Moral Obligation: UN Missions Should Not Abandon Vulnerable Civilians in Critical Times

Members of the Indian contingent of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) train officers and soldiers of the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC). ©UN Photo/Marie Frechon

Kofi Nsia-Pepra

United Nations (UN) missions’ inaction in response to civilian killings by government troops in Darfur, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has precipitated international outcry and raised concerns on viability of UN missions in fulfilling their civilian protection mandates. In all these cases, peacekeepers are trapped in quagmires where violence is endemic and operations are flawed. The tragedy is that the principle of peacekeeping that requires host country consent has left the UN entangled in relationships with obstructionist governments guilty of civilian killings. Without the governments’ cooperation, peacekeepers have been reduced to bystanders and struggled to fulfill their protection mandates while civilians are killed. The UN has a dilemma when its peace operations are not working. Some suggest it should “walk away” from such failed missions, but the system is haunted by its failures to protect civilians in Rwanda and Srebrenica.

The UN should think twice about withdrawing. Member states have a commitment to the “responsibility to protect” and “saving the next generation from the scourge of war”. Abandoning vulnerable civilians would be a moral failure, embolden spoilers, perpetuate the cycle of impunity, and implicitly condone conscience-shocking atrocities that undermine the organization’s credibility and legitimacy. A better way forward is to deepen the analysis of operational deficiencies that undermine the robustness of UN missions and strengthen their ability to protect civilians.

Moral obligation to protect imperiled civilians

The founding purpose of the UN is to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. Peacekeeping is one of the organization’s most innovative intervention mechanisms inaugurated to fulfil this purpose. And, yet, the world continues to witness devastating armed conflicts characterized by conscience-shocking atrocities against civilians. During Cold War–era traditional peacekeeping, civilian protection was not the explicit objective of UN missions due to ideological disagreements between superpowers in the Security Council. It was intrinsically achieved through peacekeepers’ strategic interposition as a buffer zone between conflict parties. But peacekeepers’ fixation on impartiality and the fear of reprisals against them undermined their desire to protect civilians.

After the Cold War, with the decline of superpower rivalry within the Security Council, there was revived optimism about the UN’s capacity to protect civilians in civil wars. It reinvigorated the Security Council’s activism in peacekeeping missions and led to the deployment of numerous peacekeeping missions to address internal conflicts. But this did not always stop civilians from being attacked in the presence of UN peacekeeping forces.

Following horrendous experiences in Rwanda and Bosnia, Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others recommended a doctrine of more robust peacekeeping, giving missions greater capacity to deter civilian killings. Since then, expectations have steadily increased and UN peacekeeping missions have been given more Chapter VII and robust mandates to protect civilians.

UN Peacekeepers’ protection of civilians sustains the legitimacy and credibility of the organization‘s peacekeeping missions. Peacekeepers’ legal and moral obligations to protect civilians derive from humanitarian provisions of the laws of armed conflict and international human rights laws and norms clearly stated in major human rights instruments. The principles of human rights and concern for human dignity and rule of law legally and morally oblige UN missions to use force to protect imperiled civilians under imminent attack.

The shift to robust mandates to protect civilians was fostered by changes in attitudes to the use of force by UN missions. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 report described the right of the UN to intervene in a state under Chapter VII of its Charter to protect citizens’ human rights. It captured the mood of the period by challenging notions of “absolute and exclusive sovereignty”. It acknowledged that the UN should use force when all peaceful means had failed and that the credibility of the UN was at stake if it did not wait until that point. Secretary-General Annan highlighted the primacy of civilian protection by UN missions when he declared, “For the UN, there is no higher goal, no deeper commitment, and no greater ambition than preventing armed conflict and violence against civilians”.

Annan urged member states to soberly reflect on the “inadequacy of symbolic deterrence in the face of a systematic campaign of violence” and “the role of force in the pursuit of peace”. His two 1999 articles, “Walking The International Tightrope” and “Two Concepts of Sovereignty”, greatly impacted the debate on UN peacekeeping principles and guidelines on civilian protection. Annan redefined the principle of impartiality stating, “impartiality does not and must not mean neutrality in the face of evil”. In “Two Concepts of Sovereignty,” he acknowledged “the need for timely intervention by the international community when death and suffering are being inflicted on large numbers of people, and when the state in charge is nominally unable or unwilling to stop it”. These publications promoted an interventionist operational paradigm. He recommended the abandonment of outdated neutral peacekeeping and adoption of a more muscular peace operation to avoid another Rwanda.

If robust missions to protect civilians are the desired outcome, a number of changes will need to be made in the way UN peace operations are conducted.

To stave off atrocities against civilians in future operations, Annan felt the need to balance peaceful and forceful mechanisms at the disposal of the organization. His 2000 Millennium report also acknowledged that the world could not be bystanders when heinous atrocities are committed against defenseless civilians. The 2000 Brahimi Report also recommended more assertive and deterrent mission force to be able to confront the challenges of human rights violations. It argued that in dangerous situations with “obvious aggressors and victims”, peacekeepers, “may not only be operationally justified in using force but morally compelled to do so”, and should therefore be equipped with “robust rules of engagement”.

