Protecting Civilians and Managing Threats

Session 1: Engaging with armed groups for the Protection of Civilians 
Session 2: Protection of Civilians in Contexts of Violent Extremism: the case of Mali 

A day-long seminar was held at IPI on October 26th on the difficulties faced by United Nations peace operations in protecting civilians in complex environments, areas where creative solutions are needed to address non-state armed groups (NSAG) and violent extremism.

Co-sponsored by IPI, the Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy (DGRIS) of the French Ministry of Armed Forces, and the Government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the meeting, entitled, Protecting Civilians and Managing Threats: Non-State Armed Groups, Violent Extremism, and UN Peace Operations, afforded an opportunity to present and discuss IPI policy papers, one paper on “engaging with armed groups for the protection of civilians” and the other paper on “protecting civilians in the context of violent extremism: the dilemmas of UN peacekeeping in Mali.”

IPI Vice President Adam Lupel opened the conversation by explaining that the event was part of IPI’s two-year project on protection of civilians (PoC) that aims to promote common understanding of what PoC means, anchor PoC in clear political strategies, and enhance the accountability system for PoC. Noting that the UN is often judged by its performance on PoC, he acknowledged that the effort was “ambitious,” but warned, “If UN peace operations fail demonstrably in their mandates to protect civilians, the consequences would be broad.”

General Thierry Lion, Senior Military Adviser at the Permanent Mission of France to the UN, said that the “legitimacy and credibility of peacekeeping missions relies first and foremost on the safety and security of civilians regardless of the perpetrators of the crimes.” But, he quickly added, “Positive developments of doctrine have not translated into systematic and consistent protection of civilians on the field, and figures in both civilian and peacekeeper casualties are alarming.”

Rear Admiral (LH) Peter van den Berg, Senior Military Adviser at the Permanent Mission of the Netherlands, said that the use of force in peace operations remained a “necessity, especially in volatile areas,” but ran the risk of PoC being “divorced” from its political goals. The way to avoid that happening, he said, was to make sure that all the strategies in the PoC toolbox were used in “full concert with each other.”

Eiko Ikegaya, Deputy Chief of Policy and Best Practices Service in the Division of Policy, Evaluation, and Training (DPET) of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations/Department of Field Support (DPKO/DFS), spoke of the importance of adopting a whole-of-mission approach for protection through joint action of military, police, and civilian personnel operating under clear guidance from leadership. She mentioned that effective protection requires strong conflict analysis, mission-wide strategies that are aligned to key political objectives, and engagement with all stakeholders, including NSAGs.

The first panel discussed IPI’s policy paper on “Engaging with armed groups for the protection of civilians: a pragmatic approach for UN peace operations.”

Ralph Mamiya, a former PoC team leader at DPKO/DFS, non-resident IPI adviser, and the author of the policy paper, said it was important to understand the individuals and networks and relationships that formed the basis of each non-state armed group (NSAG) and not to paint them all with the same broad brush. “Ultimately non-state armed groups are pragmatic actors. I think this is one of the things that really struck me,” he said.

“Despite mandates for supporting governments, or even targeting armed groups, peace operations can establish themselves as credible actors, and peace operations must be similarly pragmatic.”

He also cited the tensions of having peace operations working with host governments, which they almost always have to do. “When the cards are on the table, the peace operation will side with the government,” he said, and that raises a “conundrum.” He asked, “when you will side with the government, how do you credibly engage with non-state armed groups?”

Naomi Miyashita, Policy Planning Team Leader in the Division of Policy, Evaluation and Training of DPKO, and leader of the UN’s NSAG project, listed three erroneous “myths” about engaging with NSAGs:

  • Engaging with NSAGs is a “zero-sum game;”
  • Talking with NSAGs necessarily confers “legitimacy” on them; and
  • NSAGs are monolithic “terrorist groups.”

None of these assumptions holds true, she said, adding that “we must have a more nuanced, unbiased, and non-politicized view of what armed groups are.”

Agnès Coutou, Peacekeeping and Protection Adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said the ICRC used people ranging from physiotherapists to war surgeons to military and legal experts to understand the “anatomy” of armed groups and to reinforce the organization’s neutrality. “Neutrality is not an end in itself, it’s really a tool for accessing populations,” she said. “We are not here to solve a conflict, we are not here to participate and to, let’s say, get involved in the political reasons for this conflict. Our main aim is to reduce the human cost of it.”

Michael Semple, Professor at the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security, and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast, discussed the UN’s advances in engaging with the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. He said that, remarkably, the UN Mission in Afghanistan was able over the years to both “capture the narrative” and “affect the conduct of war” regarding civilian casualties. Engaging with an armed group like the Taliban to avoid civilian casualties, he argued, represented a unique PoC accomplishment in Afghanistan.

