Making Peace Operations About People: A Needed Shift for the Protection of Civilians

A woman and young girl walk past a UN vehicle in the Central African Republic. (UN Photo/Herve Serefio)

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has defined “people” as one of the main axes of the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative, echoing one of the essential recommendations of the 2015 High-Level Panel on Peace Operations calling for a “people-centered” approach. Repeatedly vowing to become more “people-centric” can certainly appear as a strange commitment for the United Nations, an organization founded on the pledge to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” and to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person,” and “in the equal rights of men and women.”

The inter-state nature and bureaucratic machinery of the UN have indeed, over decades of operating, contributed to distancing and detaching the UN from people. There is an inherent potential for tension between the people-driven aspirations of the Charter and the interests of member states composing and ruling the institution, which can represent an important impediment to the prioritization of the human rights and social agendas at the UN. In addition, the technocratic and procedural nature of the UN, and its association with “high politics,” can make it an elusive reality for local communities and laymen, and contribute to a growing disconnect between the organization and people.

The inability to prioritize “people” over bureaucratic rationales and political interests has been revealed in the most dramatic ways in peacekeeping contexts, when the failure of UN peacekeeping missions to protect civilians from genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Rwanda and Bosnia triggered essential debates on the UN’s relevance. But starting in 1999, the integration and development of the protection of civilians’ (POC) paradigm in UN peace operations signaled a significant effort to ensure that UN missions would be about people, and about safeguarding them from the worst atrocities and violence. POC is now a priority for most peace operations and has been the object of an important institutionalization and professionalization in the system. In a way, this evolution appears as one of the most visible and direct commitment of the UN towards “people.”

However, and despite this sounding like a redundant truism, protection of civilians urgently needs to become more “people-centered.” While important efforts were made to push UN missions to “do POC,” peace operations should continuously make sure they put people at the center of their analysis, activities, and decision-making processes. They should guarantee that the implementation of POC mandates are more focused on the impact on people, rather than on the bureaucracy’s outputs, and in delivering their mandates, they should seek to prioritize the interests of the people before those of the UN bureaucracy or member states.

Over the years, the UN has made substantial efforts to anchor POC in community-based approaches. The numerous tools developed by the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC, and its successor MONUSCO) have demonstrated this increased consideration for “people” in POC activities. Today, joint protection teams interact with local stakeholders to better analyze protection needs; community liaison assistants ensure a permanent contact between communities and UN troops; community alert networks provide populations with tools to alert peacekeepers; and polling activities seek to understand the popular perceptions of security.

However, the debate needs to go beyond the need for enhanced community engagement. Continuing to make POC more people-centric is needed on several levels: analysis, skills, accountability, political strategies, and decision-making.

A People-Centered Approach Starts in the Analysis

By developing “threat-based approaches” to the protection of civilians, UN peace operations have reinforced their analysis of protection needs to better prioritize and tailor their interventions. However, an artificial categorization of threats—such as “violent extremism,” “criminality,” or “inter-communal violence”—can overlook the complexity of “people” perpetrating violence, who can be driven by a nuanced set of rational and irrational drivers and behaviors. In Mali for example, labeling perpetrators accurately has proven complex, as terrorist groups, compliant or non-compliant armed groups, communities in tension, criminals, and state actors have a propensity to be imbricated, and elements threatening civilians may be linked to different groups or dynamics.

The perpetrator-based analysis currently being stressed at the UN might also lead to a prioritization of actions based on initial assumptions of the gravity of a threat, and on the willingness and interest of international and national stakeholders to address this type of threat, rather than on the actual impact on the population. For example, a peace operation may be keener to address threats by “terrorist groups” or “armed groups” rather than criminality, based on the assumption that the former two are greater and worse threats than the latter.

To ensure the prioritization of POC actions is based on impact rather than on labels, a victim-based approach and people-based analysis of the real impact each threat has on people should not be neglected. As often as possible, UN peace operations should use people as their main source for the analysis of POC needs and gravity of threats—to counter-balance pre-existing narratives the international community would have initially developed. A group labeled as a “negative force” by a government, for example, might not be seen as a threat by local civilians on the ground, and the mission should try to calibrate its action by always adding local people’s analysis into its consideration. Similarly, a mission should always design activities according to people’s needs, and not according to a pre-conceived list of standard interventions, as in some cases, peacekeepers can do more harm in trying to apply their own grid of interpretations. For example, having UN personnel repeatedly asking questions about the prevalence of inter-ethnic tensions in their area, or identifying some actors as “terrorists,” can inadvertently lead communities to adopt, or even manipulate this reading of their security situation, and ultimately further polarize conflict.

