Spotlight on United Nations’ Peacekeeping with Dr. Philip Cunliffe

October 14, 2016   Reading Time: 10 minutes

Reading Time: 10 min read

On 7 September 2016, LKI hosted Dr. Philip Cunliffe to hear his insights on a subject that he has researched extensively: United Nations peacekeeping and, especially, the contribution of developing countries to peacekeeping operations. This interview with Dr. Cunliffe, conducted by LKI’s Executive Director, Dr. Dinusha Panditaratne, is the inaugural installment of LKI’s Spotlight Series, which features interviews with experts from around the world on aspects of contemporary international relations.

Dr. Cunliffe is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Kent. He joined the School of Politics and International Relations at Kent in 2009, after completing his doctorate in War Studies at King’s College London. His doctoral research examined developing countries’ personnel contribution to UN peacekeeping operations across 1997-2007. His third book Legions of Peace: UN Peacekeepers from the Global South, which is based on his doctoral research, was published in 2013.

Previously, Dr. Cunliffe taught in the Defence Studies and War Studies departments of King’s College London. Prior to his doctoral study, he completed his Master’s in International Politics at Aberystwyth and read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Somerville College, Oxford. In 2008 Philip was appointed to provide reports on Western Balkan politics for the Economist Intelligence Unit. He contributes regularly to the international media and has broadcast on local radio stations as well as BBC Radio 4, Al Jazeera, Russia Today, and Press TV.

Please see below for a lightly edited transcript of the podcast.

Dr. Panditaratne: We are fortunate to have with us today, Dr. Philip Cunliffe, Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent. Dr. Cunliffe, I understand that your doctoral research examined the contribution of developing countries to UN peacekeeping operations from 1997 to 2007.

Could I begin by asking you two related questions: first, could you briefly explain some of the major findings of your study; and secondly, could you offer your views as to whether more recent developments in peacekeeping have reinforced or, alternatively, have challenged your findings?

Dr. Cunliffe: First of all let me say, thank you very much for having me. In answer to your question, the major findings of the study were that UN peacekeeping provided a way for developed countries or western states to offload the burden of international security in many conflicts around the world onto developing countries. They could rely upon developing countries’ troops and security personnel to provide the manpower, and to take on the military and political risks of engaging in conflict zones which Western states were unwilling to deploy to.

So this was the basic finding of the study, and relatedly, that this pattern of offloading security risks, and offloading the military and manpower burdens of international security through UN peacekeeping, fitted into a longer history of imperial security in which central states, wealthy, powerful states, would find ways of reducing the financial, military, and political costs of maintaining international security through relying on forces locally recruited in the periphery. And that this pattern reproduced itself: even to the extent of, if you look at, say, a lot of the major contributors to UN peacekeeping are in fact the descendants of imperial colonial armies used by the British, in particular, but also in the French empire. So, that was the major finding in the study.

And so far as whether subsequent developments have reinforced or challenged those findings; that is the second part of your question. To some extent the pattern is changing, as you have economic growth. The structure of incentives and motivations for participating for peacekeeper contributing countries is changing, as certain contributing countries shift from being highly indebted poor countries or low income countries to being middle income or lower middle income countries. So, that’s an important development. You also have countries that don’t have any history of imperial policing or imperial warfare, having become significant peacekeeping states in this spirit as well. One example would be Brazil. Another example would be China, which has become an increasingly important peacekeeper.

Dr. Panditaratne: Thank you for that comprehensive answer. You’ve gone ahead and answered the next question, which is to explain the reasons behind this growing disparity between developed and developing countries, in terms of the sheer numbers of personnel they contribute to UN peacekeeping operations. I understand that it has been noted by the UN General Assembly, by the 4th committee, as a pattern that has emerged; and that presently five developing countries – Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan and Rwanda – contribute as many as a third of UN peacekeeping personnel.

You’ve touched on many of the historical and current reasons for that divergence in terms of numbers of peacekeepers. Perhaps we could look at the other side of the coin, and consider the fact that the financial burden of these peacekeeping operations is still borne largely by developed countries, and that kind of norms in institutional structures of peacekeeping operations still appear to be shaped by developed countries.

Does this divide have any effect on developing countries’ perceptions of the UN peacekeeping system? Does it affect the efficiency of peacekeeping operations? Or does it not matter who funds peacekeeping and who sets the rules and procedures?

Dr. Cunliffe: The disparity is still there, and it still is a source of contention in internal UN debates and in relations between developed and developing countries, when it comes to international security. Sometimes it’s even referred to in very stark terms as a blood-money trade off, whereby developing countries provide the blood, while rich and developed countries provide the money.

