POC20: Twenty Years of the Protection of Civilians - Challenges, Progress, and Priorities for the Future

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This year, 2019, marks twenty years since the United Nations (UN) Security Council explicitly added the protection of civilians (POC) in armed conflict to its agenda. The decision was followed by the adoption of two seminal resolutions: Resolution 1265 on the protection of civilians, adopted in September 1999, and Resolution 1270, which authorized the UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone with the first explicit mandate to protect civilians from the threat of violence, adopted in October 1999.
To mark the anniversary year, the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and the Permanent Missions of Belgium, Indonesia, and Switzerland to the UN convened the POC20 Policy Dialogue in July in New York. The event brought together experts from Member States, the UN, non-governmental organizations, and think tanks for a focused and frank discussion on contemporary and recurring issues related to the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

The event was a direct answer to the UN Secretary-General’s recent call for continued dialogue among key stakeholders to advance the POC agenda.1 The Policy Dialogue focused on four key themes: 1) prioritizing the protection of civilians at the national level; 2) minimizing harm to civilians in the conduct of hostilities in contemporary conflicts; 3) protecting civilians through UN peacekeeping operations; and 4) engaging with conflict-affected communities to improve protection. This report provides an overview of the discussions on each of the four thematic areas, highlights cross-cutting concerns and issues that emerged during the event, and offers priority recommendations and questions for policymakers to advance the POC agenda on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary.

The following themes emerged during the Policy Dialogue, each of which will be explored in greater detail in this report:

• Significant normative progress has been made in terms of the development of a broader concept of the protection of civilians, which seeks to address a wide range of threats posed by diverse actors in disparate contexts. The number of actors seeking to protect civilians, and the development of policies and practices in this regard, has also grown. However, the lack of a comprehensive understanding of the concept of POC shared across diverse actors undermines the effective protection of civilians.

• A significant gap remains between this normative progress and practice in protecting civilians. This gap must be bridged primarily by those who have obligations to protect, including but not limited to states, parties to conflict, other armed actors perpetrating violence, and actors that authorize and/or deploy in operations mandated to protect civilians.

• Member States must move beyond rhetorical support for POC and take meaningful steps to prioritize protection at the national level and across their bilateral and multilateral relationships. A wider cross-section of actors must be engaged at the national, regional, and international levels, in order to build a deeper and more durable commitment to the POC agenda.

• National militaries, regional organizations and multinational coalitions, and other actors need to prioritize minimizing harm to civilians in urban environments. This is a consequential challenge as conflict becomes increasingly asymmetric and urbanized. Greater investments need to be made in training forces for urban warfare and in developing new technologies and tools that will allow these forces to predict, track, and mitigate the impact of urban conflict on the civilian population and civilian infrastructure.

• The Security Council lacks a coherent vision for the implementation of POC mandates, particularly in authorizing UN peacekeeping operations and non-UN security forces. This continues to hamper the Council’s ability to formulate clear mandates with appropriate operational guidance, with considerable impact for civilians expecting protection from security actors operating with Council authorization.

• Regionally-led military operations, multinational and ad hoc military coalitions, and partnered operations are gaining prominence as the preferred means to mitigate conflict and pursue stabilization efforts in a variety of environments. The protection of civilians is conceived of and rationalized differently in these types of operations, many of which may pursue counter-terrorism objectives in asymmetric environments. Cultivating a commitment to POC by these operations is an essential effort, particularly in the context of political and financial pressure on UN peacekeeping operations to drawdown, transition, and exit.

• Political and financial pressure has led to a potential shift in UN peacekeeping towards a more “lightweight” approach. This, among other factors, has resulted in a rise in the number of actors operating alongside the UN in contexts where peacekeeping operations are deployed. This makes the establishment of a common conception and standards related to POC all the more urgent. The UN Department of Peace Operations (DPO) and the UN more broadly should work with regional organizations and Member States to set standards on POC and disseminate lessons learned to participating actors.

• Civilians rely on themselves for self-protection, and communities are often the best placed to understand the threats they face and take steps to provide for their own safety. Nevertheless, civilians and communities are often excluded from planning and implementation of protection activities, and the range of security actors undertaking efforts to protect civilians still lack sufficient doctrine, guidance, and training to safely and effectively engage local communities for their own protection.