UN Peacekeeping and the Protection of Civilians in the COVID-19 Era 

UN mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) peacekeepers held a meeting with internally displaced persons, chiefs, and notables in Bujombo. (MONUSCO/Force)

Last week, 24 women, children, and babies were slaughtered in a maternity ward in Kabul. Women were “all on their own,” as hospital policy prohibited them from being accompanied in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has had major disruptive effects globally, but has not stopped such atrocities from being committed, despite United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire to fight the disease’s spread. As significant resources are being diverted to respond to the health crisis, many actors continue to engage in violent attacks and abuse against civilians.

In Mali, on April 24, gunmen attacked several villages and killed at least a dozen of civilians near Bandiagara. “What is killing us,” said the local mayor, “isn’t coronavirus, but war.” The following day, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 17 people were killed in an ambush in Virunga National Park, which has been closed since March due to COVID-19 concerns. Early in May, ten attacks against humanitarian organizations were recorded in only nine days in the northeastern town of Ndélé in the Central African Republic (CAR), in which 27 people were killed, 56 injured, and 2,000 displaced .

Protection threats are expanding and aggravating in the time of the pandemic. COVID-19, and the measures put in place to limit its propagation, exacerbate existing vulnerabilities, create new protection needs, and hamper the capacities of protection actors operating in conflict zones. UN peacekeeping operations, in particular, have to quickly adapt and find creative solutions to fulfill their protective functions in the field.

The Uptick in Violence, Abuse, and Tensions

Ignoring calls for a global ceasefire, many warring parties and armed groups have increased activities, used the health crisis to gain power and control, and continued to threaten civilians. Some armed groups have openly attacked hospitals and COVID-19 health centers, while others have taken advantage of the pandemic and the reduced presence of state and international actors to operate and strengthen their stronghold, like in CAR and Mali. In sub-Saharan Africa, violent attacks rose by 37 percent between mid-March and mid-April, and violent extremist groups have indicated their intent to use COVID-19 as an opportunity to further their agenda, fulfill state functions, and gain the confidence of local communities.

Some state actors have also perpetrated abuse, with allegations of excessive use of force while enforcing curfews and emergency measures, and more generally, concerns over increased repression and abuse in contexts of state-imposed lockdowns. In South Sudan, for example, security forces reportedly beat and shot at civilians accused of spreading COVID-19.

COVID-19 has also fueled community tensions in many countries, as minorities and specific groups are being blamed for the pandemic. In CAR, Muslims are reportedly portrayed as “virus-spreading outsiders,” and armed groups have blamed internally-displaced persons for the outbreaks and forced them to return to their places of origin.

Furthermore, peace processes and mediation and reconciliation initiatives, as well as the implementation of critical confidence-building measures like disarmament and reintegration processes, are being delayed. This will likely further fuel tensions and feed frustration among parties to conflict and communities. In CAR, a possible review of a constitutional amendment to extend the term of the president and parliamentarians is facing strong opposition and may trigger social unrest, while in Mali, political engagement in the center of the country has scaled down. In Abyei, grassroots consultations based on Joint Community Peace Committees have been impacted by travel restrictions and reduced participation from both UN and community members.

The constriction of economic opportunity also puts civilians at greater vulnerability and risk of radicalization and recruitment by armed groups. In addition, governance deficits and constrained state capacities have sometimes led to the improper implementation of containment measures aimed at controlling the virus. In DRC, more than a thousand detainees were released from detention at the end of March to limit outbreaks, and inadequate verification processes led to the release of key actors implicated in violent conflicts.

More Constraints on UN Peacekeepers

UN peacekeepers are mandated to protect civilians from physical violence in DRC, CAR, Mali, South Sudan, Darfur, Lebanon, and Abyei. The COVID-19 crisis is not in itself a threat of physical violence, which is the key determinant that defines “protection of civilians” (POC) in peacekeeping. However, the spread of the virus and mitigation measures are having direct and indirect consequences on POC risks, and on the ability of missions to protect.

Over the last two decades, peacekeeping missions have progressively adapted their protection strategies, embracing a holistic approach that involves coordinated military, police, and civilian interventions. This entails using force to ensure the physical protection of local populations from any threat of violence, as well as pursuing dialogue, engagement, and other activities contributing to establish a “protective environment.” As one of the most visible embodiments of a “people-centered” UN, peacekeeping missions closely work with communities to document human rights violations, assess protection needs and threats, design local protection plans and early warning mechanisms, and strengthen dialogue and mediation to defuse tensions.

With COVID-19, the feasibility of protection strategies based on such extensive contact with local populations is being challenged. In support of mitigation measures, UN missions are being pushed to revamp their strategies, operational activities, and ways of working, in line with the UN’s do-no-harm principle. They have to fulfill two concurrent expectations: the duty to ensure business continuity and deliver on their POC mandates, especially in light of threats newly-induced or aggravated by the pandemic; and the need to prevent harm and protect the health of UN personnel and local communities, including through social distancing and support to governmental strategies.

These expectations have created a fundamental dilemma for peacekeeping operations, as containment strategies raise new challenges for the effective delivery of protection mandates. For example, missions have reduced their footprints to prevent the spread of the virus. Most have scaled back patrolling and in-person engagement, which has greatly reduced their capacity to deter violence and physically intervene.

