UNMISS Peacekeepers

Contact Skills: A Training Requirement for the Protection of Civilians

Peacekeepers part of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) meet with locals in Leer County. (UNMISS)

At its core, protection of civilians (POC) in United Nations peace operations requires that military, police, and civilian peacekeepers possess a range of “contact skills.” These skills, often seen as being non-military, are designed to help peacekeeping personnel “de-escalate potentially violent or manifestly violent situations and facilitate movement toward conflict resolution.”

These “contact skills” constitute the first tier of the UN Department of Peace Operations’ (DPO) approach to POC, and encompass a range activities. DPO’s policy includes dialogue with perpetrators or potential perpetrators, conflict resolution and mediation between parties to a conflict, persuading the government and other relevant actors to intervene to protect civilians, public information and reporting on POC, and other initiatives including public information, dialogue, and direct engagement in this tier. These activities go along with the provision of physical security (second tier) and the establishment of a protective environment (third tier).

The policy highlights a consultative element to planning POC activities. It notes that actions to protect civilians should be planned in consultation with women, men, girls, and boys of the local community, and with a view to empowering them and supporting the mechanisms and community-based organizations they have established to ensure their own protection.

Studies of UN peacekeeping missions describe the varied ways in which peacekeepers engage in dialogue, negotiation, and sensitization as non-military forms of protection. For example, the 2014 report of the Office of Internal Oversight Services on POC mandate implementation and results mentions that missions at the coalface of POC activities, in particular in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and South Sudan (UNMISS), had developed a range of mechanisms to address POC threats, including “early warning systems, community alert networks, community liaison arrangements, public information and reporting systems.”

A recent report by the Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network on UNMISS noted “reports of hundreds of instances where the Mission had helped to broker local-level agreements—including between former belligerents in the civil war—with consequent reductions in violence. The report further outlined that this was an “especially strong” aspect of UNMISS, and that “South Sudanese citizens often pointed to local engagement as the most tangible effect of the Mission.”

A Training Requirement for Military Personnel

Ensuring that peacekeepers are imbued with local engagement skills has implications for training frameworks for military peacekeepers. UN Security Council resolution 1265, the first of the cross-cutting resolutions on POC, highlights this by requesting that UN personnel involved in peacekeeping have “appropriate training in international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law, including child and gender-related provisions, negotiation and communication skills, cultural awareness and civilian-military coordination.”

In its guidelines for military components, DPO has advised that induction and in-mission POC training should “include local cultural sensitivities, early warning indicators, gender dynamics, and referral arrangements in the specific mission area,’ and include mission-specific scenario-based simulation.”

Dialogue and engagement activities are of course shared across the mission, with staff in police and civilian components generally at the forefront of dialogue and engagement activities for the mission. However, military components find themselves in situations where they need to engage in dialogue and contact, especially in areas where they are the only representatives of the UN mission. Additionally, community liaison assistants have been identified to assist military components in this engagement with civilian groups.

Even though contact skills are a necessity for POC, it is fair to assume that conflict resolution skills are not prevalent among all military personnel. In studies of tactical-level negotiation in peacekeeping contexts, military peacekeepers have been categorized as “Type D learners”—defined as “learners who are to be frequent micro negotiators in given contexts with greater personal or scenario implications for their failure/success.” However, such learners often have minimal starting knowledge of negotiation and its finer nuances. This becomes problematic when a peacekeeper finds themselves in a life-or-death scenario in the real world.

Developing and refining contact skills for military practitioners is a long process, requiring a number of different approaches, in particular a mixture of classroom-based teaching, scenario based learning, and life-like simulations. Studies from the conflict resolution field demonstrate the importance of “elicitive frameworks” of training whereby knowledge is gained through a process of facilitated knowledge sharing between learners and experts. As opposed to more traditional forms where an “expert” presents knowledge to a class of learners, elicitive approaches center on the implicit knowledge of participants. In the past, it has been suggested that the sharing of ideas with mentors and colleagues tends to “promote higher-level skills, and the refinement of technique and approach, since improvement has no limits.”

The Limits of Existing Training

Over the last two decades, the topic of POC has been mainstreamed into training programs for UN peacekeepers. As others have argued, pre-deployment training has been expanded to “include guidelines on PoC and the UN policy, military and police guidance, training on rules of engagement and standard operating procedures and the use of protection scenarios.” In the UN Core Pre-deployment Training Materials, POC is integrated into the “Mandated Tasks” module. Moreover, specialized training materials (STMs) have been developed which are targeted at military decision makers at the tactical level, in particular the Comprehensive Protection of Civilians Training Materials (CPOC).

In addition, POC courses have appeared at national and regional peacekeeping training centers, as well as online provision through the Peace Operations Training Institute. These courses—either accredited by the UN’s Integrated Training Service, or recognized by the UN’s Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations—cover a significant range of topic areas under the umbrella of POC, including gender awareness, human rights, the creation of protective environments, child protection, legal provisions, and lessons learned from missions. Varied interactive methods are employed to impart knowledge from trainer to trainee, indicating a move towards elicitive frameworks outlined above.

