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3. The legitimacy of peace operations

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Summary

Sixty years after the launch of the first United Nations peacekeeping operation, there are concerns that peacekeeping is headed into crisis. Questions over the legitimacy of peace operations are important factors in these problems.

Perceived shortfalls in an operation’s legitimacy can seriously undermine its effectiveness. Legitimacy comprises three interlinked and mutually reinforcing elements: political consensus, legality and moral authority.

  • Political consensus refers to agreement, or acquiescence, among external actors and the host government that a peace operation is required and appropriate.
  • A mission’s legitimacy is widely seen as determined by political consensus and international legality.
  • The conduct of its personnel largely determines the moral authority of a peace operation.

The legality of the European Union (EU) Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX Kosovo) was seen as directly linked to Kosovo’s disputed independence. EULEX Kosovo testifies to the centrality of political consensus surrounding an operation’s legality and its legitimacy. Conversely, the experience of the EU military operation in Chad and the Central African Republic (EUFOR Tchad/RCA) underscores how the appropriateness and execution of a mandate determine the mandate’s legitimacy, and how this can be undermined by political compromise—international or local.

The cases of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), the African Union (AU) Mission in Somalia and the AU/UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) show that the moral authority of an operation is crucial to securing local legitimacy. If an operation is perceived to lack moral authority, this may affect countries’ decisions to deploy personnel. Reluctance to provide the reinforcement requested by MONUC at the end of 2008 was probably influenced by the misconduct scandals that have surrounded the mission.

The demand for effective peacekeeping outstrips the availability of human and other resources. In 2008, 23 UN missions fell around 22 800 personnel short of authorized strength. Ensuring that missions enjoy sound political, legal and moral standing should be a priority. Legitimacy is desirable in principle and fundamental to the ability of multilateral peacekeeping to promote and secure sustainable peace.


Sharon Wiharta (Indonesia) is a Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Armed Conflict and Conflict Management Programme.

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