Reframing the Protection of Civilians Paradigm for UN Peace Operations



Following the dramatic failure of United Nations peacekeepers to protect civilians in Rwanda and Bosnia in the early 1990s, the UN engaged in a deep lesson-learning process to change the face of its peace operations and to regain credibility. This led the Security Council to establish the “protection of civilians” (POC) as an explicit mandate for the peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone in 1999.

Since then, POC has continuously gained prominence, both as a concept and in practice, and has become the mandated priority for most UN peacekeeping operations. Peacekeepers are authorized and expected to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians from threats of physical violence in nine of the fifteen countries where a UN peacekeeping operation is deployed. This includes a wide range of multidimensional actions from the civilian, police, and military components of UN missions, which are all seeking to deter, prevent, preempt, and stop violence perpetrated against civilians through coordinated POC strategies. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR), peacekeepers have designed numerous tools, mechanisms, activities, and tactics to better implement POC mandates, such as enhancing community engagement and establishing alert networks, monitoring and advocating for human rights, ensuring the safety of POC sites, and engaging in robust operations against armed groups.

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and Department of Field Support (DFS) have developed multiple guidance materials, including a POC concept that defines protection around three tiers (protection through dialogue and engagement, provision of physical protection, and establishment of a protective environment) and four phases (prevention, preemption, response, and consolidation). POC tasks involve all components of peace missions and are therefore as much implemented by troops as by UN police, human rights officers, community liaison assistants, and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) experts. From avoiding genocide and massive war crimes, the focus of POC has been extended to include preventing any kind of physical violence, responding to multifaceted threats, and consolidating an environment conducive to the security of populations and the preservation of their human rights.