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Operational challenges to protecting civilians: Questions from civil and military experience

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30


Sorcha O'Callaghan, Research Officer, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI

Brigadier General Jan-Gunner Isberg, Swedish Armed Forces; Former Deputy Force Commander and Brigade Commander, MONUC

Asif R. Khan, Independent Consultant, Former Deputy Chief of Staff, MONUC

Victoria Wheeler, Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI

This meeting was conducted under Chatham House rules. What follows is a summary of key points. Discussion ranged between speakers and participants and covered a range of issues in military and humanitarian operational approaches to protecting civilians.

Introduction – key trends

There is an increased tendency today in member states to deploy military assets to crises – both natural and conflict-related. In recent years, there have been more troops deployed for peacekeeping, in particular, than ever before and military roles are expanding. Included within these roles is the ‘protection of civilians’. Specifically, since 1999, the UN has included language within mandates that include ‘protection of civilians under imminent threat’ which has been combined with Chapter VII authorisation to use force. There has therefore been a distinct shift in concepts of military roles in civilian protection – from concepts of restraint in the use of force, to a concept that depends on it.

At the same time, humanitarian agencies have increasingly invested in their own capacities to analyse civilian insecurity, and to deploy personnel designated as ‘protection officers’. Finally, there has been increased interest in combining civil and military expertise and assets to design, execute and evaluate deployments to conflict zones – to stabilize insecure areas, support peace processes and protect civilians – whether this be in the form of UN integrated missions, or through regional commands such as the AU, EU, ECOWAS or NATO.

Challenges have emerged in operational, political, ethical and legal spheres in relation to this increased area of activity. Drawing from examples from DRC, Darfur, Colombia and Uganda, the following key issues were focused on in the meeting:

Lessons from military operational approaches in DRC

• In relation to the protection of civilians in DRC, the interpretation of the mandate ‘to protect civilians, including humanitarian personnel, under imminent threat of physical violence’ often meant securing vast areas threatened by the operations of militia – this included declaring a weapons free zone throughout Ituri.
• Key to protection operations in the east was actively seeking out militia in order to disarm them – particularly in the Ituri and Kivu areas. Rules of engagement included the use deadly force to protect civilians under imminent threat, firing when fired upon, and responding to raised or pointed weapons.
• The level of support for robust engagement in the east of DRC, and the centrality of the protection of civilians mandate is almost unique globally – yet differences in interpretation of that mandate as between New York, Kinshasa and eastern commands led to significant difficulties in May and June 2004 in relation to containing the atrocities committed in Bukavu by dissident groups led by Colonel Mutebutsi and Brigadier-General Nkunda.
• Links between robust peacekeeping operations and DDR in the period 2003-2005 in DRC could have been better especially during 2003-04 – effective rehabilitation and incentives not to think of guns as income earners is essential.
• Troop contributing forces need to be authorised to use deadly force when a peacekeeping mandate requires it. Hidden national caveats in one particular contingent as to the use of force and reticence to incur casualties (over-emphasis on ‘force protection’) contributed to ineffectiveness at points in the east.
• It was clear that robust posturing and judicious use of force was necessary to disarm and deter militia — when this was not employed, atrocities against civilians increased. Equally – any use of force occasionally might entail civilian casualties, but perhaps might need to be seen as the price of more effective and durable protection in the long run.
• It was noted that the DPKO, with the input of member states, was working on high level guidance at present: the ‘Capstone process’.

Lessons from humanitarian operational approaches

Turning to the role of humanitarian actors, it was emphasised that one of the main challenges in civilian protection faced by humanitarian organisations is the fact that humanitarian workers are not in the most obvious sense ‘protectors’. Humanitarian agencies can, however, ensure that their programmes do not further harm communities, and can also indirectly reduce the level of threat faced by civilians and reduce their exposure or vulnerability to threats.

Different approaches have been tried by different actors, yet the level of engagement reached new heights in response to Darfur - the first crisis to be termed a ‘protection crisis’. This labelling is significant as it signals the degree to which there was an understanding of the crisis, not simply in terms of the need for emergency assistance, but also to respond to the wide-spread and horrific violence that civilians continue to face. This has lead to an unprecedented number of humanitarian agencies engaged in protection: the number of international humanitarian organisations involved in protection programmes in Darfur rose from 2 in April 2004 to 41 in April 2006.