When developing countries provide peacekeepers, the number of casualties that they sustain over the long run, and the number of years for which they’re deployed in conflict zones, on average tends to exceed the Western presence in conflict zones; in places such as Sierra Leone – or others sites in which for example, Mali, where you have, say a very quick, short, sharp French operation (separate from a UN peacekeeping operation). But the UN peacekeeping operation is deployed for longer term processes of post-conflict reconstruction, pacification.

The divergence goes right from the field up into the institutional structures of the UN. And it’s still a source of contention between developing countries and developed countries, within the UN system, and there have been attempts to try and bridge over the gap, and to manage it more effectively. But simply, it’s a reflection of deeper inequalities within the international system. And there is no way in which the institutional arrangements could not reflect these underlying structural divisions which exist outside the UN system, and the UN system simply reproduces them.

So, to some extent it’s simply insurmountable; a systematic problem which can be managed and reduced, but it can’t be overcome without broader changes in the international system itself. I think it probably does affect the outcome of peacekeeping operations in terms of the structure of peacekeeping in the field, and also I think it affects the way in which peacekeeping is conducted, because you have different incentives confronted by different groups of countries; the countries that decide where peacekeepers go, that decide on the size of missions, that decide on the mandate for a mission. These aren’t the countries that actually have to confront deployment to the field, because those costs and issues are confronted by developing countries who send personnel.

The problems of this gap go right to the core of the function of UN peacekeeping. The people who decide where peacekeepers go have an incentive to extend the mandate to be over-ambitious, and craft mandates to amplify the concern and scope and scale of what a peacekeeping operation can do, because they don’t have to bear the risks and the costs. While the countries that do have to bear the operational costs – in terms of personnel at least – don’t get to decide on the shape and strategic aims and functions of the UN operation. So, for those reasons, this gap between developed and developing countries does impact the conduct and outcome of peacekeeping operations in the field.

Dr. Panditaratne: You quite aptly described the various trade offs and different incentives involved, and the extent of that divide. This is something that is relevant for Sri Lanka; as Sri Lanka’s military has just been invited to participate in the UN peacekeeping operations in Mali. It so happens to be at a time when some within the UN system are also calling for investigations into the kind of conduct of the Sri Lankan military, during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Do you think that despite the kind of problems and issues that you discussed that relate to this developing-developed divide, that serving in UN peacekeeping missions offers an opportunity for a country’s military to grow its global reputation? Or put differently, could it be said that contributing to UN peacekeeping is a form of soft power that a country could gain?

Dr. Cunliffe: I think it certainly does help to enhance UN peacekeeping­; participation in peacekeeping operations can be used to burnish a country’s image internationally, perhaps not in terms of the international public opinion, or in terms of the country’s own domestic public opinion, but in terms of the international connections – what you could call ‘corridor diplomacy’ – in terms of the softer, more intangible connections that occur in international institutions, the networking between different organs and agencies of the UN system. Those kinds of connections that are facilitated by participating in UN peacekeeping operations matter a great deal, I think, for a country’s international reputation, and also for the self-image of countries, at least as to how they think about, and how they relate to the rest of the world.

The opportunities that participating in peacekeeping provides for countries to perhaps brief the Security Council, engage with the UN Peacebuilding Commission, engage with senior figures in the UN system, within UN departments, all of this I think, matters a great deal in terms of enhancing a country’s reputation on the international stage. So I think UN peacekeeping does offer that opportunity. Obviously, it also offers risks, and so far as in this conduct, or excesses and atrocities that might be committed by peacekeepers on the ground might backfire on a country, and this has happened with a number of cases, including with the controversies raised over Sri Lanka’s participation in the Haiti operation, so, it carries both risks and potential opportunities for any country.

I think it can be described as a form of soft power, bearing in mind, that said, that the mandates that are given to peacekeepers increasingly expect hard power from peacekeepers. Peacekeeping operations are increasingly militarised, peacekeepers are routinely now given power to use force beyond self-defense. Peacekeeping operations have developed intelligence cells relying, say, on, drones to gather local intelligence at a tactical level, at least. But they also tend to be more heavily armed and given mandates to enhance security, and Mali is one example where there is tremendous security expectations of the peacekeeping operation.

So UN peacekeeping increasingly involves hard power, even though it can enhance a country’s soft power – there’s a paradox involved.

Dr. Panditaratne: So it’s a combination, in effect?

Dr. Cunliffe: Yes.

Dr. Panditaratne: Right. Just to touch on something that you raised earlier: one of the most frequent criticisms of peacekeeping operations is that their mandates are repeatedly, and sometimes unnecessarily, extended. You pointed out the different incentives that are involved in these decisions, and how that also relates to the gap between developed and developing countries.

