Protection of Civilians and Raised Expectations

Protection of Civilians and Raised Expectations
This article was part of the Briefing Book prepared for the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations by IPI and CIC.


In recent years, the United Nations has made significant advances with respect to the protection of civilians (PoC). Yet in South Sudan, Central African Republic, and elsewhere, these words from the “Brahimi Report” still ring true: “Promising to extend such protection establishes a very high threshold of expectation. The potentially large mismatch between desired objective and resources available to meet it raises the prospect of continuing disappointment.”

It is therefore imperative that the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations place PoC at the heart of its analysis. The Panel should identify ways to improve PoC across the entire UN peace operations process – from budgeting to accountability. But crucially, the Panel should also acknowledge that UN missions cannot effectively protect civilians in all situations, and it should identify those settings in which different protection actors should be deployed.

Since the “Brahimi Report,” the Security Council has included PoC more consistently in its operational mandates, and the UN system has enhanced its PoC doctrine and training. These changes, bolstered by leadership from certain member-states and individuals, have saved lives. However, key parts of the peace operations system have not made sufficient progress toward supporting PoC. The UN’s budget should incentivize troop-contributing countries to not only provide working equipment, but also to protect at-risk populations. Member-states should address the persistent shortfalls in logistics and information-gathering that hinder the UN’s response. And the near-total lack of accountability for troops – and troop contributors – for protection failures must be remedied.

Perfecting the UN’s approach to PoC is important, yet so is recognizing its limits. The UN cannot be the sole, or even primary, guarantor of protection globally. Too often, the Security Council has tasked the UN with providing protection in environments where that is plainly not feasible. This not only raises the “threshold of expectation” impossibly high, but also allows more suitable protection actors (such as member-states and regional organizations) to evade responsibility. Relatedly, the Council has demonstrated a tendency to confuse peacekeeping with peacemaking, giving UN missions the tools to respond to violence but not the means – or the diplomatic backing – to stop it. These problems must be addressed if peacekeepers are to be successful.

Refugees International hopes that this distinguished Panel can identify ways to improve the UN’s PoC performance, while also challenging expectations that the UN cannot hope to meet. We look forward to supporting the Panel as it undertakes these important tasks.


Michel Gabaudan is the President of Refugees International