Conflict Management Program at SAIS
Julian Ouellet

September 2003

The United Nations was originally organized, "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war."[1] To this end the United Nations established mechanisms for peacekeeping in the U.N. Charter [2] and the first peacekeeping operations (PKOs) were undertaken in the late 1950s. [3]

Though the terms are used differently by different groups, civil and international conflicts that require U.N. intervention can be seen as having three phases.

  • In the first phase, violent conflict between parties is ongoing. At this point, "the objective of peacemaking is to end the violence between the contending parties" before peacekeeping forces enter the scene.[4]
  • In phase two, a ceasefire has been negotiated, but conflict remains. The chief purpose of U.N. peacekeeping forces, therefore, is to reduce tensions between parties in conflict once a ceasefire has been negotiated so that peaceful relations can resume.
  • By phase three, security threats have been diminished to the point that peaceful relations can resume, but often the state and civil society have been so ravaged by war that external efforts are required to rebuild infrastructure, political institutions, and trust among the contending parties. For this, peacebuilding or nation-building efforts are required.

It should be noted that some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) describe peacekeeping as a component of peacebuilding. In this view, peacebuilding includes not only post-conflict demilitarization and nation-building efforts, but also preventive peacekeeping operations and peacemaking efforts.

In this essay, however, peacekeeping will be understood as the second phase of the peace process that is distinct from long-term peacebuilding. This reflects the United Nations' view that peacekeeping is an effort to "monitor and observe peace processes that emerge in post-conflict situations and assist ex-combatants to implement the peace agreements they have signed."[5] This includes the deployment of peacekeeping forces, collective security arrangements, and enforcement of ceasefire agreements. The so-called third phase of peacekeeping described above, on the other hand, is commonly regarded by the UN as part of peacebuilding. Thus, "this module will focus on the second phase of peacekeeping operations described above, the interposition of peacekeeping forces....."

This module will focus on the second phase of peacekeeping operations, the interposition of peacekeeping forces, in order to offer ideas about how peacekeeping can help intractable conflicts.

A Framework for Peace

Pamela Aall of the U.S. Institute of Peace, uses Cyprus, Korea and Sri Lanka as examples of how sometimes third parties can make things worse, not better.

Any peacekeeping force is organized with the following six characteristics:

  • neutrality (impartiality in the dispute and nonintervention in the fighting)
  • light military equipment
  • use of force only in self-defense[6]
  • consent of the conflicting parties
  • prerequisite of a ceasefire agreement
  • contribution of contingents on a voluntary basis.[7]

These traits determine the size, composition, and limits of the mission. For example because the military personnel are lightly armed and require the consent of the parties involved, they are not capable of performing any peacemaking duties. At the same time, because peacekeeping forces are composed of military personnel, they are ill equipped to perform any state-building functions except in a support role. Given these constraints PKOs usually perform the following missions:

Within this framework solutions to violent intractable conflicts can be mediated and ameliorated. But we can also use the same guidelines to analyze whether PKOs are effective solutions for intractable conflicts. Opinions differ on this last point. Some feel that, though the solutions offered by PKOs may not be complete, in many situations they are the best that can be hoped for. One author argues, however, that according to the general framework of criteria for PKOs most have been failures.[8]

Cyprus is a good example of how difficult it is to judge a peacekeeping mission. Civil war broke out in the newly formed Republic of Cyprus in December of 1963.[9] By March of 1964 a U.N. Peacekeeping Force was deployed and became operational. Except for a coup d'etat in 1974, the peacekeeping force in Cyprus has been mostly successful in keeping the peace, but largely unsuccessful in reconciling the combatants. The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) remains today.[10] This mixed bag of success and failure illustrates nicely the potential advantages and the potential problems inherent in most peacekeeping missions: on the one hand UNFICYP has been instrumental in maintaining an overall level of peace between the two sides; on the other hand, it has not reduced the conflict to the point that either side can feel secure were UNFICYP to leave.

We can see in the Cyprus example how a peacekeeping force organized around the principles of neutrality, light armaments, and mutual consent was able to verify the terms of the peace agreement and demobilize the combatants to a certain extent, but have largely failed in any goals of reintegration and state-building. The successes and failures of this mission provide some insight in the overall ability of PKOs in any operation.

