Analysis: The challenge of civilian protection for peacekeepers in Africa

More than 120,000 peacekeepers are now deployed across 16 missions/Photo:IRIN

The protection of civilians in conflict situations is a key challenge for blue berets across the world, but what would it take for peacekeepers deployed in Africa to do better?

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This question has gained added urgency from the mass rape by armed rebels over four days in late July and early August 2010 of more than 300 civilians in villages in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo that lie close to a UN peacekeepers’ base.

These peacekeepers, reported the UN Joint Human Rights Office, “had not received any specific training in the protection of civilians, and suffered from a number of operational constraints, including their limited capacity to gather information, as well as the lack of a telecommunications system in the area.”

According to Paul Williams, associate professor at George Washington University, “For many, civilian protection is the very essence of peacekeeping. But protecting civilians in Africa’s war zones raises huge challenges.”

These, Williams says in Enhancing Civilian Protection in Peace Operations: Insights from Africa, include the need to devise effective systems of information gathering and analysis to detect patterns of atrocities, and the development of strategies and operational approaches for protection from physical violence.

“Although difficult, civilian protection can be enhanced if peace operation policies are based on a multilayered conception of protection, a sound analysis of the conflict dynamics in question, a clear view of the strategy guiding protection activities, and peacekeepers supplied with sufficient resources to undertake crucial operational and tactical tasks,” he notes.

The paper, published by the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), states: “The most strategic long-term challenge is determining how to effectively deter attacks on civilians. Progress can be made by responding robustly to stop and punish those who perpetrate such atrocities; strengthening the international legal and normative constraints on anti-civilian behaviour, and building security forces… to uphold these rules.

“The human cost of Africa’s wars is enormous. Civilians are the main victims in these conflicts, and although most succumb to disease and the effects of malnutrition, a significant number are slaughtered.

“Since 1990, the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme has recorded the massacres of over 570,000 civilians in 27 African countries,” states Williams.

Peacekeeping surge

An unprecedented surge has occurred in the deployment of peacekeepers with 124,000 personnel from 115 countries now serving in 16 missions across four continents, according to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), costing more than US$8 billion annually.

Over the years, the focus has shifted from the traditional monitoring of negotiated agreements between warring parties towards missions tasked with supporting election processes to building the capacity of state institutions, protecting civilians or engaging in actual combat.

“The very presence of peacekeepers creates expectations among local people that they will be protected if violence erupts,” the NGO Refugees International (RI) stated in a February report, Last Line of Defense: How Peacekeepers Can Better Protect Civilians.

“The failure to meet these expectations can result in a breakdown of wider mission legitimacy that will make it extremely difficult for peacekeepers to accomplish other, long-term peace-building objectives.”

In July 2009, a coalition of 22 NGOs in Sudan warned that more needed to be done for peacekeepers in Darfur to ensure civilian protection. The UN Mission had “failed at many critical junctures due to lagging support from the international community and continued obstruction by the Sudanese government”, they said in a joint statement. “Helicopters that are needed for transport remain undelivered, and the Sudanese government continues to impede the mission’s effectiveness.”

Other missions have faced problems too. “Perhaps the most dire example of how failure to resupply a mission can impact [on] its ability to undertake protection activities was in the first few days of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when it became clear that [UN Mission in Rwanda] UNAMIR lacked the ability to replenish its supplies, including its ammunition and medicines,” the ACSS report notes.

In some situations, UN peacekeepers have worked alongside government forces who have been accused of taking part in atrocities. The UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC), which was helping Congolese government forces to defeat various rebel groups, had to cope with allegations that “government soldiers regularly committed abuses against civilians”. It also faced allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by its personnel.

Shared responsibility

In June 2010, the UN General Assembly met to discuss peacekeeping. “While long-term peace is difficult to achieve, it is more likely when a peacekeeping mission is part of the picture,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. But, he added, successful peacekeeping “is a shared responsibility”.

Lakhdar Brahimi, former special adviser to the Secretary-General, outlined challenges ranging from systemic problems to lack of data and intelligence, staff recruitment difficulties and the need for broader participation by developed countries.

“The UN cannot go everywhere and do everything,” he said. Some past missions, he added, had failed because they had been sent into situations that were not suitable for peacekeeping. “We believed then, and I believe strongly now, that whatever the [UN] does, it should do well,” he told the meeting.

“If it is going to protect civilians from imminent threat, then it must do so. If it can’t, then it should think twice about making such commitments.”