When these mandates are extended, it of course inflates the cost, the complexity, and as you pointed out, potentially, the lives involved in these operations.

How is the UN addressing this issue of extended deployment, if at all, and is there any way you know communities could better or best address this concern?

Dr. Cunliffe: There are various initiatives the UN has made. It has tried to involve a greater range of countries that are involved in peacekeeping through bodies such as the UN Peacebuilding Commission. The UN Security Council has tried to consult more regularly with developing countries, with the so-called ‘TCCs’ or ‘PCCs’, the ‘Truth Contributing Countries’, or the ‘Police Contributing Countries’. They try to consult with them more regularly in the process of crafting, designing the UN operation.

But with these initiatives, at the end of the day, there is a limit to how much can be done. If you look at, say, the election of non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, it doesn’t particularly reflect who are the greatest contributors to UN peacekeeping. If you look at the financial contribution to UN peacekeeping, it’s overwhelmingly wealthy Western states – Japan, Germany, the US, France, the UK – though China is increasingly contributing also to UN peacekeeping funds.

So there are efforts to, close the gap but, at the end of the day the institutional forms of the UN reflect underlying power structures in the international system and there’s a limit to how much you can expect the UN to change those institutional structures without broader changes in the international system itself. And those changes will come, over time, but they would require serious institutional restructuring at the UN to better match the configuration of the changing pattern of the international system.

Dr. Panditaratne: So are you saying that the potential for reform is in fact embedded in the larger reforms that are required in the UN system?

Dr. Cunliffe: Yes, I think so, and also changes to the international system, the international order, more broadly.

Dr. Panditaratne: We’ve spoken mostly so far about the more traditional UN peacekeeping operations. You referred to earlier to other types of peacekeeping operations. For example in Mali, France’s Operation Serval, and there is currently also an African Union mission in Somalia. These peacekeeping operations are more bilaterally or multilaterally arranged with the consent of the UN.

In your view, do these operations complement the UN’s work, or do they sometimes hinder or compete with it? Do they have the potential for perhaps overcoming the need for UN peacekeeping operations or for extending peacekeeping operations, or perhaps in some other way affecting the future of UN peacekeeping operations?

Dr. Cunliffe: They’re very much part of the overall division of labour in peacekeeping, and even though a lot of the kinds of operations that you mentioned might not fall under the authority of the UN department of peacekeeping operations in New York, they are still very much intertwined with UN peacekeeping.

If we take the example of France’s military operation in Mali, it’s only possible because France can depend upon – through its influences as a permanent member of the UN Security Council – the UN to provide the missions or the personnel which is necessary to make up for, and deploy long-term in Mali, in the aftermath of the French military operation there. If France had to conduct its Operation Serval in Mali, as well as deploy security forces to northern Mali, as well as engage in post-conflict reconstruction and the kinds of tasks that UN peacekeepers, blue-helmets, are doing in Mali, it would simply be an impossible task for France to do.

So I think it’s an illusion to think of these operations as distinct from UN peacekeeping. Often they’re conducted – even if they don’t fall under UN command structures – they’re designed with UN peacekeeping as the fallback, and the support, in effect, for the military operation. The AMISOM Operation in Somalia is entirely dependent on UN logistical support. Even though it’s not a blue-helmet operation, it has UN political support, but also very significantly, it wouldn’t be possible without the logistical support provided by the UN.

These missions shouldn’t be seen as competitive with UN peacekeeping. They’re very much part of the international security system, and it’s the opposite way around, in the sense that they’re the ones that are dependent on UN peacekeeping, as I mentioned with respect to the French operation with Mali. If it wasn’t for UN peacekeepers providing the forces going into Mali, including shortly Sri Lankan forces, the French operation wouldn’t be possible, politically or militarily.

Dr. Panditaratne: So, in fact, UN resources are integral to their success?

Dr. Cunliffe: Absolutely.

Dr. Panditaratne: You’ve covered many different aspects of UN peacekeeping and explained very well the magnitude, the scale of the various operations, and also the institutional issues that are inbuilt in them. Thank you for these really insightful and informative responses. The UN was formed of a need to ‘save future generations from the scourge of war’ and nowhere has that commitment been displayed more openly than in peacekeeping operations. So it’s something that’s in a way critical to the positive profile of the UN. We’re grateful to have you explain and analyse these issues for us.

Dr. Cunliffe: Thank you so much.


*The opinions expressed in this transcript are the interviewee’s own views and are not the institutional views of LKI.


  • 2016




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