Protection of Civilians Strategy: A Greater Role for the Council

Members of the Indian Battalion at UNMISS assisting displaced persons who have fled their homes and are seeking safety and help from the UN. 16 December 2013 | ©UN Photo

Ralph Mamiya

The protection of civilians mandate in peacekeeping was a reaction to the challenges peacekeepers directly faced in Rwanda and the Balkans and more generally a reaction to the ‘new wars’ of the post-Cold War world.

Fifteen years ago, the Brahimi Report established the importance of the protection of civilians in UN peacekeeping. The recent report of the High-level Panel on Peace Operations and the Secretary-General’s follow-up report on the Future of UN Peace Operations each highlight the importance of the protection mandate while also recognizing that the mandate is in need of clarity. The moral and legal foundations are clear, but the mandate’s political and strategic direction often goes undefined. The protection of civilians has raised unachievable expectations and continuing debates about its interpretation inhibit effective action. It has been claimed by a broad swathe of actors, caught between concepts of the responsibility to protect, humanitarian access, and human rights advocacy. Providing strategic direction for the mandate will require greater dialogue between the Council, the Secretariat, and Troop Contributors. It will also require acknowledging that protecting civilians is not always straightforwardly selfless, an end in itself, but rather should form part of the mission’s overall goals for bringing stability and security to the country. This idea is simple to state in general terms but difficult to implement without strong support from the Council and its Members.

Background to the mandate

The protection of civilians mandate in peacekeeping was a reaction to the challenges peacekeepers directly faced in Rwanda and the Balkans and more generally a reaction to the ‘new wars’ of the post-Cold War world. Some scholars argued that civilians were killed at astonishing rates in these ‘new wars’, including that civilians accounted for 90 percent of war-time deaths.These claims that are now disputed, and many researchers argue that civil wars are actually on the decline. Yet it was clear that peacekeepers could not conscientiously operate in the environments to which they were sent without the ability to act to protect civilians. This was not necessarily a new aspect of peacekeeping: The UN Operation in the Congo (ONUC), one of the first peacekeeping mission, took action that today would likely be called ‘protection of civilians’, despite the absence of an explicit mandate. The Brahimi report similarly implied that the obligation to protect was inherent in the peacekeepers’ role regardless of mandate, a position that the High-level Panel now echoes in framing the protection of civilians across the full spectrum of peace operations and which the Secretary-General supported in his follow-up report.

The concept of the protection of civilians is traceable to International Humanitarian Law and the protection dialogue is highly influenced by humanitarian practice. While sometimes treated as an historical footnote, the roots of POC in humanitarian and human rights action continue to be highly influential in discussions of protection: Protection is often considered as an end-in-itself and neutrality is often viewed as a prerequisite for effective protection. These views often do not square well with modern peacekeeping missions, which retain political aims and are generally considered a means towards sustainable peace and security. The closest that the Secretary-General or the Security Council has come to providing a definition of the protection of civilians is in thematic discussions on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, a broad definition encompassing a range of human rights and humanitarian issues. In a 2001 report, the Secretary-General wrote: “Protection” is a complex and multi-layered process, involving a diversity of entities and approaches... [including] the delivery of humanitarian assistance; the monitoring and recording of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, and reporting these violations to those responsible and other decision makers; institution building, governance and development programmes; and, ultimately, the deployment of peacekeeping troops…’ Also in 2001, a group of humanitarian and human organisations chaired by the International Committee of the Red Cross agreed upon a similarly broad definition of ‘protection’, where protection encompasses ‘all activities aimed at ensuring full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of law… [conducted] in an impartial manner’.

The protection of civilians mandate has become a standard element of mandates for armed peacekeeping yet remains subject to different interpretations. A few months after the first thematic resolution on POC in 1999, the Security Council provided the first POC mandate in peacekeeping to the UN Mission in Sierra Leone. This mandate, a Chapter VII authorization to use force, was described at the time as ‘a new, fundamental, legal and moral dimension’, ‘an insurance policy’, ‘deterrent’, and a ‘guarantee [of] protection’.  No armed UN mission since 1999 has been newly deployed without a POC mandate. Whether peacekeepers were sent into active conflicts, such as the Central African Republic, or stood guard in non-conflict nations, such as Haiti and Liberia, they were directed to protect, with force if necessary.

The specific implications of the mandate were never clear, and different understandings continue to exist. On its face the mandate changed little in the next 10 years, yet a 2009 OCHA-DPKO Study on the protection of civilians in peacekeeping concluded that peacekeepers and civilian staff held widely varying interpretations of the mandate, often within the same mission. The language of Council mandates can be read as supporting these varying interpretations, including viewing POC as a specific set of activities. MINUSMA, for instance, considers POC within of the overarching goal ‘security, stabilization and the protection of civilians’. UNISFA’s POC mandate stands alone but may be read as an element of its overall security and stabilization mandate. Others see it as a general approach to coordination that linked a range of activities MONUSCO, UNMISS, MINUSCA, UNAMID and UNMIL have all been directed to develop comprehensive POC strategies. UNMISS and UNAMID, and MONUSCO in its past configuration, have been directed to reorient their operations around civilian protection. Security Council resolution 1894 has also called on all POC-mandated missions to prioritise the use of resources in implementing those mandates. A further group of missions see their POC mandates as an authorization to use force as a last resort. MINUSTAH and UNIFIL frame their POC mandates in this manner, with POC adding little apparent strategic value to the missions’ orientation. 

Strategic challenges 

The mandate has legal, moral, and strategic elements; only the strategic aspect remains ill-defined. The Brahimi report made clear the moral importance of protection in peacekeeping, and the legal aspects of the mandate are well established by the Office of Legal Affairs and international legal scholars. These moral and legal elements do not direct a particular strategy or approach to POC, however, and this strategic element remains undefined.

Security Council mandates on POC have become more prominent over time yet they continue to delegate the most challenging strategic questions to the mission.It has been very willing to identify POC as a priority in many missions. POC has been identified as the priority, or one of a handful of priorities, for UNMISS, UNAMID, MONUSCO, UNMIL, ONUCI, MINUSMA, and MINUSCA. Resolution 1894 also directs all missions with POC mandates to prioritise resources and capabilities to that mandate’s implementation.

Some missions have received detailed operational instructions that can only be read as a sign of the Council’s interest in more dynamic approaches to protection. The Council’s calls for ‘robust patrolling’ in Sudan with Resolution 1769 in 2007, ‘early warning mechanisms’ in Resolution 1996 in 2011, encouragement of ‘the full use of [the mission’s] mandate and capabilities’ in Resolution 1870, and regular ‘reviews of deployment’ in Resolution 1919 as well as encouraging ‘coordination between civilian and military components’ in the DRC with Resolution 1906.

Despite these small technical and operational changes to mandate language in certain missions, the Council is generally silent on the strategic or political direction for the protection of civilians. In some instances, it has identified groups in particular need of protection, such as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Darfur and DRC, yet this direction to protect has often been vague and has never been exclusive; missions have come under regular criticism for protection failures beyond these groups, such as criticism of UNAMID for incidents in Darfur involving settled communities rather than IDPs.

The absence of clear direction from the Council and Member States has placed a great deal of the strategic and political burden on the Secretariat and missions. The Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support have developed a policy on the protection of civilians and associated military guidelines, but these remain primarily technical documents. The means, methods and strategies for protecting civilians are highly dependent on context. With mission environments as varied as Lebanon, South Sudan, and Mali, headquarters-level guidance remains necessarily general.

