MINURCAT Civil Officer Distributes Radio Transmitters to Refugee Women MINURCAT Civil Officer Distributes Radio Transmitters to Refugee Women Photo credit: UN Photo/Olivia Grey Pritchard
A role for Civil Affairs in community conflict resolution? MINURCAT’s Intercommunity Dialogue Strategy in eastern Chad
by Diana Felix da Costa and John Karlsrud September 2010

Increasingly, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) is adopting more comprehensive and integrated mandates that deal not only with traditional security, but also attempt to engage in wider peacebuilding and protection efforts, including at the local community level. While in principle engagement at community-level peacebuilding is a laudable development, in practice it raises questions regarding DPKO’s capacity to fulfil this role. Although Civil Affairs work has been undertaken since the early 1990s, doctrinal development within DPKO has been slow, as it has in all areas of multidimensional peacebuilding within the UN. The Capstone Doctrine, including the Policy Directive for Civil Affairs, was first published by DPKO and the Department of Field Support in 2008. Three core areas of Civil Affairs are emphasised to support UN peacekeeping mandates at the local level: 1) cross-mission representation, monitoring and facilitation; 2) confidence-building, conflict management and support to reconciliation; and 3) support to the restoration and extension of state authority.


MINURCAT’s Intercommunity Dialogue Strategy

In eastern Chad, high levels of banditry, criminality and lawlessness are serious problems. Customary dispute management and conflict resolution mechanisms have long been the only structures able to foster community safety and protection and maintain some degree of law and order. However, displacement, conflict and growing tensions and violence, as well as rivalry with state authorities, have combined to weaken the capacity of traditional leaders to resolve conflicts. The central government has employed a divide-and-rule strategy, encouraging mutual resentment between different ethnic groups and co-opting traditional mediation and conflict management mechanisms. A new elite consisting mostly of members of the Zaghawa tribe and members of government military forces has been dispatched to eastern Chad to take up administrative positions. This new elite is slowly but surely replacing the traditional leadership.

The UN Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT) was deployed at the beginning of 2008, and is scheduled to be withdrawn at the end of 2010. MINURCAT’s broad list of tasks relating to civilian protection includes the provision of security through military patrols and escorts, as well as ‘softer’ protection measures such as Civil Affairs support to local authorities in the resolution of conflicts. In January 2009, MINURCAT was mandated to ‘support the initiatives of national and local authorities in Chad to resolve local tensions and promote local reconciliation efforts, in order to enhance the environment for the return of internally displaced persons’.[1] In line with this, a strategy to support Intercommunity Dialogue (ICD) at the local level was developed by MINURCAT’s Political and Civil Affairs Section (POLCA). Three regional field offices were responsible for ICD, with three main pillars for intervention: 1) conflict prevention and the development of early warning systems; 2) conflict resolution by supporting existing mechanisms or assisting in the creation of new structures; and 3) developing follow-up and monitoring systems.

POLCA’s role involved consulting local authorities to identify priorities for action. Once these were determined, POLCA would offer its assistance to the local administrative authorities in bringing concerned actors together. In each case, a Quick Impact Project (QIP) (such as the construction of a common well or market) would be suggested to enhance interdependence between conflicting communities. Once local authorities had accepted POLCA as a facilitator, confidence-building activities would begin, involving regular visits to each conflicting side. If the leaders of both communities expressed their willingness to enter into dialogue, local administrative and customary authorities would be informed, and arrangements made to organise an ‘official’ reconciliation event through existing customary conflict resolution mechanisms, such as the Elders Commission. All administrative and traditional authorities in the region would be invited to witness the event. A Reconciliation Commission comprising members of both communities would then be established, which would function both as an early-warning system and follow-up mechanism.

In one of the three field offices the POLCA team had a thorough understanding of the region it was operating in and enjoyed an excellent rapport with both the administrative and the customary authorities. Through collaboration with MINURCAT’s human rights section, information was systematically collected and constant communication maintained with other actors, including UNHCR and its national NGO counterpart Eirene, alongside other NGOs involved in protection and economic recovery. The POLCA office used reliable and up-to-date information to inform its community peacebuilding strategy. Staff invested in building relationships and trust with local authorities and developing follow-up mechanisms, including supporting Reconciliation Commissions and encouraging other more long-term actors in eastern Chad to implement economic recovery projects with tangible ‘peace dividends’. In another location, however, UN agencies and NGOs expressed confusion over POLCA’s role in intercommunity dialogue. The leading officer showed little understanding of the context, and apart from the establishment of an Intercommunity Dialogue Working Group chaired by the regional governor, and the implementation of a few QIPs, little was done. All three field offices seemed to lack awareness of what was happening in areas beyond their operational control, and information flows within POLCA were poor.

