A MINUSCA peacekeeper briefs truck drivers en route to Bambari, CAR A MINUSCA peacekeeper briefs truck drivers en route to Bambari, CAR Photo credit: Catianne Tijerina/UN photos
Prioritising protection of civilians in peacekeeping in the Central African Republic
by Alison Giffen and Marla Keenan September 2014

The crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) has resulted in more than 300,000 refugees and over 630,000 internally displaced people as of June 2014.+UNHCR, ‘Fact Sheet 31 March 2014 UNHCR Operation In: Central African Republic (CAR)’, http://www.unhcr.org/51498a7d9.html OCHA Central African Republic, ‘Key Figures’, http://www.unocha.org/car Thousands of people have been killed. The international community turned to African and European forces and the United Nations to deploy troops to stabilise the country and stop the violence. The mosaic of international forces on the ground has faced two challenges: how to protect people from diverse and abundant threats and how to avoid harming civilians in the process. These challenges will not disappear when regional forces are re-hatted on 15 September 2014 under the auspices of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in CAR (MINUSCA).

Defining PoC

The protection of civilians (PoC) has two distinct conceptual meanings, both of which are critical in a context like CAR:

  • •First, PoC refers to preventing or mitigating deliberate violence against civilians, which includes direct threats to individuals and communities – acts that cause physical harm or displacement, deny freedom of movement or compromise access to livelihoods and essential services.
  • Second, PoC refers to measures that ensure international interventions (political, economic and military) comply with international law and do not cause further harm to civilians.


In December 2012, rebels from the marginalised, largely Muslim north of the country created a loosely affiliatedarmed group called the Seleka and moved towards Bangui,the capital, ousting President Francois Bozize. On their way to and while in Bangui, the Seleka committed numerous massacres and rapes, as well as looting, burning homes and destroying villages.

Seleka leader Michel Djotodia, who had taken over the country following the coup, stepped down in January 2014, allowing for a transitional government to be installed. The fractured Seleka retreated from Bangui back to the north and east of the country. Militias associated with communities that had suffered under the Seleka mobilised. These primarily Christian ‘anti-balaka’ militias targeted Muslims and anyone perceived as not supporting them.

The French government sent in a force called Operation Sangaris in December 2013 – originally 1,600 troops but later increased to 2,000 – to help stabilise the country and protect the airport. There was already a small African force on the ground. As violence escalated with the rise of the anti-balaka in late 2013, the United Nations authorised an expansion of the African force into the African Union Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA). In January 2014, the European Union authorised EUFOR-RCA to deploy 600 troops (later augmented to 1,000). Finally, in April 2014, the UN Security Council authorised MINUSCA, a UN peacekeeping force comprising 10,000 troops with a mandate to protect civilians. The Security Council also authorised the re-hatting of MISCA under the new MINUSCA operation on 15 September 2014.

Protection challenges in CAR

As with most peacekeeping operations, expectations of MINUSCA far exceed what it can deliver. UN peacekeeping operations face many obstacles to deploying quickly and effectively to protect civilians, including unpredictable, diverse and dynamic threats in-theatre. But effective protection requires detailed planning. It requires a peacekeeping operation to identify perpetrators, their means and motives; the victims, their vulnerabilities and self-protection measures; and how protection actors, including the peacekeeping operation itself, are perceived.+Alison Giffen, Community Perceptions as a Priority in Protection and Peacekeeping, Civilians in Conflict Issue Brief 2, Stimson Center, October 2013 MINUSCA faces a number of challenges in this regard. Initial international operations were designed and deployed to address the Muslim Seleka militia, and had to change plans mid-stream as the anti-balaka Christian militia increased in both strength and numbers. However, MINUSCA will have to address ongoing Seleka abuses and plan for a possible re-emergence of Seleka, despite its retreat to the north and east of the country after the resignation of Seleka leader Djotodia in January 2014.

