Protecting the Global Civilian from Violence: UN discourses and practices in fragile states


Timo Kivimäki



Verified academic


Politics, Languages & International Studies

University of Bath

Timo Kivimäki is Professor of International Relations at the University of Bath (UK) and Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Sejong Institute (Seoul, Republic of Korea). Professor Kivimäki joined the University of Bath in January 2015.


My book looked into track records of 35 UN peacekeeping operations and unilateral operations, and assessed problems of violence.

I was very dissatisfied by the sparse evidence that actually existed going against the normal narrative about how UN interventions impact conflict and levels of violence.

The purpose of this research was to give a systematic review of how the UN peacekeeping and how big powers should avoid unilateral interventions and work with the UN instead, to reduce violence in places like Syria, or Yemen.

Key Findings

The United Nations seemed to be very successful compared with unilateral operations. In almost all their operations, they do manage to reduce violence drastically. So their peacekeeping is actually surprisingly successful, despite the fact that they receive a lot of critique.
When the United States, United Kingdom, France, but also Russia, try to protect people outside their own territories, and when they use robust military force, they almost every time escalate a conflict and end up killing the people they intended to protect. On average, the number of fatalities increases 720% during the first year of a unilateral operation.
I realised that, first of all, this understanding that only by robust force, you can do something good, is completely wrong. The more countries (and even the UN) are focused on enforcing its will upon others, the less successful it is in saving of lives.
Very often the real problems in conflict states are economic. So when people are fighting one another, the root cause could actually be poverty. And when the UN focuses more on economic development, in its peacekeeping operations, that's when they succeed more, whereas when they don't, then their levels of success is much less.

How to use

If there's a case of atrocious violence we should not decide to take unilateral action outside of the UN and we should not overstep the UN’s mandate. Countries should stop taking matters into their own hands. In the example of Libya and Gaddafi slaughtering his own people, had there been a UN mandate, it would have been easier to legitimise their action as Libya was a member of the UN and had accepted the UN rules, whereas Libya had never accepted the rules of NATO. As a result, it was easy for Gaddafi to mobilise his own troops against NATO troops, but also against those people that NATO aimed to protect. Instead, the NATO operation succeeded in destroying the state and increasing violence by several factors.
There are powerful interests who want to emphasise the power of our own weapons, the power of our own military operations and it does not matter how poorly they manage to reduce violence in humanitarian interventions. But the power of the truth can help counter their justification, and if it is better known that the number of fatalities increased 720% during the first year of a unilateral operation, then that could help to build opposition. Because if they are justified with the intention to protect people from violence, then we can say “well according to the evidence, this approach will increase violence”

The full paper is not available open access

Kivimäki, Timo,  (2021). Protecting the Global Civilian from Violence: UN discourses and practices in fragile states. London: Routledge

About this research

This research was independently conducted and did not receive funding from outside of the university.

Recommended for

UN Sustainable Development Goals

This research contributes to the following SDGs

What it means

During the cold war, we focused on fighting against communist powers who emphasised economic democracy and economic issues. We defined ourselves as the democracies who focused on political rights and political democracy. But I think we went too far in our focus on politics only.

When dealing with developing countries, which is where almost all the conflicts are happening, we should listen to them and understand what their real problems are. Usually their real problems are actually development issues, rather than problems of democracy or violence. The main problem that kills more than violence is really poverty.

I have a good example of a case that we normally use as an example of a failure of UN operation. That case is Somalia in the beginning of 1990s.

Many people, and especially Americans, remember how one of the warlords in Somalia managed to capture a few American peacekeepers and, and then paraded with their bodies in the streets of Mogadishu.

These pictures which were televised have been considered a core example of how the UN fails.

However, this part of the mission was a USA-initiated hunt for the warlord Aidid and was not mandated by the United Nations. And it was the consequence of this operation that those 18 American soldiers lost their lives. As the United States went over its UN mandate there, this should not be considered part of the UN failure.

And indeed, the overall number of fatalities of organised violence was reduced drastically by that UN operation.


This research was based on an extensive computer-assisted analysis of textual data using NVivo program for the creation of quantitative textual data. The textual material was from 1989 to the present day. This data was coded and analysed using statistical software Stata. It compared fatalities from organised violence in operations operations/places, and at different times with approaches that textual data revealed in those operations and times. This way it was possible to see what kind of agency and method saves lives and what kind of agents and approaches just escalate violence.

Helpful resources

Let your research make a social impact