Saturday, 15 January 2022

UN Peace Operations Part IV Protection of Civilians

Edited by A K Bardalai and Pradeep Goswami Vij Books India Pvt Ltd New Delhi (India) A Joint USI - ICWA Publication, Published by Vij Books India Pvt Ltd, 2022

pp.  19-29

UN Peace Operations: Protection of Civilians

Protection of Civilians: Concept and the Core Obligation of the UN

The obligation of protection of civilians has been implicit in post Cold War UN peacekeeping mandates. The Cold War stability withdrew from many regions at its end, leading to a rash of conflicts. The post Cold War consensus in the Security Council allowed the body to innovate with its instrument already available since the Cold War days – traditional peacekeeping. Traditional peacekeeping expanded into Wider Peacekeeping over the succeeding decade, being applied in many settings in what later came to be termed as multidimensional mandates. Since civilians were victims of violence in most conflicts then, UN peacekeeping operations had to grapple with how to contain and rollback such violence. Peacekeeping operations met with a considerable set back by the mid nineties, when they were found wanting in coping with the violence against civilians even in areas of their presence as in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda. The early promise of peacekeeping operations for addressing such areas of conflict suffered a momentary setback. The hiatus in the late nineties was put to good use and by the turn of the century the UN was able to conceptualise POC and deploy the concept to inform peacekeeping mandates.

The paper discusses POC by first situating POC in a theoretical paradigm and thereafter appraising the concept itself as it has evolved over the past two decades since formal inception in 1999. Finally, it seeks to locate POC in the UN scheme of addressing conflict. The finding is that POC is a significant aspect of the UN’s activity in delivering international peace and security, the organisation’s primary purpose. To the extent States remain the foremost actors on the international stage, POC remains the core obligation of States, with the UN in a supportive role. POC by the UN can come to fore temporally and locally in case the state is unable or unwilling to fulfill its obligation as first-order responder on POC or itself poses the POC threat to its people.

Theoretical prelude

The UN’s peace approaches borrow from peace studies theory. A useful start point is the famous conflict triangle in which the three angles (A, B, C) of a triangle are depicted as representing Attitude, Behaviour and Contradiction respectively. The Contradiction is the issue in dispute; Behavior is the incidence of violence the dispute occasions; and Attitudes of distrust are formed by the onset of violence. The model depicts conflict as originating in a dispute, with the ensuing violence giving rise to hostility. Consequently, the threat is not only direct – from violence – but indirect – from the structures (structural violence) and resulting culture (cultural violence). Containing direct violence brings about ‘negative peace’, but does not go far enough in addressing the root causes of violence, which alone can bring about ‘positive peace’.

The UN’s approach to peace is cognizant of the conflict model. The UN ‘agenda for peace’ involves peacekeeping addressing direct violence and bringing about negative peace. Alongside, it addresses root causes for ushering in positive peace by setting back cultural violence in terms of hostile attitudes through peacebuilding, including reconciliation initiatives, and the structural violence that gave rise to the Contradiction in first place through peacemaking. Thus, it is evident that preserving civilians from violence is not merely protecting them from physical or direct violence, but ensuring that the impetus to violence in terms of persisting problem areas and the divides these generate are removed in a holistic manner. 

POC concept

Risks and threats to civilians and the materialization of threats in horrendous violence against civilians has been a facet of conflict through the ages. However, it has gained prominence as over the past three decades intrastate armed conflict. Threats to civilians are in both the short- and long-term, and include political, security and economic factors. Consequently, the UNSC took on board the POC as a significant part of its mandate to further international peace and security. Starting from 1999, it has actively engaged with the POC concept, making it over the subsequent 20 years amount to one of the core issues on the UNSC agenda. The UNSC has passed resolutions and presidential statements on POC, that are not only country specific, related to peace operations, but also on POC in general and on POC themes as sexual violence and children in armed conflict. The UN Secretary General has also been furnishing the UNSC with periodic reports at its request since the first report in September 1999. These have initially been on an 18 month basis and lately have been annually. The UNSC has convened in open sessions to discuss POC biannually and in open Arria formula session on related themes. There is an informal expert group on POC that informs UNSC deliberations on POC relevant resolutions. The UNGA Special Committee on Peace and Security also maintains its support for POC. The UN’s latest reform initiative, the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) includes Protection as one of eight thrust areas. Peace operations have reflected the growing centrality of POC with the Secretariat developing an operational concept, a Policy, a Handbook, a framework and its POC-mandated missions have developed mission-wide integrated strategies.


