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United Nations Peacekeeping Forces: Peace and Conflict

United Nations Peacekeeping Forces: Peace and Conflict

The Conflict

There is considerable conflict regarding the appropriateness, neutrality, and efficacy of United Nations (U.N.) peacekeeping forces. U.N. troops have prevented considerable bloodshed and provided a safe environment for non-combatants. They have also been taken hostage, killed, and accused of prolonging war.


  • The United Nations provides for peacekeeping operations in areas of extreme turmoil, where civilians are being killed, and where intervention seems appropriate and useful.
  • The United Nations has been criticized for responding too slowly to situations, allowing, for example, half a million Rwandans to be killed before intervening.
  • Regardless of their intent, U.N. peacekeeping missions have been criticized for being poorly armed and trained, for undertaking missions that precluded the use of force, and for allowing themselves to be used as shields against NATO bombs in Bosnia and being taken hostage.
  • U.N. peacekeepers have been applauded for helping to stop war and restoring an environment where productive peace talks can take place.

The devastation of World War II (1939-45) led many world leaders to conclude that the best hope for the future of mankind lay in finding a peaceful means of managing disputes between nations and other warring parties. The creation of the United Nations Organization (UNO), or simply the United Nations (U.N.), in 1945 offered a forum for the settlement of international disputes. The concept of a global peace forum, however, had an unfortunate legacy. Although President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924; president 1913-21) called for the creation of a League of Nations to govern international politics in at the end of World War I (1914-18), that institution fundamentally failed time and again to deter aggression by rising militaristic states. The outbreak of World War II, the bloodiest conflict in human history, spoke little for the League's efficacy as a peacemaker.

When the international community began to formulate a replacement for the League after the Second World War, it realized that the new body guaranteeing world peace needed to contain a mechanism for enforcing its decisions. In addition to the creation of an international justice system and the classification of international law and human rights, one of the approaches toward this goal was the concept of United Nations peacekeeping missions. These missions were intended to place troops of U.N.-member states into conflict situations in which both sides sought mediation for a peaceful solution. Since peacekeeping operations began in 1948, the United Nations has launched fifty-three missions involving troops from 111 countries. In 1988 the U.N. peacekeeping missions won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The efficacy of U.N. peacekeeping efforts has drawn some serious criticism, however. Despite the good intentions of the international community toward resolving conflicts peacefully through the missions, history has shown that there are serious limitations to what they can accomplish. May 2000 headlines chronicled the abduction by a rebel force of more than five hundred international soldiers serving in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. Although most of the soldiers were released after a brief period of detention, some soldiers were reported to have been killed. Because so many were abducted, it became evident the peacekeeper role can be both ineffective and dangerous.

Indeed, the problems and limitations associated with peacekeeping missions have in many ways been caused by their definition. According to the United Nations itself, peacekeepers are restricted to entering and remaining in conflict situations when both warring parties agree to their presence while a peace settlement is being mediated. If one or both sides of a military conflict do not accept peace negotiations sponsored by the international community or the presence of peacekeepers as a component of such negotiations, the United Nations can do nothing to compel them to do so. The United Nations simply does not have the political authority to force nations or warring factions within nations to accept mediation.

A second major problem that peacekeeping operations have encountered is that peacekeeping forces are only lightly armed for their own self-defense. Since it was never intended for them to use force to compel warring parties to reach a settlement or even to act as a police force in the conventional sense, peacekeepers have often found themselves in dangerous situations, like the recent situation in Sierra Leone. As that case proves, peacekeepers are at considerable risk should one of the warring parties in a conflict change its mind about U.N. involvement.

These two serious structural weaknesses in peacekeeping operations have produced a third serious problem: growing indifference in the international community. Given the apparent problems with peacekeeping operations, many governments, lobbyist organizations, and private citizens have expressed dismay and disappointment with the United Nations' ability to resolve conflicts. Over time these attitudes have had fairly serious consequences for both the integrity of future peacekeeping operations themselves and for the working cohesion of the United Nations in general.