This leaves the peacekeeping mission itself to answer some of the most significant political and strategic questions about its mandate.Missions develop their own context-specific POC strategies, however, these often focus on the operational issues that field staff are accustomed, and well placed, to address. Without clear guidance from the Council, such mission-based strategies may not carry significant weight with the military component or contributed troop contingents. An independent UN evaluation noted a broken ‘chain’ regarding the protection of civilians: Where peacekeepers’ lives are placed in danger, policy and operational decisions are not easily ceded to the Secretariat or civilian mission leadership.

The absence of strategic direction in protection only compounds the resource, capability, and will problems faced by peacekeepers. The expectation upon peacekeepers to protect — expectations from the media, humanitarians, the Council, or others — is often supremely high regardless of resources, and those expectations are difficult to change when strategic objectives are unclear. The vast disparity in resources between missions further complicates the setting of reasonable expectations. The UN Mission in Abyei has one troop for every 2.5 square kilometers and the Mission in Lebanon has one troop for every 0.1 square kilometer, yet the Mission in Darfur has one troop for every 12 square kilometers and the Mission in South Sudan one troop for every 54 square kilometers.

Successes in protection have been recognized most frequently in situations where the strategic and political imperatives of the POC mandate are clear. The current crisis in South Sudan, the highly robust operations by MONUSCO (whether through the Intervention Brigade or past operations), and the highly focused security mission in Abyei are all examples of missions that have received plaudits for their protection work. These missions have also faced situations or mandates that made clear a particular strategic direction, whether that is defending civilians in their bases or conducting operations against enemies. Most missions, however, are not faced with crises that force such clarity. A variety of categories of strategy exist for peacekeeping, enumeration of which is beyond the scope of this paper but many of which can contribute to better defining expectations and improving the mission’s unity of effort.

Ways forward

The challenge of strategic direction is neither simple nor straightforward. Many aspects of a mission’s political strategy can and should be left to the Secretariat, to SRSG’s who lead the mission and to headquarters staff who support them. In addition, the role of troop contributors and host government should not be forgotten, particularly where protection of civilians mandates are concerned. Yet the Council has a key The Secretary-General’s recent report on the Future of UN Peace Operations highlights the importance of the protection of civilians mandate while also recognizing some of the challenges outlined above. The Secretary-General’s proposals are applicable generally to peace operations, but they can be tailored to the protection mandate:

  • The Council and Council Members can play a greater role in providing strategic focus for each mission. The Secretary-General fully endorsed the High-level Panel’s call for the Council to bring the full weight of its authority not only to starting peace operations, but also to help them to navigate politically difficult terrain. In Darfur, for example, thousands of peacekeepers have worked in difficult and often dangerous conditions for nearly a decade despite a political vacuum. This support could include greater strategic guidance in mandate language, potentially including the Council’s acknowledgement and approval of mission strategies for protection (including acknowledgement of the mission’s stated limitations). This will require greater engagement from the Council and from mandate pen-holders, as well as a willingness amongst the Secretariat to relinquish a degree of its operational prerogatives in mandate implementation.
  • A stronger Council role will require better dialogue and reporting. Past examinations of the protection of civilians, such as the OCHA-DPKO Study and the OIOS independent evaluation have consistently called for improved reporting to the Council, and better-defined mandates will require dialogue with the mission and the Secretariat. The Secretary-General reaffirmed his commitment to frank reporting on peacekeeping resources, capabilities and escalating situations. DPKO is also exploring ways to provide the Council with reports that focus more on political analysis than operational updates.
  • Dialogue with troop contributors remains essential. Triangular cooperation between troop contributors, the Secretariat, and the Security Council has long been recognized as important to effective peacekeeping. The Secretary-General proposed multiple rounds of consultations with troop contributors before missions are established, to ensure that all potential contributors are aware of the capabilities required to address a given situation and what will be expected of them if they deploy their troops.

Ralph Mamiya is the Team Leader of the Protection of Civilians Team in the Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support and a co-editor of The Protection of Civilians in International Law (forthcoming May 2016, Oxford University Press). The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. | Twitter: @ralphforce1