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UN peacekeeping at new highs

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UN peacekeeping at new highs after post-Cold War surge and decline

By George Gao

The number of United Nations peacekeeping forces around the world has peaked in recent months, after falling off in the late 1990s. Today, more than 100,000 uniformed peacekeepers are deployed under 16 different missions – with the highest numbers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and South Sudan.

The first historical mission with a sizable military force was the UN Operation in the Congo (ONUC) in the early 1960s, which sought to restore order in the former Belgian colony that had fallen into violence. About 20,000 peacekeepers took part in the mission, during which then Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash while flying into the region for diplomatic talks.

Peacekeeping activities were relatively infrequent for the next 25 years, but they spiked under the leadership of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who died in mid-February. During Boutros-Ghali’s January 1992 to December 1996 tenure, the number of ongoing missions rose from 10 to 18 – including high-profile operations in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia and Rwanda – while the number of peacekeeping forces reached a then high of nearly 79,000 in 1994, according to data from the UN, the Stimson Center and the International Peace Institute.

But those first years after the Cold War were seen as a period of trial and error for UN peacekeeping in general, and by 1999 the number of peacekeepers in the field dropped to about 12,000.

Amid that lull, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was head of peacekeeping under Boutros-Ghali, ordered internal reviews of the UN peacekeeping framework, examining their failures to prevent genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica. These reviews led to the publication of the landmark “Brahimi Report” in 2000 (named for panel Chairman Lakhdar Brahimi), which recommended, among other reforms, that the UN be able to rapidly deploy its forces into conflict zones after authorization and be more aggressive in asserting itself.

The size of UN peacekeeping forces again increased in the 2000s, as their services were sought by a growing number of conflict-ridden countries and their neighbors. In October 2005, as the number of peacekeepers approached 70,000, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, then the head of peacekeeping operations, warned that his forces were being overextended, leading to a brief “phase of consolidation” in 2010.

Since the start of 2010, however, six new missions have been authorized (including four that today have more than 10,000 peacekeepers), while five have been phased out (of which two had more than 10,000 troops at their peak). By April 2015, the number of uniformed peacekeeping personnel – which includes troops, police and military advisers – reached a new high of about 108,000.

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