A new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on fatality trends in United Nations peace operations reveals that the rate of peacekeepers dying while in the service of the UN has steadily fallen over the past 25 years. The report, released to coincide with the summit on UN peacekeeping in New York, hosted later today by US President Barack Obama, provides a timely counterpoint to the popular perception that UN peace operations have become increasingly dangerous.
Contrary to common assumptions, the number of fatalities per 1000 uniformed UN peacekeeping personnel (the relative fatality rate) has steadily decreased since the early 1990s. Whereas most years between 1990 and 2005 recorded relative fatality rates of well over 1.5 deaths per 1000—with a peak of 3.3 per 1000 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 1 per 1000. This means that the relative fatality rate was between 0.5 and more than 3 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’, states SIPRI Researcher Timo Smit, who co-authored the report. ‘Yet we tend to forget that 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: namely MINUSMA in Mali’.
No correlation between the robustness of UN peace operations and the rate of fatalities
The SIPRI report shows that there is no clear relation between the ‘robustness’ of mandates and the relative number of hostile deaths (i.e. the number of fatalities per 1000 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 authorized under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, while only three of those operations had the explicit authority to use force beyond self-defence.
Why are the facts about fatality rates being ignored?
There are several possible explanations for 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 that casualties and incidents have become more visible. Whereas in earlier times news about fatalities might have gone unnoticed, today such news can reach a global audience in an instant.
According to SIPRI Senior Researcher Dr Jaïr van der Lijn, ‘High fatality figures are used by many western countries to justify their minimal contributions of uniformed personnel to UN peace operations. Recognizing that 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
- Since the UN established its first peacekeeping operation—almost 70 years ago—more than 3300 people have died serving the UN in the pursuit of peace.
- Relative fatality rates among uniformed personnel in UN peace operations (i.e. the number of fatalities per 1000 personnel) have steadily decreased in the period 1990–2015. The relative fatality rates were between 0.5 and 3 times higher in 1990–2005 than in 2006–15.
- The number of fatalities due to malicious acts has increased quite sharply since 2013, both in absolute (i.e. 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 per cent per year). More can—and should—be done to minimize deaths resulting from causes such as illness and accidents.
The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) provided the data for this policy brief to SIPRI. The data is available from the SIPRI Multilateral Peace Operations Database, which also includes data on non-UN peace operations. This database currently provides information per year on all peace operations conducted since 2000, including: location, dates of deployment, conducting organization, mandate, participating countries, number of personnel, budgets and fatalities.