SIPRI maintains UN peace ops have not become more dangerous

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A new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on fatality trends in United Nations peace operations reveals the rate of peacekeepers dying while in UN service has steadily fallen over the past 25 years.

The report, released to coincide with the summit on UN peacekeeping in New York, hosted earlier this week by US President Barack Obama, provides a counterpoint to the perception that UN peace operations have become increasingly dangerous.

Contrary to common assumptions, the number of fatalities per 1,000 uniformed UN peacekeeping personnel (the relative fatality rate) has steadily decreased since the early 1990s.

Most years between 1990 and 2005 recorded relative fatality rates of well over 1.5 deaths per 1,000 – with a peak of 3.3 per 1,000 in 1993 – the relative fatality rate fell markedly in 2006 and 2007. Since 2008 the number of fatalities among uniformed personnel has remained stable at about one per 1,000. This means the relative fatality rate was between 0.5 and more than three times higher in the period 1990/2005 than in 2006/15.
“President Obama will likely stress the increasingly dangerous and hostile environments in which contemporary UN missions operate and will probably make reference to the high number of fatalities among blue helmets in recent years. Yet we tend to forget the situation in previous years was actually far worse, particularly in the mid-1990s, with many more fatalities among peacekeepers in places such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia and Somalia.
“While the number of fatalities due to malicious acts has indeed increased quite sharply since 2013, this has mainly been the result of the high number of fatalities in only one mission – MINUSMA in Mali,” SIPRI researcher Timo Smit, who co-authored the report, said.

The SIPRI report shows there is no clear relation between the “robustness” of mandates and the relative number of hostile deaths – the number of fatalities per 1,000 uniformed personnel due to malicious acts. Only four UN peacekeeping operations in the top 10 of operations with the highest relative number of hostile deaths were authorised under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, while only three of those operations had explicit authority to use force beyond self-defence.

There are several possible explanations why this long-term relative decline in fatalities has, for the most part, gone unnoticed. One of the most notable reasons, according to the report, is the widespread and growing use of social media, meaning casualties and incidents have become more visible. In earlier times news about fatalities might have gone unnoticed today such news can reach a global audience in an instant.

SIPRI senior researcher Dr Jaïr van der Lijn said: “High fatality figures are used by many western countries to justify their minimal contributions of uniformed personnel to UN peace operations. Recognising many of the common assumptions regarding peacekeeping fatality rates are incorrect will hopefully encourage countries to be more forthcoming at Obama’s peacekeeping summit’.

Notable facts and developments about peacekeeping include:

Since the UN established its first peacekeeping operation almost 70 years ago more than 3,300 people have died serving the UN in the pursuit of peace.

The number of fatalities due to malicious acts has increased quite sharply since 2013, both in absolute (total overall figures) and in relevant terms, but this is primarily due to the high number of hostile deaths among personnel engaged in the MINUSMA operation. Nonetheless, these recent levels are not unprecedented and are still significantly lower than those recorded in the 1990s.

MINUSMA has dominated the fatality count in UN peacekeeping operations since it was established in mid-2013 and is in fact one of the most deadly UN peacekeeping operations to date.

There is no correlation between contemporary UN peacekeeping operations with robust mandates and high fatality rates.

Most fatalities among UN peacekeepers still result from non-hostile causes (usually between 70 and 90% a year). More can – and should – be done to minimise deaths resulting from causes such as illness and accidents.