The anti-balaka pose a particularly difficult threat. The term anti-balaka is used to describe diverse forces that can be loosely categorised into three groups: a better-armed faction with some command and control, supported by political and economic powerbrokers in the region; militias that want justice for Seleka abuses and other perceived wrongs; and criminal gangs taking advantage of a context of total impunity. Some anti-balaka use relatively advanced weapons; others use home-made weapons or machetes. Their tactics can include burning villages, looting, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence. Each type of threats requires a tailored strategy to deter or neutralise violence against civilians.

A second set of challenges includes the threats that peacekeepers face and how to respond without causing harm to civilians. The situation is polarised between civilians who are perceived as supporting the anti-balaka and those who are perceived as supporting the Seleka. As a result, international troops struggle to maintain perceptions of impartiality when carrying out their PoC activities. The French have been perceived as protecting non-Muslims, whereas some MISCA contingents are perceived as protecting only Muslims. This has contributed to attacks on international operations. Representatives of these operations have highlighted how difficult it is to protect civilians in Bangui, where it is hard to distinguish between civilians and armed actors.+Author interviews with international operations’ representatives, Bangui, March 2014

In this difficult environment, despite their best efforts, peacekeepers are likely to cause civilians to be put inadvertently in harm’s way. African Union forces have returned fire into populated areas in order to protect themselves and civilians under imminent threat. French forces have also used force to suppress attacks against themselves and civilians.+Author interviews with international operations’ representatives, Bangui, March 2014

Prioritising protection

Given these challenges, MINUSCA will need to sequence its objectives and activities. Its initial mandate includes a number of peace, security and state-building tasks. The mandate takes a phased approach, outlining initial priorities and then requesting planning for additional tasks as conditions permit. Even so, the mandate includes an extensive list of 29 priority and six additional tasks, with little indication of how they should be sequenced. These tasks will compete with each other for mission resources, detracting from immediate PoC needs and objectives.

While the majority of the priority tasks directly contribute to PoC, some require additional assessment to ensure that they do not exacerbate violence, and may take years to implement. For example, protecting civilians from the threat of physical violence, promoting and protecting human rights and facilitating humanitarian assistance are immediate needs; extending state authority, support for the rule of law and the disarmament, demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration of armed actors require far more assessment and planning.

The two key concepts of protection of civilians described above should be integrated into MINUSCA’s overall Concept of Operations (CONOPS) as well as the CONOPS of each mission component – military, police and civilian. CONOPS should include a detailed assessment of the threats to and vulnerabilities of civilians, including how to prevent and address them. They should also address how to proactively prevent and appropriately respond to any harm arising from the actions of peacekeepers themselves.

The CONOPS and subsequent PoC strategy should be coordinated with EUFOR-RCA and Sangaris to ensure complementarity and facilitate cooperation. As this article was being researched and written, operational planners were emphasising PoC in MINUSCA’s CONOPS, but it was unclear whether or how protection would be prioritised in the final version and throughout implementation.+Author interviews, New York, April 2014

In addition, all civilian, military and police components of peace operations should be trained on international human rights and humanitarian law, the practical application of rules of engagement, proactive prevention and mitigation of deliberate violence against civilians and appropriate responses to civilian harm caused by peacekeepers. These topics should be extensively covered in pre-deployment and in-theatre training. Training and planning should also take place between the military, police and civilian components of the mission. All training should be primarily scenario-based to ensure that peacekeepers and civilian mission staff are not only aware of these concepts, but also know how to implement them in the context of CAR.