The UN family comprises agencies, funds and programs specifically mandated for programmatic delivery on niche aspects of protection. They concentrate on a rights-based protection approach, including observance of international humanitarian and human rights law, humanitarian access and attending to displaced populations. For its part, a multidimensional peace operation is mandated to support peace processes, promotion and protection of human rights, building the rule of law and security sector and has specialized mandates on child protection and conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), besides being tasked with facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance. These are also some of the areas of programmatic delivery by the wider UN family comprising the UN Country Teams (UNCT) and the humanitarian country teams (HCT). Multidimensional peace operations have the expertise to engage with protection issues, in conjunction with UNCT and HCT. Structurally, integrated peacekeeping operations ensure unity through the triple-hatted deputy to the Secretary General’s special representative, thereby making full use of comparative advantages.


The POC concept as relevant to peace operations is different from the wider concept of ‘protection’. Peace operations therefore have to have an integrated approach within for the combined effort of all mission components: civilian, police and military, and a cooperative and coordinative approach without with other UN actors. While there is no agreed definition of POC between the actors, there is a shared objective by these actors to protect civilians from risks and threats to their physical integrity, including those arising from armed conflict.


Peace operations with POC mandates are specifically required to protect civilians under threat of physical violence. The definition adopted by the Secretariat of POC explicated in its Policy on POC reads:


without prejudice to the primary responsibility of the host state, integrated and coordinated activities by all civilian and uniformed mission components to prevent, deter or respond to threats of physical violence against civilians within the mission’s capabilities and areas of deployment through the use of all necessary means, up to and including deadly force.[1]


Clearly, the primary responsibility for POC is of the host state. Missions are authorised under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to use all necessary means, including the use of force, and if necessary, deadly force. This applies within the limits of the capabilities of the mission and is applicable within its areas of deployment, since operations have limitations in terms of resources and locations to which they can deploy. Notable alongside is the primacy of political resolutions to conflicts and the use of force is a last resort and in accordance with the mandate and rules of engagement.


Since multidimensional peace operations by definition have multiple capabilities, each has a separate and interdependent role to play. Reverting to the conflict triangle, it can be said that POC has to be tackled on all three angles of the triangle: Attitude, Behaviour and Contradiction. Corresponding to these angles are the three tiers of POC action: Tier I: Protection through dialogue and engagement that corresponds to the peacemaking; Tier II: Provision of physical protection corresponding to peacekeeping; and, Tier III: Establishment of a protective environment evocative of peacebuilding.


The all-of-mission activity in the three tiers is mutually reinforcing. Tier I reflects the high level panel report’s phrase, ‘the primacy of politics’, and helps fulfill the role for peacekeeping as pursuit of sustainable political solutions. The security dimension being predominant, the military and police components are at the forefront in Tier II. Tier III activities are generally planned and undertaken jointly with other partners and in coordination with the UNCT in support of host state authorities and may include security sector reform, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, rule of law support and capacity building and anti-mine action.


The activities are implemented along four phases: (i) prevention: where anticipated long term threats are latent and need nipping in the bud, (ii) pre-emption: where threats are tangible and likely to eventuate in the short term, (iii) response: when threats materialize in the short term, and (iv) consolidation: where violence has been contained and relapse needs to be avoided. The last phase serves as revert to the first phase for future threats, thereby completing a cycle.


POC as a core obligation


The host state having the responsibility for POC, the UN peace operation acts in support to the state, other than where the state is itself at the origin of the POC threat, in which case the peace operation is empowered by its mandate to judiciously manage the threat. In doing so, it must keep in mind a principle of peacekeeping: consent of the host state. That it can use force in furthering POC is in keeping with the other principle of peacekeeping that has it that force can only be used in self-defence and defence of the mandate. Since the mandate enjoins use of force for POC, employing force for the purpose is justified. The third principle of peacekeeping – impartiality - is maintained by implementing the Policy explicated guiding principles that inform such use of force: inter-alia, last resort, proportionate, mindful of consequences, grounded in international law, under effective command and control and alert to the ‘do no harm’ dictum.    


That POC is a central priority is amply clear, since elevating suffering and saving lives are consequential objectives in themselves. The Secretary General in his 2017 report to the UNSC on POC puts across the idea in the following words:


Peacekeepers must always fulfil their core obligation to protect when civilian lives are at stake, but protecting civilians requires far more than physical protection by peacekeepers. It is a whole-of-mission endeavour encompassing civilian, military and police functions such as engaging with local communities, mediating disputes, monitoring human rights violations and gathering information to prevent future violence. This must be complemented by robust political engagement at the international level, including by the Council.[2]


To the extent it is a core obligation, it is when peacekeepers are in a position to stall atrocities, mindful of the caveats attending the definition and the guiding principles. Under such circumstance even the principles of peacekeeping are not to preclude action on part of peacekeepers. Proaction on peacekeepers’ part ensures the other three candidate principles of peacekeeping: legitimacy, credibility and local ownership by people. The last is cognizant of the conceptual challenge state centricity of the international order faces from people-centric concepts as human security.