The success of peacekeeping operations depends on two key issues. First, the peace agreement and/or ceasefire that the PKO is based on must be tenable for both sides. If one or both sides want to continue the fighting, a PKO will be very unlikely to maintain the peace.[11] Second, success is contingent on clear strategies for implementing nation-building and institutional development; simply put, democratization. PKOs that don't set out basic goals for building and maintaining trustworthy social institutions are not likely to experience high levels of success. Only in this context can peacekeeping forces prove to be effective solutions to intractable conflicts.

Fostering Peace

William Ury explains that mediation is only one 'tool' in a peacebuilder's toolbox. There are many more that are needed as well.

While the United Nations is not the only intergovernmental organization (IGO) to undertake peacekeeping missions, it is the most experienced. Since its ratification in 1945, the United Nations has deployed 55 PKOs. Remarkably, 42 of these have occurred since the end of the Cold War.[12] Depending on one's criteria for the success of a PKO, the number of U.N. missions that have been successful ranges from none to almost all of them. However, a standard evaluation of success is based not on a mission's peacekeeping ability alone, but also its peacebuilding ability. For example, Gregory Downs and Stephen Stedman use two criteria for evaluating a PKO, one of which has an implicit peacebuilding element to it:

  • "whether large-scale violence is brought to an end while the implementers are present."
  • "whether the war is terminated on a self-enforcing basis so that implementers can go home without fear of the war rekindling."[13]

Peace according to these criteria is the short-term absence of violence with the promise that this absence of violence might be lasting. Most research in the field agrees that peacekeeping forces are quite effective at accomplishing the first criteria, but have more trouble with the second. Thus we can say that the introduction of a PKO into a conflict is very effective at ending violence and establishing short-term peace, but less successful at maintaining that peace after they have left.

In the context of intractable conflict this may not be as damning as it seems: it is a question of degrees. After all, a stagnant partial peace is preferable to continued violence. Though building a stable and peaceful state may be preferable to maintaining peace through the continued presence of peacekeeping forces, the maintenance of peace in any form is preferable to continued violence. In these limited circumstances PKOs can offer a valuable solution to violent intractable conflicts.

The Will for Peace

However, no PKO would have any chance at success without a willingness by all parties to participate. Downs and Stedman focus this willingness on the political and economic will of outside powers to get involved in the peacemaking process.[14] That is, for any international or regional power to risk casualties, commit resources or use leverage, they must see their own interests as being affected by the continuation of the conflict. For Fen Hampson, willingness, or ripeness as he calls it, refers to the readiness of combatant parties to consider proposals that might alter the status quo.[15] Both definitions are valuable and lead us to conclude that, to foster peace, combatants must be willing to consider peace as an option, and external powers to consider peace as valuable and worthwhile. However, the latter consideration is most important for both peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Dennis Jett points out that PKOs often fail before they get started because of a failure of will on the part of the world powers.[16]

This was the case with Rwanda. A lightly armed U.N. Peacekeeping Mission led by Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire was in Rwanda before the genocide began. Dallaire's forces were 3,000 men strong. He requested another 2,000 men to use in a peacekeeping role. His request was turned down and subsequently 800,000 Rwandans (by some accounts) were killed in 100 days, mostly by machete. Here is a clear case where the lack of willingness on the part of the United Nations and its member states to commit to a peacekeeping effort led not only to massive failures in their peacekeeping mission, but allowed a genocide to happen while there was still time to prevent it. As Dallaire put it, "The explosion of genocide could have been prevented if the political will had been there and if we had been better skilled ... it could have been prevented."[17]

There is also evidence that if the political will is present among the major powers then the warring parties can be forced to the bargaining table. Jill Freeman cites previous research showing that international pressure is the key determinant in the success of security guarantees which are closely related to PKOs.[18] Looking back on Cyprus, we may be able to distinguish between the political will needed to initiate the peace agreement and the political will necessary to maintain that peace.[19] In this context we can understand the role of the international community in creating peace and the role of the conflicting parties in legitimizing the peacebuilding process.

