The past year could have been a disastrous one for U.N. peacekeeping. Twelve months ago, Côte d’Ivoire appeared to be on the brink of renewed civil war in spite of the presence there of United Nations and French forces. South Sudan’s vote for independence in January 2011 also had the potential to unleash mass violence. From Haiti to Liberia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, peacekeepers were charged with overseeing elections that might have resulted in significant instability. In Somalia, U.N.-mandated African Union (AU) forces were locked in grinding combat with Islamist al-Shabab rebels.
The risk of one or more of these situations spiraling out of control was high. Some came very close to doing so. For the first three months of 2011, the U.N. was on the defensive in Côte d’Ivoire. Thousands of civilians lost their lives before the Security Council ordered peacekeepers there to take more robust action. The U.N. force in Sudan was rendered helpless when Northern and Southern forces clashed in the disputed region of Abyei. The U.N. had known its contingent in the area was vulnerable, but had to deploy an entirely new mission to restore order.
Yet peace operations demonstrated an unexpected degree of resilience overall, as chronicled in the Center on International Cooperation’s new Annual Review of Global Peace Operations. The U.N. reasserted itself in Côte d’Ivoire, and though presidential polls in the DRC proved to be deeply flawed, those in Haiti and Liberia were conducted relatively smoothly thanks in part to the U.N. In Somalia, al-Shabab pulled back from Mogadishu as the AU forces took the initiative. Other regional organizations also found themselves being drawn into peace operations: The Arab League sent an admittedly ill-fated observer mission to Syria, while the Association of Southeast Asian Nations mandated an observer mission to help reduce tensions on the Thai-Cambodian border.