Goma, M23, and the success of peacekeeping

The timing of reading Virginia Page Fortna’s Does Peacekeeping Work seemed appropriate as the M83 rebels in eastern Congo (DRC) marched in and took Goma, only to recently withdraw under the auspices of the MONUSCO force currently operating in the DRC.  During this series of events I saw a tweet from Oxfam’s Policy and Practice Unit posted this morning: the tweet read “The fall of Goma: ‘the biggest peacekeeping failure in history.”

Unfortunately for Oxfam, news broke a few hours later that M23 was withdrawing from Goma and handing over control to MONUSCO.  In light of Oxfam’s interpretations (and misinterpretations) of peacekeeping success, Fortna’s analysis of the average effects of peacekeeping on conflict cessation and peace durability is a welcome addition to the relatively limited literature on the causal effects of peacekeeping on peace.

Fortna’s primary goal is to broadly understand whether or not UN Peacekeeping operations have a positive effect on peace durability.  To do this she initially addresses the question of where peacekeepers go.  Do they go to relatively easy cases, per the argument of critics, or do they go to the hardest cases?  Is peacekeeping an extension of geo-political interests, with operations happening in former P-5 colonies and resource rich countries?  Do they only deploy to countries with weak government forces?  Do they avoid conflicts with multiple factions?  It is important that Fortna demonstrate that peacekeeping forces deploy to the most difficult conflicts, since much of her causal argument about the positive effect of peacekeepers relies on the recognition that they do not cherry-pick easy cases where peace would be durable regardless of their presence.

Indeed in her initial analysis she finds that peacekeeping operations on average deploy to the harder cases, with the most significant variables supporting this assertion.  We see them deploying to less democratic countries, and into conflicts where there are more than two parties to the conflict.  Conversely there is no statistical relationship between peace operations and deployment to former colonies of the P-5, or deployment to resource rich or more economically developed countries, which would be easier places to deploy.  This sets her up to analyze her causal model of peacekeeping, since we know that on average peace operations deploy to countries where peace is indeed not guaranteed.

With this in mind, Fortna describes four casual factors that help demonstrate that peacekeeping works to keep peace.  These factors are that peacekeeping forces 1) raise the costs of returning to fighting 2) disrupt fear spirals and security dilemmas after the shooting stops 3) stop or control ‘accidents’ that could spiral into conflict and 4) prevent political exclusion of one or more parties during negotiations or transitions.  She demonstrates these four factors statistically, but what is most impressive is the graphs of time-varying and time-constant effects of peacekeeping on the risk of renewed conflict (pg. 114).  Particularly in the first 5 years after a peace treaty or cease fire goes into effect, the difference that a peacekeeping force in terms of the risk of a war restarting is significant.

Along with the statistical evidence, I found her selection of cases and her use of these cases throughout the text made them useful for understanding the narrative of her argument.  In many academic books on political economy and civil war the case studies seem stuck in, which could be an editorial issue, but in this case she picked three very different cases and was able to demonstrate why peacekeeping was successful in Mozambique, not needed in Bangladesh, and a challenge in Sierra Leone.  Most importantly she did this smoothly, tying each stage of the statistical models into the cases.

This brings us back to the opening paragraph, where the M23 took over Goma and are now withdrawing.  The problem we face is that tweets such as the one posted by Oxfam intimate that we see peacekeeping as an up-or-down success; we view it as a binary battlefield where the peacekeepers defeat the rebels or lose to the rebels.  Too often there is only victory or failure in peacekeeping.

Fortna makes an argument that brings nuance to how we understand the causal relationship between peacekeeping and the peacekept, and peacekeeping as a means for preventing renewed violence.  We could look at the recent events in Goma and say the peacekeepers failed to keep the M23 out; instead we should be looking at Goma and thinking it’s a good thing peacekeepers are there, ready to make the costs of violence a bit higher, and providing a space for the M23 to withdraw without accident while providing a space for them to voice their political goals without having to march on Kinshasa.  If we look at the recent events in Goma through the lens of Fortna’s model, peacekeeping did indeed work.

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