An Image Tarnished? Anti-UN Protests and the Future of Peacekeeping

Have protests against peacekeepers in Mali and the DRC demonstrated the failure of UN peacekeeping? Anti-UN protests are not a new phenomenon, but they have rarely, if ever, led the UN to withdraw. Even in Mali and the DRC it remains unclear how widespread popular discontent with the UN is, and arguably the withdrawal of consent by governments rather than protests had a decisive impact on the closing of UN peacekeeping missions there. Research has shown that peacekeeping has positive results, but it will need to adapt to new challenges to remain a viable policy option in conflict resolution.

From the Spring of 2022 onwards, regular protests took place in the Malian capital Bamako against MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission deployed since 2013 with a mandate to stabilize the country, to support an agreement between Tuareg rebels and Mali government, and to protect civilians. After some initial successes, the political and security situation deteriorated with regular Jihadist attacks from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISIL) and military coups in 2020 and 2021 from which Goutam emerged as the president. Estimates of the number of protesters vary from hundreds to thousands, and the prominent display of Russian flags, hailed as a new ally in the fight against ISIL, generated a great deal of media attention. There have also been widespread protests in the Eastern DRC against MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission there, mandated to protect civilians and support the DRC government in stabilizing the security situation. In both cases, protests were followed by official requests to expedite the ending of the missions. MINUSMA concluded in December 2023, while MONUSCO is scheduled to exit in 2024 after more than 20 years of peacekeeping in the DRC.

Although all peacekeeping missions must end at some point, MINUSMA and MONUSCA are withdrawn before completing their mandate; neither Mali nor the DRC are stable and secure countries. Importantly, the governments of both countries claim that they responded to popular demands to close the UN missions. Widely portrayed as ineffective and increasingly unpopular, the future of UN peacekeeping now seems at stake.

Has public opinion shifted against the UN?

Little is known about how UN peacekeeping is seen ‘from below’. Journalists and commentators commonly rely on their contacts, or anecdotally on taxi-drivers and people they meet. Field research typically uses focus groups and interviews, but these are only marginally more representative. Media attention is drawn towards protests, but protests require organisation and mobilisation of public opinion; for example, the Malian regime was suspected to encourage anti-UN protests. All of this makes it near-impossible to determine based on media reports whether protests are a tip of the iceberg of dissatisfaction or mainly strongly held minority views.

Unsurprisingly, it is difficult to survey public opinion in fragile and insecure environments. Getting a representative or random sample of the population is challenging. Rural areas tend to be underrepresented, especially when they are affected by conflict. Respondents are reluctant to express their feelings honestly and openly. Regardless, they are increasingly used to track public opinion about UN missions. Interestingly, most surveys report widespread support for UN peacekeeping, but also that support cannot be taken for granted. The experience with peacekeepers matters and whether people agree with the aims of the mission. Support declines when peacekeepers have been deployed for a longer time. Some missions are also less popular: in Mali, surveys found that discontent with the UN mission was widespread in urban areas, and in the DRC support for MONUSCO appears to be waning.

Protests and Mission Exit

It is tempting to draw a direct link between ineffective peacekeeping, popular discontent, and decisions about the future of a mission, but the picture is messier. UN peacekeepers have regularly faced protests and even violent resistance. The typical response was to review the operations, for example by deploying more peacekeepers, redeploying them to conflict areas, and by more robust peacekeeping and policing, rather than to retreat. Even when protests targeted a peacekeeping mission directly, such as the protests triggered by a cholera epidemic in Haiti traceable to Nepalese peacekeepers, the UN did not simply withdraw its forces. In Mali, the perceived ineffectiveness of MINUSMA to improve security fuelled protests, but the initial mandate of the UN mission did not foresee the need to operate against ISIL. In the ten years since their deployment, the security threat in Mali evolved and earlier mission successes unravelled. The security situation also worsened because of decisions of the Malian government, such as to stop implementing the original peace agreement, to encourage the withdrawal of French forces and to limit the ability of MINUSMA to operate. The protests may have been orchestrated or protesters truly believed that MINUSMA stood in the way of a Mali-owned solution. Regardless, the protests were neither necessary nor sufficient for MINUSMA to be withdrawn so urgently.

Protests and Consent

Consent is one of the pillars of UN peacekeeping. Originally, it referred to consent by the main conflict parties, the host government(s) and the opposition. Not all parties were expected or required to give consent though. UN peacekeepers were mandated to operate robustly against spoilers or any actions that undermined the peace process. Government consent does not always mean that ordinary people welcome peacekeepers. UN missions tried to win the ‘hearts and minds’ via quick impact projects and mediating community conflicts. All of this reflects an increasingly popular view within the UN that peace needs to be kept as much ‘bottom-up’ as ‘top-down’.

Peacekeeping mandates nowadays nearly always include the protection of civilians, putting population consent more central: if people feel insufficiently protected, they can arguably withdraw their consent. Concerns about population consent also motivate mandates to protect and strengthen human rights. UN missions regularly conflict with host governments about their human rights records and the targeting of civilians in counterinsurgency operations. For example, the Mali government objected to human rights reporting and in particular UN criticism of its collaboration with Wagner mercenaries in joint operations against ISIL. In the DRC, protesters perceived the UN to condone government failure and the targeting of civilians by government forces. In both cases, the withdrawal of consent by the host governments, rather than the population, was decisive for the UN to end its peacekeeping operations.

Policy Recommendations for the Future of Peacekeeping

UN peacekeeping faces a gap between what the population expects it to do and what it can realistically hope to achieve, and host governments see opportunities to exploit popular dissatisfaction with the UN. It may therefore seem tempting to go ‘back to the future’ with smaller missions with a limited mandate with clear host government consent. Yet I doubt that this is generally feasible: the legitimacy of UN peacekeeping has become inseparable from its commitment to the protection of civilians. The size of a UN peacekeeping mission needs to match its mandate. The UN simply cannot afford another Rwanda, where it stood by while a genocide unfolded.

Recent research has started to evaluate and compare the record of peacekeeping across missions. It has also delved inside missions contrasting the impact of military and police peacekeepers for different mandates across the area of operations. The good news is that there is mounting evidence that peacekeeping suppresses conflict and reduces the number of civilian victims. Still, peacekeeping requires political support – both geopolitically and domestically. Independent and reliable evaluations of popular support are therefore crucial to inform decisions on where to deploy peacekeepers and what tasks to set them. Peacekeeping does not offer a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for all conflicts but must adapt to the challenges and opportunities that present themselves on the ground.



Han Dorussen is Professor of Government at the University of Essex. He has published extensively on UN peacekeeping, and recently edited the Handbook of Peacekeeping and International Relations (Edward Elgar 2022).