UN peace operations and the protection of civilians

The UN is now launching a handbook on the protection of civilians in the organization’s peace operations. The handbook has been developed with support from the government of Sweden, through FBA. “The handbook collects pivotal lessons learned and good practices from the last 20 years”, says Anna-Linn Ekenstierna, project manager at FBA.

One of the main tasks of UN peace operations is to protect civilians from violence. Most UN field missions even have a mandate to use force if needed to protect the civilian population where they are deployed. Prevention and dialogue are, however, the most important methods of work.  

Practices for the protection of civilians have evolved through the years. The first UN peace operation with an explicit mandate from the Security Council to protect civilians was in Sierra Leone in 1999.

– The concept of the protection of civilians has gradually developed, and different UN missions have tried different methods and techniques. In 2015, the first policy on the protection of civilians in UN peace operations was adopted, and last year the policy was revised, Anna-Linn Ekenstierna says.

The development has also led to a need for the collection of good practices and guidelines in a handbook, intended to support staff in UN peace operations in their daily work in the field.

– FBA has a long-standing cooperation with the UN, and we have the expertise. The UN asked us for support to develop the handbook, and we accepted.

During the development of the book, input was collected from both key personnel within UN peace operations in the field and the UN headquarters in New York, as well as external actors.

– Field missions have learnt from each other and also tried different ways of working. The most important experiences, lessons learned and advice are now gathered, for example in the form of checklists, templates and practical examples. The development of the handbook has been an extensive project, with many key individuals consulted, so that the handbook can be of use in missions in many different contexts.

The handbook contains chapters primarily aimed at mission leadership, and chapters aimed at the protection of civilians advisers in the missions, among other things.

– The protection of civilians is a priority for UN peace operations, and all mission personnel are expected to work with this. A common misconception is that it only is a task for the military personnel, and that they intervene by force to protect civilians acutely threatened by violence.

– Just as important as intervening if something happens, is the prevention of these kinds of violent situations, so that there is no need to intervene by force at all. Prevention can, for example, be done through the mapping of potential risks for the civilian population, and dialogue with groups possibly prepared to commit violence. This work highly involves police and civilian staff in the UN missions.

Another common misconception is that UN peacekeeping is tasked with protecting all civilians from all forms of violence. The task of UN peace operations is, in reality, to protect civilians from violence stemming from the armed conflict in the area where the peacekeepers are deployed.

– However, if violence not associated with the conflict occurs and UN peacekeepers are in the vicinity and have the capacity to intervene, they shall do so. This may happen in the event of violent crime, for example an angry mob attacking someone. But the utmost responsibility to handle those kinds of situations lies within the national police force.

In fact, the protection of civilians from violence, whether it be related to armed conflict or not, is primarily the responsibility of the state.

UN peacekeepers are only mandated to intervene to protect civilians if the host country, where the peace operation is deployed, is unable to fulfill its responsibility. UN missions often support host nations in order to strengthen their capacity to protect their own people, for example by providing training for the national police and military forces.

– There are also cases of host nations unwilling to assume their responsibility. The security forces of the host nation may commit crimes against their own population. In this case, UN missions have a responsibility to intervene in order to protect civilians.

Another topic, not the least in the media, is cases of UN staff abusing the very same civilians they are tasked with protecting.

– The principle of “do no harm” is incredibly important. UN missions must, of course, mitigate all risks of endangering civilians by their own actions.

How to distinguish civilians from combatants is yet another topic. In essence, everyone not actively fighting for the armed forces of a nation or for a non-state armed group is a civilian.

– But if a person who is usually a civilian momentarily participates in hostilities, this person is not considered a civilian for the time he or she does so. When the person no longer participates in hostilities, he or she is considered a civilian worthy of protection again.

Every UN peace operation with a mandate to protect civilians must have a strategy for this work. The strategy is supposed to be revised regularly, in order to be up-to-date and meet the current needs in the area where the operation is deployed. Regular follow-ups and assessments of the work are also expected.

In the development, revision and assessment of a protection of civilians strategy, a vast number of actors outside of the UN mission are usually involved – such as the government of the host country and its armed and police forces, non-state armed groups, other UN organizations and humanitarian organizations present in the country, and not the least the local population.

– The handbook contains guidelines for the development of such a strategy, and templates for assessments. An important part of the work is to create routines for the collection of information about possible threats to the civilian population, and for the analysis of this information. No UN peace operation has the means to meet every need, especially not in the challenging places where the missions are usually deployed. The largest threats to civilians must be prioritized, and the threats that the missions have the actual ability to address.

One way of collecting information about possible threats is to establish community alert networks, where the local population is asked to provide early warning information on risks of violence.
– But while establishing community alert networks, it is important to ensure the representation of all parts of the population. For example, it may be necessary to ensure that the threats that especially women, girls, boys, or minorities face are considered, Anna-Linn Ekenstierna says.

– And it is vital to ensure women’s participation and empowerment, so that women are not perceived primarily as objects of protection.

Just as the handbook gathers experiences from the last 20 years, it will hopefully provide relevant tools that can be employed for the next 20 years.

– We hope that the handbook will be of use for as many people as possible, and that it will be a meaningful contribution to the important work being done in order to protect civilians from violence around the world.

Click here to download and read the entire handbook at the UN Department of Peace Operations’ website, where the book has recently been published. To see a video from the digital launch of the handbook, click here.

Photo from a UN field mission: UN Photo/Marco Dormini
Photo of Anna-Linn Ekenstierna and the handbook: FBA


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Saba Nowzari

Saba Nowzari is expert on Mali, the Middle East and women, peace and security

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