Mahmoud: Unarmed Protection Addresses Civilian Vulnerability in Conflict

Youssef Mahmoud told an IPI audience September 15th that “unarmed protection is not about the presence or the absence of arms,” in UN peacekeeping activities, but rather, “this is about a culture, a way of going about addressing the vulnerabilities of civilians in armed conflict.”

Mr. Mahmoud serves as a member of the High-Level Independent Panel that recommended UN Peace Operations “become more field-focused” and “people-centered.” These recommendations emerged in the report that gave prominence to unarmed protection of civilians, he said.

This people-centered re-focus in the Secretariat will be necessary for the UN to adapt as civilians and UN personnel are increasingly targeted in the field. By developing a relationship of trust with the populations where the UN deploys, Mr. Mahmoud said, the UN will be enabled to design “more effective protection of civilians, but also a better protection of Peacekeepers themselves.”

Ambassador Ufuk Gokcen, Permanent Observer of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to the UN, which co-organized the Policy Forum, noted that while the unarmed civilian protection concept is just now being recognized by the UN and the international system, it has already been successfully implemented in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and South Sudan.

Ambassador Gokcen urged an expansion of the network of actors involved in the discussion of methods for unarmed civilian protection beyond governments and international organizations, emphasizing that religious leaders had much to offer, in particular on how to best ensure the protection of religious minorities.

Tiffany Easthom provided a technical perspective about the day-to-day implementation of the protection of civilians concept by drawing upon her experience as Nonviolent Peaceforce’s Country Director in South Sudan.

Through her organization’s evaluation work, they found a direct correlation between the presence of unarmed civilian peacekeepers and the decision not to harm civilians by armed people who would otherwise target them.

She shared the experience of Derrick, an unarmed peacekeeper in South Sudan, who worked to protect civilians during last year’s Bentiu massacre.

As armed gunmen tried to reach the women and children Derrick protected, he declared himself as an unarmed humanitarian, and recalled hearing them then instruct each other not to enter, because there were “internationals in there.”

Ms. Easthom concluded with this extreme, but clear, example of how unarmed civilian protection “created a deterrent effect that created an immediate life-saving situation.”

Rudelemar Bueno de Faria, UN Representative of the World Council of Churches, a network representing 500 million Christians, shared another example of successful implementation of unarmed protection.

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) brings volunteers from 25 countries to live in selected communities throughout the region, including the West Bank, he said. “Through this action, we have seen the number of violent attacks against Palestinians diminished because of the international presence,” he said.

The program includes different faiths, especially Jews and Muslims, he said. One example of how volunteers provide protective accompaniment to civilian Palestinians is helping them get around the restrictions of freedom of movement by escorting them to places of worship.

The volunteers have additionally made an impact by monitoring human rights abuses, and working in collaboration with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, he said.

Following these two non-governmental panelists, Eiko Ikegaya, a Deputy Chief in UN Peacekeeping’s Policy and Best Practice Service, provided a different perspective. She began by drawing attention to the importance of context, stating, “There is no one size fits all when it comes to protection of civilians generally, but especially in terms of unarmed civilians and strategies.”

To that end, Ms. Ikegaya said, while there needs to be much recognition of unarmed protection at the United Nations, “there is an important place for armed protection as well.”

Ms. Easthom also stressed that adaptability is a key element to effective protection work. “How we engage on a day-to-day basis,” she said, “may look very different from place to place, even within the same country depending on what is actually happening.”

Ms. Ikegaya provided some context to the language often found in UN Security Council mandates regarding protection of civilians, which “includes deployment of ‘all necessary means,’ aimed at preventing or responding to threats of physical violence,” she said.

While “it is the responsibility of host governments to provide the protection of civilians,” she said, “Of course there are occasions when host governments may not be able to, or may not be willing to, in which case it is Peacekeeping Operations that have a responsibility to provide the protection.”

Mr. Mahmoud addressed a critique of this definition to Ms. Ikegaya, telling her, “As you know, ‘all necessary means’ is a code word for forceful intervention.”

The UN protection of civilian definition does not make explicit reference to unarmed protection, so Mr. Mahmoud recommended adding “a little comma after ‘all necessary means,’ including unarmed civilian protection.” He conceded his suggestion “might be a different definition,” but it was met with applause from the audience.

Mr. Mahmoud drew out a theme all speakers touched upon: prevention. “Protection of civilians, unarmed or armed, is not making war safe for civilians.” he said. “This is about looking at the drivers. We must not forget prevention and the politics. This is looking at the root causes that bring about the violence. It’s ok to mitigate it by various means, but that’s not the end in itself.”

IPI Senior Adviser Youssef Mahmoud moderated the conversation.

Watch event: