Sustaining Peace Through Unarmed Civilian Protection

Civilians under the protection of the United Nations in Juba, South Sudan. May 6, 2014 (Isaac Billy/United Nations Photo)

One does not have to venture far into news headlines to find examples of large-scale violence against unarmed civilians, especially in conflict zones. To address this, policymakers at the United Nations, including Secretary-General António Guterres himself (among others) are shifting from a strategy of “conflict prevention” to “prevention and sustaining peace” (see the April 2016 Security Council and General Assembly resolutions and the secretary-general’s report). In this, we see ample opportunity for the UN to innovate to keep civilians safe.

A Global Observatory article from 2015 outlined the evidence-based concept of Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP), and since then, a number of UN reports, reviews, and resolutions has strengthened the case for its use. As was noted in the article, UCP is not without challenges. But current efforts to protect civilians by governments and civil society—armed and unarmed—are failing to keep pace. On each and every day last year, 8,000 people were forced to flee their countries; unchecked climate disruption is poised to escalate violent conflicts and is exacerbating threats to human security. These demands, coupled with the momentum behind sustaining peace, create the nexus to consider new ways to protect civilians in sustainable ways.

The High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) recommended in its 2015 report that unarmed strategies must be at the forefront of UN efforts to protect civilians. A synthesis report by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs of HIPPO, plus the other two major global reviews of 2015—on the UN’s peacebuilding architecture and Security Council Resolution 1325 (on women, peace, and security)—found that “all three reports offer a critique of the current privileging of huge, military-heavy peace operations” and that “privileging of militarised solutions by UN peacekeeping operations to violent conflict is counter-productive.” The report additionally noted that “militarised solutions, and the resulting militarisation of society, are detrimental to women’s security.”

Since the reviews were released, however, the Security Council has approved more “robust” peacekeeping measures, as seen in Resolution 2327, where the Council authorized the UN mission in South Sudan to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians. Meanwhile, scant attention has been given to unarmed methods for the protection of civilians that inherently sustain peace.

Recently addressing the Security Council on peace operations and sustaining peace, International Peace Institute Senior Adviser Youssef Mahmoud, a member of both the HIPPO and the 1325 reviews, recommended a series of shifts required for sustaining peace that recognize people, especially women and youth, who play a central role in local protective capacities. These shifts require respect, trust-building, and continual engagement with local communities, activities which are extremely difficult for armed peacekeepers, who typically rotate into a community every six months, often without the training or interest to engage with community members. Lack of common language and the dominance of men (over 95% of mission contingents on average) provide other barriers for collaborating with local people.

As cited in HIPPO and the 1325 review, there are a number of unarmed approaches that can directly protect civilians in violent conflict, with UCP prominent among them. UCP is a series of methods for the direct protection of civilians, localized violence reduction, and supporting local infrastructures for peace. While not appropriate in every situation, UCP can be employed in a number of places where armed peacekeepers cannot or will not go. Work in this field is growing, with 39 NGOs now providing protection in 21 countries, including South Sudan, Iraq, Myanmar, and the United States, including major cities experiencing high levels of violence such as Baltimore and Chicago, as well as North Dakota during the conflict over the routing of an oil pipeline adjacent to a Native American reservation. Strategies typically include a mixture of methodologies that have been proven to protect civilians, including protective accompaniment, proactive presence in threatened areas, and ceasefire monitoring. These methodologies are taught in UCP courses offered by a growing number of educational institutions, including an e-learning course offered by the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), in partnership with Merrimack College and Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP).

Slowly, UCP is seeping into public policy. The Security Council recognized the practice in the UN Mission in South Sudan’s 2016 mandate renewal. This past summer, UCP was included by Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Department of Field Support’s policy guidelines for child protection and police operations. However, greater momentum is needed for these changes to take a firm hold.

UCP provides a set of instruments that protects civilians while sustaining peace by virtue of three central features:

Principled and Practical Commitment to Nonviolence

UCP interrupts and breaks cycles of violent conflict by utilizing diverse nonviolent interventions to mitigate and divert threats of harm in conflicts. Modeling nonviolent behaviors stimulates nonviolent behavior in others. Practicing active nonviolence boosts the sustainability of peace operations and builds the foundation for a lasting peace. The positive impacts of these strategies are well-documented but under-amplified.

UCP teams are typically accepted by many sides in a conflict because they are not seen as a threat to any parties or national sovereignty. For example, when a ceasefire was brokered in Mindanao in 2009, both the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front asked NP and three local groups to monitor the civilian protection component of the agreement. An external evaluation conducted in 2014 by the European Forum for International Mediation and Dialogue and Initiatives for International Dialogue found that “Armed actors on both sides confirm that the presence of a third party ‘watching over them’, including NP, has served to temper their behavior.”

Ability to Protect Through Local Relationships

The UCP civilian protectors typically live in the communities they serve, which increases their understanding of local context and community needs, and attunes their ability to develop protective strategies based on common conflict and context analyses. They perform a wide range of functions based on relationships with stakeholders and groups on the ground, including speaking with combatants; coordinating activities with civil society; and liaising across ethnic, tribal, and political lines.

For example, when a community in rural South Sudan learned that an armed group was planning to rob an NP compound, community members went to the county commissioner to ask for help. They told the commissioner that they needed NP and were worried that if NP was robbed, they would evacuate the area. The commissioner met with the armed group and instructed them to leave the compound and staff alone. This demonstrates how relationships can frame protection work as a mutually beneficial activity, increasing the cooperation between local and international actors to promote peace and stability.

Primacy of Local Actors

Peace cannot be sustained without local ownership, which starts by recognizing and affirming approaches for safety and protection that already exist. At least half of UCP civilian protectors come from the host country, with women comprising more than 40% of the ranks. When people indigenous to a conflict attain greater capacity to protect themselves, they can employ any number of activities as relevant in order to mitigate threats of violence and increase resilience. For example, NP has trained over 1,000 women peacekeepers in South Sudan, who prevent children from being abducted, intervene in local conflicts, and accompany women who have been raped to receive treatment and report the assault. These people and their valuable work will remain in communities long after international missions leave, therefore sustaining a local orientation toward peace, and, importantly, a sense of empowerment that reduces victimhood and powerlessness.

A secretary-general’s report on sustaining peace is due in 2018, along with a high-level UN event on peacebuilding and sustaining peace. These events present valuable opportunities to address effective ways to protect civilians in a manner that sustains peace.

Mel Duncan is Founding Director and Director of Advocacy & Outreach at Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP). Kimberly Ai-Lin Loh is a Program Associate at NP.