Historical Background

Peacekeeping in the Middle East

An historical survey of peacekeeping operations reveals rather clearly why the current controversies about them have come about. Indeed, the first U.N. peacekeeping operation was directed at an international crisis yet to be resolved. The United Nation's November 1947 decision to replace the British mandate in Palestine with an independent Jewish state of Israel the following year destabilized the Middle East. Surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors and containing a minority population of Palestinian Muslims, Israel faced military challenges from the very day it gained independence in May 1948.

The United Nation's attempt to resolve the crisis and end the first Arab-Israeli War was the genesis of its peacekeeping efforts. A special resolution (Resolution 50) of the U.N. Security Council created the United Nations Troop Supervision Organization (UNTSO), establishing a liaison force to hold tentative peace arrangements between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Although the 1948 war was stopped by negotiations partly facilitated by the presence of these U.N. peacekeepers, the fundamental problem of Arab-Israeli relations in the Middle East still remains a dominating factor in regional and world politics. On two subsequent occasions Israel has had to contend with Arab coalition attacks, and its Palestinian minority remains a source of unrest. Curiously, although the UNTSO mission continues today (with a staff of 153 and a budget of $23 million for the year 2000) there have been several additional U.N. deployments to stabilize peace in the Middle East.

Like the 1948 deployment, which inaugurated peacekeeping operations, subsequent U.N. involvement in the Middle East has enjoyed only mixed success. This was evidenced when the U.N. Security Council and strong American diplomatic pressure (both through the Security Council and on bilateral bases) established a cease-fire that stopped the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt following that country's seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956. The United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) that provided peacekeepers safety only lasted as long as peace was in the strategic interests of the Egyptian and Israeli forces. After building up his own forces and joining another anti-Israeli Arab coalition, Egyptian president Abdel Gamal Nasser simply ordered the UNEF peacekeepers to leave the buffer zone in May 1967. Although they had been there for nine years, the presence of the peacekeepers had failed to create a stable settlement. Nasser was able to treat them merely as a component of the truce, which he saw fit to discard. When U.N. forces left and after Nasser moved against Israel, Israel won and unexpectedly swift (six-day) victory—a military feat of considerable stature. In this incident, the United Nations peacekeeping had neither prevented the conflict nor had it reduced casualties or territorial losses. Indeed, it was in 1967 that Israel took control of the Sinai Peninsula (from Egypt, returned in 1975), of the Gaza Strip (also from Egypt), the West Bank (from Jordan), and Golan Heights (from Syria), the last three of which it still holds. In addition to the diplomatic problems associated with the territorial question, their acquisition and settlement by Israel has resulted in fractious Israeli rule over large Palestinian Muslim populations, which have loudly, and often violently, demanded their independence. Although the peacekeeping force deployed in 1956 may have delayed it, stability in the Middle East was not secured.

Nevertheless, peace agreements and peace-keeping operations in the region following the next Arab-Israeli confrontation in October 1973 were relatively more successful. A second U.N. Emergency Force (UNEF II) remained in place until July 1979, following the conclusion of the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel. A smaller peacekeeping force, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), has had a relatively easy time managing the tense situation between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights since its original deployment in 1974, though the underlying issue of the Israeli occupation remains unresolved.

It is important to remember, however, that either of these deployments could have encountered serious difficulty if any party became (or in the case of the Golan Heights, becomes) dissatisfied. Israeli and Egyptian (after Nasser's death in 1971) adherence to peace has been predicated on a desire for American support. The United States' successive administrations tried to placate both sides, because they desired a pro-United States strategic consensus among the nations of the Middle East during the Cold War (tensions that existed between the United States and communist USSR from 1946 until 1991). Until his death in June 2000, long-time Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was reluctant either to engage Israel militarily or to antagonize the United States.

Significantly, a third peacekeeping force, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), was deployed in that country in 1978 and has in different circumstances met with less success. In June 1982 sporadic attacks against Israeli targets by militant Islamic forces based in Lebanon provoked the Israeli occupation of a "security zone" in the southern part of the country. Although Israel violated and remains in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of foreign armies from Lebanese territory, Israeli security concerns in this case superceded the mandate of the peacekeepers. Since they were unable to prevent Israeli military action, UNIFIL's mission was altered to provide humanitarian aid to Lebanese civilians living under Israeli occupation. Only in April 2000 did the Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak inform the Security Council that his country's forces would withdraw by July of that year, though spontaneous violence against departing Israeli troops clouded the issue and resulted in talk of an additional U.N. peace-keeping deployment to monitor the situation.

Peacekeeping Missions in Asia

If peace in the Middle East has been less than guaranteed by peacekeeping operations, various other nations of the developing world had an equally mixed experience with U.N. peacekeeping. South Asia, another major trouble spot in the post-World War II world, has also been the site of decades of U.N. involvement, but has seen its stability decay rather than strengthen. After a short but extremely bloody war following the independence of India and Pakistan from Great Britain in 1947 (the religiously diverse British-ruled Indian Empire was divided into a Hindu state—India—and a Muslim state—Pakistan—at the time of independence), the U.N. Security Council established an office for the affairs of the subcontinent and decided to deploy a peacekeeping force to guard a negotiated cease-fire line in the disputed province of Kashmir. The arrival of this force, the U.N. Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) in July 1949 and its successor, the U.N. Military Observer Groups in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), in March 1951, did help enforce observance of the cease-fire, but violations of the line continued. Further conflict was again averted not by a strong U.N. presence, but by the strategic decisions of the two parties, both of which desired to focus on their domestic development.

When a second Indo-Pakistani war broke out in December 1971, the UNMOGIP peacekeeping force could do relatively little to stop it or to prevent India's quick victory. Having established its main objective of securing East Pakistan's independence as Bangladesh in July 1972, India basically agreed to maintain the 1949 cease-fire line in Kashmir as a permanent Line of Control. Although the U.N. Security Council and Secretary General insisted that the peacekeeping force remain in place, India has consistently maintained that it is no longer necessary or even legal and has at times restricted the scope of its activities. Since the 1972 peace agreement, moreover, the province's permanent status is no closer to resolution and the Line of Control is subject to periodic violation by both sides. Most recently, in the fall of 1999, full-scale fighting broke out and the United Nations could do little to prevent it despite its fifty-year presence. The suspected acquisition of nuclear weapons technology by both nations in the summer of 1998 makes the situation all the more complicated and dangerous. U.N. involvement notwithstanding, strategic analysts regard the subcontinent as one of the most likely spots for a major war to break out in the near future.

Other parts of the developing world also experienced ambivalent outcomes from U.N. peace-keeping. During an era when European powers relinquished control of most of their colonial possessions, U.N. peacekeepers were often called upon to oversee the transfer of authority. This was especially true after the bloodshed that surrounded Britain's unsupervised withdrawal from India. Also when turbulent nations—like India and Pakistan—entered their post-colonial periods with no U.N. assistance, violence oftentimes erupted within their borders. Many nations and regions with serious ethnic, religious, and political divisions exploded in violence shortly after achieving independence. Because all parties to a conflict have to agree to allow the entrance of peacekeeping mission, the United Nations could do nothing. Nowhere was this more true than in Indochina, where France's withdrawal in 1954 left a divided Vietnamese nation, each half of which breached the original independence settlement with attempts to dominate the other. This eventually caused a war that cost the lives of a million Vietnamese and 58,000 American servicemen. At the same time the other new Indochinese nations of Laos and Cambodia experienced revolutions and wars that resulted in hundreds of thousands more deaths. Although the scale was smaller in terms of human casualties in southeast Asia than in south Asia, the same type of violent political instability affected many other nations in which U.N. peacekeepers played no role.

Peacekeeping Missions in Africa and Elsewhere

A U.N. peacekeeping presence in a newly independent country does not guarantee a successful transition from being ruled to self-rule. A U.N. mission sent to oversee the transition to independence of the Belgian Congo (later Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1960 through 1964 was unable to check either the rise or fall of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba's Marxist regime and was unable to solve the problems associated with the attempted secession of the mineral-rich Katanga province. Despite its mandate to prevent other powers from influencing the outcome of the leadership struggle, the U.N. forces were unable to stop Soviet assistance from reaching Lumumba and were equally incapable of stopping the direct involvement of U.S. troops and other U.S. government agents who were sent to help Lumumba's rival, Joseph Mobutu (also known as Mobutu Sese Seko). As a result of U.N. paralysis in this case, the emergence of a stable and democratic nation failed. After a rebellion ousted Mobutu in 1997, the political situation in the country was still far from stable, despite a renewed U.N. presence there since November 1999.

Other transitions have met with modest success. A U.N. peacekeeping mission serving in Cyprus, which became independent from Britain in 1960 and requested the Security Council's assistance in 1964, has met with some difficulties in managing ethnic strife between the island nation's Greek and Turkish populations. Its efforts have, however, prevented both Greece and Turkey, and their respective ethnic constituencies on the island, from carrying out plans to annex Cyprus to either country. A generally peaceful cease-fire has been maintained for twenty-five years. A peacekeeping force sent to facilitate the transfer of remaining Dutch possessions in Western New Guinea to Indonesia from 1962 through 1963 did so efficiently and without any casualties. Another observation mission successfully oversaw a democratic transition in the Dominican Republic in 1965 and 1966, although the political situation there had already been stabilized by President Lyndon Johnson's deployment of twenty-three thousand American combat troops in April 1965. Another, but much later, case of successful U.N. involvement in de-colonization managed the peaceful transition of Namibia from South African control (as a League of Nations mandate in effect from after World War I) to an independent nation in 1989-90.

Peacekeeping at the End of the Cold War

The next and most prolific period of peace-keeping operations occurred as the Cold War began to wind down. As the superimposition of U.S.-Soviet antagonism became a less important factor in international relations, many parts of the world experienced turbulence that had been held in check for decades. There were also many places where Cold War-era struggles continued even as super-power tension eased. Indeed, forty of the fifty-three peacekeeping operations have been launched since 1988. Many of these missions have been successful. In the southwest African nation of Angola, torn by civil war since it won independence from Portugal in 1974, peacekeeping forces successfully oversaw the withdrawal of Cuban troops sent to back the nominally Marxist government of the country and then supervised free elections and a budding national reconciliation. Free elections and democratic government also came to Mozambique, another sub-Saharan nation torn by civil conflict rooted in Cold War tension, under the aegis of a U.N. peacekeeping mission that lasted from 1992 through 1994.

Other regions also benefited from a U.N. presence during this period. Peacekeeping operations in Central America were carried out in five countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica) in the 1990s and generally succeeded in ending long periods of civil strife in each one. In Nicaragua and El Salvador these operations were especially important, as they oversaw both the end of the open and bloody civil wars in those countries and the return of democratic governments. Although there are still some questions about human rights and democratic stability in the region, the worst problems seem to have been solved. In Southeast Asia, the long-term instability and violence in Cambodia was also ended under U.N. auspices. Although peacekeeping operations did not spare the nation the horrors of Pol Pot's genocidal regime in the 1970s or of the Vietnamese invasion of the country later in the decade, more recent involvement has contributed to ending the enduring civil conflict and restoring a stable government. U.N. monitoring of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, at war with a U.S.-led coalition in 1990 and 1991, has done a relatively effective job of preventing the dictator's acquisition of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and his violent persecution of the country's Kurdish and Shiite Muslim minorities.

Criticism of Peacekeeping Efforts

There have, however, been a number of critical failures in U.N. peacekeeping. Perhaps the most publicized in recent years has been the U.N.'s tortured involvement in the former Yugoslavia. A patchwork state of diverse ethnic and religious groups put together as a nation after World War I, Yugoslavia showed serious signs of collapsing as Cold War tensions came to a close. Several of its federal republics, loosely drawn along ethnic lines, declared independence in the early 1990s. Unlike the Yugoslavian state that was forced to recognize this reality, the multi-ethnic state of Bosnia-Herzegovina suffered from a bloody civil war among its three major ethnic groups: Roman Catholic Croats, Orthodox Christian Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims. Although U.N. peacekeepers (the United Nations Protection Force, or UNPROFOR) first reached the country in February 1992, their original mission so undefined that their presence had little practical value. As the conflict accelerated over time, the world watched detailed press coverage of battlefield disasters, the horrible siege of the Bosnian capital city of Sarajevo, and repeated allegations of genocide and "ethnic cleansing" by and against all sides. The U.N. troops were powerless as negotiations dragged on and cease-fire agreements were broken. Only direct U.S. military involvement authorized by President Bill Clinton in December 1995 led to an effective cease-fire agreement. Although U.S. troops entered the country under the nominal authority of another U.N. peacekeeping mission, the weight of American involvement was the decisive factor in ending the military aspect of the crisis. When another ethnic conflict broke out in the Yugoslavian province of Kosovo in March 1999, an American-led NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) occupation was a catalyst for a solution while the U.N. mission played a decidedly supporting role.

The need for unilateral solutions outside the traditional rubric of U.N. peacekeeping operations has manifested itself in other situations. In Africa, U.N. involvement in the ethnically-torn nation of Rwanda only came after the genocidal massacre of several hundred thousand Tutsis by the majority Hutu population of the country form 1993 to 1994. Although the U.N. mission did oversee the stabilization of the country by 1996, it had done little to save the victims. An earlier mission to organize and implement famine relief in Somalia in 1992 and 1993 also resulted in failure because one of the country's powerful "warlord" leaders, Mohammed Aidid, offered armed resistance to the peacekeepers. Constrained from using force against Aidid, the peacekeepers left Aidid and his forces undeterred and at large while eighteen American and twenty-four Pakistani peacekeepers were killed. The mass abduction of peacekeepers in Sierra Leone has also provoked a storm of criticism about the efficacy of U.N. peacekeeping on the continent.

Recent History and the Future

The 1998 Somalia incident in particular was a disaster. Film footage showing the bodies of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia, provoked serious domestic criticism of U.S. involvement in peacekeeping operations. After the mission ended in 1993, the Clinton administration adopted an official policy of non-participation in peacekeeping missions on the African continent. American reluctance to become involved in disputes in other parts of the world was influenced by the debacle in Somalia. Decisive American intervention like that in Bosnia and Kosovo has been absent from Rwanda, Congo, and, most recently, Sierra Leone. Worse still, the perception that the U.N. is inefficient and incapable of solving problems has led to principled domestic opposition to American financial contributions to its operations. For several years the U.S. Congress has withheld the United States's annual dues payments and, although a basic agreement to pay them has been reached, apparent objections to other U.N. policies have held up payment. A reckoning in May 2000 found that the United States owed $1.77 billion in back dues.

America's partial withdrawal from peacekeeping operations, caused by the process's inherent limitations, is symptomatic of a threat to the future of effective peacekeeping. Because of structural limitations, first of all, the world's most powerful country has become reluctant to involve its troops in U.N. operations. Many Americans bristle at the thought of placing U.S. troops under U.N. command, though the command and control structure of peacekeeping missions does not necessarily mean that this would always be the case. From a strategic standpoint, many object to U.S. involvement overseas when immediate U.S. interests are not at stake. Failed peacekeeping missions have reinforced that position.

