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Securing the peace: peacekeeping and civilian protection

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


Francesc Vendrell CMG – former EU Special Representative and UN SRSG for Afghanistan

Gen. Jan Erik Wilhelmsen – former Chairman and Chief Arms Monitor of United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) and of the JMC/JMM, Sudan.

Chris Johnson - former Head of United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS)

James Darcy –Director of Programmes, Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), ODI

James Darcy introduced the speakers and opened the meeting by highlighting the complex challenges facing peacekeeping operations, particularly their role in supporting multiple agendas, such as enforcing security, supporting peace-building, state-building and development processes and ensuring the delivery of humanitarian assistance. He claimed there is still some confusion over the precise relationship between civilian and military components of peacekeeping missions and where civilian protection fits within these components and wider agendas.

Francesc Vendrell discussed the semantics behind peacekeeping operations, claiming that most missions did not actually have a peace to keep and therefore it is more pertinent to call them ‘peace-securing missions’, ‘civilian protection missions’ or ‘peace-enforcement missions’. The semantics are important as they clarify the challenges and necessary objectives for the mission to succeed. For example, in Afghanistan, the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) initially intended to be deployed in the whole country, but due to US resistance, the force was reduced in size and confined to Kabul, diminishing its ability to effectively carry out its mission.

Understanding the context and the reality of the task involved is critical. In Afghanistan, by 2002, most diplomats thought that the main problems had been solved, which was partly an attempt to deflect criticisms from the difficulties faced in Iraq. Only in 2004 did they start to realise the need for a more substantial role for NATO and the actual challenges involved in stabilising Afghanistan. Yet, there has been continuing confusion over the role and responsibilities of ISAF forces and Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Although ISAF has a Chapter VII mandate it was sold to national constituencies as a peace-keeping mission mainly tasked with building bridges and dealing with reconstruction. Similarly, PRTs where described as reconstruction units rather than the needed providers of security and stability. These false mandates have led to Afghan perceptions that the forces are there to protect themselves rather than disbanding armed groups and supporting peace. These inadequate roles have ultimately led to widespread corruption, the failure of the central government to control the means of violence and governance by warlords.

Vendrell emphasised the need to ensure that there is sufficient political will to effectively carry out these operations, highlighting the reluctance of developed nations to commit troops to ‘peace-keeping’ missions. This has often resulted in under resourced and poorly trained contingents. If these operations are to be successful there needs to be a recognition that casualties are inevitable and that these complex environments will not simply be resolved by committing more troops but will also require clear objectives and strategies. A special rapid reaction unit to protect civilians could be a useful mechanism, based on the UK’s role in Sierra Leone. More robust civilian deployment and influence is also necessary and there needs to be an improvement in the relationship between UN agencies, such as the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO); this will require greater coherence among their work but also the right people in senior positions.

Vendrell concluded that ‘peace-keeping’ operations need to be nationally led, but we must be clear about what this means and ensure that the local population are allies and their opinions and perceptions respected. These operations will be lengthy and it is important that the temptation for early exit is avoided, such as those that occurred in Haiti and East Timor.

General Jan Erik Wilhelmsen discussed the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), where a Joint Monitoring Coordinating Committee (JMCC) was developed, a structure not normally used in standard UN peacekeeping operations. The mission’s mandate consisted of monitoring the management of arms and armed personnel, assisting the parties through the JMCC and assisting in the monitoring of the ceasefire arrangements. These were carried out to support the overall objective of securing free and fair elections. It was a Chapter VI peacekeeping mission, with consent from both parties and was based on a relatively solid peace agreement.  It had an integrated command structure and most importantly, the mission had a clear and achievable mandate with solid political support.

He explained that national ownership of the process is important as well as supporting good relations and building consensus between the parties. This involved familiarising the rebels in peace-keeping operations as they lack experience in these endeavours. This helped ensure they were on an equal footing with the army. It is also important to involve the parties in conflict resolution processes at the strategic, operational and tactical level; these processes should not only be internationally led. The involvement of staff that was engaged in the peace negotiation process is important as they are familiar with the exact clauses in the peace agreements and the discussions that preceded them.

Wilhelmsen outlined four obstacles to securing free and fair elections in Nepal:

-          buy in from the local population;

-          the logistics and bureaucracy of the UN;

-          violations of the agreements; and

-          conflict between the two parties

The mission overcame these by engaging with local communities and building trust, implementing a robust inspection regime, getting force protection from both sides and supporting conflict resolution initiatives at the technical, sectoral and committee level.

The JMCC was based on a model implemented in the Nuba Mountains, Sudan. The main tasks of the JMCC were conflict and crisis management, weapons clearance and implementing peace support packages. These committees need to be formed early on and in Nepal it was established even before the Security Council resolution was passed. The committee also needs to be based on consensus and trust between the parties and gradually tackle smaller problems and subsequently engage in more complex ones. There needs to be clarity on what the JMCC needs to achieve and what each actor needs to do.

These committees also require adequate resources to ensure rapid action and presence on the ground before the situation shifts. In Nepal, funds had to be requested from the Norwegian government to make the JMCC operational, but these committees need to be driven by the UN with adequate resources to do so. In practice, however, the UN system has proved too complicated and bureaucratic and cannot respond in time.

Chris Johnson responded to the two presentations, stating that although there are clear problems with the UN, it is the only one we have and we have to strive to make it work better. It is true that there is often no peace to keep and troops are often unsure what to do when they are faced with complex challenges without the necessary resources or political will.  There is often a one size fits all approach and even where there is a relatively solid peace agreement, peace-building does not finish there; it is a gradual and complex process. Similarly, state-building is a complex process and does not last five years, especially in places that have been in war for decades.  The failure to recognise this has been the cause of many failures such as in Afghanistan, where the Bonn agreement was understood as the achievement of peace, despite the fact that many parties were excluded from the agreement. As a result, ISAF is no longer welcome and its task is more difficult to carry out, with its forces having to hide behind armed cars, bunkers and razor wire.

