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UN Peacekeeping: A Portrait of More Than 50 Years


Cambodian peacekeepers who are expert in de-mining arrive in 2014 at the UN’s mission in Mali to work in the north of the country. MARCO DORMINO

For many people in the world, the United Nations is often associated with peacekeeping, one of the most visible activities of the world body in its efforts to maintain international peace and security. Peacekeeping was created in the late 1940s and developed over decades into an ambitious instrument to contain severe political and military conflicts, to make the conflict parties return to negotiations to keeping peace and to build the foundations of a more stable political, administrative, legal and socioeconomic environment for peace.

The history of UN peacekeeping is a story of successes and failures, a story of more than 60 peacekeeping operations undertaken so far, 16 of which are currently deployed.

For anyone interested in UN peacekeeping, it is difficult to get an overview of the historic development, the present situation of UN peacekeeping and the individual peacekeeping operations, given the vast amount of UN documents, UN publications and secondary literature dealing with this topic.

Fortunately, readers now have a reliable compass at hand: “The Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations,” edited by the European peacekeeping experts Joachim A. Koops, Norrie MacQueen, Thierry Tardy and Paul D. Williams and published this year. All four editors have academic backgrounds with extensive research on international peacekeeping.

The book brings together leading scholars and senior practitioners who provide a comprehensive assessment of the 67 UN-led peacekeeping operations between 1948 and 2013, which comprise the deployment of military and/or police personnel. The book does not deal with the political missions, led by the UN Department of Political Affairs.

As with all Oxford Handbooks, this publication masters its enormous task with precision and elegance, providing readers with insightful summary chapters in Part I, followed by highly readable case studies in chronological order of the peacekeeping operations in Part II.

The book starts with a brief introduction in which the editors explain the structure of the book and put forward their working thesis to be supported or contradicted by the case studies: “UN peacekeeping operations can be credited with a variety of achievements which have often been understated, especially by media commentators, in favor of the more negative — and more newsworthy — consequences of some missions. . . .  [I]t remains a crucial conflict management mechanism.”

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The editors consider the main challenges for UN peacekeeping weak political and/or material support from member states as well as weaknesses in the planning, logistic, communication and command structures and the complex and ambitious mandates of the peacekeeping operations themselves.

The introductory chapters of Part I provide an overview and a comparative analysis of the major patterns in peacekeeping operations; they also explore the legal basis of UN peace operations and their diverse partnerships with other actors, particularly regional organizations.

Other summary chapters examine the often-blurred boundary between the consensual nature of traditional peacekeeping and more coercive enforcement operations, as well as discuss the complex issues in evaluating (with reliable scientific means) the successes and failures of peace operations. Part I alone offers an insightful compendium of the current challenges and trends in UN peacekeeping.

Yet Part II is what makes this book a truly valuable source of information and basis for in-depth research: The 67 UN peacekeeping operations are grouped in four sections: Early Experiences: 1948-1963; Cold War Peacekeeping: 1964-1987; Post-Cold War Peacekeeping: 1988-1998; and Peacekeeping in the Twenty-First Century: 1999-2013.

Each section begins with the editors summarizing the development of peacekeeping in the given period in the context of the relevant international relations, followed by single case studies divided each into four sections: introduction (including mandate and key facts); course of the operation; achievements and limitations; and conclusion.

The authors do not hesitate to take a standpoint. In the case of the Western Sahara peacekeeping operation, called Minurso, for instance, the author, Anna Theofilopoulou, writes: “In fact both the Security Council and the Secretary-General appear more anxious to maintain the presence in Western Sahara, regardless of results, than the parties seem to be to resolve the conflict.”

Her analysis finds that Morocco is not willing to compromise substantially in negotiations, yet Minurso provides it with a perfect proof that is is cooperative. For the Saharans, Minurso protects it current status amid the Moroccan military dominance.

The most surprising achievement of the book is that readers can put together the important facts concerning a particular peacekeeping operation and form their own opinions as to a mission’s viability. This is undoubtedly because of the consistent structure of the book, the matter-of-fact language of the authors, the detailed descriptions and the close reference to UN documents.

In their introduction, the editors state: “[A]nyone interested in the international politics of conflict resolution and the dynamics of international peace and security more generally needs to understand the politics, practice, and impact of UN peacekeeping.”

With this handbook, the editors and writers have made an important contribution to promote such an understanding among the UN member states.

“The Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations,” edited by Joachim A. Koops, Norrie MacQueen, Thierry Tardy and Paul D. Williams; 9780199686049

Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (

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