Protection of Civilians in Peace-building

Course: Building Peace after Conflicts

December 2009

In the past fifty years, our world has been ravaged by violent conflicts claiming the lives of many millions of civilians and leaving tens of millions permanently displaced. More increasingly civilian populations are expelled from their homes and countries, and are often denied access to life-saving food, medicine, shelter in addition to a safe and secure environment. In addition to that grave violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and blatant disrespect for the normative framework of humanity that has emerged over the past 50 years is common to many conflicts nowadays.

The examples of Srebrenica and Rwanda are still very much vivid as a constant reminder of the failure of the international community to face mass killings and violations of human rights. From those failures a new focus on violence against civilians has become an imperative in the international community, especially for the UN, in a big effort to dedicate greater attention to protecting civil populations in ongoing armed conflicts.

More and more often civilians are the main critical factor during conflicts and instead of being a side effect of the violence they are themselves a weapon of war. Civilians have therefore become the primary target of attack motivated by ethnic or religious hatred, political confrontation or simply ruthless pursuit of economic interests.

Already in 2001 the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the establishment of a “culture of protection” in his report to the Security Council, stating that:

“In such a culture, Governments would live up to their responsibilities, armed groups would respect the recognized rules of international humanitarian law, the private sector would be conscious of the impact of its engagement in crisis areas, and Member States and international organizations would display the necessary commitment to ensure decisive and rapid action in the face of crisis. The establishment of this culture will depend on the willingness of Member States […] to deal with the reality of armed groups and other non-state actors in conflicts, and the role of civil society in moving from vulnerability to security and from war to peace.”[1]

At the same time international actors do not cease to remind States and their Governments of the fact that the primary responsibility for the Protection of Civilians (POC) rests with them and that international efforts can only be complementary to Governments own efforts in this respect.[2]

In this paper I want to analyze the importance of the concept of Protection of Civilians when facing the post-conflict recovery phase in the process of peace-building. This paper will go beyond the current discussion about POC in a tentative to underline the importance of Protection of Civilians not in the peacekeeping operations but in the aftermath of the conflict, precisely when large-scale violence against civilians is supposed to be finished but the resumption of violence is still latent and can refuel the conflict.[3] The idea on the base of this perspective is that POC is a concept that cannot be isolated into the field of humanitarian affairs and peace-keeping, but that needs to be framed in a long-term prospective, where the physical protection from imminent threats is only one aspect. The definition of POC in this large framework is unfortunately not yet discussed, and I will argue that if this will not happen soon the risk is to delay the problem instead of solving it. In the conclusive part of this paper I will discuss several options that the UN can consider in the implementation of POC inside the peace-building prospective, in a tentative to link those two fields through the common strategy of Protecting Civilians.

The POC concept appeared for the first time in the Secretary-General’s report on the situation in Africa of 13 April 1998[4] in which he identified protecting civilians in situations of conflict as a “humanitarian imperative”.  This stemmed from the reality that, in recent years, civilian populations have become increasingly the main targets of fighting between hostile armies rather than chiefly indirect victims.  Since then, the Secretary-General has presented five reports to the Security Council on POC,[5] and, in turn, the Security Council has issued four resolution[6] and as well as six further presidential statements in 1999[7].  ‘Protecting the Vulnerable’ and developing a ‘Culture of Protection’ were also identified as priorities in the Secretary-General’s Millennium Declaration of September 2000, which noted the need to ‘expand and strengthen the protection of civilians in complex emergencies in conformity with international humanitarian law.’

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has been at the forefront of developing the policy framework for this culture of protection, in collaboration with other UN departments, humanitarian partner agencies and interested Member States.  Indeed, the protection of civilians is rapidly becoming a core element of OCHA’s role, and is well underway to becoming firmly established within the Security Council and key Secretariat Departments.

The elaboration of the concept of POC it is still very much debated in the internationals community, in a tentative to be able to design a concept that will be sustainable and feasible in the framework of the capabilities and resources of the UN. The idea in fact that the UN will be responsible of the physical protection of civilians during a conflict poses a lot of problems in term of sustainability and resources, but also in terms of expectations.

