Issue 46 - Article 9

International peacekeeping missions and civilian protection mandates: Oxfam’s experiences

March 25, 2010
Nicki Bennett, OCHA

Since 1999, UN peacekeeping missions have been explicitly mandated to protect civilians under threat. On the ground, however, there remains a significant degree of confusion amongst soldiers and civilians working within peacekeeping missions about what exactly this civilian protection mandate entails. This article provides a brief summary of Oxfam’s experiences of engaging with peacekeeping missions around their protection responsibilities in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Chad and Somalia. It argues that UN bodies and Member States must provide peacekeeping missions with better leadership and guidance to implement their protection mandate.

Civilian protection within UN peacekeeping

Recent years have witnessed an almost unprecedented surge in the deployment of UN peacekeeping missions. There are currently more than 120,000 staff working for the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), deployed in 18 UN-led peacekeeping missions around the world, at an annual cost of more than $8 billion. Increasingly, these missions have begun to shift away from the traditional structure of peacekeeping (the monitoring of a negotiated agreement between two warring parties) and towards more complex ‘multi-dimensional’ missions, whose broad list of tasks might include anything from holding elections or building the capacity of state institutions to protecting civilians or outright war-fighting.

In September 1999 – in the wake of deliberations about the world’s failure to prevent horrific violence in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia – the UN Security Council took its first step towards explicitly recognising the importance of protecting conflict-affected civilians through UN peacekeepers with the passing of Resolution 1265. The following month saw the deployment (in Sierra Leone) of the first UN peacekeeping mission with a clear protection mandate. Ten years later, very few new missions are deployed to volatile environments without an explicit mandate for protecting conflict-affected civilians. The Secretary-General has recently issued his seventh report on the protection of civilians, and the Security Council has issued more than a dozen resolutions and presidential statements on the issue.

Whilst there is no doubt that the international community’s concern for protecting civilians has become increasingly entrenched in high-level rhetoric and political language, soldiers and civilians deployed in peacekeeping missions are confused about what exactly their mandate for protection civilians involves. At the doctrinal level, the DPKO has increased overall levels of guidance, and acknowledges that the protection of civilians should form part of a mission’s ‘core business’. However, it still provides no instructions on how a civilian protection mandate translates into concrete tasks and activities.

In the absence of official guidance, some DPKO missions have taken the initiative to better define and implement their protection mandates. While some of these efforts (for example, the MONUC Force Commander’s Directive on the protection of civilians, the MONUC protection handbook and UNMIS’ strategy on the protection of civilians in Sudan) have demonstrated a degree of commitment and innovation in tackling a difficult problem, they have not benefited from the kind of leadership and institutional support that the issue requires. Faced with a need to retain host government consent, a risk-averse UN Secretariat and a widespread desire amongst some UN Member States (including many troop- and police-contributing countries) to cling to the ‘minimum use of force’ principle (one of the bedrock tenets of peacekeeping, alongside impartiality and consent), missions have unsurprisingly found it difficult to define civilian protection, agree on the precise meaning of mandate caveats[1] and translate these concepts into comprehensive strategies and concrete action.

Oxfam’s field experiences

Since 2004, Oxfam has carried out analysis on civilian protection and peacekeeping missions in at least five contexts: Darfur (AMIS and UNAMID), DRC (MONUC and EUFOR-DRC), South Sudan (UNMIS), Chad (EUFOR-Tchad/RCA and MINURCAT) and Somalia (AMISOM and potential UN mission). Though not discussed here, Oxfam has also looked at multi-dimensional intervention missions (such as ISAF in Afghanistan). This work has produced consistent recommendations and advocacy points across the five contexts, focused primarily on strengthening missions’ capacities and willingness to provide physical protection to civilians under threat. The nine most commonly identified themes that Oxfam staff in the five contexts have prioritised for engagement with peacekeeping missions are as follows:

  • Mission leadership and overall mission protection strategies.
  • Resources (military, police and other civilian) within the mission related to protection.
  • Humanitarian space within the context of Integrated Missions.
  • Civil–military relations.
  • The protection impact of specific military strategies and tactics.
  • Speed of mission deployment and impact on protection (or the perception thereof).
  • Conduct and discipline within missions.
  • Broader political context and long-term political solutions.
  • National governments’ roles and responsibilities.

