Protection of Civilians in the Context of Peace Operations: Translating UN Policies into National Frameworks

When the Security Council mandated the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Sierra Leone to protect civilians in 1999, there was neither a clear definition of POC (protection of civilians) nor a way to account for action peacekeepers had taken to protect civilians. Over the last two decades, the UN Secretariat and peacekeeping missions in the field have developed a body of policy documents and training modules, and established practical tools and mechanisms to clarify and standardize the way POC should be implemented. In 2015, the UN policy on POC laid out three tiers of protection: protection through dialogue and engagement, provision of physical protection, and establishment of a protective environment. In October 2019, the UN Department of Peace Operations and Department of Operational Support issued a revised policy.

On November 12th, a workshop was held at IPI, bringing together representatives of the diplomatic community, including thematic experts and military and police advisors, UN Secretariat officials, members of the NGO community, and external researchers to explore ways POC has evolved and to determine which practices have been effective in carrying out POC. This meeting also addressed how UN POC policies compare with POC frameworks developed by specific countries and regional organizations.

This event was part of an international research project, “Implementing the POC Concept in UN Peacekeeping,” financed by the German Federal Ministry of Defence, and run by the Institute of Security and Global Affairs of the University of Leiden (ISGA), the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK), and the Global Governance Institute (GGI). Composed of two sessions, the meeting took place under the Chatham House rule of non-attribution.

During the first session, experts discussed the new revisions to the UN POC policy. Speakers noted that there had been no radical shifts or sweeping departures in this revision from the 2015 policy, which established the three tiers of POC, including dialogue and engagement, the provision of physical protection, and the establishment of a protective environment. However, there were a few significant changes. These included putting greater emphasis on political strategies, beyond the use of force to protect civilians. The revised policy also further defined roles and responsibilities for all components of peace operations, including military, police and civilian personnel, and included clearer accountability provisions. The other change that was noted was a larger emphasis on civilian harm mitigation.

Participants highlighted the need to clarify what POC entails for the different components of peace operations, through clearer mandate language, and to allocate resources that will match expectations. They specifically examined the current role of UN police units in peacekeeping, which goes beyond physical protection, and encompasses investigations and capacity-building to develop the country’s rule of law and justice system.  They also explored the role of civilian components in protection, ranging from the analysis of threats to early warning, casualty tracking, human rights monitoring, investigations and public reporting, and political engagement. Bridging military and political spheres, in particular, was seen as key in the comprehensive approach of POC. Intelligence capacities were also considered critical to collect information on threats and perpetrators, and building evidence to fight impunity.

Although the revised policy elevated the importance of accountability for the implementation of POC mandates, several participants underscored the persistent lack of an internal accountability and monitoring and evaluation system. At tactical levels, POC strategies are not always translated into concrete plans, and there are limited means to sanction inaction. Participants noted the need to improve the preparedness of peacekeepers and to ensure their readiness to protect civilians, including through specific criteria that should guide the selection of personnel.

In the meeting’s second session, discussants examined how member states can support POC. On the one hand, Security Council members, financial contributors, and troop- and police-contributing countries have a responsibility in making operations “fit” for the purpose of POC. This can be done through the provision of training and resources, and the adoption of the right “posture” and “commitment” in the field. On the other hand, member states can develop regional and national policy frameworks on POC.

Participants compared policy frameworks developed by the AU, NATO, and specific countries. It was noted that the African Union has guidelines on POC, and that all AU operations have a POC mandate, with the aim to ensure protection from its own operations and from third parties. Similarly to the UN, the AU doctrine of protection is based on a tiered approach, encompassing protection as part of the political process, protection from physical violence, the establishment of a protective environment, and rights-based protection. Participants mentioned the most recent developments and good practices to improve protection in the field, including the establishment of compliance and accountability frameworks, and civilian casualty tracking mechanisms.

It was noted as well that NATO has a policy for POC which was endorsed in 2016 by all its members. While NATO does not technically deploy peace operations as the UN does, experts said that the policy was drafted foreseeing times where NATO would deploy parallel missions and transition missions alongside the UN. While NATO has structural differences from the UN, NATO’s concept is based on a population-centric perspective of the crisis area, aiming at understanding the human environment. NATO also carries out POC through different thematic lenses: mitigating harm from NATO’s action and other perpetrators of violence, facilitating access to basic needs, and contributing to a safe and secure environment.

As another example, participants also examined the Swiss POC strategy, as Switzerland was the first country to have developed a national POC strategy in 2013, along with the Australian POC strategy. Building on lessons learned from different cases, discussants explored the many challenges and questions that should be considered by any country seeking to develop a national POC framework. One challenge is to define the scope of the protection strategy, its establishment as a defense or whole-of-government strategy, and its application to military operations, stabilization operations, or UN peace operations. Another issue to take into consideration is the use of the POC strategy as a working tool, a communication tool, for bilateral or multilateral engagement, and for policy or operational purposes. Speakers suggested the inclusion of specific POC action in diplomatic fora, beyond operational considerations for field operations.

Experts recognized that the development of national POC strategies is a nascent policy field, and that few countries have started to implement national policies on the subject. Several participants questioned how the UN, EU, NATO, AU, and national concepts should align, and recognized the lack of a common international concept of protection. They emphasized that there is no one-size-fits-all for POC national policies, but that it is important to establish clear lines of responsibility and authority. It is also vital, they said, to identify champions to serve as POC advocates in specific countries, and for the policies to engage many stakeholders of the government, legislative branches and civil society

Discussants raised points on what should be included in national protection strategies from a humanitarian standpoint. Necessary for an effective policy, they argued, were including protection for civilian property, understanding and including the work of humanitarian actors for protection, using clearer definitions of the term “civilian,” and creating action plans on counter-terrorism operations, as well as thinking about the impact of urban warfare, and the protection and dissemination of civilian data, particularly during cyber operations.

Namie Di Razza moderated the workshop and the second session, and Robin Shroeder moderated the first session.

Download the meeting agenda>>