In this context of increasingly great importance is the independent report published by the UN and commissioned by OCHA and DPKO published in December 2009, which tries to identify gaps and problematic related to the implementation and design of peacekeeping operations with the mandate of protecting civilians. Looking at this report it is very clear that the long-term sustainability of Protection of Civilians[8] is, largely underestimated in the discussion about POC. In this matter it is understandable that POC as articulated in the UN framework has to do primarily with on-going conflicts, and the same DPKO report analyzes primarily this aspect, the one related to the Peacekeeping missions. On the other side it is extremely important that the concept of POC do not become a monopoly of peace-keepers and humanitarian actors, and that, while it is promising and auspicial that the discussion about the implementation of POC in on-going conflicts is proceeding, it is also important to design a comprehensive strategy with which include a long-term inter-disciplinary conception of POC.

The 2003 OCHA Glossary of Humanitarian Terms defines Protection of Civilians as:[9]

“A concept that encompasses all activities aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and spirit of human rights, refugee and international humanitarian law. Protection involves creating an environment conducive to respect for human beings, preventing and/or alleviating the immediate effects of a specific pattern of abuse, and restoring dignified conditions of life through reparation, restitution and rehabilitation.”

If we look carefully at this definition we can notice immediately that there are there all the basis to consider POC as a starting point for peace-building strategies, where the concept of “post-conflict peace-building”[10] indicates international efforts to reconstruct societies torn by protracted violence, defined as collective “action to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict”[11].

There is here an evident paradox: while the definition of POC speaks about human rights, in addition to humanitarian law, as well as repatriation, restitution and rehabilitation, often activities implemented in the peace-building phase, the subject that has been increasingly taking care of the development of the concept of POC is OCHA, a the facto coordination office in the UN, and not surpassingly any other UN agency with a stronger mandate, like the OHCHR.

In this context the danger the international community faces is that the relegation of POC to the field of humanitarian affairs, can be dangerous because of the protection itself seems to be relegated to the presence of open conflict, as if in the absence of open war there is also absence of need to protect. In this view the definition of POC seems to be at the heart of a long clash between humanitarian affairs and peace-building activities, a clash happening primarily inside the UN family. This problematic is increasingly important if we consider that human rights are the basic core of protection, and as stated in the ICJ opinion on nuclear weapons, humanitarian law is a category of human rights law, and therefore a specification of it. Therefore the definition of POC should start from the human rights points of view and then be narrowed to the humanitarian field level, and not the contrary, leading to a long-term strategy of POC, from the beginning to the aftermath, in a definition that has to be considered as the starting point of any peace-building effort.

When the peace-building phase starts after a humanitarian emergency or a peacekeeping operation in fact, and the physical protection from the peacekeepers is not available anymore, the level of violence, even if decreased, is still a critical factor in the consideration of variables that can escalate again the situation into open conflict, and humanitarian law is probably not even applicable anymore.

The label “post-conflict” on the other side can be misleading when applied to countries where formerly warring parties have signed peace agreements, because often the conflicts of power, interest, or identity that triggered civil violence do not disappear after the cessation of formal hostilities. Despite their diversity, the initial post-conflict periods in most countries are characterized by significant insecurity and political uncertainty, and stability in one part of a country may coexist alongside continued violence in other parts. Humanitarian crises and continued violations of human rights may continue in the post-conflict phase to unfold beyond the formal cessation of hostilities. The end of conflict does not necessarily mean the arrival of peace: a lack of political consensus and trust often remains and the root causes of the conflict may persist, and this can lead to increased tensions as people return to destroyed or occupied homes. Impunity for serious crimes and atrocities, including sexual and gender-based violence, which may have occurred before, during and after the conflict, can seriously jeopardize peace-building efforts during this early phase. Failure to restore State authority, particularly in remote border areas, may create new sources of threat or permit wartime practices of smuggling or illegal trade in natural resources to persist or even expand, undermining State revenue.[12]

When large-scale violence ends, the challenges facing the leadership and people of the country are enormous, the situation is mutable, and the so called peace is often very fragile. The threats to peace are often greatest during this early phase[13] and the Protection of Civilians is in this context a critical component for a sustainable political peace. A peace agreement that does not bring a halt to armed violence, widespread human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, or that tolerates continued violence against sectors of the population, cannot lead to legitimate governance. Where civilians remain at risk, efforts to establish governance, security, and the rule of law may flounder and be unsustainable. Neither a legitimate state nor efforts for a stable peace can be founded on a political settlement or government that leaves a population at risk of systematic or extreme violence.[14] It is here where the concept of POC finds itself intrinsically linked to accountability and rule of law and where its link to peace-keepers become a dangerous limit to its potentiality.

Internationally recognized standards of protection in fact in the context of peace-building will only be effectively upheld when they are given the force of law, and when violations are regularly and reliably sanctioned, not as a consequences of a shift of military power from the peace-keepers to the national police or national army, but when a culture of protection and respect of human rights is growing from below.

