Protection of Civilians: The Need for a Shift from Generic Towards Context-specific Approaches

No other goal better captures the ethos of what UN peacekeeping should be about than Protection of Civilians (PoC). Despite the clarity of the call, however, how exactly the UN should protect civilians remains ambiguously complex and pose challenging ethical dilemmas. As a result, peacekeepers have, more often than not, opted for a more cautious approach at the operational and tactical levels.[1]

The most serious challenge for PoC role is the inherent tension in the relationship between the peacekeeping mission and national authorities. Missions are dependent on the consent of the host government and are mandated to support the local security forces that have the primary responsibility for protecting their citizens. In missions like UNAMID in Darfur or UNMISS in South Sudan, where the UN shelter civilians who believe they are at risk from government forces, or where the government is complicit in attacks on civilians, UN peacekeepers are placed in an impossible position where carrying out their mandate may result in an armed confrontation with host government forces.[2] Such incidents may result in a loss of consent, and the UN’s continued ability to protect civilians. UN leadership are thus forced to confront the ethical dilemma where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

  • The tension between the Mission and the host government can be better managed politically through clear and iterative communication with national and local authorities, so that they are aware of the mission’s PoC mandate and how it will approach situations where they encounter civilians at risk of imminent violence.
  • Uniformed peacekeepers can be better prepared to use the mission-specific SOPs and Rule of Engagements that have been developed for PoC, and this is best done in mission contexts by bringing the actual officers at different levels of command together to practice their responses to various scenarios.
  • The UN should also improve its engagement with TCCs and PCCs and discuss with them how their peacekeepers are expected to act when faced with various PoC scenarios.

A second challenge is the tension between peacekeeping and humanitarian approaches to PoC. Although these differences are deeply rooted in principle and doctrine and can’t be resolved, past experience has shown that the relationship can be managed through meaningful coordination. The aim should not be to arrive at a common approach, but to bring both sides to a point where they respect the role and contribution of the other and therefore recognize the need to coexist and coordinate. Acting robustly against those that threaten civilians are likely to result in displacements and other negative consequences for civilians, especially when the aggressors are embedded within civilian populations, like the FDLR in eastern DRC.

  • Mission PoC strategies should not shy away from these tensions, but be explicit about the efforts they will apply to address and manage these them.
  • Mechanisms need to be in place where potential differences can be managed on a case-by-case basis, and a culture of frank and open dialogue needs to be developed, based on mutual recognition and respect.

Peacekeeping mission strategies have shown a lack of appreciation for the social capital of host communities to manage their own protection. Local societies will have developed coping strategies for protection before the deployment of the mission, and will continue to apply such approaches after the mission has withdrawn. There has been too little focus on how to assess the populations’ own perception of threats and protection needs.

  • The PoC strategies of the missions should be more sensitive to how they can support local protection capacities, as opposed to imposing their own ideas and approaches on host communities.
  • POC strategies should be more sensitive to the unintended consequences of mission actions, and be more proactive in monitoring the impact they are having, including potential side effects.[3]

A comparison of the PoC strategies of several missions reveals how generic guidance needs to be applied differently in specific contexts, and how the time-period, or phase, the mission finds itself in, needs to be taken into consideration.[4] All these findings point to the need for a shift from generic guidelines to a mission specific and case-by-case approach to Protection.

First published in “United Nations Peace Operations: Aligning Principles and Practice”, edited by Mateja Peter and published by NUPI in March 2015, and available at:

[1] Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), Evaluation of the implementation of protection of civilians mandates in United Nations peacekeeping operations, 7 March 2014, A/68/787, United Nations.

[2] Diana Felix da Costa and Cedric de Coning, “United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS)”, in The Oxford Handbook of U.N. Peacekeeping Operations, Oxford University Press, 2014, available at:

[3] Chiyuki Aoi, Cedric de Coning and Ramesh Thakur (eds), Unintended Consequences of Peacekeeping Operations, United Nations University Press, 2007,Tokyo.

[4] Cedric de Coning, Walter Lotze & Andreas Øien Stensland, Mission-wide Strategies for the Protection of Civilians: A Comparison of MONUC, UNAMID and UNMIS, NUPI Working Paper 792, Security in Practice 7/2011, Oslo: NUPI.

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