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Assessing Armed and Unarmed Approaches to Peacekeeping

Assessing Armed and Unarmed Approaches to Peacekeeping

Photo credit: Peace Brigades International

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Julian, R. & Gasser, R. (2018). Soldiers, civilians and peacekeeping—Evidence and false assumptions. International Peacekeeping, forthcoming (available online).

Talking Points

  • The widespread assumption that peacekeeping requires armed personnel stems from an even more fundamental assumption that only violence can stop violence and that therefore no alternative forms of peacekeeping exist, rather than from an assessment that armed military peacekeeping produces better results than alternative unarmed forms of peacekeeping.
  • The shortcomings of armed military peacekeeping have not been sufficiently examined, including its reinforcement of the logic of violence and militarization in the host countries where it operates, its marginalization of local ownership in peacebuilding processes, and its low level of accessibility to local communities.
  • Unarmed civilian peacekeeping (UCP) has successfully engaged in the tasks traditionally associated with peacekeeping, demonstrating that peacekeeping does not require military personnel or the presence of weapons to carry out its violence prevention and civilian protection functions; furthermore, UCP can fulfill these functions in a way that also addresses some of the shortcomings of armed military peacekeeping.
  • The relationship-building that is so central to peacekeeping effectiveness is actually facilitated by the absence of weapons.
  • UCP teams function by living and working within local communities and supporting them in their protection and peacebuilding efforts while overtly challenging the logic of violence.


Think of the word “peacekeeping”—what image comes to mind? Most likely blue-helmeted soldiers carrying weapons and outfitted with the UN logo. In other words, as the authors of this research suggest, it has become common sense to assume that armed military forces are necessary for the violence prevention and civilian protection work of peacekeeping. Indeed, this common-sense thinking is based on the foundational assumption that the only thing capable of stopping violence is violence (or the threat of violence). It is the work of this study to critically examine these assumptions by surveying the empirical evidence on unarmed civilian peacekeeping (UCP) and assessing whether and how well UCP has been capable of fulfilling the tasks traditionally associated with peacekeeping.

Unarmed civilian peacekeeping (UCP) “Efforts by unarmed civilian third parties, in the field, to prevent or diminish violence by influencing or controlling potential perpetrators for the purpose of protecting people and making it safe for local people to engage in peace and justice efforts.”

Furnari, E. (2014). Understanding effectiveness in peacekeeping operations: Exploring the perspectives of frontline peacekeepers. Ph.D. Thesis University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ.

At its most fundamental level, peacekeeping means the “prevention or reduction of direct violence.” UCP involves peacekeeping activities characterized by the following: 1) nonviolence (therefore no weapons are carried or used), 2) civilian (instead of military) personnel, and 3) locally guided actions. The authors distinguish UCP from armed military peacekeeping (AMP), which includes “both military personnel and other uniformed and armed professionals.” Traditionally, UN peacekeeping was defined by consent of the parties, the non-use of force except in self-defense, and impartiality, but more recently, the authors argue, the line has begun to blur between “peacekeeping” and its much more blatantly militarized cousin “peace enforcement”—as demonstrated through the use of the vague term “peace operations.”

Although AMP has received the majority of attention in research on peacekeeping, its shortcomings have not been sufficiently examined. In addition to charges of neo-imperialism, these include the reinforcement of the logic of violence and broader societal militarization in the host countries where it operates, the reinforcement of the lower status of civilian leadership as compared to military authorities, the marginalization of local ownership in peacebuilding processes, the low level of accessibility to local communities (making it less likely that such peacekeeping forces will be tuned in to on-the-ground developments), and documented cases of sexual violence perpetration in local communities. AMP’s dominance, therefore, seems to stem from the assumption that no alternative to it exists rather than from an assessment of its results in comparison to UCP.

Turning their attention instead to UCP, the authors first identify a list of tasks traditionally associated with peacekeeping: “presence, patrolling, protection, influencing behaviour”; “monitoring, observing, informing”; “communication: negotiation, collaboration, advocacy”; “investigation and responding to findings”; “early warning and early response”; “peacekeeping tasks not undertaken by AMP”; and “capacity building.” Second, they analyze academic research, UCP organizations’ websites, and publicly available field project evaluations (in particular, those of Peace Brigades International and Nonviolent Peaceforce) to look for evidence that UCP teams have successfully carried out these tasks over the past 35 years.