Protection of Civilians is also central to the legitimacy and credibility of the entire United Nations system. The building of a sustainable peace after a peacekeeping operation is in fact among the most high-profile manifestations of UN action and its realization has implications for the organization as a whole. Certainly the inability of peacekeeping missions to address violence against civilians in the past has damaged the standing of the United Nations and threatened to discredit the practice of peacekeeping in general. Indeed, the challenge of protecting civilians cuts to the core of the UN purpose ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ and its range goes from the peacekeeping to the peace-building, where the passage from one to the other is the most important and critical factor. In an era of complex conflicts in which civilians continue to be targeted, the UN can neither avoid its duty to protect civilians, nor afford to be discredited by failing to live up to its own ambitions.[15]

The UNAMIS Mission Directives POC[16] can give us a good tool to be used to explain what POC in the context of peace-building means. According to the Directives POC includes three stages: preventive protection, immediate response protection, and follow-up protection, and as a consequences the ‘protection actors’ identified are, in addition to the military, police, HRDLS, OCHA, and child protection, also human rights, Civil Affairs components, along with UNHCR, UNICEF, the UN Development Program, and the World Food Program.[17]

Peace-building is the stage at which we have to implement the follow-up protection, which is also a preventive protection, where the end of conflict tends to create high expectations for the delivery of concrete political, social and economic dividends, and the process of building confidence in a peace process requires that at least some of these expectations are met.[18] As base for this confidence there is the Protection of Civilians as broad concept that marks the passage from the physical security to the human security, a passage that is not necessarily smooth, and that needs to be addressed and considered carefully in the implementation of a successful peace-building strategy.

In this view, the problems that POC poses are the same that the UN are facing since long time: the passage from peace-keeping and peace-making to peace-building and development, and the connection between the two.

The problem with the concept of POC is based on the fact that if protection is implemented in the field by the use of more military and more police, as suggested by the DPKO-OCHA report, when the peacekeeping operation is not there anymore, if no sustainability has been built, then the possibilities to initiate a successful peace-building process are already destroyed. There is no doubt in fact, in the internationals community, that no development is possible if there is no security. But the connection between POC and development goes beyond this: all the process of reintegration for example has to be built on the base of POC as well as the creation and implementation of rule of law, where democracy is based on a level of confidence and trust that cannot be built in absence of security. The very core meaning of POC here is the one underlined by the OCHA definition, that includes Child Protection, Gender-Based Violence, Housing, Land and Property, Mine Action, Rule of Law and Justice and Human Rights. We are speaking here of protection as “human” aspect, a protection of the dignity of civilian populations that goes much beyond the physical protection of their body.

If we look at the DPKO/OCHA report we can notice that this problematic has not been faced by the UN and moreover, while there is recognition of the importance of the long-term protection, there is no elaboration of measures that will guarantee the sustainability of this protection ones the peace-keepers leave the country, leading the authors of the report to suggest an increase in the peace-keepers role without considering the parallel integration of POC in other branches of the integrated missions analyzed. I want to be clear about on aspect of this report: its intention is to help peace-keeping missions in implementing POC in the field and the UN as system to face this issue. I am perfectly aware that it goes beyond the scope of the report the design of a complete strategy of POC inside the whole UN system. However, the complete exclusiveness of the peace-keeping points of view that the authors of the report use is not necessary either: the repercussions of the implementation of POC only in the peacekeeping operations has to be carefully handled, especially if we consider that the integrated missions are becoming every day a reality more solid in the UN, leading to the presence of all the UN agencies under the same umbrella, with little attention to the aftermath of the mission.

This is particularly evident if we look at the lessons learned and good practice section of the report where some of the measures implemented in the field are analyzed to see what practical strategy can help peace-keepers in protecting civilians. In this section one measure is particularly peculiar as example to underline a certain lack of for the long-term impact of POC as totally relying on the availability of external actors: the creation of safe areas.

This way to implement POC is in fact, according to the author, seriously critic: from one side the creation of safe areas can lead to the perception by refugees and IDPs of being in a prison, making them overlook the protection of their dignity on their physical protection. On the other side the creation of safe areas relies completely on the presence of peace-keepers, but in addition to that, it require those peace-keepers to be always necessarily stronger that the eventual attackers, cause otherwise the safe areas will just become a trap, leading to situation like the one in Srebrenica. If we guarantee protection inside a defined space, already relegated to a defined period of time, which is the one during which hostilities are taking place, then the passage to a peace-building process has to be carefully and attentively designed in order to avoid the trigger of violence one this space and this time are over.

