, Republic of Congo, and Cyprus). It was only during the 1990s that they multiplied, particularly in Africa, where they are now the most numerous, as well as in the Middle East, the Balkans, Central America and, more locally, Haiti, East Timor and Cambodia. This increase and geographical diversification has been accompanied by a significant rise in the budget for UN peacekeeping operations during the course of the 2010s.

The failures of operations in Bosnia (1992) and Rwanda (1994), as well as sex and health scandals affecting a large number of operations – such as the cholera epidemic caused by Blue Helmets in Haiti (2010) – have provoked heightened tensions with local communities. On the one hand, the very principles underlying PKOs have been criticized – notably for their tendency to export a neoliberal model disconnected with local realities; on the other, there remains the fundamental question of what the “peace” they are seeking to maintain actually is. This negative vision of peace – as merely the absence of war – contrasts with positive peace projects that seek to achieve emancipation and assert that security, development and human rights issues are inextricably linked.

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