Peacekeepers Against Criminal Violence – Unintended Effects of UN Peacekeeping Operations?

The forthcoming article “Peacekeepers Against Criminal Violence – Unintended Effects of UN Peacekeeping Operations” ( by Jessica Di Salvatore is summarized by the author(s) below.
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One keyword currently dominates the debate around UN peacekeeping: effectiveness. There has been an increasing number of studies showing that United Nations’ peace missions, when sizeable, save lives and contain conflict violence successfully. With mandates largely focused on actors involved in the political struggle, conflict reduction is certainly a valid benchmark to evaluate peace operations. Nonetheless, most conflict and post-conflict societies are plagued by high levels of criminal violence oftentimes perpetrated by actors that escape the attention of UN blue helmets, but that all the same have a detrimental impact on international efforts for stabilization. On the ground, UN missions have repeatedly confronted the problem of rising criminal violence in host countries, and occasionally adapted their mandates with exceptional measures, as UNMIK in Kosovo. The UN is aware of the challenged posed by crime and criminal actors, not only because homicides keep the level of insecurity high but also because of the long-term effects of crime pervasiveness on political and economic development. But can peacekeeping missions contribute not only to reduce conflict but also contain criminal violence? On the one hand, one would expect large international military deployment to deter any form of violence and bring order; on the other hand, mandates neglect criminal actors, which are regarded as a “distraction” and, ultimately, governments’ responsibility.

In the last decade, UN personnel differentiated their roles within missions significantly. Both personnel types are deployed alongside but their functions differ. UN police (UNPOL) is actively involved in capacity building of national counterparts, community patrolling, joint operations with national police and law enforcement. Hence, we would expect UNPOL to curb homicides. UN troops, on the other hand, may unfold more subtle dynamics that inadvertently increase homicide rates. Here are two mechanisms explaining this positive association, one related to security and the other to economic opportunities.

First, by providing a safe environment to civilians, UN troops also provide ‘operational security’ to criminal groups. Organized crime thrives in under-governed spaces more than in anarchic, ungoverned areas. Unpredictability is not good for their business, and UN troops may allow them to free-ride on security while not being actively sought after. Second, peacekeepers’ deployment is associated with the emergence of so-called peacekeeping economies, where opportunity for illicit markets and illegal activities (e.g. transactional sex, drug trafficking) grows. As consequence, criminal groups compete to appropriate these new markets through violence, thus producing higher levels of homicide rates. Besides organized crime, individuals also have incentives to get involved in peacekeeping economies. Former combatants disarmed and demobilized by peacekeepers within nation-wide DDR programs are vulnerable to re-use their fighting skills for criminal purposes.

To explore the relationship between peace missions and criminal violence, I analyse homicide rates in all conflict and post-conflict countries from 1995 to 2012 and then at the subnational level in South Sudan. At both levels of analysis, results consistently show that UN troops are associated with more homicide rates, while UNPOL seems to potentially curb homicides and moderate unintended effects. To rule out the possibility that UN missions spur more crimes (not just homicides), I show that neither troops nor UNPOL have any empirical association with overall crime rates and, more specifically, non-violent crimes. Interestingly, however, the analysis also reports increasing prevalence of organized crime and related felonies in presence of large deployment of UN troops cross-nationally and subnationally, as the theoretical mechanism would predict.

The results of this study should raise awareness on the potential counterproductive dynamics engendered during and, in some cases, by UN peacekeeping missions. Decreasing levels of conflict do not necessarily translate into more secure environments and, thus, success. Paradoxically, UN troops effectiveness and large presence may itself be a reason why organized crime flourishes, given the security and economic benefits their success carries along. It is also possible to envision a more crime-deterrent role for UN troops with mandates that allow them to engage with non-state armed actors not limitedly to insurgents. This happened in past missions. On the bright side, however, UNPOL role can play an important role in containing such intended dynamics; this would require better integration and coordination between different components of peace operations. Last November, Tuesday Reitano, Deputy Director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, warned the Security Council that “even if peace operations do not actively fight crime, they need to be crime-sensitive, and ensure that criminal groups do not threaten the security of the mission or become peace spoilers”. The undergoing reform initiative Action4Peacekeeping launched by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, with its aim to broaden the notion of performance, is an opportunity to take new steps in this direction.

About the Author: Jessica Di Salvatore is Assistant Professor in Political Science and Peace Studies at the University of Warwick. The research “Peacekeepers Against Criminal Violence – Unintended Effects of UN Peacekeeping Operations” ( is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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