Quantifying the impact of these initiatives is a challenge. The dialogue processes that were facilitated reportedly resulted in some IDP returns, but these were not properly verified. Overall, POLCA’s intercommunity dialogue did not live up to expectations. In part, this can be explained by the failure to invest sufficiently in follow-up mechanisms. More broadly, the Chadian government’s withdrawal of consent for the MINURCAT mission as a whole, and its subsequent withdrawal by the end of 2010, raises obvious questions about the sustainability of the strategy. The government argues that it is able to provide a secure environment without peacekeepers on the ground. NGOs working in returnee areas seriously question this, and point out that, without security provision, programmes will grind to a halt.


Is there a role for UN peacekeeping operations in community conflict resolution?

Even when good local context analysis is carried out and applied, lack of commitment from local actors will cause local peacebuilding initiatives to fail. The most pressing question when assessing MINURCAT’s role in peacebuilding in eastern Chad is whether local actors actually want external assistance in the first place. MINURCAT’s mandate problematically assumes that national and local authorities in Chad are committed to ‘resolving local tensions and promoting reconciliation efforts’ and actively interested in changing the status quo. This is a perilous assumption in Chad, where the government often appears to support specific ethnic groups and has a long history of co-opting customary authorities and opposition members.

With all-embracing mandates incorporating issues ranging from rule of law and gender to human rights and security sector reform – to name just a few – legitimate questions can be raised as to whether multidimensional UN peacekeeping operations have sufficient expertise and contextual knowledge to carry out effective conflict resolution and peacebuilding work at the local level. A mission can bring added resources and contribute positively to an intercommunity dialogue process, but it is clear that, if peacekeeping operations take on this task, it must be done in close cooperation with other UN agencies, NGOs and local partners, to ensure that engagement continues after the mission has left.

In eastern Chad, facilitating intercommunity dialogue consisted mainly of simple, low-cost interventions. When done well, such interventions can provide a UN operation with key knowledge and contribute to the bottom-up peacebuilding that is key to the long-term success of any peace operation.[2] However, engaging in local intercommunity dialogue requires specific local knowledge, flexibility and long-term, sustained commitment, a challenge for large, unwieldy and time-limited peacekeeping operations. Together with the short-term, project-based cultures of some donor organisations, this generates considerable pressure for the rapid achievement of concrete and measurable results.  Success is thus often measured in terms of tangible outcomes such as the quantity of infrastructure rehabilitated or numbers of returned IDPs and refugees, rather than whether the underlying causes of conflict (and the political dynamics) have been sustainably addressed. Any engagement has to be sustained, long-term and aimed at building the capacity of local governance structures, as well as partnerships with national NGOs and other actors to ensure continuity after the UN has pulled out.  UN peacekeeping Civil Affairs may prove to be an asset in facilitating the space required for intercommunity dialogue and in advocating for early recovery activities by fostering structures that meet basic human needs and maximise public participation, but this has to be done alongside national authorities, involving all relevant actors and within a realistic timeframe.


Some requirements for UN engagement in community conflict resolution

Based on MINURCAT’s limited experience of intercommunity dialogue in eastern Chad, some reflections can be put forward for DPKO’s future engagement in interventions in similar contexts.

  • Intercommunity dialogue/reconciliation strategies must be part of a wider intervention effort – return areas should be safe, and quick-impact projects should be implemented to support voluntary return, in parallel with support for local administrations and other early recovery activities, together with the UN Country Team and other actors. 
  • The UN peace operation and the UN Country Team must maximise partnerships, develop activities and exit strategies with other UN agencies, such as UNHCR and UNDP, and international and national NGOs, which have deeper knowledge of local conflicts and are longer-term actors in the country.
  • The spotlight should be put on local administrative practices and on ensuring that local administrators treat different ethnic communities equally; the international community should be careful in its support for the development of local administration structures, so as not to further exacerbate conflicts between ethnic groups and unwittingly endorse one particular clan over another.
  • More emphasis is required on communication both internally within the peacekeeping mission offices and with other national and international NGOs supporting intercommunity reconciliation.
  • Quantifying the impact of intercommunity reconciliation initiatives remains a challenge and should not be based solely on the number of returns.
  • When facing a lack of commitment by local actors, all actors must continue to build confidence and promote channels of communication between them, and encourage through all possible means a national, inclusive dialogue.


Diana Felix da Costa (diana.fcosta@gmail.com) undertook her MA research in eastern Chad on MINURCAT’s Civil Affairs involvement in intercommunity dialogue. She now works for Instituto Marquês de Valle Flôr in Timor-Leste. John Karlsrud (john.karlsrud@gmail.com) was the Special Assistant to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of MINURCAT and is presently a Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and an employee of UNDP. The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily represent those of the UN.


[1] United Nations Security Council Resolution 1861, January 2009.

[2] S. N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006).