UN Police Mali

To Serve and Protect: The Role of UN Police in Protecting Civilians

UN Police (UNPOL) officers patrol in the streets of Gao, Mali. (UN Photo/Marco Dormino)

Since the emergence of protection of civilian (POC) mandates twenty years ago, there has been significant growth in the number of police deployed in United Nations peace operations. During this time, their tasks have become more complex and their work more central to mission exit strategies. Despite this rise in prominence, UN Police (UNPOL) are often omitted in conversations about how peace operations can and should protect civilians from violence. Should this oversight not be addressed, the risk that the UN will fail to grasp opportunities to improve policing efforts or enhance overall POC outcomes will continue to rise.

UN Police Peacekeepers

UNPOL have been an integral part of all missions authorized with a POC mandate since their inception in 1999. Today, around 10,000 police are deployed in 14 peace operations. More than 95 percent of those are operating under a POC mandate.

Over 120 countries—called police contributing countries (PCCs)—provide police to peace operation in three ways: as cohesive units, primarily formed police units (FPUs) that are self-sustaining company-sized units armed and trained in public order policing; as specialized teams; or, as individual police officers (IPO).

Across the portfolio of UN peace operations with POC mandates, UN police undertake a wide range of activities that contribute to protecting civilians. Some have direct and immediate effects, while others contribute indirectly over a longer time horizon. Indeed, serving police peacekeepers will often say that everything they do is geared towards protecting civilians.

Protection Through Policing

UNPOL contribute to protection through all three tiers as currently outlined in UN POC doctrine. As concerns dialogue and engagement, chiefs of UNPOL typically promote protection priorities directly with domestic stakeholders. Their relationships with senior figures in national police, as well as ministers responsible for internal security, allow heads of police components to advocate that protection concerns are addressed. In this regard, UNPOL have had numerous successes in preventing outbreaks of violence between host state police and political demonstrators around elections, for example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mali.

UN police also undertake operations that provide for the physical protection of civilians, either in partnership with host-state police or unilaterally. Most commonly, UNPOL provide operational support to host-state law enforcement agencies, such as in responding to serious public order issues or conducting joint patrols with national police or gendarmerie. But in certain circumstances they act unilaterally to maintain order.

In the Central African Republic (CAR), UNPOL substitute for the national police and gendarmerie in most places outside the capital, Bangui, and are authorized to take “Urgent Temporary Measures” (UTM) including arrest and detention in their absence. Similarly, in South Sudan, UNPOL have full responsibility for maintaining safety and security inside the POC sites, which are currently home to more than 200,000 internally displaced persons. In these cases, UNPOL are on the front lines of direct action to provide protection from physical harm.

This security function of UN police, which focuses on direct protection, has clear limits. Like their military counterparts, UNPOL are authorized to use all necessary means to protect civilians. However, in practice, this is rarely viable for unarmed or lightly-armed IPOs, and only a limited possibility for FPUs who are not configured to operate in the presence of sustained fighting and heavy weapons. This is further complicated by the absence of full executive authority and interpretations of responsibilities vis-à-vis the host state. It is therefore arguably through efforts to build the capacity of host-state law enforcement agencies that UNPOL work makes a more enduring contribution to POC.

The majority of missions with a POC mandate are also instructed, to varying extents, to reform, rebuild, and restructure national police services—sometimes from scratch. Such police capacity-building and development efforts are seen as fundamental to the creation of a protective environment—providing security and tackling impunity, assisting in the extension of state authority, and helping host governments realize their primary responsibility for protecting its population. The recently closed mission in Liberia is a regularly cited example of success in this approach.

Police as Partners and Enablers

Police peacekeepers also collaborate with many of the other mission sections to protect civilians. The blurry line between threats of a military versus criminal nature dictates that the police need to coordinate and cooperate with their military counterparts. For example, in CAR, the military force and police are part of a joint task force in Bangui (JTFB) that provides high-visibility presence through mixed patrols in the more volatile areas of the capital where police require a security cordon for them to conduct their POC-related activities.

UNPOL are increasingly collaborating with human rights divisions, providing important information gleaned through community-oriented policing on the ground. They also sometimes provide specialist investigations skills as part of human rights inquiries and other joint protection mechanisms.

In many missions, UN safety and security regulations dictate that an armed escort is required for civilian components to access volatile areas. Where the security situation permits, FPUs are increasingly requested and expected to provide the escort. For example, FPU patrols in central Mali have for a long time—and until the recent re-focusing of the UN mission (MINUSMA) to the central regions—been the only way for civilian components (e.g., Civil Affairs, Child Protection, Women Protection, or human rights officers) to access vulnerable communities and conduct their own POC-focused efforts.

Comparative Advantages and Added Value of Police in POC

UN police have particular comparative advantages over military forces in densely populated areas where threats of a criminal nature are the biggest challenge. By design they should be better equipped and trained to deal with these scenarios. These skillsets have proved valuable as missions are increasingly responding to threats to civilians in urban areas and where UNPOL are being tasked to maintain order inside IDP camps where they have the advantage of retaining the civilian character of camps affording protections under international humanitarian law.

The community-oriented policing model employed by UNPOL focuses on enhancing the relationship and interaction between the mission and local populations. Effectively making them equal partners in the goal of ensuring their security provides a more people-centered presence than the military component. This generates opportunities to gather information for early warning and responses to POC threats. It is also argued that UNPOL can build trust in populations who have suffered at the hands of abusive security forces, thereby laying the foundations for the eventual return of national police.


