Darfur, Iraq or Rwanda: What Can Militaries do to Protect Civilians?

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By Victoria Holt and Joshua G. Smith – What do Sudan and Iraq have in common? In both countries,
international military forces are grappling with the question of how
best to protect civilians from extreme levels of violence and mass
atrocities. As international ambitions grow to embrace a responsibility
to protect civilians from genocide and such violence, however, much
work is needed to translate this goal into reality.


The conflicts in Iraq and Darfur are distinct in virtually every
way. Yet both face horrific civilian death tolls despite the presence
of international military forces. They share the fact that their
civilian populations are not protected by their governments, and the
urgent need to improve the ability of outside forces to halt systematic
attacks against civilians.


In Darfur, Sudan, frustration runs high as international efforts to
deploy new UN troops to join those of the African Union move slowly
forward in a region devastated by mass killings and atrocities. After
months of delays, the government of Sudan may now allow deployment of
3,000 of the planned 20,000-strong force approved by the UN last
August. With two million displaced and 400,000 dead, Darfur is a
humanitarian disaster in deep need of peace. What can the military
forces deployed there from the international community do to bring
protection and security to the population?


Likewise, frustration also grows daily about Iraq, and for a
civilian population besieged by civil war and deep insecurity. The US
and its allies are going after insurgents who threaten to take down the
fledgling Iraqi government. Yet, increasingly, the humanitarian
community worries that the civilian population itself is at the
greatest risk for on-going attacks. While protecting civilians was not
the motivation of the US invasion, protecting civilians is now a stated
aim of the recent “surge.” And with nearly two million displaced within
the country and an equal number forced to flee to surrounding
neighbors, Iraq too is a humanitarian disaster of staggering
proportions. What can the military forces deployed there from the
international community do to bring protection and security to the


Saving Lives Through Force?
Both situations point to an important if neglected fact: saving
civilian lives through the use of military forces is a daunting task.
Most explanations for the failures to halt mass atrocities in the 1990s
(most notably in Bosnia and Rwanda) have focused on a lack of
international political will, for example. Yet even where countries have committed
troops with mandates to protect civilians, the operational challenges
that troops face in carrying out this task are demanding and unique
from traditional war-fighting or traditional peacekeeping. Specific
strategies employed to protect civilians–whether establishing “safe
areas,” enforcing no-fly-zones, or disarming refugee camps or
militia–remain worryingly absent in the doctrine and training of most
national forces. Yet the protection of civilians is an increasingly
central component of modern military operations. Two trends suggest
that it will become more prominent in coming years.


First, nations embraced a new vision of sovereignty and the
prevention of future systematic atrocities at the UN World Summit in
2005. Heads of state endorsed the “responsibility to protect” civilians
from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against
humanity. Likewise, the US National Security Strategy declared in 2006
that “(w)here perpetrators of mass killing defy all attempts at
peaceful intervention, armed interventions may be required.” Other
organizations–such as the African Union and European Union–further
have embraced the vision of future missions to intervene against
genocide or in defense of human security. These efforts presume a
future military role in backing up the pledge of halting and preventing
mass atrocities – a pledge that is being endorsed by both developing
states and developed countries.


Second, thousands of military and civilian personnel are already
facing this challenge in peace and stability operations. Over 65,000 UN
peacekeepers serve in missions mandated “to protect civilians under
imminent threat.” Where they deploy, populations often expect their
protection to be secured. Yet in Haiti, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire,
southern Sudan, Lebanon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among
others, such forces may have little guidance or capacity to offer
physical protection to the population. No major military or
international organization–including the UN, the African Union, NATO
or the European Union–yet has well-developed guidance on the role of
military peacekeepers to intervene on behalf of civilian populations.


Looking Forward.
There is an opportunity to address the role of military forces to
protect civilians. The first step is recognizing this challenge. The
Stimson Center recently held a workshop in Ghana
to look at past missions that faced mass atrocities and how they tried
to stem them. Military leaders from UN-led and non-UN-led missions in
Rwanda, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, East Timor, and the Democratic
Republic of Congo gathered for three days to share lessons on what
worked–and did not–and to look at steps toward developing better
strategies for future operations to halt atrocities.


This work is only a start to develop the operational preparedness to
fulfill the “responsibility to protect.” International organizations,
from the UN to the AU, from the EU to NATO, are developing greater
doctrine and training for future missions. Ensuring that the protection
of civilians is addressed in this effort should be a high priority.


As one General said at the Stimson workshop in Ghana, “The political
direction needs to be more than ‘do something, General!'” This
challenge must be addressed to ensure that when the international
community decides it should intervene to halt “conscience-shocking”
levels of atrocities, it has the means, capacities, and strategies
needed to do so effectively.

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