The 2005 international norm of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) reinforced the concept of robust peacekeeping and civilian protection. The basic idea of the principle is that state sovereignty connotes responsibility to protect its citizens from heinous crimes. When their parent states are unwilling or unable to protect them, the international community through the UN has a moral responsibility to intervene to protect the citizens. The Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the Department of Field Support’s (DFS) Guidelines and Principles for Peacekeeping Operations (Capstone Doctrine) urges peace operations to use force proactively to defend their mandate, deter spoilers and protect civilians.

The 2015 report of the High-level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations (HIPPO) report describes civilian protection as a “core obligation” of the UN. Desmond Tutu captures the primacy of civilian protection and our moral obligations to protect vulnerable civilians with the declaration, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. President Bill Clinton concurred with our responsibility to protect the needy when he declared, “We intervene to protect thousands of innocent people”. British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised, “If Rwanda happens again we would not walk away as the outside has done many times before”, and insisted that international society has a “moral duty” to protect civilians from atrocities.

Since the first landmark UNAMSIL resolution 1265 (1999), most UN missions have been authorized under Chapter VII with robust rules of engagement (ROE) to protect civilians. Robust peacekeeping reduces civilian killings. The effectiveness of robust peacekeeping in protecting in civilians can also be demonstrated using game theory. However, case studies show mixed results of robust missions and civilian protection. While successful in Sierra Leone, it failed in Darfur, South Sudan, and DRC. These failures have ignited scholarly and policymaker discussions on the viability of robust missions in protecting civilians. Some have questioned whether robust peacekeeping is a desirable development, necessary evil, or a false good idea. Some have argued that the UN rarely succeeds in protecting civilians, and others have noted the reasons why robust missions relying on offensive force are unlikely to succeed. Some commentators recommend UN missions to pull out their forces when obstructed by host states governments.

Challenges to civilian protection

The division among Security Council members fueled by national interest considerations hinders the deployment of robust missions to protect civilians. Disagreement between protectionists (such as China) that strongly uphold the principles of sovereignty, non-intervention and limited use of force and interventionists (such as the US) that uphold the principles of R2P and humanitarian intervention undermines civilian protection. Disagreements result in vague, ambiguous, or compromised mandates that restrict peacekeeping missions’ capacity to protect civilians. African Union/UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) was handed a watered-down “robust” mandate that rendered it incompetent to protect civilians from atrocities due to China’s obstruction. Despite international and conflict parties’ support for a robust mission in Rwanda, a weak UNAMIR that could not stop the genocide was deployed due to US obstruction.

The UN is afflicted with a heavy bureaucratic malaise of top-down structures with complex procedures, where every action requires approval from the top. This sometimes weakens the operational capacity of the field troops due to delays on operational decisions by DPKO. UNAMIR Force Commander General Roméo Dallaire blamed the mission’s failure to protect Rwandan citizens on the UN’s general disorganization and the bureaucratic chaos of its composition.

The UN lacks a functional operational doctrine for the use of force to protect civilians. The Capstone Doctrine, developed to alleviate this gap, does not seek to “override the national military doctrines of individual member states”. The sequel is the lack of conceptual clarity and articulation on the use of force by mission forces to protect civilians. As a result, participating contingents are affected by the “phone home” syndrome, relying on domestic legal guidance to guide the use of force. Differential interpretation and applicability of force lead to operational incoherence undermining civilian protection. In MONUC, the Uruguayan battalion (URABATT) deployed in Bunia in 2003 failed to protect civilians because, after consulting the Uruguayan Parliament, they thought that were not operating under Chapter VII and were not allowed to use force except in self-defense.

The central tenet in civilian protection mandates is the use of force. The objective of robust rules of engagement and use of force is to present a credible military threat to deter, deny, neutralize and convince spoilers that violence will not succeed. The use of force by peacekeepers presents some operational dilemmas by compromising the fundamental principles UN peacekeeping. Mission forces may lose their impartiality that could spur reprisal on them and civilians.

UN peace missions lack an integrated chain of command and common procedures. Even though different national contingents are deployed under one Force Commander (FC), the participatory preconditions allow each contingent to report to its contingent commander, who is first accountable to his own government, before obeying the FC. These limitations constrain missions’ operational capabilities in protecting civilians. While Western militaries recommend centralized operational command structures of the EU or NATO, other troop contributors support the more decentralized model of the UN.

The casualty tolerance level of contingents and calculus about risk to troops affect their decisions to protect civilians. There is a general lack of willingness to accept casualties while fighting non-existential threats. Risk-averse contingents minimize the exposure of their troops to danger and avoid deployment in dangerous areas. The massacre of more than 180 people in Kisangani in May 2002 near a MONUC camp illustrated UN forces’ failure to protect civilians when fearing attacks by spoilers.

The UN suffers from a discrepancy between mandate and resources; it acknowledges the problem of resources, particularly funding, personnel, logistics, and equipment since members have been reluctant in honoring their financial obligations. The UN lacks a pool of personnel ready for an immediate deployment. As a result, there is a growing disparity between the capacity of the UN and the demands of civilian protection mandates.