In Mali, battalions in the UN mission (MINUSMA) reported cases of COVID-19 and had to isolate and confine, which has hindered the operational capacity of the UN military component. As MINUSMA is considering strategies enabling minimum to no-contact with local populations, the military component is prioritizing aerial patrols, and UN Police had to scale down patrols to mechanized patrols.

In Darfur, the UN-African Union mission (UNAMID) has reduced patrols and engagement with locals to a minimum due to movement restrictions. The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has curtailed its POC exercises, and suspended outreach or operational activities requiring physical contact with communities and Lebanese armed forces. The UN interim force in Abyei’s (UNISFA) ability to enforce a weapons-free-zone through patrols and checkpoints is also far more limited due to COVID-19 restrictions. In all these missions, the resulting security vacuums can easily be filled by violent actors.

In addition to curtailed military footprints, the absence of civilian staff from some field offices is reducing capacities for mediation, analysis of protection threats, and alert mechanisms. Human rights monitoring has decreased in CAR, for example, where travel and movement restrictions led to a reduction in assessments and protection missions, and UN civilian staff face great difficulty in accessing communities to evaluate abuse. In DRC, the facilitation of some intercommunal dialogues was postponed until further notice.

As the UN suspended troop and police rotations, maintaining the same contingents in challenging environments for an uncertain period of time is raising many concerns over potential drops in performance and efficiency. The same concerns apply to civilian personnel, staying on lockdown in hazardous, hostile, and challenging conflict areas with limited resources and means of communication.

Additionally, peace spoilers have intensified messaging against the UN, fueling an already fragile popular trust towards peacekeepers. In most mission contexts, there seems to be an enhanced anti-UN and xenophobic sentiment. Misinformation campaigns against MINUSMA, state forces, and international forces are instrumentalized by extremist groups suggesting that the mission is spreading the virus. In the Bandiagara area, for example, a discontented women’s group blocked MINUSMA’s patrol and threw rocks at UN personnel.

Anti-UN discourses have been reported in DRC, CAR, and South Sudan as well, with staff worrying about risks of civil unrest and protests against the UN. This can significantly erode population’s confidence in the UN as a protection actor, and trigger declines in the use of early warning mechanisms established to receive alerts and adequately protect local communities, such as the toll-free number recently established by MINUSMA in Mopti.

Finally, the diversion of funding places an added weight on the capacity of missions to maintain protection activities. In the UN mission in CAR (MINUSCA), UNIFIL, and UNAMID, programmatic and Quick Impact Projects funds have been redirected to support efforts of local and national institutions to contain the spread of COVID-19. Although sensitization and awareness-raising projects indirectly contribute to protection efforts by reducing COVID-19-induced POC risks, they have also taken resources away from other protection projects. At the global level, funding for peacekeeping also risks to be further diverted to address the COVID-19 crisis, which would add to an already precarious financial situation for UN operations.

Reinventing Protection in a Pandemic Context

Although COVID-19 is creating many new challenges, it is not the first time that UN peacekeeping operations have had to adapt and consider changing protection strategies in light of a crisis. Peacekeepers had already been called to innovate with community engagement in non-permissive contexts like Mali, where liaising with the population can put them at risk of collateral damage or retaliation by extremist groups. The latest POC policy issued by the Department of Peace Operations (DPO) emphasizes do-no-harm and civilian harm mitigation as core principles for peacekeepers implementing protection mandates.

There has also been increased attention for transition contexts, including Darfur and possibly DRC, where the peacekeeping missions will eventually have to leave despite continuing threats against civilians. Following the closure of MONUSCO’s bases in Walikale, or the reduction of team sites in Darfur, the necessity to continuing to support protection in absentia in the vacated areas appeared to be a core issue. MONUSCO is already considering the use of communication tools and drones to monitor security developments remotely, and mobile teams to reach hotspot areas where a constant presence is not possible.

Also, this is not the first time UN peacekeeping operations have had to consider its role in an epidemic. The scandal of the spread of cholera by UN peacekeepers in Haiti, or the challenges of fighting Ebola while protecting civilians in Eastern Congo, already offer many lessons. An important one is to bolster strategic communication and to carefully work on public messaging to counter hate speech, rumors, and misinformation. Informing the public about COVID-19, and being transparent about how the mission is affected and constrained by the virus is key.

Missions are already being very active in prevention efforts through sensitization and awareness-raising about the pandemic, and have enhanced outreach through their radios and public information tools. This will be particularly critical as COVID-19 cases start to be reported in POC sites managed by the UN mission in South Sudan and in UN military bases in Mali.

As COVID-19 reveals the fundamental fractures and societal deficits in many countries, UN missions will also have to focus on the “establishment of a protective environment,” especially where containment measures constrain their ability to provide physical protection. Although in-person engagement has to be reduced or carried out differently, dialogue should continue, and remain a core tool in peacekeeping operations’ protection strategies. Missions can engage with many actors to address conflict drivers, negotiate ceasefires, facilitate voluntary returns of internally displaced persons, and promote human rights. UNAMID, for example, has put in place a “COVID-19 rights watch” to monitor whether containment measures in Darfur are compliant with human rights and protection norms and standards.

If ever, now is the time to make sure UN peacekeeping operations are pursuing political strategies that put protection at the core of their engagement and activities, including capacity-building initiatives and support to national stakeholders. Echoing the call of Secretary-General Guterres, all missions should work with regional, national, and local actors for a cessation of hostilities and violent acts, and to advocate for protection-oriented responses to the pandemic.