As UN Missions Draw Down, Strengthening Community-Led Approaches to Protection of Civilians

Internally displaced persons discuss their concerns with UNAMID peacekeepers at ZamZam IDP camp in Northern Darfur, Feb. 2015. (Hamid Abdulsalm/UN Peacekeeping Flickr)

The deployment of a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission comes with expectations that its presence will contribute to building a sustainable peace. However, today’s current peace operations are characterized by increasingly volatile political instability, grievous security challenges, and escalating protection needs and gaps that are not being adequately addressed when missions are active and, even more so, when peace operations are in transition and/or have drawn down.

Protection gaps during transitions received attention in 2014 with the UN Transitions Project, which developed a “whole-of-mission” philosophy calling for all UN entities to participate in and promote “proactive, integrated, interagency approaches to prepare for and sustain peace before, during, and beyond mission withdrawal.” The Transitions Project has collected lessons learned and codified best practices from past transitions with the aim of improving future transitions in different contexts—from peacekeeping to Special Political Missions (SPMs) and development and peacebuilding presences.

However, mission transitions still result in gaps in the protection of civilians experiencing violent conflict. UN missions in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and South Sudan (UNMISS) are struggling to achieve their protection of civilians (POC) objectives. Insufficient preparation, resources, and action to build protection capacities among local actors led to tragic protection gaps that were starkly seen in the aftermath of UNAMID’s drawdown in Darfur. In addition, MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and MINUSMA in Mali are facing serious dissatisfaction and pushback from local communities. The complexity is expected to continue, with future transition processes likely to be further fraught with innumerable challenges that will require approaches outside of the current paradigm if such protection gaps are to be avoided.

Amid the myriad challenges faced by missions, what more can be done to prepare for and address the gaps that emerge and persist in relation to the protection of civilians? There is now evidence and growing agreement that the starting point has to be with communities themselves—those who are most impacted by violent conflict, and who live long-term with its consequences well beyond the departure of external actors. This puts UN actors, Security Council members, troop-contributing countries, and INGO/NGO partners in the role of co-creators who draw on the pre-existing knowledge and agency of local actors to find innovative, multi-dimensional approaches to POC. Ultimately, this seems to be the best pathway to peace.

This articulation of protection of civilians stands in contrast to assumptions often made in conventional approaches. The current paradigm for POC, as often stated in mission mandates and refined in subsequent renewals, is based on state-centric approaches and prevailing neocolonial models of peacekeeping. This top-down, outsider-led, and often elite-controlled model is repeatedly proving ineffective in protecting civilians, with missions often hamstrung and unable to fulfill prescribed mandates. This impacts trust of communities, whose expectations of protection often remain unmet, and who feel—and often are—excluded from meaningful roles in planning, analysis, implementation, and evaluation of protection activities ostensibly designed for them. Given that the context and rationale for POC in its current form is not working satisfactorily, there is a need to revisit the assumptions that have informed POC. New modalities need to be identified and that will respond more effectively and sustainably to protection needs, especially in transition situations.

Community Engagement and Protection Gaps in Transitions

There is an abundance of UN documentation offering guidance to UN staff on community engagement which show growing agreement from policymakers that the UN could improve current peace operations by employing modalities that model local engagement and leadership. However, while the primacy of local actors and the imperative of local engagement is well detailed, their uptake and implementation have been meager, inconsistent, and not subject to sufficient monitoring and evaluation to learn from and improve performance.

The value of local action is also being recognized across the sector and in different conflict contexts. Regarding the DRC, CIVIC research argued that “civil society organizations can contribute to the protection of civilians directly.” Further research from Protection Approaches underscored the necessity of “community engagement not as an add-on to, or area of, the mission’s work, or even as a “force multiplier” but as integral to the mission’s governance and therefore as the foundational element around which the entire rest of the mission would revolve.”

Similarly, recent initiatives led by the United States, Norway, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and others are recognizing the importance of local agency and committing to “locally-led” approaches that will “shift and share power to ensure local actors have ownership over and can meaningfully and equitably engage in development, humanitarian, and peacebuilding programs.”

Such principles relate directly to UN transition situations where community engagement, locally-led protection actions, and other unarmed strategies should be, according to the 2015 report of the High Level Independent Review Panel on UN Peace Operations (HIPPO), “in the forefront of UN efforts to protect civilians.” When a transition is imminent and a mission’s POC abilities shrink in size and scope, it has been catastrophic for the UN not to plan and work to localize POC activities and prepare the ground for a transfer of many responsibilities, as has been seen in Darfur and elsewhere. These failures can have widespread impacts, perhaps most importantly on local civil society actors and communities with whom UN entities and governments have been working.