The authors find ample evidence that UCP has successfully engaged in all of the identified peacekeeping tasks over a range of projects and organizations. For example, the authors cite instances in Sri Lanka, Colombia, and South Sudan where the proactive presence of UCP teams protected threatened communities or individuals, including children at risk for armed recruitment or women threatened with rape by armed actors in their daily activities. In Mindanao (Philippines), UCP had an official role monitoring the ceasefire agreement—and when that ceasefire was about to expire, the UCP team engaged in “shuttle diplomacy” between stakeholders with whom it had built relationships to effectively extend it. Moreover, undertaking a task that AMP would be inherently incapable of, UCP in South Sudan supported community members in implementing a weapons-free zone in order to enhance civilian security in their area. In all these activities and others, UCP has been able to prevent or mitigate violence without simultaneously contributing to further societal militarization or to the marginalization of local agency as AMP does. Instead, UCP teams function by living and working within local communities and supporting them in their protection and peacebuilding efforts while overtly challenging the logic of violence. Their relationship-building with—and acceptance by—a broad range of local armed and civilian stakeholders is necessary to UCP teams’ very presence and effectiveness in the communities where they work. Crucially, this relationship-building so central to peacekeeping effectiveness is facilitated by the absence of weapons. As a seasoned military peacekeeper (who had also served in unarmed observer missions) noted, “When I had no weapons, I could access people, people had confidence at the first sight…but if you are there with a weapon, you are looked at in a different way. People used to think about it before talking with you.”

The authors, therefore, conclude that to fulfill its violence prevention and civilian protection functions peacekeeping does not require military personnel or the presence of weapons and, in fact, that UCP can fulfill these functions in a way that also addresses some of the shortcomings of AMP. As the authors note, “[t]he assumption that an armed actor will not yield to anything except a weapon has been demonstrated to be false on many occasions”; moreover, confronting armed actors with unarmed civilian peacekeepers “may help to unlock some complex and intractable situations” in a way AMP is unable to do, operating, as it does, according to the same logic of violence.

Contemporary Relevance

While the primary debate on peacekeeping over the past twenty years has been about whether and how peacekeeping can be “robust” enough to take on the security challenges of the post-Cold War world, this research indicates that perhaps this debate is leading us in the wrong direction. As previous research examined in the Peace Science Digest has suggested, recent robust peacekeeping operations (in Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], Mali, and the Central African Republic [CAR]) have had unintended results. Most importantly, they have sometimes, paradoxically, led to greater civilian vulnerability—either through inadvertently injuring or killing civilians in the course of a military operation against armed groups or through such armed groups engaging in revenge attacks against civilian communities thought to side with UN forces. Yet, arguments for the necessity of arms in peacekeeping operations—and of a “robust” mandate to use them if civilians or peacekeepers are threatened—assume that threatening or using violence against violent actors will get them to stop their violence and thereby better protect civilians. This facile assumption ignores the simple fact that armed military peacekeepers (AMPs) are engaged in and reinforcing the very logic—and cycles—of violence that they are there to disrupt.

The value of the present research is its demonstration that there are alternative unarmed approaches to armed peacekeeping that can be effective—we need not assume that AMP is the only possible response when armed actors threaten civilians. The UN itself is beginning to recognize this fact. Its 2015 Report of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations devoted a section to unarmed strategies for protecting civilians, and other recent UN reports, General Assembly Resolutions, and Security Council Resolutions have reaffirmed a commitment to employing this approach when civilians are threatened with violence.

Practical Implications

Even if we know that unarmed civilian peacekeeping (UCP) is a viable option when civilians are threatened with violence, the biggest hurdle to overcome is the cultural and institutional inertia that exists in support of militarized responses to mass atrocities and other wartime violence—especially the ever-powerful “common-sense” thinking that immediately discounts unarmed strategies in the face of violence. The present research suggests that, to counter such common-sense thinking, we must look to and critically examine the actual results of both armed military peacekeeping (AMP) and UCP.

To be sure, there are studies that highlight positive effects of AMP. Georgetown University’s Lise Morjé Howard, who has studied UN peacekeeping forces thoroughly, remarked at the 2018 Alliance for Peacebuilding conference that UN peacekeeping reduces civilian and military deaths, reduces the risks of a violence contagion, reduces the duration of civil wars, and diminishes the recurrence of civil wars. It is worth noting, however, that directly comparing these results of AMP to results of UCP is difficult, given the fact that UCP missions tend to be extremely under-resourced (and under-staffed) by comparison.

On the other hand, in cases where an AMP mission is determined to be unsuccessful, we tend to assume that this is because it wasn’t “robust” enough—that it did not have enough firepower or its mandate was too “weak” when it comes to the use of force. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to point to the ways in which unarmed civilian approaches actually have capacities that AMP missions do not, especially when it comes to the ability to have access to and build trust with relevant communities and to build relationships with—and therefore influence—a wide range of armed and civilian actors. In other words, being unarmed does not mean being “weak.” Although we must acknowledge that no approach, armed or unarmed, comes with guaranteed results, a more realistic assessment of the capacities—and unintended results—of both UCP and AMP provides a better foundation for instituting effective civilian protection and violence prevention strategies.

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