Peacekeepers Protecting Civilians: A Decade of Reform

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By Alison Giffen and Guy Hammond – Ten years ago, the United Nations Security Council began committing its peacekeepers to protect civilians and prevent the sorts of atrocities that occurred in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the mid-1990s. But promising and providing protection are two different things, as peacekeepers have found in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and elsewhere.

Protection, it turns out, is much harder than it sounds. Peacekeepers cannot be everywhere all the time, are usually too few to protect everybody in a country, a province, or even a city simultaneously, and have had little guidance on goals, doctrine, strategy, or training. Since a dozen different countries may send troops to a given UN operation, the result is a lot of confusion and rather little protection.

A UN-commissioned independent study released in late 2009 (in which the Spotlight authors participated) took a close look at the making, interpreting, and implementing of Security Council mandates for protection of civilians. The study found very little clarity on what protection means to those who are supposed to be offering it and confirmed the dearth of guidance on how to protect.

Two conflicting trends contribute to the problem: First, many different groups stake a claim to be protectors, and they all mean something different by the word. Policymakers, human rights advocates, humanitarian aid providers, police, and military peacekeepers each have pushed and pulled at the norm in an effort to better protect civilians but in ways that best fit their particular métier, resulting in a broad, ill-defined and evolving concept. Second, actors that oppose peacekeepers in general, and the protection mission in particular – including states and non state actors – have used a variety of strategies to limit and undermine the development of the norm, using sanctity of sovereignty as a shield against intrusion of increasingly accepted human rights norms. These contradictory dynamics have also sapped the leadership roles of the Security Council, UN headquarters and peacekeeping mission leadership. As a result, peacekeepers don’t know whether, when or how to protect civilians in the midst of conflict or its immediate aftermath.

The independent study recommended ways to alleviate conceptual confusion and address gaps in policy guidance, planning, and preparedness. Many of its recommendations were reflected in a November 2009 Security Council resolution on the protection of civilians in armed conflict (S/Res/1894), which recognized the need to consider threats to civilians in early phases of mandate drafting, requested that the Secretary-General develop an operational concept for protection of civilians, and also requested that comprehensive protection strategies be developed by peacekeeping missions. This language was unique in its clear recognition of the gaps undermining effective protection in the field and its equally clear requests that they be addressed.

As the Council requested that new guidance be developed in consultation with troop and police contributing countries, the UN Secretariat penned a draft operational concept and presented it to the 2010 session of the UN General Assembly’s Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations. This committee of 144 troop and police contributing countries is, in its words, “the only UN forum mandated to review comprehensively the whole question of peacekeeping in all their aspects.” Established in 1965, it has all the virtues of any 45-year-old collective intergovernmental body operating by consensus, but advancing the norm of protecting civilians requires that consensus.

The Special Committee is afflicted not just by the usual North-South politics of the UN but by a few countries bent on stunting progress on protection, despite the impatience of many troop and police contributing countries to clarify what they are being asked to do and to get out and do it. Still, last year, protection of civilians made it onto the Committee’s agenda, and this year, the opening statements of nearly every member state, including leaders of the Global South, acknowledged the important role that peacekeeping can play in the protection of civilians. The committee’s annual report, now being finalized for release this week, includes extensive references to the protection of civilians and asks the Secretary-General to develop a strategic framework on the protection of civilians and training modules on the subject for all peacekeeping personnel.

The Committee’s 2010 report is an important sign that debate is moving past the political question of whether to protect civilians to the practical question of how to protect them. There is still a long way to go on this subject, but increasing consensus around what the concept of protection means in peacekeeping, and development of guidance for mission leaders and mission personnel are essential steps forward, with more to be taken. The legitimacy and credibility of peacekeeping depends on it.

Image courtesy of Ireland’s Department of Defense:



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