Côte d'Ivoire + 1 more

Selective interventions weaken UN civilian protection

Originally published

UN-authorised protection of civilians (POC) actions in Libya and Ivory Coast have been unprecedented in their show of military might and willingness to use force against the main parties to the conflict. In both, application is deeply intertwined with politics -- with upholding election results (Ivory Coast) or providing moral and legal cover for actions leading possibly to regime change (Libya) -- and raise salient questions about UN impartiality.


Western powers will intervene to defend strategic interests, either through regional organisations (eg NATO) or coalitions of the willing.

The unintended consequences of military interventions to protect civilians may further imperil them.

The UN's legitimacy and in-country access may over the long run be diminished, as it is seen to take sides.

What next

Rather than marking a milestone in the evolution of the POC norm, a 'two-tier system' will persist. The strategic interests of the permanent members of the Security Council will largely drive the robust use of force.

Analysis In response to harrowing experiences in Somalia, Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, protection of civilians (POC) has become an important international norm. First authorised in 1999 as an explicit peace-keeping task in Sierra Leone, POC has since become the core purpose of eight of the 14 missions deployed worldwide.

POC: An emerging norm

The closely related responsibility to protect (R2P) agenda, which asserts that governments have a responsibility to prevent and curtail genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing, was endorsed by the UN World Summit in October 2005. POC has become a priority for certain states and regional bodies, while R2P appears in the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU) and is mentioned in the 2010 US National Security Strategy.

However, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon lamented in 2010, actions have not matched words and the development of international standards. Several inter-related factors explain the discrepancy between the institutionalisation and implementation of POC over the last decade:

  • Strategic significance. Recent peace-keeping operations with POC mandates have taken place in contexts of little strategic priority to the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Mission mandates are issued without the commensurate means. Inadequate personnel and a lack of the necessary infrastructure and equipment for protection-related tasks (strategic airlift, utility and tactical helicopters, infantry with high mobility vehicles, observation and surveillance) hinder operations.
  • Troop sourcing. Owing to commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unwillingness to place Western forces under UN command, developing countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have become the main contributors of troops and police.
  • Political will. Developing countries are more reluctant to intervene without host state consent, use force to protect civilians or engage the main parties to the conflict. Simply put, these forces do not necessarily accept the more ambitious requirements of POC and robust peace-keeping.

As such, the robust action taken by key UNSC member states to protect civilians in Libya and Ivory Coast has been comparatively swift and decisive, involving actors who do not comprise the mainstay of current peace-keeping deployments.

Importance of strategic interest

While POC provided part of the motivation for the use of force in both Ivory Coast and Libya, other considerations were as -- if not more -- important in determining where and in what form action on the ground was taken. In both cases, the role of such states as France has been critical:


Western leaders justified intervention to forestall possible bloodletting. Critically, member states were also concerned about both the effect that an influx of refugees into neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia might have on the fragile transitions under way in both countries, and the example that would be sent to other dictators across the region.

Ivory Coast

Here, motivations were similarly mixed. The UN had a mandate to uphold election results, having validated Alassane Ouattara's victory in a November run-off election held under its auspices. Similarly, the Economic Community of West African States, United Kingdom and France were motivated by the need to honour elections and embed the norm of democratic elections in the region.

Long-standing tensions between Laurent Gbagbo and the French, and the presence of a significant number of expatriates, explain the decision to support the UN mission with the French Licorne force (which was strengthened to 1,600 troops during the stand-off). Gbagbo's socialist roots bring him close to some left-wingers in France, but distance him from rightist politicians like President Nicolas Sarkozy -- who in his own election year is perhaps showing more readiness for a muscular foreign policy to curry favour with his electorate.

In Abidjan, French forces played a crucial role, attacking military hardware close to the presidential palace in support of the ostensible UN mandate to protect civilians. Elsewhere, 'boots on the ground' did very little to protect civilians. In Duekoue last month, hundreds of Moroccan peacekeepers reportedly stood by as anywhere from 300-1,000 civilians were killed, allegedly mainly by pro-Ouattara militia.

Robust POC to remain exception

The robust POC actions of recent weeks will be the exception rather than the rule. Over time, interventions to enforce POC may improve human rights by providing a potential deterrent to future violators, but recent events do not demonstrate with any great potency a new era of civilian protection:

  • Decisions on the robust use of force will continue to be selective and driven by strategic concerns, responding to only a small number of the situations where civilians are indeed vulnerable.
  • The very characteristics that render certain actors suited to rapid and robust response may make their impartiality questionable and give rise to claims that the UNSC is being used as a forum to further the interests of certain states, and not really to address the greatest threats to individuals.
  • The strategic use of air power instead of the deployment of ground forces, in some instances adopted to limit local perceptions of partiality, may limit the efficacy of such interventions and increase the chances that non-combatants are killed.
  • Institutions such as the AU or developing countries participating in UN-led peace-keeping missions will continue to be mandated to deal with areas deemed less strategically important, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, shouldering Sisyphean tasks while remaining woefully under-resourced.
  • Violence against civilians is political and there is much difficult work in trying to rebuild divided countries once the violence has ceased. While the under-secretary-general of peace-keeping operations claims the UN acted in an even-handed manner in Ivory Coast, the president of the AU and the Russian ambassador to the UN have been vocal about what they see as the UN's overstepping of its mandate and the institution's bias towards Ouattara.
  • The UN's ability to facilitate reconciliation efforts and, critically, to assist in the areas of disarmament and demobilisation are likely to be circumscribed as long as the institution is perceived as partial to the interests of certain UNSC states and certain parties on the ground.
Oxford Analytica
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