Protecting Civilians: Can the UN Break Through?

Displaced people demonstrate against violence at a UN Protection of Civilians site. Malakal, South Sudan, February 26, 2016. (Albert Gonzalez Farran, AFP, Getty Images)

On Friday this week, the United Nations Security Council will hold an open debate on the protection of civilians by peacekeeping operations. Although the chamber will no doubt be filled with a succession of positive statements, political support has only recently coalesced around the peacekeeping protection mandate, and even now is often shallow. As conflicts rage across the globe and inflict horrific violence, massive displacement, flouting of international law, and major stresses on the humanitarian system, seeking to protect civilians has become a Sisyphean task for the UN.

Protection by UN peacekeepers is a challenging proposition, not least because it was not a role originally intended for the organization. When the UN Charter was promulgated in 1945, it set up a system for the maintenance of peace and security between, not within, states. The charter did include “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights” among the purposes of the UN, but was a long way from incorporating the idea of deploying military force to actively protect civilians from violence within their own borders, even potentially emanating from their own government. Yet 70 years on, the deployment of peacekeepers to protect civilians in internal conflicts has become one of the primary ways in which the Security Council executes its responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.

The new book Protection of Civilians—edited by myself, Ralph Mamiya, Scott Sheeran, and Marc Weller—provides analysis and insight across all aspects of civilian protection, including the challenges of delivering on the peacekeeping mandate. It offers a multidisciplinary treatment of the subject, harnessing perspectives from international law and international relations, and traversing academia and practice. The book includes chapters from legal scholars, ethicists, political commentators, diplomats, UN officials, military commanders, development experts, and humanitarian aid workers. It is the most comprehensive publication on the subject to date, and we hope it will be a key reference for practitioners.

As the book makes clear, UN peacekeeping operations were both a result and a driver of the remarkable evolution of the collective security system. Today they are the flagship enterprise of the organization and almost every peacekeeping operation deployed since 1999 has been authorized to use force to protect civilians. In recent years, civilian protection has become the raison d’être of most missions. However, as one of our authors, Bruno Stagno Ugarte, Deputy Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, highlights, the veto afforded to the permanent members of the Security Council renders activity in this area highly selective. As the recent deadly violence in the UN’s Protection of Civilians site in Malakal, South Sudan, illustrates, implementation of the protection mandate remains extremely challenging for peacekeeping missions.

In a practical sense, peacekeepers have often been unable to meet the expectations raised by the mandate, at times owing to a lack of resources and capabilities, most notably force enablers such as helicopters and intelligence capabilities. Even if properly equipped, the use of force potentially puts peacekeepers at higher risk of injury or fatality—risks that troop contributing countries and their commanders may not be willing to take. Several authors explore these and other practical challenges to implementing the military aspects of the protection mandate. Others analyse some of the legal challenges, including the need for accountability and continued ambiguity regarding the preemptive use of force, and the discretionary/obligatory nature of the protection mandate. Of significant concern is the International Committee of the Red Cross view that UN military forces lose the protection of international humanitarian law when executing certain aspects of the protection of civilians mandate, thereby becoming a “party to the conflict” and a “legitimate target.”

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President of the International Crisis Group looks at a number of relevant political challenges. Missions are often mandated to assist the security forces of the host state to execute their protection responsibilities, which can compromise the impartiality of the UN force and may also have flow-on effects for the political activities of the mission. Conversely, UN action against violence perpetrated by a host government, or government-backed forces, may result in the withdrawal of state consent for the mission remaining in the country or obstruction of the mission’s activities. Several contributors identify the absence of a robust political peace process as the single thing that can most undermine the protection efforts of peacekeeping missions, rendering any military or humanitarian gains transitory.

Even in a peacekeeping context, the military aspect is but one component of protecting civilians. Important protection activities are also undertaken by political, human rights, humanitarian, refugee and development actors, as well as by civilian populations themselves. Despite the international attention on protection issues, the normative basis, content, and responsibilities associated with the protection of civilians concept remain contested, with disparate usage of the protection lexicon in various bodies of international law, and across humanitarian, human rights, and peacekeeping communities. The absence of a common, holistic understanding of the protection of civilians both within the UN system, and the broader international community, can result in a lack of strategic coherence, misunderstandings of the law, and confusion surrounding the roles and responsibilities of various actors, which at times results in competition and working at cross purposes.

Drawing upon the analysis provided by the contributing authors, in the conclusion of Protection of Civilians we propose a unified definition of “protection of civilians,” recommend clarifying the legal framework through the development of an instrument akin to the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, and articulate 10 of our own principles that would benefit protection practice. These include:

  • States must demonstrate political support for the protection of civilians in conflict situations. Security Council members should contribute finance, equipment and personnel to peacekeeping missions, commensurate with their ability and responsibility. Member states should provide sufficient resources to carry out direct protection activities, including sufficient troop levels, and enabling equipment. Troop and police contributing governments should acknowledge that their contingents will be required to use force and operate in high threat environments to protect civilians, and ensure that they have the technical capacity and political support to do so. Pressure must be brought to bear on host states to ensure that they support and not obstruct UN efforts to protect civilians.
  • Protection of civilians activities must be accompanied by a political process. The mandate to use force to protect civilians does not of itself constitute a political strategy. The impact of military and humanitarian protection activities will be transitory if they do not take place within the context of a political process seeking a longer term solution to underlying conflict issues.
  • Protection actors must coordinate to develop a unified protection strategy for each country/conflict area. In order to ensure that protection actors share the same ultimate objectives, and that their activities are complementary and do not undermine one another, they should coordinate to develop a unified and cohesive protection strategy for a conflict area. This should include political, humanitarian, military, human rights, and development aspects, and be based on a collective analysis of the threat environment and protection needs incorporating the knowledge and activities of the local population and local actors.

The UN collective security system has undergone a dramatic transformation incorporating the protection of civilians as one of its core functions. And yet, as the plight of civilians in conflict situations the world over demonstrates, a much more concerted effort is needed to turn the rhetoric into reality. Protection challenges are complex, yet the difficulties for UN peace operations fulfilling this mandate are well known, as are the ways and means to improve the situation. The Security Council meeting on Friday must seek real commitment to concrete action. If not, like Sisyphus, the UN will be stuck endlessly pushing the same boulder up the same hill, while civilians suffer the same consequences.

Haidi Willmot has worked in peacekeeping policy roles at United Nations headquarters, in UN field operations, and with the Australian government.

Protection of Civilians will be launched on June 16 at the Australian Mission to the UN in New York, by UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who wrote the foreword.