Drawing on these experiences, Oxfam has engaged in local, national, regional and global debates around the impact peacekeeping missions could have on civilian protection. This has included the publication of policy papers and press releases around specific processes (such as UN Security Council debates, mandate renewals and assessment/monitoring missions) or developing trends (such as fresh escalations of violence, the emergence of new threats or changes in the external environment).

On the basis of our field operations and analysis, Oxfam has committed itself to:

  • Engaging with the UN Security Council, General Assembly and Secretariat to share experiences and lessons learnt on the implementation of protection mandates.
  • Constructively engaging with UN peacekeeping missions, at appropriate levels and in a manner that does not undermine Oxfam’s independence and impartiality, on the implementation of their civilian protection mandate.
  • Participating in relevant humanitarian fora, including general coordination meetings and protection clusters, to identify and analyse civilian protection threats and where appropriate work with others to bring these to the attention of UN peacekeeping missions.
  • Supporting efforts to assess the performance of UN peacekeeping missions in protection civilians, and wherever possible provide feedback on the perceptions of the mission amongst its beneficiary population.
  • Supporting pre-deployment and mission-specific training on civilian protection for military, police and civilian staff, and where requested take part in or contribute to protection training.
  • Conducting its operations in accordance with internationally accepted humanitarian principles and guidelines on interaction between humanitarian agencies and military forces.
  • Opposing the use of Quick Impact Projects that are similar to the work undertaken by humanitarian agencies and may confuse the roles of humanitarian agencies and militaries in the minds of beneficiaries and others.

 Global policy developments in 2009

The unprecedented demand for UN peacekeepers in recent years, and the UN’s apparent difficulties in supplying the required number of capable, well-equipped troops, police and civilian experts in a timely manner, appear to have sparked renewed interest in reform. Particularly over the past year, a number of UN bodies as well as individual Member States have returned to some of the issues raised in 2000 by the Report of the Panel on UN Peace Operations (the Brahimi Report).

At the UN Secretariat, the DPKO and the Department of Field Support (DFS) are reaching a critical point in assessing the performance of peacekeeping operations and making the necessary institutional improvements to meet future challenges. Under-Secretaries-General Alain Le Roy and Susana Malcorra have recently launched the ‘New Horizons’ reform process, which outlines eight key peacekeeping areas that require further attention and improvement. The fifth of these (‘clarity and consensus on new tasks’) proposes ‘steps to build consensus on policy and requirements both for robust peacekeeping and for protection of civilians’, which should provide an opportunity for much-needed policy development in this area. DPKO, together with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), has recently published an independent study[2] on the way its current peacekeeping operations have interpreted and implemented their protection mandates. This provides key recommendations on how to make abstract concepts more concrete and actionable.

Across the UN, individual Member States have taken the opportunity to contribute to these reform debates. Within the Security Council, Member States have revived the previously dormant working group on peacekeeping and created a new informal group on the protection of civilians. Within the UN General Assembly, the Special Committee on Peacekeeping agreed to the inclusion of a sub-section on the protection of civilians in its annual report, reversing longstanding reluctance to address this matter. Major troop and police contributing countries to peacekeeping missions have expressed a clear interest in being included in peacekeeping discussions earlier and more frequently. In the field, DPKO-led missions – with their first-hand experience of the challenges and opportunities involved in implementing protection mandates –also have a crucial role to play in reform debates.

Seizing reform opportunities – what is needed

In light of the challenges that many actors (including Oxfam) continue to observe in the field, there is a clear need for all stakeholders to seize the opportunities arising from recent debates and the renewed global interest in peacekeeping reform to improve the way in which peacekeepers protect conflict-affected civilians. The successful implementation of a protection approach within peacekeeping operations requires political will and concerted action at various levels – from the UN Security Council to individual Member States, and from the UN Secretariat down to each individual field mission and regional organisations.

