Filling the doctrinal gap? Challenges in UN peacekeeping operations

Dr David Curran, Coventry University, UK

Dr David Curran is a research fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace & Social Relations at Coventry University. His primary research interest is in developments in UN peacekeeping. Since completing his PhD at the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, David has undertaken research into a range of topic areas including the role of conflict resolution in training programmes for military peacekeepers;  Protection of Civilians in UN Peacekeeping; the United Kingdom and the UN; the evolution of rapid-reaction peacekeeping and peacebuilding forces such as the African Union standby brigades, EU battlegroups; and the potential of specialized UN rapid reaction capabilities.

It is a pleasure to be invited to contribute to this special edition of the R2P Student Journal on the topic of peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Papers within this special edition speak to a number of important debates in this field, from doctrinal and policy evolution, to the actions of personnel deployed in operations, to the larger theoretical norms and assumptions which guide the activity. This reflects a vibrancy of research in this area from a new generation of scholars.

From a conflict resolution perspective, peacekeeping operations have the potential to contribute to processes of de-escalation of violent conflict, with the aim that space and stability is provided for peacebuilding actors to undertake their activities (Ramsbotham, Miall and Woodhouse, 2011, p. 170). This sounds like a tough assignment, which of course is true. Peacekeeping operations, if anything, are fundamentally demanding on those who undertake them. Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs that peacekeeping has played a positive role in reduction of violent conflict (Fortna, 2008).

In the context of the R2P, peacekeeping, through the development of Protection of Civilians (PoC) mandates, represents an important function in protecting vulnerable populations, and possibly preventing genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing unfolding in deployment areas (Curran et al., 2015). Although serious difficulties persist, it is important to recognize how far the UN’s peacekeeping and peacebuilding functions have travelled regarding civilian protection since the catastrophes in Rwanda and Srebrenica. Protection also serves an important peacebuilding function, as it is communities of peacebuilders who are often amongst the civilian population. This links to broader cosmopolitan goals, as argued by Lorraine Elliott, whereby interventions can

Restore civil society especially in areas where it is under threat from criminal activities or various destructive forms of particularist politics, and to engage in rebuilding local legitimacy and pluralist democratic practices (Elliott, 2004, p. 25).

Nevertheless, although the UN has expanded its policy functions in new areas, challenges remain throughout the organisation’s systems in peacekeeping and peacebuilding. This essay shall focus on three interlinked areas: training, guidance, and strategic leadership.

The training dimension

The first challenge is the extent to which the UN has access to well-trained peacekeepers acting with a broad awareness of conflict dynamics, the use of – and impact of using robust force – in a conflict zone, and a considered understanding of the principles and dynamics of UN peacekeeping operations. These aspects of peacekeeper performance have been highlighted in UN Security Council Resolutions, UN policy, as well as in academic study (Fetherston, 1994; Goodwin, 2005; Curran 2016). Moreover, training is increasingly significant in how member states are engaging with UN peacekeeping. The training aspect was specifically outlined in the communiqué which came from the September 2016 London Defence Ministerial on peacekeeping which outlined the necessity to set out in a single place a comprehensive list of the minimum requirements and standards for all pre-deployment training (UK Government, 2016). Moreover, the 2017 Ministerial (this time to be held in Canada) will focus on training and capacity building in UN operations.

Training of UN military peacekeepers has developed significantly. There has been a rise in regional and national training initiatives, geared towards training uniformed personnel in a range of issues from civil-military coordination, to the impact of gender based violence on post-conflict environments. Additionally, bilateral initiatives, such as the British Military Advisory Training Teams (BMATT) have significantly developed capacity amongst troop contributors. Under the UN’s umbrella, a dedicated team at the headquarters works on developing new lines of policy, and a train-the-trainers centre has recently opened in Uganda.

However, there are challenges associated with the training dimension. Primarily, there exists limited capacity for UN peacekeepers. Partly this is a numbers issue. For instance a 2013 report stated that there are 19 members of staff working on training within UN headquarters (Center on International Cooperation, 2013). Although this is to be complemented by mobile training teams, and in-mission training, the number is considerably small. Therefore, the peacekeeping training architecture relies on the support of Troop Contributing Countries, with a ‘recurring emphasis’ on terms such as ‘partnership’ and ‘networks’ in the UN strategy (Cutillo, 2013, p. 6).  Such a structure can obviously hamper attempts of instigating a rigorous training regime, as it means that there is greater variance in the quality and depth of training across the board. Moreover, member states will have differing perspectives as to what is an important requirement for peacekeeping.

The guidance for peacekeeping and peacebuilding

With such an array of differing perspectives on what peacekeeping and peacebuilding should achieve, the second challenge concerns the extent to which the UN can be guided by a coherent centralized doctrine that explains the key concepts of peacekeeping operations. Modern day peacekeeping, or more broadly termed ‘peace operations’ is a broad church of concepts and ideas. Although the traditional operations of the Cold War era still exist, they have been superseded by expansive operations which incorporate a myriad of responses to violent conflict.

