Capacity to Protect Civilians: Rhetoric or Reality?

Capacity to Protect Civilians: Rhetoric or Reality?

After the experiences of Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990’s, and the United Nations (UN) failure to act, the protection of civilians (POC) has taken an increasingly prominent role in international peace operations. The first mission to be mandated with an explicit POC-mandate was the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNASIL) in 1999. While the emphasis on POC may initially have been met with reluctance, both from traditional Troop and Police Contributing Countries (T/PCCs) and from within the system, the concept has increasingly taken a central role in UN peace operations after the presentation of the milestone Brahimi Report in 2000. More than 98 percent of military and police personnel currently deployed in peace operations have a mandate to protect civilians, as part of integrated missionwide efforts.

This policy brief focuses on the UN’s protection capacities, asking what this implies for civilians in the countries where the organization operates. This is related to capacity- and institution-building in host nations, in particular in the security sector. The policy brief provides a short overview of the implementation of POC-mandates in UN peace operations drawing upon the author’s experience from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) between 2011-2014 first, with a particular focus on the capacity to protect through non-military means, and second, on the capacity to provide physical protection. Third, the responsibility of the host government is elaborated upon, ending with some concluding remarks on what the next steps should be in order to further enhance the UN’s capacity to protect civilians.

Download the policy brief here.

The policy brief was originally written as a background paper for the Challenges Annual Forum 2015 on ‘Institution- and Capacity-building for Peace: Implications of the UN’s Review Panels’ Recommendations for Future Missions’, hosted by the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), Ministry of Defence, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia, 5-6 October 2015.


Ms Hilde F. Johnson was a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations. Ms Johnson is the former Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) and Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Previously, Ms Johnson was Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), where she was in charge of the organization’s humanitarian operations, crisis response and security issues. Prior posts include Minister for International Development of Norway (1997- 2005) and elected Member of Parliament (1993-2001). Ms Johnson is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs (NUPI).

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