The Primacy of Politics and the Protection of Civilians in UN Peacekeeping Operations

Event Video

Two days after the Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians (POC) organized by Poland on May 22, 2018, an IPI policy forum took up the issue of the perceived and actual tensions between the pursuit of political solutions and the protection of civilians in peacekeeping contexts.

Ralph Mamiya, a consultant and former Protection of Civilians Team Leader, UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), recalled to the standing-room-only audience that in 2015, the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) identified the protection of civilians and the primacy of politics as “guiding lights” of modern peace operations.

Mr. Mamiya, the author of a new IPI issue brief on political strategies and protection of civilians, said he was compelled to draft the paper because the HIPPO recommendations failed to answer the “basic question of why some of our peace operations most focused on the protection of civilians are also the same ones that are identified as politically weak or lacking an exit strategy.”

The HIPPO pointed out that large missions “lost their political edge,” by directing too much focus on technical and bureaucratic concerns. This left them “falling short on key tasks like protection,” he said.

While recent debates have raised the need to better anchor protection of civilians in sound political strategies, and to reconnect protection and politics in the work of UN peacekeeping operations, this can be extremely challenging in practice, Namie Di Razza, a Research Fellow at IPI’s Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations and the Head of IPI’s Protection of Civilians Project, said.

In protracted conflict environments like South Sudan, Darfur, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the tension is exacerbated because peacekeepers must protect civilians from all threats of physical violence—including from host-state forces, she said.

As such, Mr. Mamiya said, “There’s probably no other area where the interplay between politics and protection is more important and more challenging than in engaging with the host government.”

Drawing on her experience in one of these environments, Daniela Kroslak, Principal Officer, Sudan Integrated Operations Team, UN DPKO, emphasized it was essential to “map political engagement with a longer-term political strategy by the Security Council.” Initiatives like the Secretary-General’s Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) point towards an understanding that there needs to be a cultural shift for planning beyond one-year and six-month mandates.

She said, however, that such initiatives need champions in the Security Council. She recommended the Council be more strategic with its mandates, in order to “make that political strategy beneficial to the protection of civilians.”

Emphasizing that mandates offer little guidance on key issues like access restrictions when the relationship with the host government is strained, she concluded, “A chapter VII mandate itself is neither political strategy, nor is it a protection of civilians strategy, although we sometimes pretend it is.”

Asked how to reconcile political strategies and the protection of civilians, Chloé Marnay-Baszanger, Chief of the Peace Mission Support Section, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the concepts are not always in tension, but come into conflict when “the Security Council is not strong enough to actually have political engagements that are coherent and consensual.”

However, with clear goals, the two concepts “are two very mutually reinforcing aspects of peace operations.” Pursuing a protection of civilians strategy can “actually help create space for political strategies and for political agreements,” she said.

She illustrated the potential to “leverage the multidisciplinary power of peace operations” with Afghanistan. A 2008 investigation into an Afghan Forces airstrike by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA)’s human rights component established a degree of responsibility of the government for its impact on civilians, she said. A dialogue then followed from the political side of the mission with the Afghan elders and the President, resulting in a government apology. This helped to gain traction in the mediation track, by bringing the parties together. Collectively, these events enabled the Special Representative of the Secretary-General to “move forward the political agenda of the mission.”

Sébastien Lapierre, Chief, Policy and Best Practices Service, UN DPKO, agreed that POC and political strategies were often “complementary,” and in the long-term, not in tension “because the only durable way to protect civilians is with a sustained peace, and therefore, a political peace.”

Mr. Lapierre posed a few questions for research on the non-military, non-mission based means for protection. “What does POC look like when we think about how POC is part of sustainable political solutions?” he asked. “How do we carry that through post-mission? How do we factor this into transition planning?”

Alison Giffen, Director, Center for Civilians in Conflict, also spoke to better long-term planning. She reminded participants of the HIPPO finding that “peacekeeping operations have been too focused on the extension of state presence and authority rather than on strengthening of governance.”

Ms. Giffen, formerly Senior Advisor for Peacekeeping at the US State Department, lamented government focus on strengthening the military components of peace operations, often at the expense of civilian components, rather than planning holistically. “I know from when I was in the government, and also from my continuing conversations with member states, that people don’t have a clear understanding of the current capabilities and limitations of the civilian components, nor the objectives that they’re trying to achieve,” she said.

Ms. Giffen said peacekeeping priorities have been like a pendulum, oscillating between the pursuit of political solutions and the protection of civilians. The pendulum has swung so far towards POC, that protection sometimes comes “at the expense of peace and the political,” she said. The instinct to “swing back and say, well, if we get the politics and the peace agreement right, protection will prevail in the future,” is not right either. She called on participants to integrate the concepts, “doing both at the same time.”

Ultimately, the conversation’s moderator Namie Di Razza demonstrated why the interlinkage of the concepts was essential. “Without being linked to a political vision, POC may appear as a never ending, unachievable task and distract from exit strategies and prospects of building sustaining peace.”

This was the first event of a series of discussions IPI plans to hold in the framework of its POC Program, which aims at informing UN policy and practice to enhance the delivery of protection of civilians mandates in peacekeeping contexts.

The event was co-organized with the mission of the Netherlands to the UN, and their Permanent Representative, Karel J. G. van Oosterom delivered opening remarks.