11. January 2016 | EDP Wire | Sonja Grimm, Janina I. Steinert

From the Battlefield to Ballot Boxes

How Effective is the United Nations’ Post-War Democracy Promotion?

This post was originally published on December 9, 2015 on Political Violence @ a Glance. It is based on an article by the authors published in Conflict Management and Peace Sciences.


In November of this year, the people of Côte d’Ivoire re-elected President Alassane Ouattara to serve for another five-year term. Only half a decade ago in the very same country, ballot boxes had turned into a battlefield claiming a death toll of 3,000. Today, Ban Ki-moon “commends the Ivorian leadership and people for their tireless efforts over the past five years to consolidate peace, and promote democracy and the rule of law.” The 7,000 UN blue helmets on the ground, mandated to provide security and logistic support for the elections, have further consolidated peace.

The United Nations Department for Peacekeeping Operations is currently implementing 16 peacekeeping missions worldwide, the majority of which are deployed in Africa and the Middle East. The UN’s global military effort finds its expression in a yearly budget of more than 8 billion US dollars and 100,000 uniformed personnel in field. Mandates and functions of missions vary considerably in scope and complexity. The United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), for example, has stationed less than 100 troops, mandated to ‘‘observe’’ the ceasefire in the borderland Jammu and Kashmir. In contrast, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), which has 26,000 military and police personnel, is the largest UN mission. It is vested with “all necessary [military] means” to hold against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and additionally responsible for supporting peace consolidation through human rights promotions, good governance, and democracy promotion.

In our recent research, we describe how democracy promotion has evolved as an integral part of the UN’s peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts. In 1995, former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali stated that liberal democracy is “one of the pillars on which a more peaceful, more equitable and more secure world can be built“. In the Agenda for Democratization, he further elaborates: “Democracy within states thus fosters the evolution of the social contract upon which lasting peace can be built. In this way, a culture of democracy is fundamentally a culture of peace.” And yet, it appears that the conditions conducive to democratization are likely absent in the aftermath of a civil war. The seeds of democracy have to be sown in a context of predominating fear and violence, destroyed economy and infrastructure, and a traumatized and hostile population.

We examine the UN track record of democracy promotion by looking at all post-civil war countries since 1989. We identify 103 armed conflicts that were carried out within the boundaries of a sovereign state. For each of these cases, battle-related deaths exceeded one thousand. Less than a third of these civil war countries have seen a UN peacebuilding deployment. We find that UN hosting countries tend to have witnessed the most severe violence and shown to be inherently anti-democratic in their past. This suggests that UN peacekeepers are sent to the most hostile settings, thus operating in the least favorable context for democratization.

And yet, we find evidence that those post-war countries in which the UN intervenes are considerably more likely to show democratization trends. We predict that the likelihood for democratic transition following a UN peacebuilding mission can be as high as 84% (given that other domestic circumstances are favorable as well). Further, we find that UN missions with more complex mandates combining military, political, and economic components increase the prospects for a successful democratic transition. Lastly, our results suggest that higher mission endowments result in better democratization outcomes. That is, more money, more troops, and extended timeframes for deployment appear to pay off in the end.

The US regime-change-driven invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have evoked disenchantment with any sort of liberal agenda. Introducing democracy in the wake of war had proven difficult; scholars and practitioners came to challenge the idea that good things – such as peace and democracy – necessarily go together. However, our research has demonstrated that successful democratization can work, particularly so if missions are vested with sufficient human and material capacity. Our results thus feed into a conjecture of ‘UN optimism’ that has already been proclaimed by Roland Paris or Page Fortna.

This does not mean that the ‘magic of the ballot box’ will work in every post-war society. But there are significant success stories such as those of Mozambique, Croatia, Burundi, and Liberia – all of which have seen democratic elections ever since. Therefore, the question should not be whether democracy promotion can be justified as part of a peacekeeping mandate. We should rather shift our focus to the more than two thirds of civil war countries that are left to their own devices. Syria is one of the most blatant examples here: what has started as a cry for freedom and democracy has ended in a brutal and incessant civil war. The United Nations, in paralysis, averted their eyes.

This post was originally published on December 9, 2015 on Political Violence @ a Glance. It is based on an article by the authors published in Conflict Management and Peace Sciences.

« back