Protecting Peace? How the Protection of Civilians Contributes to Peace Processes

A woman walks past a police officer holding a riot shield at the Bentiu Protection of Civilians site in South Sudan. (UN Photo/JC McIlwaine)

Over the past twenty years, the protection of civilians (POC) has become a prominent feature in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations, elevated as a core issue on the Security Council’s agenda, and prioritized among mandated tasks. One of the reasons given for prioritizing POC is that it contributes to the broader peace process. In the words of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, “The effective protection of civilians is a critical element in laying the foundations for the peace process. The durability of peace is dependent on a commitment to the protection of civilians from its very inception.” This statement implies that protecting civilians helps to achieve peace and that it contributes to the durability of peace once achieved, yet the truth of these assumptions has not been previously tested.

There are a number of ways in which POC may contribute to peace processes, for example by lowering inter- and intra-communal tensions, providing physical protection for those participating in negotiations, or by lowering rates of death and displacement, which has been shown to improve the prospects for post-conflict peacebuilding. Yet, in other cases, POC activities may be in friction with the peace process, in particular when the state is among the perpetrators or when POC activities draw scarce resources away from other mandated activities.

These areas of friction and complementarity are well illustrated in South Sudan, where the UN mission (UNMISS) has prioritized the protection of civilians since the outbreak of the civil war in 2013. When the mission was established in 2011, it was given an ambitious statebuilding mandate. Yet, when violence broke out in 2013, the mission was stripped of most of its statebuilding tasks to focus on protection. Given the state of the crisis and the rapid spread of violence, this was perhaps warranted. However, the mission has struggled to effectively link its protection activities with a clear political strategy. Thus, complementarities between the two sets of priorities have not been leveraged as effectively as they could.

In South Sudan, there are clear links between violence targeting civilians and the success of the broader peace process. For example, such violence has hardened identity-based cleavages and led to cycles of revenge and mass mobilization into armed groups. Survey data also shows high levels of trauma among the South Sudanese population, consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is correlated with lower levels of trust in other ethnic groups and a lower level of willingness to pursue non-violent solutions to the conflict. In this sense, efforts to lower levels of violence against civilians may be an important part of consolidating peace.

UNMISS efforts to protect civilians from violence have comprised the bulk of its attention and resources since 2013. In particular, UNMISS has provided shelter to more than 200,000 individuals in the so-called “POC sites” (camps for internally displaced persons overseen by the mission). The work of the mission in this regard should not be understated: the number of civilian deaths from the conflict would likely have been significantly higher had the mission not chosen to open the sites, further exacerbating human misery levels and undermining chances for peace.

In addition to the sites, UNMISS has also provided protection for the delivery of humanitarian aid and has worked to facilitate dialogue and negotiations at the community level, reducing violence and creating peaceful pathways for the resolution of disputes. Undertaken primarily by the civil affairs division, UNMISS undertakes a wide range of measures as part of its community engagement mandate, including brokering local peace agreements, conflict resolution, and facilitating inter-group dialogues and workshops. While there is some evidence that the mission’s work in this area is having a positive impact and may also lead to shorter conflict duration at subnational levels, many local dialogues are one-off engagements, and the lack of connection between local efforts and the national dialogue means that the interests and demands of local armed groups do not always filter up into national-level negotiations.

In spite of some areas of success, there are significant limitations to the level of protection that the mission can provide, both due to capacity and political barriers. While, in some cases, peacekeepers have demonstrated an unwillingness to respond fully and effectively to implement their protection mandates, these limitations are not simply a sign of the mission’s ineptitude: rather, they are indicative of the severity of the conflict in South Sudan and the willingness of the perpetrators to violate their civilian protection obligations.

Limitations are also a result of the mission being asked to execute tasks for which peacekeeping was never intended. It is beyond the scope of peacekeepers to provide widespread protection to the civilians of a country, which is the primary responsibility of the state. South Sudan has a population of nearly 11 million spread over a territory the size of France with little infrastructure. Previous research points to the necessity of sufficient numbers of troops to effectively deter violence. Yet, nearly six million civilians face protection risks in South Sudan. There are simply not enough troops to mitigate violence without an effectively functioning state security apparatus, which to this point remains inept. Further, effective peacekeeping depends on the will of the parties, the consent and support of the host government, and an effective peace to keep. Yet, all of these conditions have been lacking in South Sudan.

There have also been some areas of friction between the mission’s POC work and the broader peace process. In particular, the mission’s near-exclusive focus on protection has soured relations with the government, diminishing UNMISS’s ability to have political influence. The decision to prioritize POC has also had a significant impact on resource allocation. POC is, by nature, an expensive activity and up until 2018, it was estimated that the POC sites consumed at least 50 percent of the mission’s resources in time, money, and personnel. Finally, the decision to place the mission squarely on a protection track has created something of a path-dependent effect, such that it has been hard to move back to a more political approach, in spite of efforts by the secretary-general and mission leadership.

The case of South Sudan demonstrates that there may indeed be a positive relationship between the protection of civilians and the broader peace process. Violence targeting civilians can harden identity-based cleavages, increase mobilization into armed groups, and undermine human and institutional resources needed for longer-term peacebuilding. While efforts to mitigate such violence may therefore contribute to consolidating peace, peacekeepers alone cannot facilitate this level of protection.

Without a corresponding political process, UN protection activities are an ineffective bandaid in situations of widespread violence. POC in peacekeeping was originally envisioned as a backstop to state protection. In cases where governments have been unable or unwilling to fulfill their responsibilities, the UN has attempted to stand in the gap. However, UN peacekeepers are not a substitute for state security institutions, as even the most robust UN peace operations lack the capability to provide the breadth of protection necessary, and their inevitable shortcomings not only leave civilians vulnerable but also tarnish the credibility of the mission.

This case also reiterates that it is inherently difficult to implement a POC mandate when the state is among the main perpetrators of violence. Such cases are likely to create the greatest friction between POC and the mission’s political objectives and require greater engagement by the Security Council to place political pressure on the host government. The UN’s policy on POC recognizes this imperative, though, in the case of South Sudan, the permanent members of the Council have been delinquent in playing the role required of them.

Protecting civilians and pursuing political solutions to conflict are the two main priorities in UN peacekeeping. Looking ahead, missions need to better integrate their mission protection and political strategies, understanding areas of complementarity as well as friction. At times, missions may be forced to make difficult decisions between these two sets of priorities. While challenging, neither task can be relegated, and upholding them both is the imperative of peacekeeping.

This piece is based on a recent article published by the Journal of International Peacekeeping.

Jenna Russo is Director of Research and Head of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.