UN missions lack a common training doctrine and a centralized pre-deployment training of forces about mission tasks, such as the use of force to protect civilians. In the absence of clear guidance from the Security Council, contingent commanders make decisions about mission strategy and tactics to protect civilians. However, different contingent training doctrines results in discrepancies in the use of force and civilian protection.

UN partnership with discredited host states guilty of civilian killings undermines its credibility as an honest broker of peace and success in protecting civilians. In MONUC, joint operations with FARDC, discredited for massive human rights abuses against other conflict parties, undermined the UN mission’s impartiality and legitimacy as an honest broker. As a result, aggrieved parties attacked UN forces and civilians.

Crimes committed by UN peacekeepers also affect successful civilian protection. In MONUC, the involvement of UN peacekeepers in sex, bribery, corruption, and illicit trading scandals undermined its credibility and reputation. As a result, some conflict parties refused to cooperate with it. Crucially, troop-contributing states have disciplinary jurisdictions over their own offending troops—not the UN. At best, missions can send miscreant peacekeepers home, where they seldom face disciplinary measures. In such cases, it is the UN, rather than the contributing state, that shoulders the blame for the failure to be appropriately punished. This undermines the “winning of the hearts and minds” of the local populace, who missions rely on for intelligence on potential threats.

Major powers with requisite capabilities do not contribute many troops to UN peacekeeping missions, especially in conflicts of less strategic interest to them. The US and Britain are reluctant to contribute troops to UN missions because of their involvement in other commitments such as terrorism, deemed pertinent to their national security interests. Russia, Germany and Japan contribute few personnel for doctrinal reasons.

The key to implementable “robust” civilian protection mandates is effective global leadership. The US’ overwhelming military and economic capabilities and global reach cast it as the only power capable of global action and leadership. Unfortunately, the US has fallen short of this expectation and remains indifferent to the UN, a proclivity evident in the Clinton administration’s Presidential Decision Directive 25 (PDD 25). The George W. Bush administration’s preference for unilateral action and distrust of the UN also explain why the US failed to lead the UN. While the Obama administration supported UN peace operations and US leadership, President Trump’s “America first” signals withdrawal of support for the UN and an abandonment of US global leadership. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley cheered cuts to the UN's peacekeeping budget, adding that, “we're only getting started”. As long as US ambivalence to multilateralism is a defining feature of its foreign policy, UN robust missions will likely continue to be denied much-needed resources for civilian protection. To make the situation more difficult, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has indicated that US foreign policy will not be driven by human rights considerations, arguing that addressing human rights concerns abroad might conflict with national safety, and implying that the US would be less involved in humanitarian outreach that includes civilian protection.

The way forward: More deterrent missions to protect civilians

If robust missions to protect civilians are the desired outcome, a number of changes will need to be made in the way UN peace operations are conducted.

  1. Command and control structures need to become more flexible. This will enable field commanders on the ground to take tactical initiatives to confront day-to-day threats to civilians. The UN should have integrated chain of command and procedures through consultations with troop contributing countries (TCCs), and it should harmonize TCC caveats to develop a consensus so that all troop contributors, notwithstanding different military traditions, are comfortable with UN command and control arrangements. The UNHQ should have control of robust missions in order to secure the authority of the FC and ensure that contingents respect the UN and the FC’s command. However, this should not deny field commanders the flexibility to make tactical decisions to deal with threats to mission and civilians.
  2. A unified coherent operational doctrine on the use of force should be developed. This could mitigate adverse effects of national caveats on civilian protection in consultation with TCCs and other actors operating in same missions. The doctrine should establish principles and definitions, and the structure under which robust missions can use force to protect civilians. This will facilitate a unitary interpretation of ROEs consistent with missions’ protective mandates.
  3. A coherent and streamlined UN training doctrine on POC should be developed. This could be used in pre-deployment training to equip mission forces with required capabilities regarding civilian protection. These will help troops reach a consensus on the use of force and build the necessary competencies and esprit de corps. Troops will be psychologically prepared to reduce the fear of incurring casualties to successfully protect civilians.
  1. Mission robustness is not just a matter of the use of the military, but requires diplomatic approaches. Force alone can never solve violence and the UN must combine diplomatic and military approaches. The UN must rally diplomatic pressure against obstructionists, including host governments, to keep them in the peace process and protect civilians. In the DRC, the defeat of the M23 rebel group is attributed to bilateral diplomatic pressure by the US. The defeat of M23 by the FIB was due to heavy international pressure, especially from the US, leading to the withdrawal of Ugandan and Rwandan troops and support for the rebel militias. Western donors openly identified Rwanda and Uganda as spoilers and applied substantial financial leverage. The armed groups in Ituri had lost their Rwandan and Ugandan backing by the time the UN offensive began forcing them to flee, with relatively little fighting. Diplomacy as well as boots on the ground can protect civilians. An effective political strategy can have as good or a better result than an additional deployment of armed peacekeepers. 

Kofi Nsia-Pepra is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Ohio Northern University and the author of UN Robust Peacekeeping: Civilian Protection in Violent Civil Wars. He is also a former officer in the Ghanaian military and UN peacekeeper.