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Do U.N. Peacekeepers Stop Atrocities?


The ongoing mass atrocities in South Sudan have been particularly stunning because they have taken place in the presence United Nations peacekeeping forces. Shouldn’t U.N. peacekeepers have prevented these attacks on civilians? More broadly as we consider our annual statistical risk assessments for state-led mass killing, does the presence of U.N. peacekeeping operations reduce the risk of a mass killing episode?

In fact, this paper by Lisa Hultman, Jacob Kathman, and Megan Shannon finds that U.N. peacekeeping operations (PKOs) generally do mitigate the intentional killing of civilians in civil war. By qualifying the type of U.N. personnel deployed and controlling for civilian casualties that are not the result of intentional targeting, the authors find that there are two conditions for how PKOs mitigate civilian deaths. First, the scale of the mission matters. Other things being equal, more personnel on the ground dramatically improves the safety of noncombatants. Second, the type of personnel matters as well. While military troops and police reduce civilian killings, the presence of U.N. observers has the opposite effect. The authors conclude that “U.N. peacekeepers prevent civilian killings when they are appropriately tasked and deployed in large numbers.”

I see two implications from these findings for events in South Sudan. On one hand, as this report from Amnesty International makes clear, the sanctuary and protection that the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has provided to some 80,000 civilians has “undoubtedly saved many lives.” Given the attacks against civilians sheltering on U.N. bases and protection sites, it could be argued that civilian casualties would have been far worse had U.N. troops not been present. On the other hand, the paper’s findings bolster Amnesty’s assertion that a larger force would be more effective. In its report, Amnesty argues that the 7,000 personnel deployed as part of the 2011 mandate have not been enough, calling for increased patrols by U.N. troops that are not possible given the limited number of troops and equipment on the ground.

Beyond South Sudan, what effect does the presence of U.N. PKOs have on the risk for an onset of state-led mass killing in a given country? If we were to assess this via our statistical models, the research by Hultman, Kathman, and Shannon implies that we would want to consider the size and composition of the relevant force and the mandate for that specific country. For example, both India and Pakistan show up in the top 30 countries most at risk for a state-led mass killing episode, yet the mandate of U.N. mission there (UNMOGIP) pertains to monitoring the 1948 cease-fire agreement between the two nations and would presumably have little effect on the risk of mass killing elsewhere in those countries. The mandate for UNMISS, conversely, does specifically include protecting civilians.

The other implication of the PKO study is simply that the presence of U.N. PKOs can mitigate intentional targeting of civilians, but this might not affect the risk of mass killing in and of itself. PKOs are often established after conflict has begun and are therefore indicative of a conflict already taking place, one of many other variables that increases a country’s risk. So where PKOs might mitigate intentional targeting of civilians, their presence could also coincide with a number of factors that increase risk overall.

This is where our opinion pool, composed of people with expertise on specific regions and dynamics, can help us better assess the risks of mass atrocities in countries with U.N. PKOs. On South Sudan, our question on the opinion pool opened on December 30, 2013 and consensus quickly concluded that U.N. peacekeepers would likely not be able to prevent a mass killing episode.

Tags:   early warning projectcentral african republicsouth sudan

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