Changed context

Peacekeepers today undertake a variety of complex tasks, including building institutions of governance, human rights monitoring, security sector reform, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants.

“The nature of conflicts has also changed over the years,” DPKO notes. While the military remain the backbone of most peacekeeping operations, its many faces include administrators and economists, police officers and legal experts, de-miners and electoral observers, human rights monitors and specialists in civil affairs and governance, humanitarian workers and experts in communications and public information.

UN peacekeeping continues to evolve conceptually and operationally, but increasing demand for complex peace operations has overstretched and challenged the department. Critics say this has led to problems.

“While there is no doubt that the international community’s concern for protecting civilians has become increasingly entrenched in high-level rhetoric and political language, soldiers and civilians deployed in peacekeeping missions are confused about what exactly their mandate for protection civilians involves,” notes Nicki Bennett, former Oxfam global humanitarian policy adviser.

“Faced with a need to retain host government consent, a risk-averse UN Secretariat and a widespread desire amongst some UN member states to cling to the ‘minimum use of force’ principle (one of the bedrock tenets of peacekeeping, alongside impartiality and consent), missions have unsurprisingly found it difficult to define civilian protection, agree on the precise meaning of mandate caveats and translate these concepts into comprehensive strategies and concrete action,” he wrote in Humanitarian Exchange Magazine in March.

Lacking resources

RI gives an example of a May 2008 attack in Abyei, Sudan, which destroyed the town and displaced thousands. “Local communities and international humanitarian actors were outraged that UNMIS [UN Mission in Sudan] had failed to prevent the crisis,” it noted.

“Yet, the peacekeepers did not feel that they had the resources required to respond, and the terms of the mandate led many people within the mission to deny that this sort of protection was their responsibility… traditional military doctrines and training were built mainly to defend territories, not to protect individuals.”

They were also increasingly targeted. According to Human Rights Watch, an increase in deliberate attacks on peacekeepers and humanitarian organizations in Sudan (the death toll reached 27 in July) further hampered operations.

Globally, according to the UN, more than 700 peacekeepers have died in the course of duty in the past five years, while more than 3,000 have been killed since the first operation in 1948.

But on the plus side, working under difficult circumstances has encouraged peacekeepers to seek new ways to protect civilians. Some conduct foot and vehicle patrols in vulnerable areas to deter attacks, said ACSS.

“In Sudan and the DRC, nearly 35,000 civilians have been massacred in episodes of one-sided violence since 1990,” it notes. “Yet despite being widely regarded as catastrophic failures, the peace operations in these countries have also produced some of the most innovative examples of how protection policies might be improved in the future.”

Even then, says RI, there is a need for a uniform operational definition of what protection means from a peacekeeping perspective to guide their planning and activities.

Strengthening IHL

The legal bedrock for civilian protection is the global effort to strengthen international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights laws. For example, IHL has created a normative standard of civilian protection that not only prohibits certain weapons and behaviours but also seeks to punish perpetrators of individual or mass crimes.

According to the ACSS, international tribunals and the International Criminal Court have made important strides in supporting this agenda by eroding the impunity traditionally enjoyed by perpetrators of gross violations of IHL and human rights.

Security Council Resolution 1265 also cites possible measures in response “to situations of armed conflict where civilians are being targeted or where humanitarian assistance to civilians is being deliberately obstructed”. States, it notes, should ratify key human rights treaties and work towards ending the culture of impunity by prosecuting those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of IHL.

Despite challenges, peacekeeping remains a vital element of international conflict resolution. According to DPKO, UN peacekeepers have helped disarm more than 400,000 ex-combatants in the last decade, cost much less than other forms of international intervention, and increasingly work with other international and regional organizations, including the African Union and European Union.

“After a decade of considerable surge, it appears that UN peacekeeping may now be headed toward a period of consolidation and perhaps even contraction,” Alain Le Roy, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, told the General Assembly in June. “This does not mean that our task will be an easy one. The challenges we are facing today in many ways remain daunting.”

The department, he added, had developed a priority agenda to bolster the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping, including policy development to ensure practical guidance on critical roles for modern UN peacekeeping, capability development to sustain required capabilities to support peacekeeping now and into the future, field support, planning and oversight.


More on peacekeeping:
CHAD-CAR: Aid agencies prepare for MINURCAT exit
GLOBAL: Women UN peacekeepers – more needed
DRC: MONUC sticks to its guns

Theme(s): Human Rights, Conflict,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]