But, challenges remain. One, which has been highlighted by other researchers, is that a willingness and knowledge gap exists when peacekeepers are introduced to POC concepts in training, but not in tactics and strategies that help them assess risks and make the best choices in the field. This is a significant challenge. On-site training for peacekeeping (be it pre-deployment or in-mission) is a difficult task, and is trapped between the competing demands of time, costs, the need to pass on a wealth of information, and the desire to have learners better equipped at the end of a training event. Training therefore is limited in time and scope.

Take for instance UN induction training courses in the field. These need to cover presentations on the different mandated tasks, mission components, and administrative procedures over the course of one week. The induction course can only dedicate a limited session to POC, while being expected to ensure that all peacekeepers arriving in the field will be upskilled to be able to understand POC and their role in operationalizing it. When peacekeepers themselves are busy with operations and urgent tasks once deployed, the time for training more generally is extremely tight.

A valid question therefore is how a time-limited POC course can equip peacekeepers with: a) the technical knowledge of POC frameworks; b) awareness of the appropriate actors in a deployment area (including their colleagues from the civilian and police components of UN missions, aid agencies, NGOs, Local Civil Society Organizations); and, c) the contact skills which will facilitate communication, awareness, and conflict de-escalation.

Placing Elicitive Methods at the Core of POC Training

Focus must be placed on the methods that are available to training organizations. Studies elsewhere have identified that training in the conflict prevention and peacebuilding field uses a considerable suite of methods, ranging from lectures, through to reflective exercises and role-plays. As with all short courses in this field, how those methods are used are significant for on-site POC courses. Whereas lecture-based interaction may be useful to impart knowledge of legal frameworks or the UN system, learner-focused approaches (facilitated discussion, role plays) which border on elicitive methods will benefit peacekeepers’ appreciation of the contact skills element, and should be given priority. So far, it seems that most mission personnel are familiar with the POC mandate and its definition, but continue to lack sufficient guidance on the way to translate POC principles into concrete actions.

The key to addressing this gap is the skills of the trainers in implementing new methods, how methods fit into the overall learning aims of the course, and the amount of resources placed towards each method. Consideration must also be made for the fact that training programs need to accommodate the very diverse training needs and challenges at different levels for each mission.

This, in turn, requires strategic level investment in training. Here, movement is slow. In the recent UN Security Council debate on training, Secretary-General António Guterres noted training gaps in such critical areas as human rights and protection. This is despite training being a frequently revisited topic in peacekeeping ministerial meetings, and the widely held view in the UN that “better training will mean that peacekeepers are better equipped to meet the challenges of unpredictable and complicated, complex, multidimensional mission environments.”

These gaps can be linked to broader challenges in the peacekeeping training field, one which in the past has been highlighted in research. First and foremost, peacekeeper training is a national responsibility, and although the UN has done a lot of good work, standardizing training will be a significant challenge given the level of variation between the 122 countries who are contributing uniformed personnel. National militaries are rarely established purely to serve UN peacekeeping, therefore the extent to which they engage effectively in POC in their national training programs—particularly the soft skills element—is an open question.

Writing about the French military’s approach to peacekeeping, Thierry Tardy explains that although it has been involved in a number of peacekeeping operations since the end of the Cold War, the military has been “keen to maintain the primacy of the combat functions of its soldiers which were not to be jeopardized by the contribution to peace operations.” As with many aspects of peacekeeping, political will is a substantial factor in facilitating development and resourcing of the training field.

Improving Training

In this context, there are certain steps that can be taken to improve training and address the gaps in knowledge and practice.

One is to better understand the necessity of contact skills in POC training programs. To translate POC principles into concrete actions, it is necessary that reflective, elicitive learning methods be incorporated into training programs. The importance placed on contact skills in UN documentation on POC should be reflected throughout course structures.

A second is that there needs to be creativity in the training process. Trainers and training organizations can look to creative and novel ways to impart knowledge, through the use of a broader range of methodological approaches, including scenario-based exercises, case studies, and facilitated conversation. Here, the Scenario-Based Training for Senior Leadership in Peace Operations developed at the International Peace Institute is a positive example, offering eight training scenarios which cover a range of issues that senior leadership will likely face during deployment (including one on POC).

A third is the importance of ensuring that training providers have the greatest possible opportunity to share common challenges and best practices encountered in all peace operations. Here, the role of DPO’s Division of Policy, Evaluation and Training (DPET) is important in systematizing processes of information sharing between those engaged in training. Moreover, the International Association of Peacekeeping Training Centres acts as an important conduit to building relations.

A final consideration is the need to prioritize peacekeeper training at the institutional level. The UN itself argues that POC is central to all UN missions, yet when looking at the training field, POC is one topic in a long list of peacekeeper-related topics. A more substantial reflection process on training programs for peacekeeping—including a (possibly independent) comprehensive training needs analysis championed by key member states—could revitalize training for POC in the UN, capture the best practice which exists, and prepare peacekeepers for the complexities for deployment in POC-centric missions.

This article is part of a series on protection of civilians (POC) being published on the Global Observatory to mark the twentieth anniversary of the first thematic Security Council resolution on POC.