Finding Solutions: Unarmed Civilian Protection in Transitions

A growing body of case study research finds that Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP) engenders effective and sustainable protection. UCP provides a visible, unarmed, nonpartisan presence that can help to deter violence and protect civilians. It is a complementary approach used in conjunction with traditional peacekeeping to create a more multidimensional strategy for addressing conflict and protection. The work builds on communities’ existing strengths and forges deep relationships, allowing local actors to recognize their agency and capacity and learn to protect themselves and sustain peace.

Armed force protection can be perceived as intimidating or threatening by the local population which can undermine trust and cooperation. In addition, when peacekeepers withdraw, there is a risk that the absence of a visible security presence will lead to a resurgence of inter-communal and other forms of violence. Deploying unarmed civilians from local communities who are trained in conflict resolution and mediation techniques can help build trust and confidence, facilitate dialogue and cooperation, deter violence, and protect civilians. Further, UCP civilians can be deployed quickly and can be properly resourced at a relatively low cost, remaining as long as communities want them.

UCP is currently undertaken by 60+ INGOs and numerous community groups working in about 30 conflict zones.  It is currently operational wherever UN peacekeepers are present, and has been recognized at the Security Council, and noted in resolutions related to POC as an approach particularly suited to contribute to POC1 in transition situations, especially if it is scaled up well before withdrawal.

The Future Protection of Civilians and Transitions

A recent Security Council report posed the question, “What are the skills, competencies and models that are required for UN agencies and programs to support states in transition more effectively?” Missing from this, however, is any discussion of what local civil society and communities can do to support the transition. If the UN and international actors were to re-think their role, they would recognize the primacy and agency of local actors in creating sustainable peace. The success of future peace operations is inexorably tied to engagement with local communities, locally-led peacebuilding, and unarmed civilian-led protection in all stages of the mission. A measure of its success is its ability to protect civilians throughout its tenure, from when it begins to prepare for transition on through the aftermath of drawdown.

There are specific, concrete steps that UN peace operations missions can take to advance locally-led protection in preparation for transitions.

First, it should explore what the shift to empowering local protection actors would look like and how communities can be empowered to provide more of their own protection. This includes continuing to examine what UN field presences can do differently to prepare for transitions going beyond engaging exclusively with UN-related actions and partners and toward civilian-led protection. It should also look for new ways and means for UN mission staff to work more closely with increased numbers of civilian actors engaged in UCP in mutual complementarity.

Second, the UN should formulate concrete operational shifts for missions to plan transitions based on a new paradigm of civilian engagement and implement such plans in specific mission settings. This includes expanding the UN’s repertoire of approaches to POC beyond primarily military means, employing more unarmed and civilian-led approaches. It should also allow UNPOL and civil affairs officers to play a greater role in integrating unarmed approaches and cooperating with UCP civilian actors.

Finally, the UN should identify and encourage funding sources for UCP deployments in transitions.

Jose Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste and former HIPPO chair, advised that the UN should look at how to “make non-armed peace observers, peace protectors, a fundamental pillar of UN peace operations doctrine and practices throughout the world.” It would be a major, substantive step forward to include UCP as a standard, accepted modality in the menu of policy options that UN policymakers consider when approaching peacekeeping transitions, when deepening their work with local civil societies to fill POC needs, and working toward sustainable peace.

[1] UNSCR 2459 (2019), which renewed the mandate of UNMISS, recognized that “unarmed civilian protection can often complement efforts to build a protective environment, particularly in the deterrence of sexual and gender-based violence against civilians, and encouraging UNMISS, as appropriate and when possible, to explore how it can use civilian protection techniques, including through community engagement and the mission communication strategy, to enhance its ability to protect civilians, and to train UNMISS staff accordingly”;

UNSCR 2524 (2020) established the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) in 2020 with a strategic objective to: “Assist, advise and support the Government of Sudan’s capacity to extend state presence and inclusive civilian governance, in particular through … methods of unarmed civilian protection”;

UNSCR 2594 (2021), an Irish-led resolution on peacekeeping transitions, expressed “the importance of a United Nations presence appropriately configured with necessary capabilities and capacities to provide support to protection of civilians efforts during transitions … including through promoting and supporting inter-communal dialogue and community violence reduction, building trust between State authorities and local communities, supporting community policing initiatives, or other methods of unarmed civilian protection”.

Gay Rosenblum-Kumar is the UN Representative at Nonviolent Peaceforce.