Intelligence, communication and coordination are key components of effective PoC in peacekeeping. However, MINUSCA is presented with particular challenges in this area given the many international actors involved. Sangaris and EUFOR-RCA should second personnel to MINUSCA’s Joint Mission Analysis Center (JMAC) to facilitate communication, the exchange of intelligence and more coherent operational decision-making between protection actors.+UN peacekeeping operations have mechanisms including a Joint Mission Analysis Center (JMAC) and a Joint Operations Center (JOC) to ensure that peace operations have integrated operations monitoring, reporting and information analysis hubs. Adapted from UN DPKO, ‘Joint Operations Centres and Joint Mission Analysis Centres’, DPKO Policy Directive, 1 July 2006

MINUSCA will need to rapidly recruit Community Liaison Assistants (CLAs) – civilian personnel, ideally CAR nationals, who facilitate communication between conflict-affected communities and MINUSCA military and police units. These CLAs should focus on protection issues, including helping MINUSCA military and police to understand the security priorities of communities and provide feedback to communities about MINUSCA’s activities and limitations.

MINUSCA should plan and immediately institute robust policies to mitigate civilian harm as a result of the actions of peacekeepers. It is important to ensure that commanders issue practical guidance, and that soldiers are fully trained on how to implement the rules of engagement.

One emerging tool to help peacekeeping missions better understand protection threats and their impact on civilians is the Civilian Harm Tracking, Analysis & Response Cell (CHTARC).+The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), while very different from the mission in CAR, is currently implementing a cell of this type. A fully resourced cell – including staff, hardware and software – can gather and analyse information on civilian harm to help missions proactively identify where their operations may be risking harm to civilians, and how policies and practices can be amended to better avoid harm. It can also provide the mission with the information it needs to respond appropriately to any alleged civilian harm. The CHTARC could also provide important information for reporting to the UN Security Council, as required in the mandate.

Short of implementing a full CHTARC, the mission can still focus attention on mitigating civilian harm. A senior advisor to the Force Commander should be appointed to serve as a focal point for information and analysis on the impact of the mission on civilians, including practical guidance on how to minimise risk of harm, ways to address harm when it occurs and how to adjust tactics to avoid harm.+The first ‘civilian risk mitigation advisor’ (CRMA) position was created for MINUSCA in July 2013 but has yet to be filled.

In addition, whenever it is known or alleged that military or police units have caused harm to civilians, the mission should immediately investigate, relay findings to the local population and offer apologies and other culturally appropriate dignifying gestures (monetary payments, inkind gifts) for verified losses – even when the harm is accidental or incidental. Any illegal acts should of course be immediately referred to the appropriate legal mechanisms. A formal policy detailing this response would ensure that local anger over losses does not undermine the mandate. Such a policy could be implemented by the CHTARC.

The UN requires peacekeeping operations to apply the UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy to avoid supporting individuals or units of the host state’s security forces that have committed human rights abuses. The policy is relatively new, and it can take a long time for peacekeeping operations to establish an effective system. Governments with extensive experience of vetting foreign security forces, such as France and the US, could help MINUSCA to develop a vetting system to support the international security forces on the ground. This system should be embedded in MINUSCA. Although currently limited to state security forces, the vetting system should be expanded to include civilian state authorities in the government of the CAR.


The UN Security Council has begun to direct peacekeeping operations to prioritise protection in mission mandates, and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has made significant strides in developing guidance that defines the protection of civilians in peacekeeping and assists peacekeeping operations in prioritising resources to protect civilians. However, peacekeeping operations are increasingly deployed into complex environments with high levels of violence deliberately targeted against civilians, committed by diverse actors, using different tactics and driven by various motivations. In contexts like CAR, peacekeeping operations are also a direct target as a result of perceived partiality.

These operations’ credibility and legitimacy are easily tarnished in such complex environments, further undermining their ability to protect civilians and themselves. To avoid this and increase the ability of peacekeeping operations to protect civilians, the UN Security Council and DPKO need to do more to prioritise immediate protection needs from the earliest stages of assessment and planning, prior to and during deployment and throughout the implementation of the mandate.

Alison Giffen is a senior associate and co-director of the Stimson Center’s Future of Peace Operations programme, and leads Stimson’s Civilians in Conflict project. Marla Keenan is managing director at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.