In addition to the fact that the old rules have not changed with regard to the conditions of the missions, the current state of international affairs does not necessarily lend itself to consensus within the U.N. Crucially, many of the successful transition-era peacekeeping missions occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Soviet Union and its Russian successor state was collaborating with the West to end the continued arms race and prevent the destructively high military spending that caused the Soviet Union's collapse. Indeed, there was much enthusiasm about the emergence of a democratic Russia and the creation of a "strategic partnership" between the two Cold War antagonists. Unfortunately, neither of these early hopes has been fulfilled. In many ways, Cold War antagonism has continued and threatened to revive hostilities between the United States and Russia. As Russia struggles to find its place in the contemporary world, it has often found itself at odds with the United States. While this new antagonism reaches from finance to nuclear arms control to NATO expansion, it has affected peacekeeping as well. As U.S. involvement in the former Yugoslavia became increasingly pronounced in the mid-1990s, Russia, that nation's traditional ally, began to take exception. This was particularly true when NATO conducted military operations against the former Yugoslavia over the Kosovo issue in 1999. Some of the earlier partnership initiatives collapsed and the two governments became more suspicious of each other's motives. When a peacekeeping force was eventually deployed to the province, the Russian government would only agree to support it if Russian troops were included, thereby defusing a potential crisis.

Russia's confrontational approach to the Kosovo question in 1999 raises an important theoretical implication for peacekeeping. Since the U.N. Security Council must approve resolutions for peacekeeping operations, any of its five permanent members (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China) can veto them. Had Russia taken its objections to the Kosovo operation a step further, it could conceivably have blocked U.N.-sponsored action there. In other words, although it may have been in the Soviet interest to back U.N. peacekeeping operations in the past, Moscow may disrupt them in the future if it should find that they contradict Russian interests or if the Russian government's conditions for support are not met. This may also be true of China, which has found itself in opposition the United States on a number of international issues.

In a changing world, U.N. peacekeeping operations have at best an ambiguous legacy and an ambiguous future. Although they have enjoyed some important successes, especially in ensuring peaceful transitions to democracy, they have not dealt effectively with many other problems. The limited scope and powers of peacekeeping have remained consistent problems. Even though peace-keeping has worked in certain parts of the world, its failure in others has captured much more publicity and raised public doubt about its efficacy and desirability. Despite its controversial aspects, however, it is important to bear in mind that peace-keeping does demonstrate an institutionalized global awareness of the need to find peaceful solutions to violent conflict.


Carpenter, Ted Galen, ed. Delusions of Grandeur: The United Nations and Global Intervention. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1997.

Diehl, Paul F. International Peacekeeping: With a New Epilogue on Somalia, Bosnia, and Cambodia. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Hillen, John F. Blue Helmets: The Strategy of U.N. Military Operations. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1998.

Shawcross, William. Deliver Us From Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords, and a World of Endless Conflict. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Pauldu Quenoy


1945 The United Nations Organizations (UNO), commonly known as the United Nations, is created.

1947 U.N. troops are sent into Palestine to prevent war following the end of the British mandate and the declaration of statehood by Israel.

1948 United Nations Truce Supervision Organization is established.

1949 United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan is established.

1956 First United Nations Emergency Force is established.

1958 United Nations Observation Group in Lebanon is established.

1964 United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus is established.

1965 Mission of the Representative of the Secretary-General in the Dominican Republic is established. United Nations India-Pakistan Observation Mission is established.

1973 Second United Nations Emergency Force is established.

1974 United Nations Disengagement Observer Force is established.

1978 United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon is established.

1988 United Nations Good Offices Mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan is established. United Nations Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group is established. The U.N. peacekeeping missions win the Nobel Peace Prize.

1989 United Nations Transition Assistance Group is established. United Nations Observer Group in Central America is established.

1990 United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission is established. United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador is established. United Nations Advance Mission in Cambodia is established.

1992 United Nations Protection Force is established. United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia is established. U.N. attempts to organize famine relief efforts in Somalia are resisted by a local warlord. Eighteen American and twenty-four Pakistani peace-keepers are killed.

1993 United Nations Operation in Somalia II is established. United Nations Observer Mission Uganda-Rwanda is established. United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda is established, but troops do not enter Rwanda until more than five hundred thousand are already dead.

1995 United Nations Preventive Deployment Force is established. United Nations Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina is established; peacekeepers are held hostage by Serbia and used as "human shields" to NATO's bombs.

2000 Five hundred peacekeeping soldiers are taken hostage in Sierra Leone.

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