GLOBAL AFFAIRS

GLOBAL AFFAIRS

Peacekeepers with the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo stand guard in the Province of North Kivu © UN PHOTO/SYLVAIN LIECHTI (UN7324335)

UN Peace Missions since 1948: what have we learned?
Evaluating how our missions have evolved to fit a changing global political landscape
1 Jul 2024

Since its creation, the UN has deployed more than 140 peace missions – involving Peacekeeping Operations (PKOs), Good Office Engagements (GOEs) and Special Political Missions (SPMs) – to armed conflicts. As one of the key instruments of the international community to maintain international peace and security, these missions have come under close scrutiny and debate. 

The recent resurgence of violence in contexts where the UN has been deployed for many years — such as in Haiti, with 10 missions deployed since 1990 (the largest number of missions for a single context to date) or the Democratic Republic of Congo where UN missions have been present since 1999— have provided new reasons for skepticism. Yet, many studies have shown that overall, UN peace missions are effective at preventing and reducing violence, even in the most difficult cases. Therefore, it is important to recognize this positive role and further explore the conditions under which peace missions are successful.

To inform these discussions, a team of researchers at the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP) at the Geneva Graduate Institute and the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich embarked on a Swiss National Science Foundation funded research project titled “A Child of Its Time: The Impact of World Politics on UN Peace Missions.” One aim of the project was to provide a more refined understanding of how shifts in global politics, such as the increased multipolarity of our world, affect the mandates of UN peace missions. The resulting UN Peace Mission Mandates dataset (UNPMM) was created to classify all UN peace missions established between 1948 and 2023 by type (PKOs, GOEs or SPMs), mandate tasks (42 in total, such as ceasefire monitoring, protection of civilians and civil society capacity building), region/location, and start and end date.

Key trends emerging from the UNPMM suggest that shifting world politics have had a fundamental impact on the number, types, objectives and tasks of UN peace missions. The first major finding is that the number of newly established UN peace missions per year is currently decreasing. While the UN deployed 58 missions in the single decade following the end of the Cold War, only 57 new missions have been established in more than two decades since 2001. How can we explain this decrease? One reason relates to the changing global environment. Following the Cold War, there was a growth in the number of intra-state armed conflicts and reignited aspirations for multilateral initiatives, including UN peace missions. However, in the past two decades this geopolitical environment has shifted. Conflicts are now marked by the involvement of an increasing number of international stakeholders, leading to intensified geopolitical tensions and competition among members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and beyond. The trend is set to continue, with visible blockages at the UNSC recently, notably around the conflict and humanitarian situations in Mali, Syria, Ukraine and Gaza. 

According to a UN Security Council Report (2024), the year 2023 had the second lowest number of resolutions adopted by the UN in the past decade (50 compared to 54 in 2022, and 57 in 2021 and 2020 respectively). The number of UN resolutions adopted with unanimity, currently at 70%, is also lower than in the two decades following the Cold War. Still, UN member states have continued to renew the mandates of ongoing UN peace missions, suggesting that there is a recognition and understanding that the UN’s role in peacebuilding and mediation remains crucial, even if the nature of that role continues to evolve.

Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
receive certificates for laying down their weapons ©  UN PHOTO/JENNIFER MORENO CANIZALES (UN795092)

A second finding relates to the changing nature of UN peace missions. PKOs were dominant during and in the first decade following the Cold War (56/85 missions set up over 1948-2000 – around 66%). Especially in the bipolar competition during the Cold War, they were mainly established with short-term violence reduction aims, to supervise ceasefires and monitor conflict parties’ implementation of peace agreements. This is the case, for example, for missions deployed to India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP, 1949-ongoing, or UNIPOM, 1965-1966), Iran and Iraq (UNIIMOG, 1988-1991), or Georgia (UNOMIG, 1993-2009). The trend has reversed in recent years with political missions (SPMs and GOEs) becoming more prevalent (41/57 missions set up over 2001-2023 around 72%). This is a result of at least two merging trends. First, the difficulty to establish PKOs amid heightened geopolitical tensions at the UNSC and criticisms around the effectiveness and high costs of PKOs, specifically the proportion of PKOs budgets allocated to personnel costs versus other budgetary items. Second, the rising interest from the 1990s in the diplomatic and long-term peacebuilding role of the UN, which increased the scope of PKOs mandates towards more multidimensional missions, including many political tasks, and also led to an increase in special political missions. Among earlier political missions were the UN Office in Burundi (1993-2004) and the UN Tajikistan Office of Peacebuilding (2000-2007), which were established to support these countries’ political transitions.

New missions established since 2009 continue to reflect a growing interest in the diplomatic and political role of the UN. For example, the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen (OSESGY) was established in 2011 to promote good offices and mediation in support of the peace process in Yemen. This involves engaging conflict parties to reach a solution to implement a nationwide ceasefire and resume an inclusive political process, consulting with Yemeni stakeholders (e.g., civil society organizations) on key issues and priorities for the peace process and peace writ large (for example: opening roads), and coordinating with international partners, such as donors and other UN agencies. There are currently 22 other good offices and mediation-mandated missions ongoing across the world.

The third finding is that the tasks and overall objectives of UN peace missions have changed a lot over time. Overall, the UNPMM allows us to show that UN peace missions are most frequently assigned coordination, ceasefire monitoring, good offices and mediation tasks. In contrast, tasks related to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), economic reforms, promotion of independent media and elimination of chemical weapons programs are less frequent. But the importance placed on these tasks also varies over time. For instance, tasks related to SGBV and to women’s rights and participation more broadly increased following the adoption of UNSC resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security in 2000 – though they remain relatively under-mandated. In line with the previous paragraph, the shift away from PKOs towards more political missions from the late 2000s has implied an even, more frequent appointment of good offices and mediation tasks. Rising geopolitical tensions in recent years and a more assertive stance by Russia and China to restrain levels of interference in countries’ internal affairs have also reduced the number of mission tasks. that seek to build conditions for positive (and often liberal) peace, such as good governance, human rights promotion, or rule of law reforms.

In summary, the nature of UN peace missions has been and continues to be impacted by various factors, including rising geopolitical tensions and changing national and international priorities. Understanding how these complex dynamics are shaping UN peace efforts thus remains crucial when reflecting on past and ongoing peace missions. For further insight or analysis on how 

UN peace missions and their mandates have evolved since their inception in 1948, please refer to our website and dataset and download the UN Peace Missions App. The dataset can also be accessed via the UN Peace and Security Data Hub.

* Maëlys Glück is the Outreach Coordinator and Margaux Pinaud is a Project Coordinator at the Centre on Conflict Development and Peacebuilding, Geneva Graduate Institute. Sara Hellmüller is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS).
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