Predict and prevent: overcoming early warning implementation challenges in UN peace operations

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Allard Duursma & John Karlsrud

Early warning has traditionally hampered many peacekeeping operations. When reflecting upon the UN experience in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, the Force Commander for the United Nations Mission in Rwanda, Roméo Dallaire, notes: “I had no means of intelligence on Rwanda. […] We always seemed to be reacting to, rather than anticipating, what was going to happen.”


However, the UN has made some real progress since the turn of the century when it comes to early warning as an integral part of Protection of Civilians (PoC) mandates. Most early warning tools currently in use in peacekeeping missions still take the form of a qualitative analysis conducted by a group of experts. Examples include MONUSCO’s forward-looking Protection of Civilians Risk Assessment Framework, UNAMID’s Community Alert Network (CAN), and MINUSCA’s Flashpoint Matrix.


Some of these qualitative early warning tools are very good, but these analyses should be supplemented with a data-driven early warning system to help information analysts and the mission leadership identify threats, as well as promote forward thinking. Such tools are now in reach because peacekeeping operations have implemented a web-based database system that allows mission personnel in the field to log incidents, events and activities. Referred to as the Situational Awareness Geospatial Enterprise (SAGE) event database, this database not only includes incidents pertaining to armed violence, but also includes information on incidents like troop movements, increased tensions, hijackings, abductions, protests, and many more potentially relevant incidents. SAGE data is accessible to all sections/components in a mission, for whom access to incident/event data is required. For example, in MONUSCO and UNMISS, both uniformed and non-uniformed components contribute to and access shared data from SAGE. In-mission, the Joint Operations Centre (JOC) acts as the facilitator and information-broker within the SAGE information management workflow. By allowing multiple components to share their data in a single central database, under the custodianship of the JOC, SAGE aims to provide a Common Operational Picture to the entire Mission. It also eliminates the traditional wasteful duplication of each component creating its own separate database of essentially the same set of incident data. Missions are also using SAGE to report information and create useful data at the same time, replacing the paper-based Daily Situational Report-format of daily reporting from various components to JOC.