Most of the recent news regarding UN peacekeepers has been bad, ranging from their responsibility for a cholera epidemic in Haiti to their failures to reduce violence against civilians in The Congo, Sudan, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, a forthcoming article in the American Journal of Political Science by Lisa Hultman, Jacob Kathman, and Megan Shannon shows evidence that increased numbers of military and policy forces in a peacekeeping mission are correlated with fewer civilian killings in Africa.  Below is the abstract:

Does United Nations peacekeeping protect civilians in civil war? Civilian protection is a primary purpose of UN peacekeeping, yet there is little systematic evidence for whether peacekeeping prevents civilian deaths. We propose that UN peacekeeping can protect civilians if missions are adequately composed of military troops and police in large numbers. Using unique monthly data on the number and type of UN personnel contributed to peacekeeping operations, along with monthly data on civilian deaths from 1991 to 2008 in armed conflicts in Africa, we find that as the UN commits more military and police forces to a peacekeeping mission, fewer civilians are targeted with violence. The effect is substantial—the analyses show that, on average, deploying several thousand troops and several hundred police dramatically reduces civilian killings. We conclude that although the UN is often criticized for its failures, UN peacekeeping is an effective mechanism of civilian protection.

There is of course always the possibility that this correlation does not represent a true causal effect. I agree with the authors that there is no evidence that the UN increases troop levels when violence is low but the opposite may be equally problematic: the UN may increase troop levels after episodes of unusually high violence that would have subsided with or without an increased UN presence. Nonetheless, this issue can be dealt with (for the most part) by modeling the dynamics correctly. The authors perform a large number of tests and the finding appears to be robust.  In all, then, this is some much needed good news for UN peacekeeping and more importantly for civilians in conflicts such as the Congo, where the UN has recently increased its military presence including a much more forceful mandate.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.