Adam Day, Head of Programmes at the UN University Centre for Policy Research, said that NSAGs were “fluid” in their development and changing strategies, and therefore peacekeeping missions were obliged to be flexible and, through “intelligence-driven design,” to “have their finger on the pulse.” Missions that themselves use force, like MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have a particular dilemma in persuading local populations that they are indeed impartial, he said.

IPI Senior Adviser Youssef Mahmoud, a former Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad, said, “From my experience, it challenges the leadership of the mission-head-level, whether you interpret the mandate as a ‘floor’ or a ‘ceiling,’ and then you find out ways of navigating those aspects.”

As a keynote speaker, Jack Christofides, Director of the Africa II Division of DPKO/DFS, mentioned the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative as a crucial effort to improve the effectiveness of peacekeeping in the face of stalled political processes and heightened threats against civilians and UN personnel. He stated that civilian tools are more important than ever in protection efforts, and gave the examples of  innovative approaches developed in Mali and CAR to prevent threats and support local ceasefires.

The second panel discussed IPI’s Policy paper on “Protecting civilians in the Context of violent extremism: the dilemmas of UN Peacekeeping in Mali.”

Namie Di Razza, IPI Research Fellow and author of the report, spoke of the protection threats related to violent extremism in Mali, and noted the dual posture of terrorist groups who prey on civilians but can “also have a protective agenda and a protective posture. They try sometimes to pose as protectors of the people, as bringing a certain form of justice and order.”

She also mentioned the risks associated with counter-terrorism operations and the challenges related to the position of UN peacekeepers supporting counterterrorism actors in Mali, which may negatively affect UN peacekeepers’ impartiality, hindering their ability to engage with communities at the local level.Meanwhile, contexts of violent extremism like Mali pose unique challenges for PoC, she argued, and thus the PoC toolbox must be refined and tailored to the specificities/singularities in types of violence against civilians in the country. She explained that many traditional protection tools, such as protection by presence, community engagement, engagement with armed groups, human rights monitoring, or robust operations are greatly constrained in a context of violent extremism and counter-terrorism.

She listed the three recommendations the report makes to improve the implementation of protection of civilians by the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA):

  • Explore the full spectrum of military, police, and civilian tools;
  • Ensure the independence of MINUSMA’s PoC activities from counterterrorism agendas; and
  • Design and articulate a political strategy that prioritizes PoC.

Samuel Gahigi, Mali Integrated Operational Team Leader in DPKO, mentioned the UN’s decision in 2016 to start focusing on the center of the country in addition to the North. However, the center of Mali presented the UN with a particular problem, he said, because there is no government presence there. “As much as there’s no present state presence there, I think our efforts will be always very much, if not frustrated, at least limited in scope,” he said.

Marie-Joëlle Zahar, IPI Non-Resident Fellow and professor at the University of Montreal, recalled the changing nature and names of armed groups over a 20-year-period, which she said was ill-served by the “acronym soup” in conversations about Mali today. She highlighted the importance of understanding the anatomy of armed groups and to adopt a more nuanced analysis recognizing the diversity of groups. This diversity calls for a tailored engagement strategy based on different criteria: “Do the armed groups have political grievances or not? What is their involvement in the economy? Do they hold territory? Do they have command and control?

She also insisted on the issue of messaging and communications towards both armed groups and local populations, as “the lack of communication has allowed other actors to define and instrumentalize what MINUSMA does or does not do,” she added.

Dougoukolo Alpha Oumar Ba-Konaré, independent expert and director of the Kisal Observatory, spoke of the risks of conflation between civilians and armed groups. He said that in his experience “civilians don’t like armed groups at all” and favor the return of state authorities: “In Mali, civilians are quick to forgive the blunders of the army, which is a blessing and a curse.” He also touched upon the frustration of the local population towards MINUSMA, due to initial expectations that the mission would fight terrorist groups and bring peace.

Chloé Marnay-Baszanger, Peace Missions Support Section in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), said her office worked across 14 different peace operations and other situations in non-mission settings, and realized first-hand how significantly different each case was from the other.

“PoC in Mali is much more linked to a broader kind of human rights violations” she said, and violence also “ties into counterterrorism law enforcement done by military means.” She further raised the challenge of leveraging PoC with parties to the conflict that have no political aim or stance, but rather have the objective of committing a maximum of harm, which requires different types of responses and engagement depending on the actor.

Jake Sherman, Director of IPI’s Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations and a moderator of the conversation, noted the importance of using engagement with NSAGs for the purpose of politics and peace. “We very well may see the transformation of certain actors who currently would be considered non-state armed groups being brought into government particularly at the local level,” he said. He concluded that incorporating these actors could make states “more legitimate,” which is “really important.”

Opening remarks were given by Dr. Adam Lupel, General Thierry Lion, Rear Admiral Peter van den Berg, and Eiko Ikegaya. Olivier Landour, Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy (DGRIS) of the French Ministry of Armed Forces, provided closing remarks.

Dr. Mahmoud and Mr. Sherman moderated the conversation.