Limits of POC


Whereas POC has acquired priority mandate status among the veritable ‘christmas tree’ tasking of peace operations, proactivism on POC is not without brakes. At Tier I, the political process does not always have the momentum and inclusiveness necessary to preclude POC threats developing as a consequence. Sometimes the UN is not in a driver’s seat when deferring to regional organizations on this count and is left facing consequences. Where peace processes are slovenly, the ‘primacy of politics’ suffers. Peacemaking taking a backseat thus increases the premium on Tier II.


At Tier II, there is an impetus to robust peacekeeping that is not whole heartedly shared by troop and police contributing countries. There is continuing subscription to traditional peacekeeping thinking on the use of force. The impetus to robust peacekeeping is also viewed as a spillover from the peace enforcement operations elsewhere in the global war on terror (GWOT), which are incongruent in peacekeeping settings. Whereas the UN peacekeepers do not participate in or conduct anti-terror operations, there are other forces so authorized. This could lead to blue helmets being targeted by armed groups designated as terrorist groups and implicated as adversaries by proximity with forces engaging in peace enforcement and counter terrorism. This leads to a militarization of peacekeeping, with earlier taboo terms as ‘intelligence’ now being normalised even in a peacekeeping setting.


Further, the political economy of conflict advantages certain forces, states and their strategic partners. The direction of a political process thereby generates its own winners and losers. If Tier I peacemaking concerns position the UN against a ‘spoiler’ on ground, who then has to be tempered at Tier II by robust peacekeeping, buttressed by counter insurgency doctrinal imports from the GWOT arena, this potentially places UN forces at odds with armed groups backed by oppositional political forces. If identity issues lie at root of such conflicts, then no amount of ministration at Tier III through reconciliation can compensate. All three UN peacekeeping principles are imposed on – impartiality, consent and non-use of force - when tactical level consent is given short shrift in robust operations and separately mandated selective peace enforcement by partner forces. Resultant tension between Tiers I and II leads to a receding horizon for an exit strategy.




The turn of century ascendance of neoliberalism led to growth in the POC concept. There has been a pushback since and the world has become multipolar with Russia reemerging and China being the new superpower. This has ended the unipolar moment and the temporal consensus in the UNSC. Troop contributing countries are also chary of having troops placed in harm’s way in case of robust peacekeeping. With robust peacekeeping available as a tool, there is more likelihood of leaning on it, rather than using the political process optimally.


POC proactivism is liable to be mistaken as an external imposition in a conflict environment. Since most conflicts are in post colonial settings, with former colonial powers usually also serving as pen holders for missions with POC mandates, POC messianism may amount to a colonial holdover. Troop contributors cannot serve as mercenaries in enterprises where UN peacekeeping serves as instrument for parochial interest. Host states also resent and pushback through a cultural relativist lens against western liberal values taken for granted as universal. Such foreseeable road bumps temper the notion of POC being a core obligation for UN peacekeeping. An all-aboard POC concept and strategy must therefore make haste slowly, taking onboard divergent foci. Next steps must be in league with wider reformative aspects of the UN such as increased representativeness of the UNSC.




·         DPO, ‘Policy – The protection of civilians in peacekeeping operations’, 2019

·         DPO, ‘The protection of civilians in UN peacekeeping: Handbook’, 2020

·         DPKO/DFS, ‘Framework for Drafting Comprehensive Protection of Civilians (POC) Strategies in UN Peacekeeping Operations’, 2011

·         OCHA, ‘Building a Culture of Protection: 20 Years of the Security Council Engagement on the Protection of Civilians’, 2020

·         José Ramos-Horta, ‘Report of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations on uniting our strengths for peace: politics, partnership and people’, UN document A/70/95, S/2015/446, 2015

·         UNSC, ‘Statement by the President of the Security Council’, UN document S/PRST/2015/23, 2015

·         UNSC, ‘Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict’, UN document S/2017/414, 2017

·         Boutros-Ghali, Boutros. An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Deployment, Peacemaking and Peacekeeping. New York: United Nations, 1992

·         John Karlsrud, ‘From Liberal Peacebuilding to Stabilization and Counterterrorism’, International Peacekeeping, Volume 26, Issue 1, 2019, pp. 1-21

·         Johan Galtung, ‘Violence, Peace, and Peace Research Journal of Peace Research’,

Vol. 6, No. 3, 1969, pp. 167-191 


[1] DPO, ‘Policy – The protection of civilians in peacekeeping operations’, 2019, p. 6


[2] UNSC, ‘Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict’, UN document S/2017/414, 2017, p. 17