Despite the many ways UNPOL currently contribute to POC, challenges abound.

1. Doing No Harm

A number of current missions run the risk of doing harm through their operational support and capacity building to national security agencies. For instance, in South Sudan, DRC, Mali, and CAR, elements of national police all have a track record of committing human rights violations. In order to avoid being complicit in abuses and extending the authority of state institutions that do more to predate than protect populations, UNPOL engagement must be guided by a comprehensive application of the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP). Even then, difficult choices about when and how to resume support to national security agencies will continue to present themselves.

2. Flexible Resources

IPOs and FPUs with more resources will be able to contribute more to POC. More vehicles will enhance mobility, and efforts underway to increase the number of female police will strengthen UNPOL’s capacity to engage with women affected by conflict-related sexual violence. However, the fiscal climate surrounding peacekeeping at the UN demands that missions be creative with what they have.

The ability to flexibly employ resources to respond to threats to civilians is hampered by stringent operating procedures and PCC caveats. For instance, the way FPUs are currently composed and equipped makes it near impossible for platoon-sized sub-sections to deploy rapidly to hot-spots where their presence could provide protection to vulnerable civilians. While often leveled at military contingents, PCC caveats that prohibit re-assignment or rapid deployment without express permission to more insecure field sites have similarly inhibiting effects on POC outcomes and ultimately on UN credibility.

It is also clear that there is confusion within missions about the responsibilities of UNPOL to use all necessary measures to protect in the absence of full executive authority. Senior police leadership often highlight that their actions are limited to supporting national police, prohibiting unilateral initiatives that may be required to protect civilians.

Working on policies in New York and in partnership with PCCs to mitigate these issues could help improve UNPOL POC effectiveness. But the way police commanders are assessed should also be altered to incentivize responses rather than encourage delivery on the number of patrols or sensitization activities planned a year or more in advance with little concern for the associated impact. The Comprehensive Performance Assessment System (CPAS) is a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen if this will provide the necessary recalibration.

3. Relationship Between the Police and Military Forces

The resilience of a militarized peacekeeping culture is an ongoing challenge for UNPOL at many levels. Whether at UN headquarters or in the field, police often struggle to gain access to and influence over senior level decision-making and strategic planning. This has consequences for the infusion of policing concepts and the allocation of resources. What results is myopic planning and short-term imperatives surrounding POC, which further curtail the extent to which important contributions by the police are highlighted and valued.

On the ground, despite some success in joint initiatives (e.g., with the JTFB in CAR or POC sites in South Sudan), disparity between the military and police can create operational challenges for police when placed under the command of military forces. If police are to retain the comparative advantages outlined above, then it will be important to overcome the differences in organizational cultures, to clearly delineate the division of labor, and to enforce limitations on their respective use.

4. Realizing a Systematic Approach

Despite a clear acknowledgement that efforts to reform police must be balanced with concurrent efforts to develop judicial and corrections sectors, there is a significant disconnect between rhetoric and the reality on the ground. Where UNPOL are authorized to make arrests—e.g., inside POC sites in South Sudan or under UTM in CAR—there are often no reliable state authorities to whom police can hand detainees. Lack of coordination in progressing the parallel reform of both sectors, including delays in developing the capacity of the courts and prisons—both infrastructure and sustainable redeployment of personnel—undermines efforts to tackle impunity, and therefore POC goals.

Moreover, how rule of law reform relates to disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) and overarching processes of security sector reform (SSR) is often unclear. Even where peace accords provide clear direction, missions perennially struggle to coordinate internally across sections or externally with other partners. Moreover, efforts have frequently been neutered by the stances of host governments on sensitive security and justice sector reform, ranging from indifference to flagrant intransigence.

Question marks remain over the long-term sustainability of police reform as per current models. Nevertheless, if ambitious reforms are truly to be the crux for an exit strategy, then the UN Security Council will need to get serious about providing the requisite resources. Even then, genuine buy-in from host governments is the only way that police reform can contribute to the transformative change required to undo the military dominance over the security sectors in many peacekeeping contexts. This is especially important if the ultimate aim is more people-centered and service-provision focused model that can build trust and overcome legacies of incompetent, corrupt and often abusive criminal justice systems.


UNPOL clearly have much to contribute to the implementation of POC mandates. An established set of activities provide both direct and indirect protection and police components have shown a capacity and willingness to innovate to meet new and emerging POC challenges. If police are to continue in this vein—let alone do more—then effort needs to be made to reform structures, align resources, and, most importantly, redouble political engagement.

The 2017 guidelines on the role of UNPOL in POC offer much-needed support to police peacekeepers on the ground. This guidance sets parameters and expectations for contributions to POC, emphasizes the active duty to protect, and dismisses inadequate grounds for inaction. Yet, implementing these and adapting to new and changing circumstances remains a challenge in the field.

The re-establishment of the rule of law is posited as a linchpin for mission exit strategies. Indeed, for some member states and UN officials, this logic—drawing particularly on experiences in Haiti—has become the zeitgeist in debates about future mission transitions. The increased presence of UN police—”more blue, less green”—is even mooted as a potential alternative to peacekeeping predicated on a heavy military footprint. In that light, much more needs to be done to clarify how efforts to create a protective environment articulate with strategies to extend state authority through security and justice sector reform. Here the need to align POC with political strategies could not be more clear.

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.