Protection Is Not an Option — It’s an Obligation

The following is taken from remarks by Michael Boyce before the Military Justice Committee of the Americas (COJUMA) conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, on May 23, 2016.

I wish to thank the individuals who worked hard to organize this session of COJUMA. I also want to express my appreciation to United States Southern Command and the government of Uruguay for making peacekeeping the topic of this year’s conference, and for the work they do to support peacekeeping more broadly.

I also want to express my appreciation to the troop-contributing and police-contributing countries who are here this week. By participating in the peacekeeping enterprise, you show your national – and personal – commitment to international peace, and to our common humanity.

It’s an honor to be asked to speak with you about a critical issue in the realm of peacekeeping: the use of force to protect civilians. I come to this issue from a humanitarian perspective. The organization I represent, Refugees International, is a non-profit, advocacy group dedicated to the protection of refugees and displaced people. For more than 35 years, we have spoken out on behalf of vulnerable civilians – in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Somalia. Our interviews with peacekeepers, and the people they are meant to protect, propel our campaigns for policy change.

As a humanitarian, I do not want to say too much about the legal basis of the protection of civilians (or PoC) – and especially not in front of an audience of military lawyers. I would simply say that for those of us in the humanitarian community, the legality of the use of force to protect civilians is not in question. Successive United Nations Security Council resolutions, including peacekeeping mandates under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, make that clear. And though International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law may not speak directly to this, it is my understanding that PoC, as envisioned by the Security Council, is consistent with both bodies of law.

The UN Security Council increasingly recognizes PoC as a critical task of UN peacekeepers. And in a growing number of peacekeeping mandates, the Council has proclaimed that PoC is the most important task. More than that, roughly 98% of UN peacekeepers now serve in missions with PoC mandates.

“No one is questioning whether the protection of civilians should be a component of peacekeeping organizations; what is basically at issue here is ‘the how’.”

Ambassador José Luis Cancela, Uruguayan Undersecretary for External Relations

As the Uruguayan Undersecretary for External Relations, Ambassador José Luis Cancela, said at the Security Council this year, “No one is questioning whether the protection of civilians should be a component of peacekeeping organizations; what is basically at issue here is ‘the how’.”

It’s this “how” that I’d like to discuss today. When a threat to civilians arises, how can peacekeepers respond? What is the lawful, moral, and effective way to use force? 

It goes without saying that whenever peacekeepers use force, they should act in line with international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Among other things, this means respecting the principles of distinction, proportionality, and military necessity.

But acting lawfully is just the beginning. How do we use force morally and effectively?  I want to offer a few thoughts, which grow out of humanitarian principles and experience.

1) The use of force ought to be impartial:

Here, it’s important to distinguish between neutrality and impartiality. Peacekeepers are not neutral, in that they represent the UN and should align themselves with the UN’s mandate. But they should be impartial, in that they should respond the same way whomever tries to harm civilians – be it a rebel group or a government. In other words, peacekeepers should use force in response to specific behaviors – not in response to specific individuals or groups.

If peacekeepers are viewed as favoring one side over another, they will not be seen as trustworthy. And a lack of trust that starts with peacekeepers can easily be extended to the entire UN system, or even to foreigners as a whole.

One example I want to mention here is the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO). As many of you know, rebel groups in the DRC are often supported and manipulated by leaders in the Congolese government. This, combined with political decisions made by some troop contributing countries, has led MONUSCO to act aggressively toward some rebel factions – such as the M23 – but more passively toward others, including lately, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).  This has harmed the mission’s reputation at the ground level, with some communities believing that MONUSCO either does not care about the FDLR’s abuses, or that MONUSCO actively supports the FDLR. These kinds of perceptions, even if incorrect, make it much harder for peacekeepers to fulfill their mandates, and may even lead to threats against peacekeepers, UN staff, or foreigners generally.

2) Whenever force is used, the safety of civilians must be the measure of our success

In contemporary peacekeeping, missions are often authorized to use “all necessary means” to do things other than directly protect civilians. Missions today in the DRC, Mali, and Central African Republic may use force to extend their host government’s control over territory, or deter and neutralize armed groups. In doing so, peacekeepers should think carefully about the potential impact on civilians – and collateral damage is only one part of that.

To give you another example from the DRC: In 2009, a UN-Congolese joint offensive was conducted to disarm rebels in the country’s east. During that offensive, 1,061 rebel fighters were disarmed. But in the process, roughly 1,400 civilians were killed, 7,000 women and girls were raped, and 900,000 people were displaced from their homes. These atrocities were committed either by the rebels themselves, during reprisal attacks; or by Congolese forces, who were receiving advice and equipment from the UN at the time.

