U.S. Benefits from UN Peacekeeping

Peter Yeo
Vice President, Public Policy and Advocacy, United Nations Foundation

The effectiveness of UN peacekeeping is inherently difficult to measure. With the Trump Administration proposing cuts to foreign aid that would impact UN peacekeeping missions, The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder asked Peter Yeo, President of the Better World Campaign and Vice President for Public Policy and Advocacy at the United Nations Foundation, about the benefits of UN peacekeeping to U.S. national security.

The Cipher Brief: How do you measure “effectiveness” of UN peacekeeping? Has this changed over the years – what does “effectiveness” mean today?

Peter Yeo: Thirty years ago, UN peacekeepers were mainly tasked with supporting the implementation of a ceasefire or peace agreements. Effectiveness was relatively clear-cut. Now, peacekeeping is much more complex and dangerous, often with little or no peace to keep.   

Today, you measure the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping with data, and the data has been clear on the positive impact the UN has in both preventing a resurgence of conflict in a country and in reducing violence against civilians.  

For example, a Columbia University study found that deploying UN peacekeepers reduces the likelihood that a country will return to war by about half. Similarly, a Harvard University study looked at the question of whether peacekeeping works and concluded, “The answer from the statistical studies is: absolutely, they work massively. And the better financed and armed the peacekeeping force, the more effective they are.” 

In terms of civilian protection, a study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that deploying large numbers of UN peacekeepers “dramatically reduces civilian killings.” The paper concluded that ensuring UN peacekeeping forces “are appropriately tasked and deployed in large numbers” is critical to their ability to protect civilians. 

To ensure the continued success of peacekeeping operations, the bottom line is that missions need to be well financed and properly equipped for peacekeepers to effectively meet their mandates.

TCB: What are some examples of current or recent successes and failures of UN peacekeeping? 

PY: The successes of UN peacekeeping seldom make the headlines, yet their work is invaluable in protecting civilians in conflict, facilitating fair and free elections, combatting terror threats, and much more. A few specific examples come to mind.

In the Central African Republic, peacekeepers are protecting civilians from violence and preventing the country from falling back into war. In a report released just last year, Amnesty International shared that with respect to the UN mission, the peacekeepers presence “has saved many lives and prevented much bloodshed.” In South Sudan, UNMISS is providing physical protection to more than 200,000 civilians at six different sites around the country. This has saved the lives of many people who likely would have otherwise been directly targeted by parties to the conflict. In Mali, UN peacekeepers are combatting the rising al Qaeda terror threat in the country.

In terms of failures, in recent years the UN has been buffeted by a number of high-profile allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by UN peacekeepers. The UN is working to implement a number of measures and changes in policy to help combat these appalling crimes. I’ve testified on this topic, and there are a number of ways the UN can push accountability and a number of ways the U.S. can assist troop contributing countries and also help in the training and vetting of personnel. 

TCB: What are the benefits of UN peacekeeping to U.S. national security? 

PY: As Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said: “[United Nations] peacekeepers help promote stability and help reduce the risks that major U.S. military interventions may be required. Therefore, the success of these operations is very much in our national interest.”   

Second, UN peacekeeping missions are extremely cost-effective. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, these missions are eight times cheaper than U.S. forces acting alone. To put this in perspective, it would cost the United States $2 million to deploy a single U.S. solider but only $17,000 to deploy a UN peacekeeper.   

TCB: The Trump Administration is calling for funding cuts to diplomacy and humanitarian aid that could affect UN peacekeeping – how significant of an impact would this have on peacekeeping operations?

PY: While other countries pay approximately 75 percent of the costs of UN peacekeeping missions, the U.S. remains the largest financial contributor.

The decision to slash peacekeeping funding would have far-reaching consequences in the field, making it much more difficult for peacekeepers to effectively manage conflict and protect civilians from harm. As noted, research has clearly shown that in places with a significant peacekeeping presence, civilian deaths fall markedly. Drastic cuts in UN peacekeeping would prevent the deployment of the larger and more robust missions sometimes necessary to prevent civilian casualties and unnecessary loss of life.

Due to our seat on the Security Council, no peacekeeping mission can be deployed without U.S. consent in the first place. Besides the reasons outlined above, if the U.S. unilaterally cuts its peacekeeping payments – for missions that we vote for and champion – we negatively impact our ability to advance key U.S. priorities at the Council and impair relations with our own allies and other Member states.

In addition, failing to meet our funding commitments to UN peacekeeping will undermine the Secretary-General and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s recently announced efforts to help reform peacekeeping specifically and the UN more generally.

TCB: What’s the argument for not cutting funding?

PY: UN peacekeeping is ‘exhibit A’ for what the Trump Administration demands of other countries – for them to step in and step up.

For example, the U.S. currently provides fewer than 100 soldiers, military advisors, and police officers to UN peacekeeping operations – accounting for less than .01 percent of all deployed peacekeeping personnel. Instead, other countries provide almost all the 112,000 troops and pay approximately 75 percent of the costs – all for missions that our U.S. military deems national security priorities.

By helping to reduce armed conflict and civilian violence, one of the main current drivers of mass forced displacement, the presence of peacekeeping forces has been shown to significantly reduce migration and the number of refugees – another Trump Administration priority.   

Aside from the benefits to the United States, slashing our contributions would kneecap the missions, endangering their success; imperil our own national security; cost the lives of civilians; and reduce the willingness of other countries to participate. 

The Author is Peter Yeo

Peter Yeo is President of the Better World Campaign and Vice President for Public Policy and Advocacy at the United Nations Foundation, where he leads the Foundation's strategic engagement with Congress and the Administration to advance policy changes that support the UN's work for global progress. Prior to arriving at UNF in 2009, Yeo served for ten years as the Deputy Staff Director at the House Foreign Affairs Committee chaired by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) and Rep. Howard Berman... Read More

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