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Mapping Data-Driven Tools and Systems for Early Warning, Situational Awareness, and Early Action

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1. Introduction

While the protection of civilians has a long tradition in international law, the practice of the protection of civilians (POC) is much more recent.1 It was only in 1999, after the massacres of civilians in Srebrenica and Rwanda during the mid-1990s, that the United Nations Security Council finally mandated the UN peace operation in Sierra Leone as the first ever United Nations (UN) mission to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, within its capabilities and areas of deployment.2 From then onwards, most UN peace operations have been equipped with a POC mandate. In addition, civilian protection also plays an increasingly prominent role in the work of other security actors around the world. The African Union (AU) began to work on the Draft Guidelines for the Protection of Civilians in AU Peace Support Operations in 2009, publishing it in 2012.3 NATO leaders endorsed the NATO Policy for the Protection of Civilians at the Warsaw Summit in July 2016.4 While the turn to protection of civilians by these security actors is undoubtedly a positive development, the capacity to anticipate attacks on civilians is lagging behind the institutional will to engage in POC. A mandate to protect civilians is not enough; those implementing POCrelated activities will need adequate information and situational awareness to anticipate threats to civilians. This has been recognized in several prominent UN reports. For instance, the final report of the High-Level Implementation Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) recommended in 2015 that new technologies introduced in the field should aim to improve early warning in order allow for POC.5 Similarly, the 2020 POC Handbook of the UN notes that “Efficient and proactive decision making on POC requires the systematic use of early warning, peacekeeping-intelligence, information acquisition and/or analysis and assessment tools, capabilities and/or processes. It also requires regular and structured information sharing, POC-sensitive situational awareness and threat assessments, and integration of analysis and recommendations.”6 Indeed, a quantitative analysis in an internal report on peacekeeping operations across the UN showed that early warning is a significant determinant in the speed of protection response, while effective capabilities and troop numbers seem to matter less.7 In spite of the many reports that highlight the importance of data-driven early warning, a comprehensive mapping of the various data-driven POC methodologies, tools, systems, and policy instruments currently used is missing. This report therefore aims to take stock of the tools and systems used by security actors to increase situational awareness. As such, it tries to sketch the contours of the entire early warning ecosystem. In doing so, the report also identifies current gaps in early warning tools for POC, on the basis of which recommendations are put forward. Indeed, the institutional push towards both POC and data collection and analysis means that there is a lot of momentum to further pursue data-driven early warning. This requires identifying what type of early warning tools and systems can be improved and how, but also requires reflecting on whether new tools or systems are needed. The report focuses on how data-driven tools currently help the UN, the AU, and NATO to increase their understanding of the human environment in which they operate and thus more effectively protect civilians.8 Focus is on both on the sections and units within these security organizations and missions that collect POC-related information and on the tools used by these sections and units.
The report does not focus on the European Union (EU) because the EU does not have large military peace operations deployed. It instead specializes in missions that support security sector reform, supporting rule of law institutions, train police or military forces. It occasionally deploys short stabilization missions. This explains why the EU has not yet developed any data-driven tools specifically aimed at identifying POC-related threats within the context of its peace operations.9 The first section of this report provides a summary of the key findings of the report and summarizes several recommendations on how to enhance early warning for POC. The next section discusses the early warning tools for POC within the UN. This part also discusses sections and units of UN peace operations that are tasked with identifying threats to civilians. The section on the UN is by far the most extensive one of this report, which is simply a result of the UN’s turn to POC in 1999.
The UN seems to engage more in POC-related activities than any other security actor. Yet, in order to make the report as comprehensive as possible, the early warning tools used by the AU and NATO are discussed in the third and fourth sections respectively. The fifth and last section identifies summaries and lessons learnt. The last section also identifies gaps concerning POC-related early warning tools on the basis of which several recommendations are put forward.