Taking Stock of Protecting Civilians in Peacekeeping

Internally displaced persons fleeing rebel fighters enter a MONUSCO base in Munigi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti)

After twenty years of protection of civilians (POC) mandates, peace operations are entering a new period. The United Nations Security Council appears poised to draw down or close missions such as the UN-African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), despite continued instability and attacks against the civilian population in both countries. These large and expensive missions were not always successful, but they established the playbook for POC in peacekeeping. With member states far less willing to support peacekeeping budgets than at any time in the recent past, such missions may well become the exceptions rather than the norm. What, then, have we learned from twenty years of POC mandates that will be relevant to future missions, which may be smaller, lighter, or more specialized?

Protection Should Not be a Placeholder

In a groundbreaking step, UN Security Council resolutions 1265 on the protection of civilians in armed conflict and 1270 that established the UN Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL)—the first POC mandate in peacekeeping—made civilian protection an explicit concern for international peace and security. The past twenty years have reinforced the profile of these issues, with peacekeepers at the forefront of addressing mass atrocity in South Sudan and Central African Republic (CAR), and facing the complexities of regional crisis in the Great Lakes region. The protection language of Council resolutions has become progressively more precise and elaborate, from a brief sentence in the mandate of UNAMSIL, to multi-paragraph instructions in more recent missions.

At the same time, it is clear that the Security Council has often focused on POC when it could not envision or achieve consensus on a more concrete political goal. This has created the political space in the Council to pass mission mandates, which rely on the agreement of decades-old language rather than negotiating new language that tailors and clarifies the protection mandate. Such mandates, which are generally only a year in length yet have no deliverables and only vague objectives, frequently leave missions strategically adrift on the ground.

The recent emphasis on exit strategies and political processes has not always been an effective response, with many peace operations relying on serial peace agreements that are broken as rapidly as they are made. The likelihood of sustained cessation of hostilities and effective protection of civilians are both diminished in such circumstances. This was perhaps most evident in Darfur, but we see it potentially again with the recent agreement in CAR.

The lack of consensus around what POC means in a context of uncertain political strategies has led to a growing gap between the Council’s language and the commitment of troop-contributing countries (TCCs) to use of force to protect civilians. Asked to provide troops at significant risk to missions without a clear exit strategy, TCCs tend to adopt a cautious approach, that has sometimes led to significant tragedies. The Kigali Principles—a non-binding set of eighteen pledges—marked an important step in addressing this gap by linking operational standards around POC competence (training, willingness to use force to protect) to a political commitment from TCCs to live up to those standards.

Most Protection Doesn’t Involve “Robust” Action

Despite the apparent emphasis above on military peacekeeping, UN reviews have found that peacekeepers almost never use force to protect civilians. This could be read negatively, suggesting that peacekeepers are unwilling or unable to carry out their mandates. But it also suggests that much of a mission’s protective work is carried out through civilian activities (political dialogue, human rights monitoring) or traditional military activities (patrolling, observing lines of control). Thus, as current missions downsize and transition, and if future missions are more streamlined, they already have many of the tools to continue their work. Strengthening these aspects of protection work may be the most important for the future of protection in peace operations.

This suggests more focus on the civilian aspects of peacekeeping, with greater professionalization but also greater flexibility. It also suggests leveraging the military and police strengths of peacekeeping that do not lie in numbers, e.g., identifying the handful of knowledgeable and experienced colonels to serve as advisors and liaisons, rather than privates in the thousands. With fewer or no armed units and significantly reduced logistical support, the working methods around these civilian aspects may need to be rethought, drawing on the experience of other UN agencies, protection-focused NGOs, and alternative mechanisms such as UN Groups of Experts or the Civilian Protection Monitoring Team in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan.

Protection in an Era of Proxy Conflicts

The ability of military, police, or civilian peacekeeping personnel to serve as political interlocutors on protection and as eyes-on-the-ground will also become more important as conflict actors seek to obscure their participation. Protection is ultimately the responsibility of parties to conflict and dialogue to promote protection has been a cornerstone of efforts by the humanitarian and peace-and-security communities for decades. However, these efforts are undermined when states are willing to engage in conflict through proxies, whether through non-state armed groups, private companies, support to other states, or even cyber warfare through loose groups of hackers.

The use of proxies or surrogates can sow confusion over attribution and influence, making traditional legal appeals to abide by international humanitarian law and international human rights law more challenging. In addition, while many states increasingly recognize the importance of civilian protection to the long-term strategic goals of military efforts, proxy and surrogate warfare can serve to limit the temporal and strategic commitment of conflict actors, who, by using proxies, become less invested in a sustainable peace and in civilian protection.

The political role of peace operations in carrying out discrete dialogue, whether with surrogate actors or supporting belligerents, becomes critical in such situations. The field presence of many peace operations may also assist in clarifying disputed facts. By connecting the highest levels of multilateral diplomacy with specific events and dialogue in conflict situations, peace operations have a unique role in promoting the protection of civilians in an increasingly complex environment.

The Future

The international community should be proud of what has been achieved in the past twenty years. The phrase “protection of civilians” has moved from a purely humanitarian concern to a focus of the world’s most important political body. Within the UN, the POC mandate has also moved from a highly contested topic to one that, in aspiration if not detail, has widespread support. We have all earned a moment to reflect on the progress made to strengthen the protection of civilians as a norm within peace operations, even if the current environment has limited action in places such as Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar.

In this period of great uncertainty on the multilateral stage, it has never been more important to turn towards the future, to think about the shape of conflicts to come and how to take the best of old templates without being beholden to them. Peace operations, across the spectrum, should retain and re-confirm their investment in the principles, goals, and actions of protection and human rights.

Ralph Mamiya is currently an independent consultant and is the former team leader of the Protection of Civilians Team in the United Nations Department Peacekeeping Operations and Department of Field Support.