People-Centered POC Requires Specific Skills

Beyond the deployment of troops for military operations, having the right specific skills for the civilian component is crucial for a mission’s ability to mediate between people, foster dialogue, deescalate tensions, or persuade local leaders to support the protection of civilians. As UN missions will certainly receive less means and will be required to do more with less capacities in the future, the UN needs to invest in highly-skilled civilians and further explore the added value of civilian components in peace operations. It should prioritize skills and profiles that are about understanding and influencing people, such as mediators, and strengthen anthropological and sociological expertise in missions. In addition, peace operations should be able to identify the right people in the host countries that can act as levers for POC, and who can affect the intent and capacities of hostile actors for the protection of civilians.

Accountability for POC Should Be Understood as Accountability Towards Communities

When implementing their POC mandate, UN peace operations should consider they are also accountable towards people—and not only towards the UN bureaucracy and the Security Council. This is essential to avoid a process-driven and output-focused implementation of POC that would focus on activities—such as the organization of a protection task force meeting, the production of a report, or the deployment of a patrol—rather than on the actual effects on people’s protection situation. When implementing each activity, UN peace operations should focus on the communities they protect, who are the recipients of their action, rather than on their own internal processes. For example, they should not only engage in community liaising because they need to demonstrate in their reports that they have been “talking to local people,” but because they will genuinely build their strategies and their action based on the people’s inputs in order to better protect them. Generally, UN mission personnel should not feel more accountable towards the organization and the internal system or towards the host state than they are towards the people they are mandated to protect. Specifically in situations where host states or UN partners can be the source of violence against the population, a people-centered concept of accountability should be further developed.

Linking the People to Politics is Crucial

UN missions, generally engaged in the highest-level political and peace processes—the implementation of the peace process and the restoration of state authority in Mali for example—should not neglect or lose attention for local grievances of the people they are deployed to protect. Politics is first and foremost about people too: it is about pursuing the optimal vivre-ensemble, and in conflict-affected countries, it is also about rethinking the social contract and the modalities of governance. As the paradigm of “restoration and extension of state authority” is often seen as the indispensible solution for ensuring long-term protection of populations, for example, one should not overlook the fact that the state is not always a source of protection for local communities. Peace operations should therefore contribute to energizing and creating space for the toughest discussions on which type of state authority needs to be restored and extended, and on the ways it should address local grievances and protection needs. In areas where the state has historically been perceived as failing and predatory for certain communities, such as in northern and central Mali, the UN peace operation should focus its political work related to the “extension of state authority” on encouraging new positive modes of governance to serve the people’s needs, and on supporting the government in constructively regaining communities’ trust in its utility for their protection.

Having a people-centric approach for the sake of POC means that in some cases the political strategy of the UN does not have to be perfectly aligned with the host state’s strategy. Both the UN Secretariat and missions’ senior leadership, while working with host states, also have a responsibility in defining, holding, and defending a political line mindful of the people’s needs and grievances, and to advocate for the necessary qualitative changes for sustaining peace. This could result, for example, in a mission promoting dialogue with actors seen as illegitimate by the central government, or conveying a message that national authorities refuse to hear. As a general principle, a UN peace operation should always seek to voice the concerns of local communities, and to design its political strategy around the people’s protection priorities.

A lot of efforts are currently being taken by the personnel of UN peace operations to protect civilians in the most challenging contexts—despite being constantly pressured and pulled in different directions between the Security Council, troop- and police-contributing countries, the Secretariat, and external stakeholders. Defending a people-based approach, where the political strategy, analysis of threats, accountability system, and skills of personnel fundamentally revolve around people, would be a significant multiplier to current POC efforts. It would also offer a potent impetus to escaping the bureaucracy and the politics of peacekeeping, and ensure a constant prioritization of the protection of civilians in decision-making.

Namie Di Razza is a Research Fellow with the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.