Protecting Civilians While Supporting the Host State: A UN Peacekeeping Dilemma

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While most United Nations peace operations are expected to protect civilians from any source of physical violence, they also need to maintain the consent of the host-state to function. How the missions work with, despite, or even against the host state to implement their protection mandates while supporting the host state is the subject of a new IPI policy paper With or Against the State? Reconciling the Protection of Civilians and Host-State Support for UN Peacekeeping. The paper was launched at a June 10th virtual event, cosponsored by IPI and the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the UN.

“The UN is an organization of states, and support to host states represents a cornerstone of UN peacekeeping approaches,” explained Dr. Namie Di Razza, IPI Senior Fellow and Head of Protection of Civilians, who moderated the conversation. “Supporting host states is critical to ensure national ownership of protection strategies, and the sustainability of protection activities undertaken by UN peacekeepers,” but “at the same time,” she said, “where state actors, such as national security forces, are themselves responsible for violence against civilians, peacekeepers are expected to confront government actors.”

The author of the report, Dr. Patryk I. Labuda, Non-resident Fellow at IPI and Hauser Post-Doctoral Global Fellow at New York University School of Law, outlined the potential conflict between people-oriented peacekeeping and state-centric support. “On the one hand,” he said, “the rise of POC is a priority, and on the other, there is the rise of host-state support, and by that, I mean more and more mandates that require peacekeeping to support host-states. This report is an attempt to see to what extent these two parallel phenomena are compatible, or in some cases incompatible.”

Dr. Labuda reported that in his research, when he would ask peacekeepers why they were operating in a country, “they reflexively, effortlessly invoke POC, it rolls off the tongue naturally, ‘We’re here to protect civilians.’ But when you ask whether POC is something that should be done together with the host-state, in support of the host-state, reactions vary significantly. Some think that the host-state is the end game—everything the mission does, including POC, is a means to an end, empowering the host-state because it will have to take over the mission. At the other end of the spectrum, they view the state with suspicion, caution, and even mistrust.”

Among the examples of events causing friction that he highlighted were the implementation of the human rights due diligence policy, instances when support of government actors is seen as a risk to civilians, and self-censorship in missions, as in “when do peacekeeping personnel tone down or suppress criticism of the host government’s human rights record to be able to maintain cooperation?” He singled out what he called the “most controversial question: When can peacekeepers use force against state actors? The problem is that peacekeepers are dependent on host-state support, and by using force against the state, they are imperiling, weakening that host-state consent.”

Ugo Solinas, member of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Integrated Operational Team, UN Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations (DPPA/DPO), said it was essential that missions be “pragmatic” about maintaining host-state consent, which is “dynamic and ebbing and flowing in response to political interests and actors on the ground.” He expressed concern over what he viewed as an overreliance on the use of force. “These dilemmas and these problems cannot be resolved through the use of force alone… but increasingly the success, effectiveness or failure of peacekeeping operations is seen through the lens of willingness to use force. Recent years show that while force may be part of the equation, it is certainly not the solution, and certainly not when force is applied in the absence of the broader political understanding of the objective that the mission is trying to achieve in partnership with a broader set of actors who have a stake in the success of the mission.”

He said he was encouraged by evidence that an alternative approach—engagement—was “becoming the default setting instead of go/no go.” He cited engagement on human rights, justice, and child protection, where important progress has been made. “Through engagement with leadership at all levels, from the highest levels to provincial levels to communities, engagement has proven more effective, including at the height of tension in the 2016-18 period when MONUSCO (UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) was facing pushback from the authorities. Engagement helped to de-escalate tension and ensure an open line of communication that enabled the mission to create a protective environment.” He declared, “Going forward, we should be looking to strengthen those aspects.”

Aditi Gorur, Senior Fellow and Director of the Protecting Civilians in Conflict Program, Stimson Center, said a mission’s effectiveness often depended upon the kind of host-state consent it had, which she categorized in three ways— “strong,” “weak” and “compromised.” She said that “often consent may be strong at the start of the mission and can deteriorate over time,” due to developments that governments can see as threatening their sovereignty like elections. In light of this, she advised to “Take advantage of a window of strong consent at the beginning” of peacekeeping missions’ deployment.

As a general rule, she said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure… Once we reach a crisis point of consent, options become much more limited.” She said that problems in navigating consent arose often through “simple misunderstandings.” One way to head off those misunderstandings, she suggested, was for the Security Council before deployment to “sign a compact with the government for a shared political vision, with a detailed role for the government and for the mission so that expectations can be aligned.” She said governments had the “ultimate trump card of expelling missions,” and it was consequently important for missions to be developing relationships with many stakeholders beyond the head of state “so that it’s not just one individual who will be deciding whether a mission stays or leaves.” Describing the “worst-case scenario,” she said, “We want to prevent situations where missions are unintentionally bolstering autocratic states.”

Ammar Mohammed Mahmoud, Counselor, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Sudan to the UN, commented that “analyzing the element of consent on paper, the UN Security Council authorized peacekeeping missions to always give the primary responsibility of POC to national governments. But once the peacekeeping mission starts to operate, it is recommended that it engage in dialogue with the authorities, government and local communities. Whatever is the strength of the peacekeeping mission remains secondary to that of the government. That dialogue should have two objectives: implementation of the strategy of POC and building the capacity of law enforcement bodies to be equipped with international standards and best practices.”

Lizbeth Cullity, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), raised the range of challenges the mission was facing, including farmer-herder tensions, ethnic divides, class disputes, and a situation where many of the armed groups are Muslim and the central government is Christian. She said MINUSCA had focused on “investing in people who can develop watchdog groups, who can understand how local governance is operating, what local budgets look like and how they can contribute to their society.” She described how MINUSCA had developed a “complex monitoring mechanism” to track closely communities, security concerns, and political perspectives at a local level. “My favorite recommendation of the report is capacity building for a people-centered and holistic approach. I could not agree more, and that comes after 20 years of peacekeeping in Haiti and Sierra Leone and Mali, that if we focus only on the states, we will never ever reach our goal.”

In brief remarks, Karel J.G. Van Oosterom, the Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the UN, praised the IPI report. “I think the report is spot-on that stabilization missions are really something completely different with a new environment, new threats, new challenges, but also with a new role for the host governments. And indeed, is it with or against the government? I think for all of us, it would be our preference to work very closely with government—it’s very difficult to work against—but sometimes there is a friction between the two, and on that, I think your report was very enlightening.”