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Ahead of the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, SIPRI is releasing new data on multilateral peace operations in 2021. This topical backgrounder summarizes the key findings from the latest data and some of the most important developments in the year.
In 2021 the UN, regional organizations and alliances, and ad hoc coalitions of states carried out 63 multilateral peace operations in 38 countries or territories around the world—one more operation than in 2020 (see figure 1). The UN continued to be the main organization deploying multilateral peace operations, with 20 operations in 2021. Regional organizations and alliances led 37 peace operations and ad hoc coalitions of states conducted 6 peace operations. Twenty-two of the 63 operations were deployed in sub-Saharan Africa, 19 in Europe, 14 in the Middle East and North Africa, 5 in Asia and Oceania and 3 in the Americas. The general trend of a declining number of personnel deployed globally in multilateral peace operations continued in 2021 (see figure 2), as well as the trend of more but smaller operations, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
Notable changes in 2021 included the start of new operations in Azerbaijan, Mozambique and Sudan, and the ending of the Resolute Support Mission (RSM)—the peace operation led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Afghanistan—and of smaller operations in Burundi and on Russia’s border with Ukraine. These and other developments took place in the context of an intensification of geopolitical tensions that is likely to continue to create challenges for peace operations in the coming years, as discussed below.
Four new peace operations were established in 2021 in three locations: one by the UN, two by regional organizations and one by an ad hoc coalition of states. Together, they deployed roughly 1400 personnel.
The Russian–Turkish Joint Monitoring Centre (RTJMC) in Azerbaijan became operational on 30 January 2021. The centre was established by a memorandum of understanding between Russia and Turkey. It uses uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor implementation of the ceasefire agreement between the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces signed on 10 November 2020 in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. According to public sources, the centre was estimated to have 60 military personnel from Russia and 60 from Turkey in 2021. However, there is little official information about the status and activities of the RTJMC.
The UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) was established on 3 June 2020, ahead of the closure of the UN–African Union (AU) Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID). The new mission’s objective is to support the democratic transition in Sudan. Even though the deployment of UNITAMS began in October 2020, it only started delivering its mandated objectives in January 2021. In contrast to UNAMID, which was a large-scale peacekeeping operation, UNITAMS is a much smaller special political mission, with 98 personnel deployed as of December 2021.
On 23 June 2021 the Southern African Development Community (SADC) established the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) in response to escalating violent extremism in Cabo Delgado, a province in northern Mozambique. SAMIM’s mandate focuses on giving support to the Mozambican Government in combating terrorism and acts of violent extremism. It also focuses on strengthening and maintaining peace and security and restoring law and order in affected areas of Cabo Delgado. Although the mission’s authorized level of personnel is 2916, as of December 2021 it was estimated to consist of 1077 personnel.
A second operation was deployed in the same conflict: the European Union (EU) Military Training Mission in Mozambique (EUTM Mozambique). It was established by the Council of the EU on 12 July 2021 and launched on 15 October 2021. The mission is mandated to build the capacity of units of the Mozambican armed forces that will eventually become part of a military quick-reaction force to combat armed groups in Cabo Delgado. As of December 2021 the missions consisted of 70 military personnel (of an authorized strength of 118).
Three peace operations conducted by regional organizations ended in 2021, in Afghanistan (discussed below), Burundi and Russia. At the time of their closing, they deployed a total of roughly 10 000 personnel, primarily from RSM.
The AU Peace and Security Council decided to end the Human Rights Observers and Military Experts Mission in Burundi on 31 May 2021 given the progress and positive developments witnessed in the country. The mission was established on 13 June 2015 and deployed the following month in response to rising political violence surrounding President Pierre Nkurunziza’s pursuance of a third term and a failed coup attempt. It was designed to monitor, document and report on the human rights and security situation in Burundi, and to strengthen protection and access to justice for victims of human rights violations. Although the original plan was to deploy 100 human rights observers and 100 military experts by March 2017, the maximum strength reached by the mission was only 45 of the former and 26 of the latter, in July 2016.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk was discontinued on 30 September 2021 following Russia’s objection to the renewal of its mandate (see below). The mission became operational on 24 July 2014 to monitor cross-border movements at two checkpoints on the border between Russia and eastern Ukraine. At the time of its discontinuation, the mission had 21 permanent international personnel.
The Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, which was launched by NATO at the beginning of 2015, terminated in early September 2021. The mission was established as a non-combat successor operation to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Its objective was to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces and institutions to develop their capacities.
The closing of RSM ended an almost two-decade-long NATO presence in Afghanistan. Although the mission was officially declared to be terminated in September 2021, its drawdown had already started the previous year, following an agreement signed in February 2020 between the United States and the Taliban. In accordance with the agreement, the USA was to withdraw all of its forces from Afghanistan by May 2021. According to NATO, 9592 troops from 36 contributing countries were deployed by RSM in February 2021, a few months before its closure.
Much of the long-term downward trend in personnel numbers over recent years is explained by the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan (see figure 3). For a significant period when ISAF was deployed, the country was host to the largest multilateral peace operation, with more than 130 000 on the ground between 2010 and 2011.
The USA was the main troop contributor to ISAF and RSM. US troop contributions to multilateral peace operations had already been declining due to the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. With the closure of RSM, the USA’s troop contributions decreased by 68 per cent over the course of 2021, and it dropped down the list of top contributors of military personnel to multilateral peace operations (see figures 4 and 5): it went from being the 10th largest contributor to peace operations in December 2020 to 18th largest in December 2021. Despite this, the USA has remained the largest contributor of military personnel to NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) and the Multilateral Force and Observers (MFO), an ad hoc coalition mission in the Sinai Peninsula.
One of the main domestic arguments for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan concerned increasing geopolitical rivalries. These were seen to mean that the USA needed to undertake a strategic turn towards the Asia-Pacific region, and towards China in particular. In fact, the intensification of geopolitical rivalries between Western countries on the one hand and China and Russia on the other affected not only RSM, but the mandates, restructuring and closing of other missions as well.
The debate over the continuation of the OSCE Observer Mission at Gukovo and Donetsk was marked by increasing tensions between Russia and the West. The mission ended because, while Western countries (such as the USA and the United Kingdom) advocated for expansion of the mission’s scope, Russia objected to any extension. Ukraine criticized the decision, considering it evidence of Russian plans to provide support to separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The closure of the mission in September 2021 widened the divide between Russia and the West over Ukraine and raised international concerns over potential escalation of the conflict.
Conflicting views involving Russia and the West also created challenges for the continuation of the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (OHR). In July 2021 Russia submitted a resolution, co-sponsored by China, to the UN Security Council to close the OHR on the basis that the Bosnian parties had achieved progress. China and Russia were the only members of the Security Council to vote in favour of the resolution. This episode came just a few weeks after Russia had refused to accept the appointment of a new High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Out of discontent with the appointment, in November 2021 Russia also signalled that it might veto the renewal of the UN’s mandate for EUFOR Althea, the EU force deployed to oversee implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In 2021 a number of complex constellations of peace operations continued to be concentrated in a handful of host countries. Multilateral peace operations were particularly numerous in the Central African Republic (CAR), Kosovo and Mali. Moreover, a new constellation appears to be developing in Mozambique, where two of the four multilateral peace operations that started in 2021 were established. These joined the Rwandan Joint Force, a bilateral military operation (not considered a multilateral peace operation).
In December 2021 CAR hosted five operations, deploying approximately 15 000 personnel, while Mali hosted four operations, with a total of approximately 16 000 personnel. Along with Somalia (hosting three operations), South Sudan (hosting two operations) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (hosting one operation), these were the countries or territories with the largest deployments and hosting the largest operations in 2021 (see figure 6). The personnel deployments in the four operations in Kosovo were much lower, totalling approximately 4000.
In addition to issues of coordination, multilateral peace operations in Mali and CAR were confronted with the presence of the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company. In CAR the company has provided military support to the Central African Armed Forces (Forces Armées Centrafricaines, FACA). The EU Training Mission in CAR (EUTM RCA) suspended its training activities following reports that the Wagner Group had effectively taken command of a FACA battalion that had been trained by the EU mission. In Mali the EU already had reservations about the absence of civilian control over the Malian armed forces following the most recent military coup, in May 2021. In April 2022 the EU decided to halt part of the activities of its training mission in Mali (EUTM Mali) due to the lack of guarantees from the Malian authorities over non-interference from the Wagner Group. In addition to posing operational challenges to multilateral peace operations, the presence of the Wagner Group was a further sign of the increasing geopolitical tensions between Russia and Western powers.
It remains to be seen how the war in Ukraine and the aggravation of geopolitical tensions will affect multilateral peace operations carried out by the UN and by regional organizations such as the EU, NATO and the OSCE. It will make decision making in the UN Security Council more contentious than in 2021. So far in 2022, however, the council has renewed the mandates of UN peace operations and endorsed the AU’s decision to replace the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) with the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) without encountering major obstacles.
The closing in March 2022 of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM)—the largest unarmed civilian multilateral peace operation—has been the war’s most notable impact on peace operations. With the closing of RSM and the intensification of tensions between Russia and the West, NATO was already expected to place greater focus on territorial defence. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has only reinforced this development. It means that North American and European countries might be less likely to make significant personnel contributions to multilateral peace operations. Moreover, the war in Ukraine may also have an impact on how the EU will address instability on its borders, including through the missions and operations under its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).
At the end of 2021, sub-Saharan Africa continued to host the highest number of multilateral peace operations (22 of the 63). The region is likely to remain the main focus of multilateral operations—both within and outside the scope of SIPRI’s definition of multilateral peace operations. Great powers have more shared security concerns in sub-Saharan Africa than in other regions, and this has meant that peace operations there have been less affected by the increasing geopolitical competition. Moreover, African governments facing political instability and security concerns often have an interest in hosting or contributing to peace operations.