This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

This year it is 70 years since the United Nations Security Council established the first UN peacekeeping operation.

On 29 May 1948 it authorized the deployment of military observers to supervise a cessation of hostilities in the First Arab–Israeli War and to support Count Folke Bernadotte in his role as UN mediator.

This mission became known as the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). While the tenure of the first UN mediator was tragically cut short—he was assassinated in Jerusalem in September 1948—UNTSO remains in place today.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) recently released new data on deployments and fatalities in multilateral peace operations when it launched the 2018 edition of the SIPRI Yearbook.

Global and regional trends in multilateral peace operations, 2008–17, expands on the events of 2017 and puts this data in a 10-year perspective.

Multilateral peace operations in 2017

There were 63 multilateral peace operations active during 2017 (see figure 1). This was one more than in the previous year. Geographically, 25 operations were deployed in Africa, 18 in Europe, nine in the Middle East, six in Asia and Oceania, and five in the Americas. Among these operations, five were initiated during 2017 and four terminated during the year. The total number of personnel deployed in multilateral peace operations decreased by 4.5 per cent during 2017, from 152,822 to 145,911.

Of the personnel deployed at the end of the year, 125,803 were military, 11,846 police and 8,262 international civilian staff. Nearly three-quarters of all personnel were part of multilateral peace operations based in Africa.

Personnel deployments decreased for the second year in a row at the global aggregate level—that is, in all multilateral peace operations combined—and fell below 150,000 for the first time in the 10-year period 2008–17 (see figure 2).

Deployments at the global level were much higher earlier in this period because the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was much larger than other operations.

While ISAF was completing its phased withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2012–14, which led to a corresponding sharp decline in personnel deployments in multilateral peace operations at the global aggregate level, personnel deployments in operations other than ISAF were increasing progressively and peaked at approximately 162,000 in 2015.

The subsequent reversal of this trend was a result primarily of the steady decline in personnel deployments to UN peace operations, in particular in Africa.

Largest multilateral peace operations and contributors

The African Union (AU) Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) remained the largest multilateral peace operation (see figure 3).

Ethiopia remained the largest contributor of uniformed personnel (military or police) to multilateral peace operations, followed by the United States and Bangladesh (see figure 4).

At the end of 2017, Ethiopia contributed 12,534 uniformed personnel to the AU and UN operations that operate in its immediate neighbourhood.

Nearly all the USA’s 9,627 uniformed personnel were deployed in three operations: the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) in Afghanistan, and the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), which operates in the Sinai Peninsula.

Bangladesh contributed 7,246 military and police personnel to 10 different UN peacekeeping operations.

UN peace operations

The UN conducted 24 missions and operations that qualified as multilateral peace operations during 2017 (17 peacekeeping operations and 7 special political missions), which was more than any other organization (see figure 1).

Non-UN peace operations

Regional organizations and ad hoc coalitions conducted 39 missions and operations that qualified as multilateral peace operations during 2017 (see figure 1).

The number of personnel deployed in non-UN peace operations increased by more than 2 per cent during 2017, from 46,432 to 47,557 (see figure 2).

Regional trends

The majority of all personnel serving in multilateral peace operations were based in Africa (see figure 5). The regions that hosted the most personnel in multilateral peace operations after Africa, albeit by a distance, were Asia and Oceania, and the Middle East.

Personnel deployments increased by 10.7 per cent in Asia and Oceania, from 13,975 to 15,467, and remained more or less stable in the Middle East, where they increased, by 0.5 per cent, from 13,928 to 14,001.

The additional deployments in Asia and Oceania were primarily destined for Afghanistan. Personnel deployments decreased by 2.7 per cent in Europe, from 8,832 to 8,597, and by 70.6 per cent in the Americas, from 5,464 to 1,606.

Multilateral peace operations in Africa

Africa thus remained the epicentre of multilateral peace operations. It hosted the most operations, including the three largest, and the most personnel; and there were five African countries among the 10 largest contributors of personnel, including the largest contributor.

However, whereas personnel deployments to multilateral peace operations in Africa increased dramatically in 2008–15, from approximately 75,000 to almost 120,000, this trend has been reversed more recently. The number of personnel in multilateral peace operations in Africa decreased by 7.3 per cent during 2016 and by 4 per cent during 2017. Meanwhile, there has been an increasing focus on countering the growing threats posed by terrorist groups.

The AU authorized the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in 2015 to undertake operations against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin region and the Joint Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel (JF-G5S) in 2017 to combat extremist and criminal armed groups across the shared borders of its member states.

The MNJTF and the JF-G5S do not constitute multilateral peace operations because they do not have a mandate from the UN Security Council and are composed of national units that operate primarily within their own territorial borders. They are examples of an emerging trend for collaborative initiatives to be established outside traditional multilateral frameworks to address what are perceived to be acute challenges to security—such as terrorism, organized crime and irregular migration—using means for which regular peace operations are neither authorized nor capable.

Fatalities in UN peace operations

A number of missions faced sustained threats and deliberate attacks from non-state armed groups and other spoilers. UN peace operations have not been immune.

This has further raised concerns about the safety and security of UN peace operations that operate in complex security environments. The 2017 ‘Cruz report’ on hostile deaths and injuries of UN peacekeepers concluded that UN blue helmets can no longer rely on their impartial status for protection against physical harm, and that the increase in the number of hostile deaths in recent years ‘is not a spike but rather a rise to a continuing plateau’.

The report, which has received both support and criticism, urged the UN and troop contributing countries to adapt to this new reality by adopting, among other things, a more flexible interpretation of the traditional principles of peacekeeping to allow for less risk-averse and more proactive use of force by missions against combatants that might otherwise threaten them.

The number of hostile deaths was significantly higher in the period 2013–17 than in any other period since 1993–95, when the UN suffered exceptional losses in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia and Somalia (see figure 6).

The ratio of hostile deaths per 1,000 personnel was also markedly higher in 2013–17 than in earlier years, albeit that similar or even higher ratios were not uncommon in the 1990s and were reported on two separate occasions in the 2000s (see figure 7). Another caveat to this is that half of all the UN peacekeepers killed as a result of violent acts in the period 2013–16 were serving in UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, which, since it was established in mid-2013, has suffered more hostile deaths than any other UN mission.

The frequency of hostile deaths increased dramatically in both absolute and relative terms during 2017. UN peace operations suffered 61 hostile deaths in 2017, 58 of which were among uniformed personnel.

Both the number and the ratio of hostile deaths were significantly higher in 2017 than in any year since 1994.All the hostile deaths among personnel in UN peace operations in 2017 occurred in Africa, and the vast majority of the peacekeepers killed in violent acts were themselves from African countries.

All but one of the 61 victims of hostile deaths in 2017 were deployed in three UN peacekeeping operations: MINUSCA, MINUSMA or MONUSCO.

This includes the 15 Tanzanian MONUSCO peacekeepers that were killed in a deliberate attack on their base in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in December 2017.