Peacekeepers rarely go out and build confidence with the population and are often more concerned with protecting themselves rather than civilians. This needs to change even if it means more casualties. In Somalia, where there was a recent suicide attack on peacekeepers, the African Union mission responded with firing mortars into the city and consequently killed civilians. This undermines the legitimacy of the peace-keeping mission.  Even in Sudan, after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the international community thought that peace had been achieved and failed to further engage despite the fact that the agreement was not fully welcomed by everybody and it had certain weaknesses such as the situation in Abyei.

The actual missions are also problematic as they are composed of soldiers that rarely have a common vision or doctrine, particularly on the protection of civilians. There is also a lack of civilian personnel and an insufficient budget to carry out needed activities. There needs to be a system similar to emergency humanitarian funds, which disperse funds quickly and are then later replenished. This would allow for much greater flexibility. There is also a need to communicate better; civilian populations often have great expectations, even when there is no civilian protection mandate.


James Darcy opened the discussion stating that there seems to be a dilemma in that we all want the UN to work but we do not seem to know how to make it work, with expectations not fitting the mandate, resources and capacities of peacekeeping operation, which in turn creates anger among the populations they are supposed to be supporting.

Various themes were subsequently discussed:

Civil-military relations

There was a recognition that more needed to be done to increase the civilian components of peace-keeping operations, although this has been challenging due to high levels of insecurity in places such as Helmand province in Afghanistan and many parts of Somalia. However, these challenges can be overcome with rigorous political analysis that can determine different strategies. For example, in Sudan, although the peace agreement was fragile, there was significant space for civilian actors to support the process. In Nepal, civilian monitors worked well with local populations from the beginning. This provided them with some legitimacy and they were able to gather important information on potential troubles and share this with the military components of the mission.

However, in Somalia, where the peace agreement is extremely fragile, a separation between civilian and military actors is necessary, particularly for humanitarian agencies, to ensure humanitarian space. This independence does not mean total separation, communication is necessary. For example, in Abyei, patrols were organised on the same day that health clinics were being carried out.

Political analysis

The importance of rigorous political analysis was stressed multiple times. In Abyei, the analysis would have identified the trouble spots and ensured more resources were committed to prevent the violence that occurred in May 2008. Moreover, political analysis can help determine the nature of the mission and the necessary type of peace-keeping operation. Yet, the problem is not always the lack of political analysis; it is often a lack of political will. Many politicians fail to take it into account the analysis provided by their peers, particularly if it recognises the complexity of a context or provides information they would prefer not to hear.

Bureaucratic impediments and mandate

There are significant bureaucratic impediments to making peace-keeping more effective. The UN used to do much better in 1956, where missions were deployed in 72 hours. Now they often take a long time to negotiate, troops do not arrive on time and there are significant resource gaps. Furthermore, there is also a lack of coherence among different UN agencies, all working towards different objectives with different budgets and different lines of command. In order to bypass the bureaucracy, missions could use voluntary funds to kick start the operation. These funds can then be returned once UN budgets arrived, as occurred in East Timor.

The UN has not been able to confront the challenges of intra-state wars and there is often a mismatch between community expectations and the mandate of peace-keeping missions. Mandates are often too ambitious and the UN needs to recognise the limits of what is possible. In Darfur and Eastern DRC, the missions do not match the challenges of their mandates. The Security Council needs to learn how to say no more often when peace-keeping mission are unlikely to succeed. To the contrary, we will continue to see missions that do not meet the expectations of local populations. As they fail, they are more likely to adopt short term objectives at the expense of longer term peace. This is likely to be the case in Afghanistan, where ISAF forces are likely to focus on combating terrorism.

The role of NGOs

NGOS have a significant role to play in supporting peace-keeping missions. They are often the first organisations to be present on the ground and have good relationships with communities. They can contribute through information sharing and early warning, in both conflict and pre-conflict countries. They can also provide accountability and influence policy, through monitoring and advocacy.


Civilians are often the most affected in armed conflicts as they become displaced by fighting, are caught in the crossfire or are directly targeted by belligerents. They are also exposed to threats as they attempt to flee to areas of safety, such as disease and a lack of food, water, healthcare and shelter. Primary responsibility for protecting civilians lies with national governments; however, where states fail to protect their citizens from violence, threat, induced deprivation and other abuses there is increasing recognition that international interventions are required.

This ‘contingent sovereignty’ has been coupled with an increasing number of peace-keeping missions that often no longer rest on traditional notions of impartiality and consent, but are engaged in broader peace-enforcement missions that include civilian protection. Peacekeeping missions have grown in size, scope and complexity. They are increasingly involved not just in civilian protection but also in disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating combatants, security sector reform, return and reintegration of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees and other functions. Yet capabilities, structures and resources are often inadequate to tackle these broader challenges. 

In this meeting, the third of a series on fragile states, the panel discussed the expanded role of peacekeeping missions, the challenges they confront as they increasingly engage in complex settings and what needs to be done to improve future efforts that serve to enhance the protection of civilians and contribute to stability in countries emerging from conflict.


  • What are the main factors hindering the effectiveness of peacekeeping missions?

  • How can the civilian protection mandate of peacekeeping missions be enhanced in practice?

  • How can peacekeeping missions more effectively contribute to building stability in post-conflict environments? What lessons can be learned from regional peace-keeping interventions and non UN operations?

This event has been supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs