Published May 13, 2019
United Nations peacekeeping operations can serve as valuable instruments for reducing the duration of civil wars, but PKOs require robust troop deployments to quickly and effectively move combatants in active conflicts toward negotiated settlements such as cease-fires and peace agreements, according to a new study by a team of UB political scientists.
While most research on PKOs has measured their influence on maintaining postwar peace, Jacob Kathman and Michelle Benson, both associate professors in the Department of Political Science, instead address a largely unexamined dimension: the U.N. peacekeeping operations’ ability to increase the likelihood of a peaceful conflict resolution.
“Since the end of the Cold War, U.N. troops have been entering active conflicts, often peacemaking, not peacekeeping,” says Benson. “And not all of these operations are created the same in their ability to facilitate faster negotiated settlements.
“Peacekeeping forces in the range of approximately 10,000 troops significantly improve the likelihood of ending hostilities. Failing to meet those numbers will make the effort much less effective.”
Kathman and Benson used fine-grained monthly data sets built from Kathman’s U.N. peacekeeping troop data and the Peace Research Institute Oslo’s Uppsala Conflict Data Program. The findings appear in the Journal of Conflict Resolution.
Civil wars can end in a number of ways, according to Benson.
One side can emerge victorious. Violence can subside without a clear victor, but with the underlying cause of the conflict remaining unresolved. Then there are peace agreements and other official ways to end the fighting, such as ceasefires.
“That’s what we look at in this study: How do you get to a peaceful negotiated settlement and are peacekeepers able to facilitate that,” says Benson. “We found that the presence of a sufficient number of peacekeepers decreased the time to a peaceful negotiated settlement.”
The U.N. deploys peacekeeping operations when the permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States) authorize troop funding, which is then subject to General Assembly approval. The U.N. has no standing army. Member states provide troops for the operation on a voluntary basis.
For their study, Kathman and Benson build on previous research on how the U.N. affects civil war. Their new paper has important policy implications that help validate the effectiveness of PKOs and support the idea that the U.N. should outfit peacekeeping efforts with sufficient troop numbers required to reduce the hostility and intractability of civil conflicts.
“From prior research on the U.N., we know that U.N. peacekeepers are able to reduce civilian deaths and casualties, and sometimes able to reduce the number of battlefield fatalities,” says Benson. “But what happens if these troops dampen the active fighting to the point that a low-level conflict remains, what’s called a ‘hurting stalemate’?”
In the absence of a peaceful resolution, the “hurting stalemate” could mean a reduction in the immediate number of deaths, but the enduring balance of forces might eventually translate to a high number of deaths in the long term.
“That’s what we wanted to determine,” she says.
She and Kathman theorize that facilitating a security guarantee and separating combatants are among the mechanisms by which the troops are able to facilitate a settlement. With substantial troop deployments, the U.N. can help separate the combatants, assist with disarmament and provide a clear path for the unobstructed flow of information between sides, allowing the warring parties to move more quickly toward settlements.
“The U.N. is not only able to improve the conflict situation,” says Benson. “It’s able to bring conflicts to a conclusion in a peaceful manner.”
“Considered in its broader context, these are important findings,” says Kathman. “The U.N.’s reputation amongst the American public is one of relative impotence, but our findings contribute to a growing consensus of rigorous analyses that U.N. peacekeeping works. In many cases, if peacekeeping operations hadn’t been deployed, those conflicts would likely have been much more violent and protracted.”