Protecting civilians at the dawn of the new decade

Woman crosses a road patrolled by peacekeepers Woman crosses a road patrolled by peacekeepers © UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti

This is a brief presentation of the Department of Peace Operations' report on the present and future prospects of the POC in peacekeeping

It was 1999 when for the first time the Protection of Civilians (POC) was included in a Peacekeeping Mission mandate. In the last 20 years, the POC has progressively gained a leading role in the work of the Security Council (the final authority for peacekeeping), placing itself at the root of the mandates of various missions and giving rise to some of the broadest authorisations for the use of force. As the new decade began, the Department of Peace Operations published the report "The Future of the Protection of Civilians in UN Peacekeeping Operations" to sum up the work done and lay the foundations for the new decade.

Whereas the political momentum for the POC has always been strong, in recent years a decrease in funding and a predilection for smaller and political missions has called into question the future of these policies. On the other hand, the number of actors involved in the protection of civilians is rising, from the African Union to non-governmental organisations. Thus, as operations are becoming more complex, the central role of missions must be to create networks between the different stakeholders and harmonize their methods of action, with the overall aim of being able to operate, even on a smaller scale, in a relevant manner.

The role played by peacekeeping as technical, logistic and financial support to governments and other relevant stakeholders must therefore be deepened and encouraged. However, consideration should be given to the forms of support, avoiding supporting repressive governments a priori and favouring the actual endeavours of the various governmental actors. Therefore, the contextual promotion, from the Security Council to local contingents, of national strategies for the POC is crucial.  To this end, the missions need new types of specialized personnel in different emerging sectors, from "Cyber peacekeepers" who deal with cyber-security and monitor the web to combat misinformation and polarization, to operators specialized in the local social fabric to better understand the informal dynamics.

Thus, the purpose of the missions must focus on using the POC umbrella to promote, legitimise and expand the scope of their work. Meanwhile, growing recognition of the most effective approaches and the most integrated actors can enable peacekeeping operations to keep pace within new contexts of action. The last decade has already been characterised by new threats to civilians due to growing hybrid conflicts and internal divisions. It is foreseeable that the next decade will feature scenarios characterised by increasing polarization, distrust, nationalism and opposition to state institutions, resulting in urban confrontations and complex humanitarian crises in which the distinction between civilians and military will be increasingly blurred.

At the highest levels, the UN Secretariat, the de facto executor of these missions, should focus on tackling the divisions related to basic concepts of human rights and the protection of civilians. However, an effective compromise, mindful of the specificities and conceptions of the stakeholders involved, is not enough if the final result is a less extensive or "à la carte" mandate. Greater attention to the effects of such compromises on the action undertaken by the missions is paramount, especially considering the increasing complexity in which they operate and the limitations to which they are subject.


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Author: Matteo Consiglio; Editor: Margherita Curti

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