Picture credit: Sylvain Liechti/MONUSCO, 7 March 2013
Recent fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has highlighted familiar questions about the role of and expectations on United Nations (UN) peacekeepers when it comes to protecting civilians from harm.
The photograph above depicts a ‘Mobile Operating Base’ of the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) in Kitshanga, North Kivu, surrounded by the makeshift shelters of people displaced due to five days of heavy fighting – violence that claimed the lives of around 100 people and displaced thousands more. UN peacekeeping compounds, bases and their environs – no matter how rudimentary or ill-prepared – often become the site for impromptu camps and de facto ‘safe areas’ in times of crisis when vulnerable civilians gravitate towards them seeking the protection and sanctuary of the UN.
This may be a reasonable expectation. After all, since 2000 – under the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC), reconfigured and renamed in July 2010 as MONUSCO – peacekeepers have had an explicit mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to ‘protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence’. However, whilst the photographs speak volumes, they also mask a more difficult reality for the UN’s blue helmets when it comes to protecting civilians. Despite concerted efforts, UN peacekeepers have struggled to protect people from targeted violence and predation in DRC – particularly in the Kivu provinces of the east.
Firstly, despite a mandate from the Security Council that explicitly prioritizes the protection of civilians, the Rules of Engagement (ROEs) guiding the use of force by peacekeepers restrict what is permissible. There are many tactics peacekeepers can employ to protect civilians, however, other militarily feasible options are often prohibited. The defence of bases and civilians in/around them is also governed by a set of legal considerations, including international humanitarian law. Whilst it is permitted for commanders to accept defenseless civilians onto UN bases at their discretion, and this often occurs, it requires a proactive and committed stance by commanders as well as creative interpretation of ROEs and the mission mandate to take effective action in these circumstances.
Secondly, caveats placed upon troop contributions back in national capitals also affect the ability of UN peacekeepers to provide direct physical protection to civilians. It is not uncommon for different national contingents to deviate in their behavior and response to protection challenges because of these restrictions.
Although neither ROEs nor national caveats are publicly available, the difficulties they present for Force Commanders and Special Representatives of the Secretary-General are well-known and constitute a major challenge to a predictable, consistent and coherent protection response.
Thirdly, even where ROEs and national caveats are not inhibitive, the means provided to peacekeepers to achieve civilian protection objectives are often insufficient. For instance, blue helmets in isolated operating bases suffer from a crippling lack of mobility. Air-lift capacity remains most critical, but even basic ground transport and communications equipment could help to mitigate some of these deficits and allow for innovative approaches amongst military and civilian components of missions. Recent debates at the UN surrounding deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles to assist in threat surveillance and preventive activities in DRC point to potential, albeit contentious, force multipliers in this regard. Although resources are scarce, it is also important to support complementary activities such as indirect forms of protection by police and other substantive civilian components, as well as preventive action through building the protective capacity of the host state and local communities.
In recent years there has been significant progress in developing a strategic framework and an operational concept for protection of civilians in UN peacekeeping, the elaboration on doctrine for when and how peacekeepers should use force to protect civilians, as well as the design and delivery of standardised training modules on these issues. These developments have the potential to improve the effectiveness of peacekeepers asked to protect civilians in mortal danger. However, it is critical that improved guidance is matched with commensurate resources and political support for effective action when the rubber hits the road.
After 12 years of UN peacekeeping in DRC civilians in the Kivus remain vulnerable and there have been noteworthy incidents of anti-MONUSCO protests. Nevertheless, the men, women and children of the eastern Congo continue to turn to the UN flag for protection when violence and chaos erupt. The Congolese government and its international partners face major challenges in stabilizing the country – not least those relating to the illegal trade in natural resources/minerals and broadly defined security and justice sector reform. In the meantime, meeting high expectations around the protection of civilians – including from targeted attacks and disturbing levels of sexual and gender-based violence – will continue to be vital to the credibility of UN peacekeepers, both in the eyes of international public opinion and the local populations so susceptible to the ebb and flow of deadly violence around them.
The DRC is a microcosm for UN peacekeeping in general. Providing protection to vulnerable populations when they most need it is critical to the credibility and therefore the sustainability of peace operations as a legitimate and effective tool for conflict management.
Weir, Erin A., and Charles T. Hunt. “DR Congo: Support Community-Based Tools for MONUSCO“, Field Report, Washington DC: Refugees International, 2011.
Wills, Siobhán. Protecting Civilians: The Obligations of Peacekeepers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Charles T. Hunt is a Lecturer in International Security at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. He has previously conducted fieldwork in the DRC on MONUSCO’s civilian protection activities for Refugees International.