How Useful Are the UN’s Broad Protection of Civilian Mandates?

Members of the Senegalese contingent of the United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI). (UN Photo/Basile Zoma)

Last May, the United Nations (UN) secretary-general commended the international community for developing and sharing policies and practices that “strengthen the protection of civilians.” His statement came after a 2019 call to “more broadly reflect on how to build on the progress to date and move the protection of civilians (PoC) agenda forward in the years to come.” But are the UN’s current, broad, all-encompassing PoC mandates the correct way forward?

As a reaction to historic protection failures by peacekeepers, PoC has developed whole-of-mission approaches to promote protection as not only a military activity. Today, the Security Council regularly includes a whole host of activities in UN peacekeeping mandates for civilian and uniformed personnel to perform under the heading of PoC, including human rights activities, public information campaigns, preventative work alongside communities, quick impact projects, as well as robust uses of force to deter armed groups.

The expansion of PoC beyond merely the authorization to use force has created high expectations from populations that the UN will not only respond with force but also establish peacebuilding programs to deter violence.

PoC is key to the success and legitimacy of peacekeepers, as the presence of peacekeepers is proven to reduce the risk of violence from non-state actors. With no new UN peace operation since 2014, and continuing political contestation over PoC’s role, how will PoC evolve to ensure it continues as a critical part of UN peacekeeping?

The Rising Expectations of Protection

Since the 2000s, PoC has expanded to “three tiers”— physical protection, dialogue and engagement, and the establishment of a protective environment—making the UN and its peace operations directly accountable to those who interact with and receive support from the mission. Missions today must not only protect civilians—through force if necessary—but also “address an expansive range of root causes . . . from which threats to civilians emanate.” Consequently, the widening of what the obligation of PoC entails has raised the expectations of populations to an unsustainable level. PoC can both challenge the sovereignty of the state and absolve the state of responsibility for protection, despite the UN’s insistence that host states have the primary responsibility to protect civilians.

How peacekeepers are meant to intervene and what types of actions are required for PoC have routinely been ill defined. The three tiers of PoC from the UN Department of Peace Operations (UNDPO) have created more “confusion and conflicting interpretations.” The potential for conflicting interpretations runs throughout the history of PoC mandates. Nine years after the first PoC mandate, a report found there was still “no consistent perception of Security Council intent among senior UN mission staff, either within the UN Secretariat or UN peacekeeping missions.” The intent of mandates is confused by diplomatic terminology that can be hard to follow and, importantly, creates inconsistencies.

UNDPO explains in its PoC handbook that the PoC agenda is complementary to programs and mandates on human rights, children and armed conflict, and women, peace and security. Here, the UN has clearly distinguished between activities that form part of PoC and those that do not. But in practice, the distinction is less clear. Missions are littered with examples—protecting children in armed conflict, empowering women to play a role in local conflict resolution—that fall under the different tiers of PoC alongside other areas of the mandate. The complex web of PoC and other agendas is complicated by how the integration and expansion of PoC continue from year to year.

Numerous challenges have been posed by the broadening of PoC, including the difficulty of implementing the broader objectives of PoC while effectively realizing the traditional core of protecting civilians from imminent danger. For instance, activities are often rebranded to fall under the PoC banner for funding purposes but “without a broader strategic vision of how these activities should be mutually reinforcing,” leading to a potentially unnecessary proliferation of tasks and programs falling under the PoC tiers. Due to the UN’s view that PoC is a day-to-day operational activity, the UN has been less interested in planning how to shift from a protection mandate to other forms of UN activity once a peace operation departs.

The UN has cast a wide net by defining PoC as involving all mission elements in the prevention, deterrence, or response to threats of physical violence. This “whole-of-mission” approach, where PoC includes all mission elements and a comprehensive approach to coordination with other actors, allows a mission to view protection and the insecurity of individuals holistically. However, the approach risks ambiguity without clear guidance on methods of implementing the mandate and, importantly, how the mission should realize PoC.

Many factors contribute to the UN’s ability to protect civilians; consequently, limitations exist. Despite the rising expectations brought about by all-encompassing PoC mandates and the prioritization of PoC for all uniformed and non-uniformed personnel, UN peace operations cannot protect everyone, even within their area of operations. Peace operations are often overwhelmed by the protection needs in their deployment area and can only address the tip of the iceberg. UN peacekeepers cannot protect all civilians from harm, especially where the forces do not have effective control. However, the expectation of the international community and, importantly, local populations looking to the UN for help is that, where peacekeepers witness violence against civilians, they should be in a position to intervene.