If we really want to look at the development of the Peacebuilding tasks in relation to POC we have to review and look closely at some of the activities implemented in Peacebuilding operations and that are strongly related to the protection of civilians in a broader term than the physical Protection. In this sense it appears fundamental to regard to reconciliation for example as a long-term, practical program, as well as to provide support for national human rights commissioners in the monitoring of human rights violations; reforming the security sector; and sharing regional best practices in Peacebuilding efforts.  On the one hand, pragmatism and negotiation with perpetrators of human rights violations seems necessary to make peace, but on the other hand, the need for justice is a powerful force in a post-conflict society,  which does not necessarily lessen with time. Peace without justice is not sustainable. To build sustainable peace, mechanisms for justice have to be devised beyond the traditional legal conception of justice built upon criminal prosecutions and needs to be strictly linked to the local situation and the local context. In Peacebuilding as in Peacekeeping the UN are missing a very important point, the role of the local population and their needs in the definition of the strategy itself. Too often the UN seems to be very much obsessed with an official peace agreement, a formal peace and a successful peacekeeping operation, but not to much with the long-term sustainability of those processes.

It is inside this framework that different possibilities can be considered when trying to bring this issue into the complex system of the UN, starting from the use of the Cluster Approach and the global Protection Cluster Working Group to go till the potentiality represented by the Peace-building commission. Those instruments can be usefully used to link the Peacekeeping protection to the peace-building one, in a tentative to provide continuity to the implementation of POC. If protection of civilians is a trans-agency and trans-phase factor, then we need to have an organ or a system that guarantee that information, measures, lessons learned and resources will transit from one phase to another and guarantee in this way that the efforts done during the peace-keeping missions will not be destroyed in the peace-building phase.

The presence of the Cluster on Protection in the field for example can be a good resource to use ones the Peacekeeping operation is over and that can translate the classical security into a human security that will consider the physical protection as well as the broad concept of protection, including protection from fear and protection of dignity. In this context the Cluster System is a good tool to be used, a forum already there and functioning (hopefully) since some time, formed by people that have good knowledge of the situation and that can easily understand what gaps and problematic will face the Peacebuilding process in relation to protection. In this context the Cluster needs to be formed and include local NGOs, and local actors, which can, thought this organ, build their capability already in the Peace-keeping phase. The DPKO/OCHA report is in this sense quite shocking: no reference to local actor is made in any of the 360 pages of the report, leaving the reader with the impression that POC is a unique and sole task of the UN peace-keepers, with no role outside the ability to use force and no time outside the open conflict.

Another important tool to be consider to design and implement a long-term strategy for POC in the context of Peacebuilding is the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), an almost new intergovernmental advisory body of the United Nations that supports peace efforts in countries emerging from conflict, and which is a key addition to the capacity of the International Community in the broad peace agenda. The Peacebuilding Commission plays a unique role in bringing together all of the relevant actors, including international donors, the international financial institutions, national governments, troop contributing countries, as well as marshalling resources and advising on and proposing integrated strategies for post-conflict Peacebuilding and recovery and where appropriate, highlighting any gaps that threaten to undermine peace.  The concurrent General Assembly and Security Council resolutions establishing the Peacebuilding Commission also provided for the establishment of a Peacebuilding Fund and Peacebuilding Support Office as collateral offices. On of the main tasks of the Peacebuilding commission is to develop best practices on issues in collaboration with political, security, humanitarian and development actors. It is critical in this respect that the Peacebuilding Support Office be engaged at an early stage in the development of strategies for sequencing, resourcing and implementing mandated early safety and security stabilization tasks, as requested by the Special Committee in March 2009. The development of indicators and benchmarks of progress is also required to form the basis of a transition policy that would clarify when and how a peacekeeping mission evolves into a Peacebuilding one. It is important to progress the various initiatives with a view to enhancing the coherence of political, security and development work, particularly the introduction of POC in this context as linking issues, ones that cut in a transversal way the different phases of a conflict, from the opening of hostilities to the aftermath of the conflict itself, and in this sense to start a comprehensive and deep discussion on the practical implantation of POC in the context of Peacebuilding operations.

