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UN Peacekeeping and Violence in Civil Wars

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Guest post by Profs. Lisa Hultman, Uppsala University; Jacob Kathman, SUNY Buffalo; and Megan Shannon, University of Colorado

A recent post on this blog by Alessandra Necamp aptly discusses our paper in the American Journal of Political Science, which shows that when appropriately composed in personnel type and number, UN peacekeeping missions reduce violence against civilians in civil wars. These findings can be held in light of a recent Amnesty International report on increasing violence against civilians in South Sudan. As Necamp points out and as our paper indicates, despite the large number of civilian deaths documented in that report, ongoing violence against civilians in South Sudan may have been even worse if the UN had not intervened. Moving forward, the UN should increase its troop and police commitment in South Sudan if it wants more effectively to protect civilians, thousands of whom have been killed by rebel and government forces since the conflict began in December 2013.

The Amnesty International report doesn't only document ongoing targeting of civilians in South Sudan. It also describes another type of violence: killing on the battlefield. Even though opposition forces and the government of South Sudan signed a ceasefire in January 2014, attacks from both sides continue. Based on the report, it seems the UN peacekeeping force in South Sudan has been unable to stem fighting between the government and opposition. But would battlefield violence be worse in South Sudan if UN peacekeepers were not there? And would violence decline if the UN were to respond more potently?

Our forthcoming article in the American Political Science Review indicates that in fact, battlefield violence declines in civil wars with increasingly robust UN peacekeeping missions. Analyzing battlefield violence in all civil wars in Africa from 1992 to 2011, we find that increasing numbers of UN armed military troops are associated with reduced battlefield deaths. We do not find that increasing UN police or observer personnel leads to a similar reduction in battlefield violence.

The reason for the differing effects of different personnel on battlefield violence can likely be attributed to the responsibilities and placement of personnel. UN military troops have the most opportunity to reduce battlefield violence because they are most often positioned on the front lines and are tasked with separating government and opposition forces. They are also often placed behind the front, so they can engage in civilian protection. UN police have less opportunity to reduce battlefield violence because they often serve behind the front lines. They are therefore are better positioned to pursue tasks of civilian protection (consistent with the findings in our previous work).

Our analyses show that not only is the personnel type important for reducing violence, but so is the size of the military troop deployment. With zero peacekeeping military troops deployed, civil wars produce an average of almost 22 combat deaths per month. With a 10,000 troop deployment, casualty rates drop to approximately six combat deaths per month—roughly a 70-percent reduction in battlefield violence.*

At about 7,800 troops, the troop deployment to South Sudan is already larger than most peacekeeping missions. Yet, in resolution 2132, the Security Council has actually authorized a force up to 12,500 troops, about 4,700 more than are currently serving. As with many peacekeeping missions, the actual deployment of troops on the ground has not met the maximum amount authorized by the UN. This could be due to a variety of factors; slow deployment processes in contributor countries and lack of consent from the combatants are just two possibilities. But as our work shows, additional UN troop and police deployments are an effective way for the UN to address some of the world’s most atrocious forms of civil violence, including that which is occurring in South Sudan.

 * The unit of analysis in our study is the rebel group–government pair observed each month. A given conflict may (and often does) have a number of rebel group–government pairings, because governments are sometimes challenged by multiple opposition groups simultaneously. The analyses indicate an average reduction of 16 deaths for each rebel group–government pair per month. Given that the average rebel-government pair fights for approximately 72 months, and given that the average conflict month in which a UN mission is present includes about five active rebel groups, the reduction in battle violence noted above amounts to the prevention of substantial combat hostilities.

Tags:   south sudanearly warning project

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