As stated above, the UN has since 1999 developed PoC to such an extent that 95% of all peacekeepers are deployed under PoC missions. Yet it has taken up to ten years for operational guidance to appear and to be agreed upon (Curran, 2017). Additionally, the UN currently has deployed ‘stabilisation operations’ in Mali, Central African Republic, the DRC, and yet there is no broad understanding of what the term ‘stabilisation’ means in the UN context. Added to this, the concept of robust peacekeeping is ongoing in operations, but there is little reference to the concept in the last attempt to codify UN doctrine. Similar can be said about the emergence of intelligence gathering in UN operations. Yet, in UN fora, the key principles of peacekeeping – impartiality, host state consent, and non-use of force apart from self defence and defence of the mandate – are constantly highlighted as the bedrock of UN Peace operations. At times, these principles are tested to their limits with the actions and policies of UN missions (De Coning, Aoi and Karlsrud, 2017).

With this in mind, therefore, a question exists as to the extent that the UN can either reinforce a coherent approach to UN peacekeeping operations (through doctrinal coherence), or whether we accept that the concepts that drive missions will forever be developed through policy responses to particular situations. Both options contain both positive and negative effects, but it is a significant question to ask when considering the effectiveness of peacekeeping in building sustainable peace.

Strategic guidance

Overarching doctrine and training is the role of strategic leadership – particularly in the UN security council. With such flexibility in design of mandates and tasks, peacekeeping has been termed the ‘swiss army knife’ of conflict management tools (von Gienanth, Hansen and Köppe, 2012, p. 58).

Therefore, coherence at a strategic level is important. This is a theme which was evident in the HIPPO report which advised that mandates be realistic and linked to wider political approaches (United Nations, 2015). Moreover, members of the Security Council have debated recently the form and function of a number of peacekeeping missions. This reflects the necessity to understand the contexts in which consent-based impartial UN missions with limitations on use of force can be used, where they may not survive, and where there may be other, more appropriate models of intervention (such as unarmed civilian approaches).

Added to this is reform of working practices to ensure dialogue between the significant troop contributors to operations, the Council and the UN secretariat are essential in ensuring that mandates for peacekeeping operations reflect the realities of what can and cannot be achieved in mission. That the C34 committee report from 2016 makes little or no mention of new aspects of peacekeeping such as stabilization indicates that it is yet to conceptually catch up with the other cogs of decision making in the UN.

As said at the beginning of this article, UN peacekeeping operations have the potential to open space for peacebuilding, providing a valuable avenue towards conflict resolution. However, the challenges outlined above, as well as those identified in the articles in this journal, demonstrate that the practice still has complications. The role of academic research is key in investigating these complications, particularly in debating the extent to which the UN can problem-solve its way through these challenges, and exploring the potential of alternative models of third party intervention in violent conflict.


Center on International Cooperation. 2013. Annual Review of Global Peace Operations 2013. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Curran, D. 2016. More than Fighting for Peace? Conflict Resolution, UN Peacekeeping, and the Role of Training Military Personnel. New York: Springer.

Curran, D. 2017. ‘Muddling on through? Cosmopolitan peacekeeping and the protection of civilians’, International Peacekeeping, 24(1), pp. 63-85.

Curran, D., Fraser, T., Roeder, L. and Zuber, R. (eds.) 2015. Perspectives on Peacekeeping and Atrocity Prevention: Expanding Stakeholders and Regional Arrangements. New York: Springer.

Cutillo, A. 2013. ‘Deploying the Best: Enhancing Training for United Nations Peacekeepers’, Providing for Peacekeeping no. 5. New York: International Peace Institute.

De Coning, C., Aoi, C. and Karlsrud, J. (eds.) 2017. UN Peacekeeping Doctrine in a New Era: Adapting to Stabilisation, Protection and New Threats. Abingdon: Routledge.

Elliott, L. 2004. ‘Cosmopolitan Ethics and Militaries as ‘Forces for Good’’. In Forces for Good: Cosmopolitan Militaries in the Twenty-First Century, Elliott, L. and Cheeseman, G. (eds.) Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Fetherston, A.B. 1994. Towards a Theory of United Nations Peacekeeping. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Goodwin, D. 2005. The Military and Negotiation: The Role of the Soldier Diplomat. London: Frank Cass.

UK Government. 2016. UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial: London Communiqué. Available from [Accessed 09 Nov 2017].

Fortna, V.P. 2008. Does Peacekeeping Work? Shaping Belligerents’ Choices after Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ramsbotham, O., Miall, H. and Woodhouse, T. 2011. Contemporary Conflict Resolution. Cambridge: Polity.

United Nations. 2015. ‘Uniting our Strengths for Peace – Politics, Partnership and People’, Report of the High-Level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, New York: United Nations.

Von Gienanth, T., Hansen, W. and Köppe, S. 2012. Peace Operations 2025, Berlin: Center for International Peace Operations (ZiF).