At this point we have a good understanding of the definition of peacekeeping forces, their capabilities, the criteria for judging success, and the roles of the actors involved in ensuring that success. We have yet to answer the nagging question of how successful the various PKOs have been.


As discussed, peacekeeping, since its beginnings over 50 years ago, has not been an overwhelming success. The ideal peacekeeping mission would have a clear entry plan, establish a lasting peace, and leave behind a set of stable institutions for ensuring that peace, all in the timeframe of two to three years. As it stands, of the 55 U.N. PKOs, 15 are ongoing. Of those, at least 10 have been going on for more than 10 years and five of these have been going on for more than 20 years.[20] Five of the 15 are too recent to be evaluated. Thus 10 of the 15 ongoing PKOs could be automatically labeled failures according to Downs and Stedman's criteria. Of the remaining 40 cases, Downs and Stedman only analyze 16, but of these only six qualify as unmitigated successes. PKOs do not have a promising track record. What can be done to improve the probability of success in peacekeeping missions?

Room for Improvement

We can agree that the goal of PKOs is admirable. We can also agree that even partial successes in intractable conflicts are desirable. However, it is not clear that PKOs have the ability to succeed in most conflicts. The goal of any PKO should not be to establish a marginally stable peace that lasts a few years, as is the case with Liberia or Zimbabwe, but to establish a lasting peace in which liberal institutions can be built, gain legitimacy, and guarantee peace, as is happening in Mozambique. PKO mandates that provide only for the interposition of forces between temporarily peaceful combatants have generally not worked and are not likely to work. The only hope for success in peacekeeping operations requires sustained interest from the international community, along with detailed plans for state building after the core goals of disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and reconstruction. These ideals have been clearly set out in Boutros Boutros-Ghali's Agenda for Peace as a matter of policy, but have yet to be realized as a policy in practice.[21]

[1] United Nations, The United Nations Charter Preamble [document on-line], (accessed on February 31, 2003); available from Internet.

[2] Ibid, 2(4), 2(7), VI, VII, VIII

[3] Alan James, "Peacekeeping and Ethnic Conflict: Theory and Evidence" in Peace in the Midst of Wars: Preventing and Managing Ethnic Conflicts, eds. Carment, D. and P. James (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), 165.

[4] Conflict Management Toolkit, Peacekeeping: Definitions [document on-line] (accessed on February 12, 2003).

[5] United Nations, Ibid.


[7] Portions of this module were written by The Conflict Management Program as SAIS - Johns Hopkins

[8] Roland Paris, "Peacebuilding and the Limits of International Peacebuilding," International Security 22, no. 2 (Fall 1997): 53.

[9] United Nations, "UNFICYP: United Nation Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus: Background," [document on-line] (accessed on February 12, 2003); available from Internet.


[11] James Fearon, "Rationalist Explanations for War," International Organization 49, no. 3 (Summer 1995); Fen Hampson, Nurturing Peace (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996), 8; Hugh Miall and others, Contemporary Conflict Resolution: The Prevention, Management and Transformation of Deadly Conflicts (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), 164-7.

[12] Evan N. Resnick, "United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Ad Hoc Missions, Permanent Engagement (book review)," Journal of International Affairs 55, no. 2 (Spring 2002), 539(6).

[13] need footnote

[14] George Downs and Stephen J. Stedman, "Evaluating Issues in Peace Implementation," in Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements, eds. Stedman, S., D. Rothchild, and E. Cousens (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reiner Publishers, 2002), 43.

[15] Hampson, ibid.


[17] Quoted from Ted Barris, "Romeo Dallaire: Peacekeeping in the New Millennium," [document on-line] (accessed on 17 February, 2003); available from, Internet

[18] This is another essay in this system: Jill Freeman, Security Guarantees, available at

[18] Hampson

[19] United Nations,, Internet.

[19] Hampson, ibid.

[20] United Nations, "Operations Timeline," [document on-line] (accessed on 17 February, 2003); available from, Internet.

[21] Boutros Boutros-Ghali, "An Agenda for Peace," [document on-line] (New York: United Nations, 1992, accessed on February 17, 2003); available from, Internet.

Use the following to cite this article:
Conflict Management Program at SAIS, and Julian Ouellet. "Peacekeeping." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

Additional Resources