The Importance of UN Peacekeeping
Updated: May 4
UN Peacekeeping as a Response to Threats to International Peace and Security By Debra DeLaet (Executive Director, Iowa United Nations Association)
On May 29 each year, the UN observes the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, in recognition of the Security Council’s establishment of the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) on that date in 1948. UNTSO, recognized as the first UN peacekeeping mission, involved the deployment of a small group of UN military observers to monitor the Armistice Agreement between Israel and Arab parties to the conflict in the Middle East. In addition to paying tribute to the almost 4,200 uniformed and civilian personnel who have lost their lives while serving in UN peacekeeping missions, the International Day of UN Peacekeepers invites us to recognize the importance of UN peacekeeping as a mechanism for responding to threats to international peace and security.
Since 1948, the UN has overseen 72 peacekeeping operations. Currently, there are 12 active peacekeeping operations. UN peacekeeping missions help to create the conditions in which peaceful settlements are more likely and have proven to be effective in protecting civilians in conflict zones. One study found a substantial reduction in civilian deaths in conflicts with the significant presence of UN peacekeeping troops. UN peacekeeping missions are also cost-effective. A recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated that UN peacekeeping missions cost significantly less than a comparable deployment of U.S. troops and have greater international legitimacy.
Notably, the UN Charter does not mention peacekeeping as a method for responding to threats to international peace and security. Chapter 6 of the Charter calls for the pacific settlement of disputes. Chapter 7 gives the Security Council the power to authorize enforcement action. From the beginning, the Charter-based framework for responding to threats to international peace and security has faced obstacles. This framework does not provide any mechanisms for compelling states to engage in pacific settlement as called for under Chapter 6. The veto power held by the permanent members limits the ability of the Security Council to authorize enforcement action under Chapter 7.
In response to these obstacles, UN leaders developed adaptive strategies that allowed the institution to respond to threats to international peace and security despite major political constraints. Dag Hammarskjöld, UN Secretary General from 1953 to 1961, played a critical role in developing UN peacekeeping. Building on a proposal from Lester Pearson, then Canadian minister of external affairs, Hammarskjöld developed peacekeeping as a pragmatic institutional innovation for responding to violent conflict in the context of an emerging Cold War which made it likely that the Soviet Union and the United States would wield their veto power on the Security Council. In 1956, he helped forge a political agreement to establish the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) to address the Suez Crisis. UNEF involved a UN military observer mission deployed to Egypt under the authority of the General Assembly and with the consent of Egypt’s government. Its goals were to monitor the terms of the Armistice Agreement between Egypt and Israel. Because Israel did not consent to the mission, UNEF operated only on the Egyptian side of the armistice line. UNEF helped to keep the border between Israel and Egypt secure while limiting violence in comparison to other areas in the region.
The UNTSO and UNEF missions were built on three core principles that characterize what came to be known as first-generation peacekeeping. First, early peacekeeping initiatives relied on lightly armed UN forces to maintain ceasefires and to separate warring parties while political leaders sought to negotiate political settlements. Second, UN peacekeeping missions require the consent of the parties to the conflict. Absent Chapter 7 authorization from the Security Council, the consent of the parties is essential to align with the non-intervention clause in Article 2 of the Charter. Finally, classic UN peacekeeping missions have been based on impartiality. UN peacekeepers committ to neutrality, and the rules of engagement require that peacekeepers only use force in self-defense. This commitment to neutrality has been necessary to gain the consent required to authorize peacekeeping missions.
After the Cold War, a more robust vision of peacekeeping became possible with a reduction of ideological stalemate on the Security Council. In the 1990s, the Security Council authorized broad-based peacekeeping missions in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, and Somalia among others. Two developments characterized second-generation peacekeeping. First, second-generation missions often gave peacekeeping troops the capacity to use force for reasons beyond self-defense. This expansion of the rules of engagement included both benefits and risks for the missions. Although these rules allowed peacekeepers, in some circumstances, to respond with force to threats to civilians, it also risked undermining the neutrality of peacekeeping troops, making them potential targets as happened in 1994 when 24 UN troops were killed as part of the UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM). Second, the scope of peacekeeping mission mandates has expanded considerably beyond the goals of monitoring ceasefires and serving as a buffer zone between warring parties to facilitate peace negotiations. Since the end of the Cold War, multidimensional UN peacekeeping has involved the provision of administrative and technical support for humanitarian missions, the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants, involvement in refugee resettlement, the supervision of elections, initiatives to restore or develop the rule of law, and other activities intended to advance peacebuilding as well as peacemaking.
Ongoing UN peacekeeping missions integrate elements of both first- and second-generation peacekeeping. Current missions continue to emphasize the three general principles of impartiality, consent of the parties, and the non-use of force except in self-defense that characterized first-generation peacekeeping. In this way, current missions are less likely to adopt expanded rules of engagement that risk making peacekeepers targets of violence. At the same time, current missions continue to incorporate multidimensional mandates, including humanitarian, administrative, and political initiatives, characteristic of second-generation missions.
The UN’s total annual peacekeeping budget is approximately $6.5 billion dollars, which constitutes less than one percent of total U.S. defense spending per year. Under a formula based on a country’s ability to pay and on recognition of the special powers of the permanent members of the Security Council, the P5 are responsible for higher percentages of the peacekeeping budget than other member states. Under the current formula, the United States is responsible for almost 28 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget, or about $1.8 billion (less than .25 percent of annual U.S. defense spending).
According to a 2021 poll by the Better World Campaign, sixty-eight percent of U.S. voters believe the United States should pay its peacekeeping dues in full and on time. This public sentiment is consistent with broad, bipartisan support for the United Nations in the same poll. Public opinion reflects an understanding that support for UN peacekeeping helps to promote burden-sharing among countries in addressing global conflict. Whereas the United States pays a higher percentage of the peacekeeping budget, other countries provide more troops. U.S. failure to pay our peacekeeping dues in full and on time also risks undermining our influence at the UN and ceding leadership to countries like China with different national interests and values. For these reasons, broad and bipartisan public support has existed for U.S. contributions to both the regular and peacekeeping budgets.
Despite broad, bipartisan support for U.S. contributions, U.S. law caps U.S. contributions to the UN peacekeeping budget at 25 percent. Until 2017, the U.S. Congress regularly waived this requirement. Because Congress has not waived this cap since 2017, the United States now owes arrears of over $1 billion. These arrears have led to a UN peacekeeping budget challenges that have prevented the UN from reimbursing countries that contribute personnel to peacekeeping missions. The failure of the United States and other countries to pay their peacekeeping dues in full and on time risks undermining the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping in protecting civilian lives and helping to establish favorable conditions for peace negotiations.
Currently, the U.S. Congress is considering an amendment to the America COMPETES act that would lift the cap on peacekeeping contributions. This amendment would allow the United States to pay its peacekeeping dues in full. In doing so, it would help enhance U.S. leadership in the United Nations. It also would ensure that other member states providing troops for peacekeeping missions are reimbursed fully and in a timely manner.
You can take action to advocate for lifting the U.S. cap on peacekeeping dues by reaching out to your elected representative here.
Thank you for your advocacy on behalf of UN peacekeeping and for constructive U.S. global engagement.