People, Projects, Partners, and Peace: When Do UN Rule of Law Missions Succeed?

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Lizzie Martin, covers the new article by Robert A. Blair, Brown University, “UN Peacekeeping and the Rule of Law

The United Nations has long worked to restore the rule of law during and after conflicts and crises around the world, but analysis of what makes these efforts successful is limited. In some ways, open questions about the efficacy of UN-led reforms to police forces, prison systems, and laws can lead to pessimism among scholars and policy makers about the value of these missions, particularly in difficult, war-torn environments. In “UN Peacekeeping and the Rule of Law,” however, Robert Blair makes a strong case for the efficacy of UN rule of law interventions, developing and testing a theory about what makes them most likely to succeed.

Challenges to the rule of law come in many forms.

They could be related to extrajudicial punishments at the hands of police, systematically biased rulings by courts, indefinite detention or other rights violations in prison systems, and even vague or contradictory laws. The UN largely addresses these areas of reform through educational programs, incentives for improvement, messaging aimed at promoting norms, and accountability built through oversight mechanisms.

This paper suggests that expanding civilian involvement in promoting the rule of law, dedicating specific projects to these goals, actively partnering with host countries, and prioritizing peace before attempting reform could make similar efforts more successful.

According to Blair, there are a few key sources of variation in these efforts: the people deployed to support each mission, the projects they undertake, their ability to partner with host governments, and whether they are working during a time of peace or conflict. Using data on each of these aspects of UN missions in Africa since the end of the Cold War, Blair shows that success in promoting the rule of law is related to each of these four factors.

First, Blair’s analyses suggest that the people deployed on a given mission matter, both in terms of their overall numbers and their specific tasks. While larger numbers of personnel are associated with improvements in the rule of law, Blair’s findings also indicate that this relationship is stronger – suggesting that UN efforts are even more successful – when the people working on a mission are civilians and when they are assigned specifically to projects related to the rule of law.

The UN largely addresses these areas of reform through educational programs, incentives for improvement, messaging aimed at promoting norms, and accountability built through oversight mechanisms.

The ways in which missions attempt to meet their goals also make a difference.

Again, Blair finds that UN projects promoting the rule of law are associated with improvements in the rule of law. Further, missions are more successful when the host countries are partnered with the UN in processes of reform. This is true even when host governments seem to have limited capacity or little interest in promoting the rule of law.

Finally, Blair’s analysis suggests that UN missions are more successful during times of peace. This highlights the challenges of advancing the rule of law while conflict draws attention and resources away from reform.

In addition to fostering optimism about the efficacy of UN support for the rule of law in Africa since the Cold War, Blair’s findings have important policy implications for other work in this area. This paper suggests that expanding civilian involvement in promoting the rule of law, dedicating specific projects to these goals, actively partnering with host countries, and prioritizing peace before attempting reform could make similar efforts more successful.


  • Lizzie Martin is a joint Ph.D. student in the Annenberg School for Communication and the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests center on U.S. public opinion and foreign policy. Lizzie holds a Master in Public Affairs and an A.B. in public policy and creative writing from Princeton University. Through the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative, she also served as a graduate fellow at the U.S. Department of State.
  • Article details: American Political Science Review, First View
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program

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