Issue 48 - Article 13

Peacekeeping and the protection of civilians: an issue for humanitarians?

September 1, 2010
Damian Lilly
Children watch as U.N. peacekeepers in armoured personnel carriers (APC) patrol a key road linking Goma and Rutshuru in eastern Congo, October 28, 2008

UN peacekeeping has expanded enormously over the last decade. There are 15 UN peacekeeping missions around the world today, with 125,000 peacekeepers. As part of this expansion, UN peacekeeping missions are playing an increasing role in the protection of civilians, since first being mandated by the Security Council with such a task in 1999 in Sierra Leone. However, there is a lack of clarity about what this development means for humanitarians. Although a number of policies and guidelines have been published on humanitarian protection, these documents say remarkably little about how humanitarian agencies should engage with peacekeeping missions in this area.[1]

This is not to say that peacekeepers and humanitarians do not communicate or work together on protection. In contexts such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Darfur and Chad, UN peacekeeping missions and the humanitarian community do interact around protection issues, but their relationship can often be best described as one of co-existence rather than a meaningful desire to coordinate better. Despite the growing importance of civilian protection for both, the interaction is often ad hoc and not strategic. Coordination at the field level is not always clear, and at headquarters there is a big gap in policy and guidance to provide direction for what has arguably become a vital relationship. These deficits demand attention.


Principles and pragmatism

Humanitarian organisations have been keen to distinguish their protection action from that of peacekeeping missions in order to safeguard humanitarian principles. UN peacekeeping missions have political mandates and use military personnel; in some contexts, such as with MONUSCO in the DRC, they are perceived as having become a party to the conflict. Many agencies believe that any association with a peacekeeping mission could undermine their neutrality in the eyes of armed groups, compromise the safety and security of their staff and reduce their ability to act independently to access populations in need of aid. For their part, peacekeeping missions have taken a narrow view of their protection role, seeing it primarily in terms of ensuring the physical security of civilians, and have not always seen the need to coordinate with humanitarian organisations. Most peacekeeping missions today, however, are multi-dimensional, with traditional uniformed peacekeepers but also significant police contingents and civilian components including units dealing with child protection, gender and sexual violence, human rights and rule of law – all of which are relevant to the protection of civilians. As a result, the protection mandates of peacekeeping missions have become much more diverse, and the need to coordinate with external actors that much greater.

The majority of protection risks civilians face require coordinated approaches by peacekeepers and humanitarians. It is not possible to say that humanitarians work on some protection issues and peacekeepers on others; protection problems require collective action if they are to be addressed properly. Even protection from physical violence, in which peacekeepers obviously have a unique role to play, often relies on the analysis of humanitarian organisations to identify where problems exist. Likewise, although the protection work of humanitarian organisations focuses a great deal on internally displaced people, peacekeeping missions are often expected to protect IDP camps or help provide security to enable IDPs to return home. While there is still the need to maintain a clear distinction between their respective roles and responsibilities, not least to safeguard humanitarian principles, a pragmatic approach is required to ensure better coordination between peacekeepers and humanitarians on the protection of civilians.


Protecting civilians: an OCHA/DPKO study

This growing interface between peacekeepers and humanitarians on the protection of civilians was one of the reasons why the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) embarked on an independent study entitled Protecting Civilians in the Context of UN Peacekeeping Operations – Successes, Setbacks and Remaining Challenges, published in January 2010. The study traces the formulation of protection mandates by the UN Security Council, and their implementation by UN peacekeeping missions on the ground. Case studies on DRC (MONUC), Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) and Sudan (UNMIS and UNAMID) were analysed, highlighting a number of gaps and shortcomings. In particular, the study found that UN peacekeeping missions lacked a clear definition and conceptual understanding of civilian protection, as well as comprehensive protection strategies for implementing their mandates. They are also often poorly resourced and inadequately trained. A number of the study’s findings and recommendations were included in Security Council Resolution 1894 on the protection of civilians, which was adopted last November as the study was being finalised.

Following the study, DPKO and the Department of Field Support (DFS) – with input from UN humanitarian agencies – have developed an Operational Concept which sets a framework for the protection of civilians in peacekeeping missions. This was presented to the UN Special Committee on Peacekeeping (better known as the C34) in March 2010. The C34 suggested a number of ways in which the protection of civilians should be addressed by the UN Secretariat, including the development of a ‘strategic framework’ for protection strategies, training standards and an assessment of resources and capabilities. Following the publication of the study the issue has also been included in the work plan of the Global Protection Cluster for 2010.


Key priorities

What then are the priorities for humanitarian agencies when engaging with peacekeepers on protection, and what should their contribution be to the policy debate? Five key areas require attention.

The first concerns the definition and conceptual understanding of protection. Following a series of workshops in the late 1990s the ICRC developed a definition encompassing ‘all activities aimed at ensuring full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and refugee law’. This was adopted by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), and most humanitarian actors broadly subscribe to it. DPKO has not yet adopted a definition of the protection of civilians for peacekeeping purposes, and while noting the IASC definition has not decided whether it might be applicable to its operations. Similarly, DPKO has not taken up the ‘egg model’ developed by the humanitarian community, which sets out different layers of protective action from response to remedial assistance and environment-building. Instead, DPKO’s Operational Concept is organised around three tiers of action: support to the political process, protection from physical violence and establishing a protective environment. While there are clearly common elements between these frameworks, there are also differences.