The ICRC’s ‘egg model’ of protection provides a useful schema through which to understand potential protection activities. It outlines three levels of response in relation to patterns of abuse: responsive action, remedial action, and environment building action. Given the intensity of the crisis in Darfur, the focus has been mainly, though not exclusively, on responsive activities. The main response of humanitarian actors when trying to prevent abuse (as opposed to limit civilian exposure to it) is to rely on the actions of third parties. This involves two approaches. The first is to encourage warring parties to exercise restraint in the conduct of war, or try to convince influential others, such as political or military actors to press or force them to do so. As such, the ability of humanitarians to prevent threats to civilians is often dependent on the interest and willingness of others to do so.

In Darfur, this has been a major area of involvement by humanitarians with the ICRC, for example, which has engaged in quiet diplomacy with the belligerents in an effort to encourage them to comply with their responsibilities such as distinguishing between military and civilians. More aggressive and public efforts have also been tried – such as the public media statement in 2006 by all UN agencies in Darfur condemning the ongoing violence. And over the four years of conflict there have been both public and private efforts by different NGOs to apply different forms of sanctions on the warring parties to try to get them to stop.

Other types of responsive activity have included supporting at-risk civilians to avoid threats through limiting their exposure to harm or helping provide safer options. One example is the very establishment of displacement camps that allow a measure of security to civilians.

However, how do humanitarian agencies engage with other protection actors as part of the overall protection agenda? For many humanitarian agencies’ principles of independence, impartiality, and in particular, of neutrality, mean that, if they are to enjoy the confidence of all, and the associated security this is assumed to bring, then coordination with military actors is deeply problematic. This has been seen, for instance, in a reticence to be associated with the AU which, while working towards laudable goals, is nonetheless implicated in the peace process (the DPA) which in turn is perceived as implicating humanitarian agencies associated with the AU and a contested political settlement.

Nevertheless the involvement of humanitarians in protection represents a positive effort to move beyond simply responding to the consequences of conflict. It is however inherently political and it means engaging directly in the conduct and dynamics of the conflict. It is very important therefore, for humanitarian actors to clearly articulate the scope of their role in this evolving agenda and the limitations of their engagement with other actors.


In the discussion, questions were raised in relation to the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage that forceful engagement can entail. It was noted that in operations efforts are always made to forewarn civilians through communication strategies such as radio station broadcasts and contacts via mobile phones. Incidents of civilian casualties are always investigated, and all attempts are made to minimise harm to civilians and collateral damage. It was noted too that when an operation occurs under Chapter VII, one is not a neutral agent but in fact become party to the conflict, part of its dynamics and, ideally, part of its resolution.

The role of NGOs was referred to and it was highlighted that they can do more with regards to preventing violence and that more attention needs to be paid to coordination activities between NGOs and peacekeeping operations. Examples from Darfur were brought up which also showed the importance of national actors and their role in human rights and protection activities. It was noted that more research needs to be carried out on the potential of national organisations, since when international actors leave, national actors become very important in the realm of protection.

Lastly, the discussion revolved around the image that often prevails that the UN cannot do more than stand by in conflict situations and that more awareness-raising is needed to overcome this, although situations where the UN faces enormous constraints are still evident. The UN is currently revising its peacekeeping doctrine, and within this, guidance on how to approach the protection of civilians. The doctrine should be finalised by the end of this year.


The operational challenges to civilian protection are the subject of ongoing debate in civil and military circles. Concepts of military roles in protection continue to evolve and the emphasis has shifted from the idea of protection as restraint in the use of force to protection that depends on the use of force. Lessons from the DRC, Darfur and elsewhere suggest that military and humanitarian cooperation is possible in this area but is fraught with ethical, operational and security challenges. While some see military (or, often, police) forces as the only means of deterring violence directed at civilians, others see the use of force as exacerbating violence and the risk of harm to civilians. International peacekeepers have struggled to deliver on protection mandates due to difficulties in defining effective roles and because of the severe limits on available resources. Moreover, different national military doctrines, which dictate very different approaches to protection and the use of force, have presented a real challenge for multi-national peacekeeping forces.

Meanwhile, at the political level, member states continue to debate what the proper role for peacekeeping forces in this field should be. For humanitarian agencies, choices about when and where to engage with protection strategies involving military or law enforcement actors are complex and potentially dangerous, both for themselves and the people they are aiming to help. Yet their own capacity to protect civilians is necessarily limited. This third meeting sought to unpack these issues and generate discussion about operational realities in the field.