Although the protection of civilians (POC) is central to the mandates of twenty-first century United Nations peacekeeping operations, it remains a somewhat fraught concept. Peacekeeping is a partnership that includes many stakeholders, each with a role when it comes to protecting civilians—whether the Security Council authorizing peacekeeping missions, member states in UN committees, troop or police contributors, host countries, or peacekeepers themselves. While there is agreement among these stakeholders that peacekeepers should intervene to protect civilians from physical violence, that is generally where the agreement ends.
Reaching consensus on the different circumstances, limits, and expectations of peacekeepers when it comes to intervening to protect civilians has been more challenging. This was acknowledged in the most recent report by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, which stated that “protection of civilians requires the commitment of Member States to find consensus around the language and implications of peacekeeping tasks, including clarity on the expectations of peacekeepers and recognition of those situations that may be beyond their capacity to respond.” And this is essentially where the problem rests today.
Twenty years ago, during the deliberations on the deployment of a peacekeeping mission to Sierra Leone, disagreements existed in the Security Council about whether there was a need for a robust mandate to protect civilians. Some Council members were very vocal about the need for a mandate to protect civilians, reflecting on past failures in Rwanda and Srebrenica, whereas others suggested this was already allowed under the rules of engagement and Chapter VII of the UN Charter. While the Council ultimately agreed to include language on POC as part of the UN Mission in Sierra Leone, as I have argued previously, the issue of “language and the extent to which explicit requests need to be made have remained an ongoing source of contention not only in the Security Council, but also in the General Assembly over the past two decades.”
Although the Council continued to mandate peacekeeping missions to protect civilians in the decade that followed, there was no recognition or mention of protection of civilians in the reports of the General Assembly’s Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (C-34) before 2009, despite many major troop and police contributing countries (T/PCCs) viewing the committee as the primary body to consider “the whole question of peacekeeping in all their aspects.” When language was put forward for consideration in 2008, it received considerable push back from countries in the Non-Aligned Movement and the language was consequently let go in the interest of reaching consensus on the report.
The disagreement reflected a lack of awareness and understanding among the wider UN membership about expectations when it came to POC in the field (which was a finding of the independent study released in 2009). It also pushed member states to seek to find consensus—through a range of initiatives that engaged with peacekeepers from the field, they sought to understand the challenges peacekeepers faced and the support that was required.
The C-34 agreed to include language on protection of civilians in its 2009 report and has subsequently engaged on the issue over the last decade, with the last substantive report in 2018 including 29 paragraphs on POC. Yet, for many stakeholders, it was never quite clear why POC was a controversial issue to begin with. And this is because the arguments in opposition were often varied, depending on the interests of the different stakeholders.
Challenges and Misconceptions
First, there were concerns that the concept of POC did not comply with the principles of peacekeeping, namely that of consent by the host state. The concept of POC in peacekeeping emerged shortly before the emergence of the “Responsibility to Protect,” which sometimes led to conflation between both concepts. Consequently, time and energy needed to be invested in ensuring there was a clear distinction between the two.
This confusion was not completely unwarranted. In today’s complex peacekeeping missions, the host government may be the perpetrator of violence against civilians (e.g., South Sudan), setting up a dilemma for peacekeepers. While guidance has been explicit that peacekeeping missions should intervene regardless of the source of the violence, this continues to present a challenge for peacekeepers.
Second, some member states saw no need for the UN Secretariat to develop guidance and training materials on POC, as they argued they were already doing it on the ground. Early references to POC in the C-34 reports and Security Council resolution 1894 consequently referenced the importance of drawing on “lessons learned” and “best practice.” Although there was still a need for more policies, training, and guidance materials to prepare peacekeepers, there was also a concern that developing such guidance would unreasonably hold certain components of the mission to account, particularly the uniformed component.
Current debates around the application of caveats, for instance, reflect a growing concern by major T/PCCs that there might be different standards for some contributors, which may give the impression that only some contingents will be held accountable. However, as high-level failures have demonstrated, clearer direction on performance standards and accountability remain essential if peacekeepers are to better deliver on these mandates.
Third, peacekeeping missions continue to be expected to deliver more with less in increasingly complex environments. Indeed, the Brahimi Report in 2000 cautioned against blanket protection mandates, noting that missions needed to be given the required resources to deliver. This is only more pronounced as mandates for peacekeeping missions look more and more like “Christmas trees,” and budgetary environment remains austere.
Defining “Success” and Reaching Consensus
Part of the challenge over the last twenty years has been identifying what the areas of contention on POC are and how to overcome them. This has often played out in the C-34, where debates have focused on finding agreeable language in order to offer direction to the Secretariat on issues requiring action—whether it be developing scenario-based training materials or articulating standards for performance. Yet it’s still not clear to all peacekeeping stakeholders what “success” looks like when it comes to POC, which in part has prompted the secretary-general to encourage more dialogue on the issue.
Peacekeeping missions and the Secretariat should be seeking to identify the practices that are expected of peacekeepers and highlighting success stories—i.e., instances where physical violence has been deterred or thwarted by peacekeepers—in order to set the standard for peacekeepers when it comes to POC. This isn’t an easy task. Nonetheless, successes serve to inspire other peacekeepers of their broader purpose, which is even more important in environments where peacekeepers are being expected to do more with less.
As the UN is in a better position to be more selective about the T/PCCs it selects to serve in peacekeeping missions, it should seek to identify those countries that deliver most effectively on their POC commitments. Member states and peacekeeping stakeholders need to set those expectations clearly. The forthcoming C-34 will offer an important opportunity to elaborate on what is expected for POC as part of the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) agenda, particularly in terms of performance and accountability. As we look beyond the last twenty years of POC, member states should heed Secretary-General Guterres’ call to seek further consensus on what peacekeeping can achieve (and what it cannot), rather than shy away from it.
Lisa Sharland is the head of the international program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and a non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington DC.