First, the Security Council must provide clear leadership in protecting civilians caught up in conflict by:

  • Expressly acknowledging that national governments bear primary responsibility for protecting their people and publicly calling on them to fulfil these functions wherever possible.
  • Engaging in more forceful and courageous diplomacy with national governments as well as, where possible and appropriate, non-state armed groups to prevent, mitigate the impacts of and help countries recover from violent conflict.
  • Ensuring that peacekeeping missions deployed into situations where ceasefires or peace agreements are not fully implemented are either equipped with a clear mandate to accompany the political process or are working alongside an agreed and viable third-party mechanism that is empowered to work with warring parties to find sustainable political solutions.
  • Ensuring that peacekeeping missions serve the interests of their intended beneficiaries by explicitly requesting them to work more directly and proactively with conflict-affected communities (see below).
  • Publicly and systematically condemning all state or non-state actors evidently creating protection threats by breaching international humanitarian and human rights law, and investing in better international analysis and monitoring of such abuses (including through the increased use of fact-finding missions, commissions of inquiry and deployments of independent human rights officers to conflict zones).
  • Clearly conditioning support to national protection actors on actual adherence to international humanitarian and human rights law.
  • Supporting regional actors and institutions to carry out diplomacy (to prevent, mitigate and resolve conflict) and deploy peacekeeping missions that are capable of implementing their civilian protection mandates.
  • Working more closely with troop- and police-contributing countries to ensure that civilian protection is integrated into national military doctrines and training materials.

The UN Secretariat, including the UN Secretary-General, DPKO and DFS, must better support their field missions in carrying out their mandated protection responsibilities by:

  • Prioritising the protection of civilians within peacekeeping reform debates, and ensuring that long-standing weaknesses in resourcing, training and capacity for rapid deployments of qualified military, police and civilian staff are addressed as a matter of urgency.
  • Providing peacekeeping missions with more guidance and day-to-day support on civilian protection responsibilities, at doctrinal as well as strategic and operational levels.
  • Ensuring that guidance on civil–military relations and Quick Impact Projects corresponds to agreed Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines,[3] and that peacekeepers receive more systematic training on these issues.
  • Making consultations with the intended beneficiaries of peacekeeping missions a requirement for all technical and strategic assessment missions.
  • Requiring all peacekeeping missions to include conflict-affected communities in the monitoring and evaluation of their performance.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, all staff working for DPKO missions in the field, in particular senior management functions (including the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, his/her deputies, the Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator and Force/Police Commanders) must work together more closely on:


  • Pressing national governments to assume their responsibilities for protecting civilians under threat, and where possible supporting national institutions (particularly army, police and justice officials) in their protection responsibilities through the provision of training, capacity-building and resources.
  • Prioritising the protection of civilians within the mission implementation strategy and providing clear guidance and strategies to each mission section on what actions and activities are expected of them to contribute to civilian protection.
  • Ensuring that all relevant military, police and civilian staff receive scenario-based pre-deployment and mission-specific training on their protection responsibilities.
  • Working closely with military and police officers to prepare and design contextually appropriate responses to common protection threats (for example increased firewood/farm/market patrols, mobile operations to allow rapid response and deterrent presence around conflict hotspots to prevent looting and banditry).
  • Ensuring that civilian units within the mission are fully empowered to carry out their specific protection responsibilities and use their analysis to inform the prevention and response activities of military and police officers.
  • Regularly discussing the mission’s mandate and capacities, communities’ protection needs and protection threats, with the conflict-affected communities.
  • Directly involving conflict-affected communities in monitoring and evaluating the mission’s performance and regularly measuring public perceptions of the mission.
  • Consulting with others to improve the mission’s analysis of existing protection threats and discuss appropriate responses with other mandated protection actors (OCHA and the protection cluster can offer an entry point for establishing communication with independent humanitarian actors).

Nicki Bennett worked as Oxfam GB’s global humanitarian policy adviser from 2005 until 2009. She is currently working with OCHA in Pakistan on civil–military relations. Her email address is:

[1] Security Council resolutions often place limits on civilian protection mandates through caveats (e.g. whether troops are authorised to use ‘all necessary means’, whether protection threats are taking place in ‘the areas of deployment’ and are ‘within capabilities’, and whether the mission’s actions are ‘without prejudice to the national government’).

[2] Protecting Civilians in the Context of UN Peacekeeping Operations: Successes, Setbacks and Remaining Challenges, 2009, available online from Reliefweb.

[3] As outlined in key IASC documents, including the IASC Reference paper on Civil–Military Relationship in Complex Emergencies and Guidelines on the Use Of Military and Civil Defence Assets to Support United Nations Humanitarian Activities in Complex Emergencies (the MCDA Guidelines).


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