Addressing the limits of peacekeeping requires a sustained, systematic focus on the ways in which the activities of peacekeepers on the ground can reinforce the search for a political settlement. Blue helmets cannot impose political solutions to complex and deep-seated conflicts, but they can and should underpin and support progress towards solutions.

United Nations peacekeeping – the deployment of military and police contingents, drawn from member states and authorised by the Security Council, to mitigate, contain and help create the conditions for overcoming violent and protracted conflict within the international system – has long been viewed as the UN’s flagship activity, its most concrete and visible contribution to international peace and security. Measured in terms of overall troop numbers and money expended, that has not changed. Even as relations among the permanent members of the Security Council have deteriorated sharply in recent years, the demand for UN peacekeeping shows few signs of diminishing. The number of ‘blue helmets’ currently deployed worldwide – around 117,000, spread over 16 missions – remains close to an all-time high. With more than 125 countries contributing personnel, and an annual peacekeeping budget of almost US$8 billion (roughly triple the organisation’s regular budget for 2017), UN peacekeeping appears firmly set to remain a core activity of the organisation. Lofty statements by government ministers have only reinforced that perception. At the conclusion of a ‘UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial’ held in London in September 2016, around 60 governments solemnly reaffirmed the ‘indispensable part’ and ‘critical role that peacekeeping missions play to address today’s international peace and security challenges’.1

Yet official statements and headline figures, while superficially impressive, conceal a much more troubling reality. Indeed, as António Guterres began his tenure as the ninth secretary-general of the UN in January 2017, the organisation’s peacekeeping operations were faced with an unprecedented combination of mission-specific and wider systemic challenges. These problems were set against a backdrop of mounting geopolitical tension, rising nationalisms and growing disdain for multilateralism and values-driven diplomacy among key powers on the Security Council.

Mats Berdal is Professor of Security and Development and Director of the Conflict, Security and Development Research Group at King’s College London. He was Director of Studies at the IISS from 2000 to 2003.

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