There is debate about whether peacekeepers and humanitarians should have the same definition and conceptual model for the protection of civilians. While there is broad agreement that both are working to the same end, each community goes about things in noticeably different ways. Much has been said about the Joint Protection Teams (JPTs) of MONUSCO in DRC, which bring together the military and civilian components of the mission to devise on-the-ground protection interventions in given locations. However, there has been concern in the humanitarian community that it is not the role of civilian protection actors to advise on what are essentially military tactics. As ostensibly political-military actors, peacekeeping missions tend to see their protection role in terms of providing physical security. Humanitarian actors view their protection role more in relation to rights and remedial action once violations are committed. It may be more useful to talk of ‘humanitarian protection’ and ‘military protection’ to denote these fundamental differences. Although it is unlikely that peacekeepers and humanitarians will arrive at precisely the same conceptual understanding of civilian protection, it is important nevertheless that they continue to discuss this point.

Second is the issue of protection strategies. Both Security Council Resolution 1894 and the C34 report this year require that all UN peacekeeping missions with protection mandates develop protection strategies, though MONUSCO, UNMIS and UNAMID are the only operations that currently have them. On 31 May–1 June, DPKO, OCHA and the Global Protection Cluster held a workshop in Addis Ababa to develop specific guidance in this area. The fact that the workshop was organised jointly by peacekeepers and humanitarians shows the important collaboration now taking place on this issue. Although the scope of workshop was limited to protection strategies developed by peacekeeping missions rather than the UN system as a whole, it clarified the consultation that needs to take place in the development of these strategies with other protection actors, notably UN agencies within the Protection Cluster. The Protection Clusters has in fact already developed its own strategies in a number of countries, under the guidance of UNHCR as the Cluster lead. Peacekeeping missions and humanitarian agencies are therefore undertaking strategy development in parallel. There is clearly a need for continued collaboration between the two, as was agreed at the Addis workshop, and greater effort is required to bring these strategies together.

Third is the need to define clearly the protection roles and responsibilities of peacekeepers and humanitarians, a concern repeatedly raised by humanitarians. In many ways this is a civil–military coordination issue. While for some areas of protection responsibilities are quite clear, in others this is not the case. For example, in some contexts peacekeeping missions are responsible for seeking the release of children from armed groups, while in others this is UNICEF’s responsibility. Clarification on this is important not only because of concerns about humanitarian principles, but also to make the overall response more effective. Guidelines on civil–military coordination in crisis situations developed by the IASC are clearly relevant here, but they say little about the specific issue of the protection of civilians. More specific civil-military guidelines on the protection of civilians might be required.

The fourth issue is information sharing and analysis. Having reliable and verified information is the cornerstone of effective protection work, and this is an obvious area where peacekeepers and humanitarians have an interest in collaboration. Peacekeeping missions have enormous potential to collect information on protection risks, and peacekeepers on the ground often see the merit of establishing relations with local populations. While humanitarian organisations may be unable to go where peacekeepers are deployed, the opposite can also be true, and humanitarians regularly possess information useful to peacekeepers. The ability of humanitarian organisations to protect civilians is limited, so lobbying for the deployment of peacekeepers into areas where they believe people are at risk is a key protection activity. In the DRC, the Protection Cluster has developed a matrix in which MONUSCO and the Protection Cluster identify areas with the most pressing protection risks, into which peacekeeping units ‘should’ or ‘could’ deploy. MONUSCO has deployed peacekeepers in 80% of areas in the ‘should’ category, showing that good collaboration is possible. However, passing on information about protection problems is a sensitive issue, and doing so might affect the perceived neutrality of humanitarian organisations and endanger the people providing the information.

Fifth is coordination on the protection of civilians. The Protection Cluster is the primary coordination mechanism for humanitarian actors. In some instance, such as the DRC, peacekeeping missions have co-chaired the Protection Cluster, but for obvious reasons this practice does not seem to have been replicated elsewhere as a political-military actor coordinating a humanitarian forum is surely anathema to humanitarian principles, and for this reason this practice has been discontinued in the DRC. A priority for UN peacekeeping operations is to coordinate the disparate actors within the mission involved in the protection of civilians, including the military, police and civilian components, which in itself is a big task and requires the establishment of working groups and other such mechanisms. Like protection strategies, parallel coordination structures seem to be the established practice. Not only should participation and communication be a two-way process between the different coordination mechanisms, but a priority is surely for there to be a common decision-making forum for peacekeepers and humanitarians on the protection of civilians. MONUSCO has recently established a Senior Management Group on Protection chaired by the SRSG and comprising all relevant sections of the mission, as well as UNHCR – as the head of the Protection Cluster – and OCHA, to represent broader humanitarian interests.

In conclusion, peacekeeping and the protection of civilians is obviously an issue that should, and is, being addressed by humanitarians. There are certainly concerns about safeguarding humanitarian principles, but these should not get in the way of effective engagement between both communities to ensure complementary, and where possible coordinated, approaches to the protection of civilians.


Damian Lilly works for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). This article has been written in a personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the UN.


[1] – including ALNAP’s handbook a few years ago and the ICRC standards and the Protection Cluster IDP handbook most recently –


Comments are available for logged in members only.