July/Aug. 13: Protection of civilians: time to rethink the concept

by Jaïr van der Lijn
In November 2013 the United Nations Secretary-General is expected to release his next report on the protection of civilians (POC) in armed conflict. With the ongoing debates in anticipation of the report, and as the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide approaches, now is the time to reflect on what the concept of POC has achieved so far, and how its implementation needs to be adjusted.

The Rwandan genocide showed how participants in a peace operation that lacks an adequate mandate and political support can stand by and watch the massacre of civilians. In 1999, to prevent this from happening again, the report of the Independent Inquiry on Rwanda placed the protection of civilians—in particular, those who are under imminent threat—on the agenda of the UN Security Council. The report argued that POC is consistent with ‘the perception and the expectation of protection created by [an operation’s] very presence’. In that same year, the UN Mission in Sierra Leone was the first operation to be partly mandated under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to ‘take the necessary action . . . to afford protection to civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, taking into account the responsibilities of the Government of Sierra Leone’. Later that year, the Security Council affirmed its intention to give all UN peace operations suitable mandates and adequate resources for POC.

At first glance this is certainly the right thing to do. However, the 2000 Brahimi Report on UN peace operations noted concerns ‘about the credibility and achievability of a blanket mandate in this area’. It pointed out that ‘if an operation is given a mandate to protect civilians, . . . it also must be given the specific resources needed to carry out that mandate’. These words would turn out to be very prescient.

False expectations: problematic implementation

In practice, for more than a decade the UN has struggled with its POC mandates. Peace operations have been both unable and unwilling to adequately protect civilians, due to a lack of capacity and a reluctance to risk the lives of their troops. Unrealistic views of what is achievable have meant that the expectations of the international community and local civilians have not been met, leading to criticism of the UN. Two examples illustrate the problematic character of POC.

In 2011 and 2012 the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) faced fierce criticism when it initially remained passive during inter-communal violence in Jonglei state. This prompted the mission to make POC the centrepiece of its operations. In June 2012 an ambitious POC strategy was presented which, however, raised expectations even higher. To counter such unrealistic expectations, UNMISS was forced to start an outreach programme to improve understanding of its role among the South Sudanese population.

In November 2012 the UN was again confronted with outrage when the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) was accused of literally having stood by and watched as the rebel movement M23 took the city of Goma. Once again, the UN mission could not live up to its POC mandate. This was particularly painful given that the UN force appeared to outnumber the rebels and was far better equipped. The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, called MONUSCO’s conduct ‘absurd’, and across eastern DRC angry mobs threw stones at MONUSCO personnel and facilities and burned down UN compounds.

Civilians sometimes act on the false expectation that a UN mission will afford them protection. This may place civilians in graver danger, as they could have fled the area. Moreover, the lack of a realistic assessment of what is possible leads to local and international dissatisfaction and eventually to UN missions losing their legitimacy. In order to avoid the continuous disappointment in missions and their protection of civilians, the UN has three alternatives.

In an ideal world: increase the capacity of operations

If the UN wants to live up to its POC mandates and not create false expectations, it needs to deploy much more robust missions. Increasing the number of troops and their capabilities to a level whereby they can actually hold territory and control regions would be part of this, but it would also require troop-contributing countries to be more willing to use force and to suffer casualties. 

However, such changes are unrealistic. It is already difficult to generate sufficient qualified personnel and equipment for a number of missions. Austerity measures and host state attitudes would be further obstacles. In fact, as already noted in the Brahimi Report, it is unlikely that operations will ever be able to effectively control most mission areas to the extent that they have sufficient capacity to protect civilians. For example, South Sudan is the size of France and UNMISS’s current strength of 7600 uniformed personnel does not even come close to the numbers required to control such a large area.

A practical alternative: remove protection of civilians from mission mandates, but continue protecting civilians

If the UN accepts that it will never be able to effectively protect civilians and seeks to avoid false expectations and subsequent dissatisfaction, it should abandon the goal of POC and remove it from mission mandates. This would not necessarily mean that protection of civilians would be abandoned altogether. Contingents could still protect civilians on a limited scale within the context of civil–military cooperation (CIMIC)—that is, military assistance to the local population in support of the military mission and in order to win their hearts and minds. Moreover, in robust peace operations the mandate to use force for self-defence would be sufficient to allow protection of civilians by either escorting them or taking positions among the population and responding forcefully when attacked. 

Although this option would remove false expectations, the concept of POC has probably become too engrained in the DNA of the international system for it to be abandoned.

The realistic option: introduce the concept of limited POC in mandates

The limitations on POC in UN mission mandates are currently still very imprecise. Phrases such as ‘without prejudice to the responsibility of the government’ and ‘within the capabilities of the operation’, which appear in mission POC mandates, can be widely interpreted. Making it clearer in the mandate of missions what action can be expected and in which cases the missions will not assist, and relating these limits on POC to the capacity of the forces, may help to lower the current false hopes and make POC more realistic. 

Mandates for limited POC could spell out the exact forms of POC that a mission can undertake. Limitations could be placed 

  • on locations, by limiting POC to an area or town;
  • on groups to be protected, by identifying the most vulnerable population more clearly, and taking active steps to protect them, such as through encampment for short periods of time; or 
  • by specifying particular activities to be implemented by the mission, for example demilitarization operations or improving policing. 


A mission limited in this way would be required to undertake measures aimed at creating an environment in which the safety and security of civilians is enhanced significantly, but not to provide full protection of all civilians. These limits need to be spelled out not only in a mission’s ‘concept of operations’ document (which is not public) but also in its mandate (which is publicized). 

The concept of limited POCcan be used to operationalize POC. Without such a limitation in mission mandates, outreach programmes to local populations and explanation to an international audience will not be sufficient to manage expectations.

The way forward

With the ongoing debates on POC both within and outside the UN Security Council in anticipation of the Secretary-General’s report, now is the time to consider the implementation of POC mandates in peace operations. Whatever modifications are contemplated, the limited resources available for the protection of civilians mean that there is a need to be fair both to the local population in the light of its expectations and to the troop-contributing countries. 

Of course, in an ideal world the first choice would be to increase the capacity of operations. We all want to protect civilians under imminent threat. However, a more realistic approach is needed and the false expectations that have been raised among the international community and, in particular, the local populations should be addressed. 

A practical option would be to remove explicit mention of POC from mission’s mandates and protect civilians as a CIMIC activity. However, it is not realistic to think that POC can be entirely erased from current political thinking.

Consequently, introducing the concept of limited POC stands the best chance of being accepted in the international arena. If the current concept of POC cannot be abandoned, it will at least have to be operationalized, limited and made more realistic. Much more clarity will be needed on what a mission will and will not do. Otherwise, local populations and the international community will continue to be disappointed by the UN in the future.

Jaïr van der Lijn is a Senior Researcher with the Armed Conflict and Conflict Management Programme.
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