Last Line of Defense: How Peacekeepers Can Better Protect Civilians

Last Line of Defense1.15 MB


When violent conflict breaks out, the United States and other United Nations member states often call for the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces to create stability and protect people from harm. The UN Security Council has explicitly instructed peacekeepers to protect civilians under “imminent threat of violence” in most UN peacekeeping mandates since 1999. But there is no clarity as to what “protection” means in practice. Which circumstances require action and what level of force should be used? This has resulted in a lack of proper training, guidance and resources for peacekeepers to accomplish protection activities.

This report draws on Refugees International’s field analysis and the recommendations made in two comprehensive UN studies. It outlines concrete steps that the UN Security Council, the U.S. and other UN member states can take to address these challenges and improve peacekeepers’ ability to keep people safe in times of armed conflict.

The first challenge peacekeeping missions face is that protection of civilians is not the only priority of a peacekeeping mission. For example, the mandate for the UN peacekeeping mission in the DR Congo incorporates over 40 discreet tasks. Modern peacekeeping operations are asked to support everything from ceasefire agreements to long-term peacebuilding activities. Further, the strategies needed to protect people vary significantly depending on the type and scale of the threat. Peacekeepers may have to protect people from large-scale attacks as well as banditry and day-to-day violence. They must protect UN staff, humanitarian workers, and, of course, the peacekeepers themselves.

Commanders on the ground should not be placed in the politically difficult position to choose between competing priorities. Security Council members must craft mandates that are realistic in scope and reflect the political context and actual resources available to carry out the job. To help the Security Council do this, it is essential that early assessment teams identify the nature, persistence and scale of threats to civilian safety. The UN Secretariat and mission leadership must also clearly advise the Security Council on their actual mission requirements.

It is also essential that the Security Council consider the political implications of protection vis-à-vis other mission tasks. The very presence of peacekeepers creates expectations among local people that they will be protected if violence erupts. 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 peacebuilding objectives.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan (UNMIS) is a telling example of the cost of unclear mandates. UNMIS was deployed and resourced primarily to support the implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, but its mandate included language to protect civilians under “imminent threat of violence.” In an outbreak of violence in May 2008, thousands of people were displaced and the town of Abyei was destroyed. Local communities and international humanitarian actors were outraged that UNMIS had failed to prevent the crisis. 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.

The lack of clarity is made even more challenging by the fact that peacekeepers do not have a standard doctrine on how to conduct protection activities. This forces peacekeepers to improvise tactics in the field. Traditional military doctrines and training were built mainly to defend territories, not to protect individuals. While a refugee camp is more straightforward to defend, it is much more difficult to plan an operation to protect civilians in far-flung communities.

Nonetheless, peacekeepers have developed some activities to protect people. Many regularly conduct foot and vehicle patrols in vulnerable areas to deter attacks. Other forces have established small bases near villages where violence is likely to take place. In the DR Congo and southern Sudan, peacekeeping missions are forming joint civilian and military protection teams to assess needs and work with local community leaders to develop concrete protection strategies. Despite these efforts, there is still a need for a uniform operational definition of what protection means from a peacekeeping perspective to guide their planning and activities.

Another way to eliminate confusion in the field is to improve peacekeeping training. In addition to the standard lessons on international humanitarian law, peacekeeper training modules should be constantly updated to incorporate emerging protection strategies and tactics that have developed and proved effective over time. In particular, the U.S. Global Peace Operations initiative should work closely with the UN and other training bodies to incorporate latest practices and ensure that peacekeepers from around the world share a common understanding of their protection roles and strategies.

Clear, forceful mandates and improved training will go a long way towards addressing peacekeepers’ challenges. However, these efforts will show no results if peacekeepers are left blind, overstretched, and immobile. Peacekeeping missions routinely operate with a shortage of troops, civilian staff and equipment in some of the most insecure and logistically challenging environments in the world. It is essential that the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and UN Secretariat identify the resources that are required to fulfill protection activities effectively. Once the needs are better understood, it will be necessary for UN member states to show a greater willingness to provide those tools.

Finally, it is clear that peacekeepers and the wider community of humanitarian actors — including UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — must cooperate better to coordinate their activities when responding to a humanitarian crisis. One way to accomplish this is to hold senior mission leadership, as well as the humanitarian leadership that coordinates civilian protection activities (typically the UN High Commissioner for Refugees), accountable for ensuring constructive and ongoing engagement and dialogue between peacekeepers and the humanitarian community.

Real reform will only be possible if UN member states show their commitment to driving forward these changes. For this reason, the U.S. government has a crucial role to play. It can help craft strong, clear mandates with achievable objectives. It can support the proactive use of force to protect civilians in harm’s way, and work with global training partners to ensure high standards of quality and consistency. The U.S. is also in a position to offer advanced militaryexpertise and specialized equipment — such as appropriate armored vehicles and intelligence gathering equipment. With these efforts, the U.S. could help make it possible for peacekeepers to better identify threats against civilians, respond more quickly to violent attacks and maximize the use of scarce resources in the field.

When a crisis breaks out, the U.S. and other world leaders must do more than simply call out, “Send in the peacekeepers!” Sometimes peacekeeping isn’t the answer and other options should be considered. However, by ensuring that peacekeepers have strong, clear mandates, and the necessary guidance, tools and training, the UN and its member states can substantially improve peacekeeping operations. More importantly, they will be taking meaningful steps to maintain stability and prevent the horrific abuse and displacement of civilians around the world.

Download the full report here.