Peace Science Digest

The Unintended Consequences of “Robust” UN Peace Operations

Photo credit: © MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Hunt, C. (2017). All necessary means to what ends? The unintended consequences of the ‘robust turn’ in UN peace operations. International Peacekeeping, 24(1), 108-131

Talking Points

  • Robust peacekeeping, though it may succeed in protecting civilians in the short-term, has unintended consequences that may jeopardize other important goals and the broader work of UN missions.
  • The greater militarization and partiality entailed by robust peacekeeping may actually put civilians at risk, along with peacekeepers, other UN officials, and independent humanitarian actors, in some cases also diminishing humanitarian space/access.
  • The state-centrism entailed by robust peacekeeping may compromise the more substantive aspects of a UN mission, prejudicing its human rights, peacebuilding and development, and political work too far in favor of the government’s concerns at the exclusion of others’.
  • The “robust turn” in UN peace operations may more broadly jeopardize peacekeeping principles and consensus around UN peacekeeping, cause a drop in troop contributions from UN member states, and impede cooperation between the UN and humanitarian actors.


United Nations (UN) peacekeeping has evolved in recent years. It originally involved the placement of impartial military forces between belligerents with their consent and was guided by the non-use of force except in self-defense. However, in response to criticisms about passivity in the face of civilian atrocities, UN peace operations have become more “robust,” meaning they are increasingly guided by mandates enabling them to use military force not only in self-defense but also to protect civilians, ensure humanitarian access, and/or support state authority. What are the effects— especially the unintended effects—of this move towards more “robust” peace operations?

To explore this question, the author first examines the history of UN peacekeeping, including changes in both its definition and its practice, particularly with reference to recent instances of “robust peacekeeping”: Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, and the Central African Republic (CAR). On the level of definitions and doctrine, robust peace operations can still fall under the rubric of “peacekeeping” as long as a key distinction between “peacekeeping” and “peace enforcement” is maintained: peacekeeping involves the use of military force on the tactical level with the consent of the host country and/or major parties, and peace enforcement involves the use of military force on the strategic/operational levels without the consent of the host country and/or main parties. This distinction can also be described as one between “defensive” (peacekeeping) and “offensive” (peace enforcement) uses of force. The author finds, however, that these distinctions are much clearer in theory than in practice: in several recent robust peacekeeping operations, deployed in areas of ongoing fighting, the UN has shifted into an offensive use of force, sometimes even on the strategic/operational level. The author also notes the UN’s shift to using force not only for civilian protection but also for stabilization, further pointing out that these shifts entail the UN operation taking sides. In Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Mali, and CAR, the UN sided with government authorities (in Côte d’Ivoire, making a judgment about who constituted the legitimate government) against rebels/militias fighting those authorities, becoming in some ways a party to the conflict and tied up in the very violence it was deployed to prevent/stop.

The author argues that, although the “robust turn” in UN peace operations can be seen to help achieve important objectives like civilian protection, there are also necessarily unintended consequences to any use of military force. He then explores some of these unintended consequences in six areas—“vulnerable civilians; safety and security of UN personnel; humanitarian space/access; human rights; post-conflict peacebuilding and development; and the political process”—noting the way in which peacekeepers’ increased use of force may jeopardize other important goals and the UN mission’s broader work.

First, somewhat paradoxically, more “robust” peacekeeping for civilian protection purposes can actually result, and make the UN complicit, in endangering the very civilians peacekeepers are meant to protect—either by itself inadvertently injuring or killing civilians in the cross-fire, by partnering with local armed forces who may intentionally harm civilians, or by causing targeted armed groups to engage in revenge attacks against civilians perceived to side with the UN (and/or its partners). Second, UN peacekeepers—as well as civilian components of the UN mission—may become more vulnerable to attacks by armed groups who begin to interpret peacekeepers’ partiality and their greater militarization as reason to treat them as legitimate military targets. Third, humanitarian actors share a concern that close association with robust peacekeeping will jeopardize humanitarian space—created with reference to the principles of “neutrality, impartiality, independence and humanity”—leading to decreased humanitarian access and greater insecurity for humanitarian actors. Fourth and fifth, substantive components of the UN mission in the areas of human rights and/or peacebuilding and development may be weakened or undermined due to the state-centrism frequently entailed by robust peacekeeping. Sixth, the UN’s substantive political negotiation work is necessarily constrained (and its impartiality undermined) when UN peacekeepers’ use of force is instrumental to bringing about a new political reality. This arrangement can result in potentially exclusive political arrangements “somewhat predetermined” by decisions made on the battlefield—especially regarding which parties are or are not designated as “legitimate political actors”—which can generate fresh grievances and reinforce the root causes of conflict.

The author concludes with some broader systemic effects of the “robust turn” in UN peacekeeping: the possibility that these changes will both “jeopardize the traditional principles of peacekeeping,” thereby creating greater disagreement over such missions and causing a drop in troop contributions from UN member states, and further impede cooperation between the UN and humanitarian actors.

Robust Peacekeeping: The use of force by a United Nations peacekeeping operation at the tactical level, with authorization of the Security Council, to defend its mandate against spoilers whose activities pose a threat to civilians or risk undermining the peace process.

United Nations. (2008). United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Principles and Guidelines “Capstone Doctrine”. New York: United Nations Secretariat. http://www.

Contemporary Relevance

There is a tendency to speak and think of war-making and peacekeeping as completely different enterprises. Indeed, their very names represent them as opposites. But just as we should always be critical of the use of euphemistic language to sanitize violence—making it more palatable—so should we also question our received ideas about what counts as “good” violence and “bad” violence. Through its investigation of the recent “robust turn” in UN peacekeeping, this research complicates these distinctions to some extent, forcing us to see the ways in which even “good” violence—military action used to “keep the peace” or to protect civilians—may have harmful effects. The point is, there are particular consequences that come when a military force—even a UN peacekeeping force— begins to engage in violence, whether called warfare or not: it will likely kill or injure civilians, even if unintentionally, and it will begin to lose any claim to impartiality it may once have had, thereby becoming a party to the conflict and feeding into cycles of violence. It is important, therefore, to critically assess decisions to use military violence, even—in fact, especially—when its use is portrayed as benign.

Practical Implications

If robust peacekeeping can bring about harmful, unintended consequences, what is the alternative, especially when civilian lives are at risk? Are there any methods for protecting civilians that do not themselves become implicated in cycles of violence? One promising approach that has recently gotten more attention (including in a UN report on peacekeeping) is unarmed civilian peacekeeping/protection (UCP), the use of teams of trained, unarmed civilians in war zones to protect civilians and prevent violence through activities like accompaniment and proactive presence. Such teams engage with all actors on a human level, building relationships with civilian and armed actors alike—though sometimes using their international status as a deterrent when necessary—in an effort to create space for local actors to wage or resolve their conflicts nonviolently. Organizations like Nonviolent Peaceforce and Peace Brigades International, among others, have taken this approach in contexts as diverse as Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and South Sudan. These organizations operate with severely limited resources, especially compared to the resources devoted to military forces, even UN peacekeeping forces. Therefore, concerned citizens, funders, and governments can contribute money and time to such organizations, while also advocating on their behalf to raise the visibility of unarmed civilian peacekeeping as a viable alternative to armed peacekeeping.

Keywords: civilian protection, humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, United Nations

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 2, of the Peace Science Digest.