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UN peacekeeping faces significant challenges and some question whether it can remain relevant, but most countries agree on the importance of the UN as the centrepiece of global governance, and that peacekeeping is its flagship enterprise.

ON MISSION IN MALI: Female peacekeepers are great assets to the UN, as women and children often feel more comfortable speaking to women about the issues affecting them. Here, a Rwandan police officer is greeted warmly by women and children while on patrol in Gao, Mali.

Photo: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

ON MISSION IN MALI: Female peacekeepers are great assets to the UN, as women and children often feel more comfortable speaking to women about the issues affecting them. Here, a Rwandan police officer is greeted warmly by women and children while on patrol in Gao, Mali.

Photo: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

May 29th marks the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, and the United Nations celebrates the 70th anniversary of UN Peacekeeping.

Since the early 1990s, NUPI’s research on United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations has contributed to changing perceptions, awareness, capacity, process, competence, policy and practice in Norway and internationally. This research was among the first to study the civilian dimension of peace operations. It encompasses protection of civilians, the gender perspective, security sector reform (in particular police reform), trends, best practices and lessons learnt.

Our research has exposed the gap between theory and practice, the importance of the human and political dimension, the importance of a holistic, integrated approach and has given concrete and substantial policy recommendations. Over time, our research has had an impact and contributed to the change of UN peace operations, reflected in policy documents and practice. 

  • How NUPI’s peacekeeping research supported the work of the UN High-level Independent Panel on Peacekeeping (Norwegian only):

To mark the anniversary of UN Peacekeeping, Senior Research Fellows Kari Osland and Cedric de Coning (NUPI) has written this overview analysis of the current state of UN Peacekeeping, and the challenges that lie ahead:

Over the past 70 years, more than one million troops from more than 110 nations have participated in 70 UN peacekeeping missions. It is a remarkable achievement that reflects the level of commitment that can be realized when the international community has a shared vision and a practical mechanism that enable it to work together.

There are, however, significant challenges that cause some to question whether UN peacekeeping is in fact relevant, and will be able to remain so. These challenges include violent extremism and international terrorism, transnational organized crime and a changing global order that may result in the UN Security Council being unable to reach agreement on how to resolve major conflicts. Those that question whether the UN’s peacekeeping operations are relevant, focus on the lack of sustainable peace following the UN’s intervention, the lack of increased human security, the negative and unintended consequences of the peace operation, etc.

The focus for this short-piece is what implications these challenges and changes at the global systems level have for the future of UN peacekeeping operations. We will highlight three themes—strategic political coherence, the employment of force, and the outer limits of peace operations— that may suggest how UN peacekeeping are likely to adapt to these challenges and changes.

Strategic Political Coherence

Strategic political coherence relates to the recognition that peace operations should always serve a political purpose, and that there is rarely a sustainable solution that does not boil down ultimately to a negotiated political agreement. However, strategic coherence also refers to the new reality that the UN, and UN peacekeeping operations, will rarely, if ever, operate on its own in the future. In every theatre it will operate alongside other international, regional and in some cases bilateral actors, each with its own mandate, responsibility, and comparative advantages.

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The UN system, and UN peacekeeping in particular, will need to adapt to this new reality by developing the capacity to maintain the primacy of politics, and also to play a convening role in a network of national and international efforts.

Employment of Force

The employment of force will remain one of the key defining challenges of UN peacekeeping.

The principled approach to the use of force in UN peacekeeping operations has been one of its most resilient features. Whenever the UN has deviated from this norm, for instance in the 1960s in the Congo, or more recently in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mali, the norm seems to be validated and reinforced.

The UN High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations’ maintained that the inherent features of UN peace operations, including its globally diverse force generation structure, its civilian logistics chain, its multilateral financing system and its political command and control mechanism, make it unfit for combat operations.

Whilst the Security Council is likely to continue to task UN peacekeeping with the protection of civilians and stabilization mandates, the principled approach to UN peacekeeping, including the minimum use of force principle, is however, likely to remain one of the defining features of UN peacekeeping.

Outer Limits of UN Peacekeeping

When peacekeeping started in 1948 in the Middle East with the UN Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) it consisted of lightly armed military units that monitored a cease-fire agreement. More complex tasks were added over time, including supporting the implementation of comprehensive peace agreements in the late 1980s, facilitating the birth of new states like Timor-Leste and South Sudan, and the protection of civilians in the late 1990s.

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UN peacekeeping operations organized elections, oversaw the writing of new constitutions, helped to develop rule of law institutions and promoted democracy. However, partly as a result of increasing pressure on the funding of peace operations, questions are increasingly being raised about the scope of peace operations. The debate seems to be leaning towards arguments for a new era of limited UN peacekeeping operations, where these operations should be focused on fewer priority areas, mainly protection, stability, and politics.


Despite, or perhaps partly as a result of, the challenges and changes underway in the global order, and the uncertainties that come with what seems to be a significant phase-shift, most countries and regional blocs, such as the African Union, European Union and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), agree on the importance of the UN as the centrepiece of global governance.

Currently, there are ongoing and needed comprehensive reforms of the UN’s management, development, peace and security structures, and significant attention is rightly being focused on prevention. There is broad agreement that the UN and its peacekeeping operations need to change and adapt to a new environment in order for it to have a chance of bringing positive results in the field. However, it is a large ship to turn and somewhat independent of whether that succeeds, UN peacekeeping is likely to remain the flagship enterprise of the UN. This is because UN peacekeeping remains the most visual embodiment and achievement of the post-World War II multilateral system of global governance.

Read more about NUPI's research on these issues on our topic pages for the United Nations and peace operations.


  • Peace operations
  • Conflict
  • International organizations
  • United Nations