Broad PoC mandates do not help these high expectations, and demand sizable deployments of peacekeepers to be able to convey a sense of security and to have the capability to react to threats of physical violence. By expanding PoC and casting a wide net, the mandates have introduced an unanswerable question: if not everyone, then who must the UN protect? While some mandates will qualify PoC as limited by areas of deployment or current stage of deployment (such as in MONUSCO and UNOCI), questions remain over peacekeepers’ capabilities to protect all civilians in their areas of deployment. Where a mandate does not qualify the implementation of PoC, unmanageable expectations can undermine the legitimacy of the mission and importantly could lead to PoC losing traction within the organization.

Political Commitment to PoC

For PoC to keep its momentum, there must continue to be political buy-in by the Security Council and troop-contributing countries (TCCs). However, the different conceptualizations and focuses of PoC have presented political contestation, with some member states favoring the robust use of force to provide physical protection and others believing the widening of PoC into three tiers has “allowed the norm to continue to exist.” Whether peacekeepers should proactively use force causes deep divisions between members, and the political negotiation of PoC mandates has come at the expense of clarity.

It was 10 years before the UN Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (also known as the C-34) first mentioned PoC in a report in 2009. States involved in the C-34 have expressed that the inclusion of PoC in its activities merely reflected recognition of Security Council mandates, not a consensus on PoC.

Debates within the C-34 show clear divides between different groups of states on matters of peacekeeping policy. Most states in the C-34 are affiliated with the non-aligned movement (NAM) and broadly represent the Global South. NAM members have been opposed to the assertive language used in the Brahimi Report and Capstone Doctrine on “robust” capabilities and mandates, the use of force, and PoC.

Some African states believe African actors are best placed to protect “their own,” while China and Russia remain skeptical of UN peace operations as western interventions into the internal affairs of other states. Russia is opposed to new international concepts and ever-expanding categories of people who require protection, favoring traditional interpretations of PoC to save lives in imminent threat. China has provided significant finances and troops in its support of PoC. However, it is also wary of PoC mandates that endorse the use of force against government forces despite endorsing offensive missions. The lack of consistency in China’s approach could lead to uncertainty for Security Council members when negotiating mandates. Continuing contestation on PoC suggests a need to consider the future mandating of PoC, the capabilities of peacekeepers, and the political landscape of the UN to create a clear legal mandate.

PoC Mandates of the Future

Without consistent guidance and standards, the current three tiers and whole-of-mission approach will likely continue to result in a conceptual vagueness that undermines the clarity and implementation of PoC. Peacekeepers in the field lack a consistent understanding of what action must be taken under a mandate to meet their obligation to protect civilians.

Broad conceptualizations of PoC, where the mandate is understood to include non-coercive activities aimed at reducing violence, should be distinguished from a PoC mandate that imposes concise obligations to use force to protect civilians from imminent violence. Broad state-building and peacebuilding activities now form part of the UN’s three tiers of PoC, but activities like security sector reform (SSR) significantly overlap with PoC, making it increasingly difficult to house an activity under one roof. Activities should not be simply included in the PoC mandate to satisfy funding concerns. Instead PoC activities should be demarcated to separate, but by no means do away with, broader activities from the use of force.

It cannot be the case that PoC mandates are reformed to include unworkable legal obligations to prevent all harm to civilians. Not only would this be unrealistic in terms of the use of force but also politically challenging given the positions of, for example, Russia and China. But to harness the success of PoC, mandates should clearly delineate between (1) a PoC mandate housing the core obligation on UN peacekeepers to undertake specific actions aimed at protecting civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, within the area of deployment and the mission’s reasonable capabilities, up to and including the use of force where necessary and (2) further strategic activities that build longer-term protection that are currently included in broad mandates.

Mandate language must be consistent. The Security Council cannot continue to negotiate terminology that obscures the obligation imposed by a PoC mandate or eschews the need for clarity due to political contestation. The mandate should consistently use key phrases such as requiring action where civilians are “under imminent threat of physical violence” and that peacekeepers must do what is “reasonable within their capabilities” and area of deployment. This would provide clarity for both commanders in terms of what UN forces must achieve and for communities on what to expect from UN peacekeepers.

The political benefit from such an approach would be less contestation between Security Council members (such as penholding states) on mandates and Russian and Chinese concerns on the burgeoning PoC agenda. Whole-of-mission activities can then be separated and placed elsewhere in the mandate to preserve political buy-in and commitment to the core of PoC—the protection of civilians from imminent violence. Under this approach, states would be able to commit politically to the core understanding of PoC, ensuring that vital activity on physical protection is not lost due to states shying away from PoC’s wider objectives.

As a major success of the organization in recent years, the PoC agenda’s momentum must be sustained, though changes may be needed to ensure progress is not lost. The UN should consider both the successes of the whole-of-mission approach and the pitfalls faced by its ever-burgeoning understanding of PoC that can detract from the core purpose of the mandate.

Alexander Gilder is Lecturer in International Law and Security at the University of Reading, UK.