The conclusion to be drawn from this picture is the one that characterized the UN since long time: the specialization of the agency from one side is parallel to an additional acquisition of skills and specific tools to address more complicated and integrated conflicts. On the other side this same specialization is the one that is creating inside the UN family the multiplication of agencies and organs, as well as authorities and hierarchy pyramids, leading to a multitude of actors that then need to be able to coordinate to be affective in the field. The coordination issue in this sense is critical and it emerges evidently in the consideration of the problem related to POC.  The more the UN are specializing, the more cross-agencies issues, like the POC become a diagnosis of the coordination problems inside the


Secretary General Reports:























General Assembly Resolutions:




Other UN documents:

UNAMID, Mission Directive No. 1, Mission Directive on the Protection of Civilians in Darfur, 23 February 2009

OCHA, Glossary of Humanitarian Terms: In Relation to the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, December 2003

S/24111, An Agenda for Peace, 17 June , Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to the statement adopted by the Summit Meeting of the Security Council,  31 January 1992

Victoria Holt and Glyn Taylor with Max Kelly, Protecting Civilians in the Context of UN Peacekeeping Operations, Independent study jointly commissioned by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations, 2009

Arrangements for Establishing the Peacebuilding Fund, General Assembly document A/60/984, August 2006

2005 World Summit Outcome: Peacebuilding Support Office, General Assembly document A/60/694, February 2006

Essays and Books:

Shepard Forman, Stewart Patrick, Dirk Salomons, Recovering From Conflict: Strategy For An International Response, New York, Center on International Cooperation, NYU, 2000

Joanna Spear, Disarmament and Demobilization, in Stephen J. Stedman, Donald Rothchild and Elizabeth M. Cousens (eds.), Ending Civil Wars, Boulder, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002

James Dobbins (ed.), The UN’s Role In Nation-Building: From the Congo to Iraq. Santa Monica, Rand Corporation, 2005

Gerd Junne and Willemijn Verkoren (eds.), Post-conflict Development: Meeting New Challenges. Boulder, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005


OCHA Website:

[1] Secretary General Report on protection of civilians in armed Conflict, Res. S/2001/331. 30 March, 2001

[2] OCHA Website

[3] In the UN report the focus is primarily the POC “under imminent threat of physical violence”

[4] S/1998/318 or A/52/871

[5] S/1999/957, S/2001/331, S/2002/1300, S/2004/431 and S/2005/740

[6] S/RES/1738 and S/RES/1674 in 2006, S/RES/1265 in 1999 and S/RES/1296 2000

[7] (S/PRST/1999/6), 2002 (S/PRST/2002/6), 2002 (S/PRST/2002/41), 2003 (S/PRST/2003/27), 2004 (S/PRST/2004/46) and 2005 (S/PRST/2005/25)

[8] UNAMID’s initiative to develop a new operational approach to POC was issued as Mission Directive No. 1 on 23 February 2009; endorsed by Joint Special Representative Rodolphe Adada, it is entitled “Mission Directive on the Protection of Civilians in Darfur”. It defines the Protection of Civilians as: ‘[a]ll activities aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and spirit of the relevant bodies of law (i.e. international humanitarian law; human rights law; refugee law)’.

[9] Glossary of Humanitarian Terms: In Relation to the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, OCHA, December 2003. Chapter 4: The Field

[10] Introduced in An Agenda for Peace, by the UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

[11] Res. A/47/277 – S/24111, An Agenda for Peace, 17 June, Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to the statement adopted by the Summit Meeting of the Security Council on 31 January 1992

[12] Shepard Forman, Stewart Patrick, Dirk Salomons, Recovering From Conflict: Strategy For An International Response, New York, Center on International Cooperation, NYU, 2000

[13] Ibid.

[14] Victoria Holt and Glyn Taylor with Max Kelly, Protecting Civilians in the Context of UN Peacekeeping Operations, Independent study jointly commissioned by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations 2009

[15] Victoria Holt and Glyn Taylor with Max Kelly, Protecting Civilians in the Context of UN Peacekeeping Operations, Independent study jointly commissioned by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations 2009

[16] Mission Directive No. 1 on 23 February 2009; “Mission Directive on the Protection of Civilians in Darfur”

[17] The Report explicitly excludes long-term prevention from its scope, stating that it: deals exclusively with required immediate response to protect civilians under imminent threat, in order to bridge the gap between standard rules and regulations of [UNAMID military and police] and the identified need for explicit guidance on how to respond in the event of a specific protection incident.

[18] General Assembly Res. A/63/881–S/2009/304, Report of the Secretary-General on peace-building in the immediate aftermath of conflict, Sixty-third session, 11 June 2009

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