I think it is fair to say that in this case, peacekeepers set aside the protection of civilians in order to accomplish other mission objectives. And in my opinion, that should not happen. Success in peacekeeping should not be measured by the number of square kilometers under UN control, nor the number of rebels who have been pacified. Instead, success should be measured by how many families are able to live safe, decent lives. This means that peacekeepers have to constantly assess the consequences of their actions, and do everything necessary to mitigate the harm to civilians.

3) Before trying to protect civilians, try to understanding what these civilians want:

Certainly, Security Council mandates determine what peacekeepers are supposed to do in the field. But when the Council says that peacekeepers should “protect civilians,” how does an individual battalion or soldier actually interpret that? Many activities could be lumped together under PoC, so how does a peacekeeper decide what to do in the place where she/he is deployed?

One of the best ways peacekeepers can do this, in my view, is to ask the very people they’re trying to help. Ask them why they feel unsafe, what they will do if they are threatened, and what kinds of help they need the most. Certainly, this means talking to elected officials or village elders, but it also involves talking to people whose voices may not be heard – even within their own communities. People like farmers and traders, women and youth, and even rebel groups.

Last year, I visited the town of Bentiu, where more than 60,000 civilians had been forced to shelter inside a base belonging to the UN Mission in South Sudan, known as UNMISS. It was assumed that the civilians would never want to leave the safety of the base. But UNMISS eventually discovered that women and girls had to leave in order to collect firewood, without which they could not cook food for their families. Working together with the women and humanitarians, UNMISS was able to organize regular patrols accompanying these women and girls to the forest. These patrols didn’t address all the problems civilians had in the base, but it certainly made their lives safer and more dignified.

4) My fourth and final thought is probably the toughest to implement: When a threat appears, it’s important do something – even if the odds are not in your favor.

Here, I want to acknowledge that peacekeepers often don’t have the necessary means to do their job. None of the UN missions deployed today in Africa – which is the context I know best – have the capacity to consistently protect civilians throughout the countries where they are deployed. The UN’s air and ground transport, force protection, medical, and other support systems do not rise to the standards that advanced militaries expect. And the numbers of troops and police authorized for these missions are often entirely inadequate when compared with the prevalence and severity of security threats on the ground. To a great extent, these are decisions made by the UN Security Council and the General Assembly – not troop or police contributors.

If a country will not allow its soldiers to take all reasonable measures to protect civilians, then that country’s troops should not be accepted for UN peacekeeping.

But too often, peacekeepers with the ability to protect civilians fail to do so. Sometimes, the responsibility lies with individual officers – and in such cases, there must be individual accountability through boards of inquiry and, if warranted, dismissal of the officers involved. Yet sometimes, the responsibility lies with the troop- or police-contributing countries, who impose so-called “caveats” – or limitations on what their personnel can do in the field. And occasionally, governments may also intervene to counter the direct orders of the UN Force Commander in the field. It is these kinds of actions that prompted one UN official to tell me, “In a peacekeeping mission, the Force Commander is not a Force Commander – he or she is really a Force Coordinator”

I do not dispute that governments retain ultimate control over their peacekeepers in the field. But I do think the UN must set a clear standard: if a country will not allow its soldiers to take all reasonable measures to protect civilians, then that country’s troops should not be accepted for UN peacekeeping.

I have now spent about 10 minutes talking about what peacekeepers should do. So it is only fair that I now turn the spotlight back on myself and ask, “What can humanitarians do to help peacekeepers protect civilians?” In virtually every country where peacekeepers have a PoC mandate, humanitarians are there providing assistance. So what can all of you expect from us?

The truth is that there is no clear, universal answer to that question. Humanitarians are a fractious and chaotic bunch. The UN’s humanitarian branches, such as UNICEF, may do things one way; while private organizations, such as Médecins Sans Frontières may be entirely different. But in general, here are the ways I believe we can work together:

We can work together to understand the protection environment, sharing information about the communities we are assisting, the threats they face, and possible solutions.

We can collectively create a safe environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid.

We can collaborate on contingency planning, in order to respond quickly when there is a crisis, and to mitigate the impact of military operations on civilians.

We can stand together against violations of human rights and international law, demanding accountability for perpetrators.

Now, there will be times when we cannot work together. Humanitarians have to abide by the principle of “do no harm” – whether that means harm to an individual or a community. So if we think that providing certain information to peacekeepers could reasonably cause harm, we will not be able to do so.

I should also note that one of the principles humanitarians and peacekeepers traditionally share is impartiality. And when peacekeepers lose that impartiality, it becomes harder for humanitarians and peacekeepers to stand together. I think that is important to remember at this time, when some are calling for a shift at the UN away from peacekeeping and toward peace enforcement.

In closing, I want to say that humanitarians and peacekeepers will never agree 100 percent with respect to using force to protect civilians. But the more we can learn from one another, and help one another in this critical task, the better. Because, in the words of one courageous humanitarian I met in South Sudan, “At the end of the day, we are here to serve the same people.”

Thank you.

Top photo: A UN Peacekeeper in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.