Workshop “Implementing the Protection of Civilians Concept in UN Peace Operations”

December 12, 2019, I was invited as a panelist in a workshop with the above title, convening a number of experienced individuals providing a political, humanitarian, military, and policing perspective to one of the most demanding topics within the context of peace operations of the United Nations. The following is my contribution to this workshop, as a panelist.

 

The moderator of the panel in which I participated, provided the following framework

For our discussion, it would therefore be wonderful if you could speak for 10-12min, addressing from your own experience some of the points above, identifying concrete challenges and practical ways to overcome them – with the aim of providing advice for a potential stronger role of Germany in implementing POC . I would in particular encourage you to provide as many concrete examples as possible to illustrate the points to the audience.


 

I can not help but begin with asking four crucial questions, when we talk about “Protection of Civilians”. If we would jump immediately into military and policing aspects, I believe that we are repeating a mistake which I have witnessed being made all too often:

 

  • Protection by whom?
  • Protection for which reasons?
  • Protection against what?
  • Protection with which means?

 

Let me explain:

 

Protection by whom?

 

We usually say that the protection of the civilian population is a core responsibility of the State in question. And then I usually say: When a peacekeeping mission is mandated to protect civilians, this is a substitution for this responsibility, because the State in question can’t, doesn’t want to, or should not, exercise this responsibility, or any combination of these three reasons. I can give many examples, if it is useful, later on.

But we usually conclude from the fact that we substitute for a State responsibility that the State in question has been exercising this responsibility before, by means of a State apparatus including police, and military. Which is often not true. Quite often, the reach of the State and its organs is limited to urban areas, or the Capital. Like in Afghanistan, Yemen, to some extent Somalia, or in the northern parts of Mali, and for various reasons. Or there is, for example, Abyei, the “Box” between Sudan and South Sudan, where there is no State authority because the area is subject to unsolved political disputes.

The reality, however, is that very often, when there is no conflict, and no State authority, it does not mean that nobody exercises POC. We often disregard, or sometimes have difficulties to accept within the culture of our thinking, the relevance of tribal structures, or co-existing parallel frameworks affecting only parts of the population: Like two different frameworks in Nigeria, one for the Muslim part of the country, one for the non-Muslim part.

Why is this important? Because I often see the reflex in mandates that we talk about the extension of State authority, and meanwhile the peacekeepers exercise POC. Like in Mali. Well, in Kidal the extension of State authority from Bamako is not creating much enthusiasm, same in Somalia or in many other places.

So, when we start to protect within a flawed, but well-meant, political context, we run into problems: SRSGs, Force Commanders, and Police Commissioners. We can discuss that.

 

Protection for which reasons?

 

They are being slaughtered. They hide amongst piles of dead neighbors in Srebrenica, pretending to be dead. They are being raped and killed in the open, outside of the Gates of UN camps in South Sudan. They have no justice, nor order, in Abyei. They are target of extremists and terrorists in Kidal, Mopti, Gao, Timbuktu. They are being recruited as slaves or servants or child soldiers, in the DRC, or in Burkina Faso or Niger, as they were in Sierra Leone, or Liberia. They are subject to retaliation by the Kosovo Liberation Army after the Serb VJ and the MUP had to leave, as a consequence of the Military Technical Agreement in Kosovo. And on and on and on.

I said it: We substitute for the absence of protection. We do know from longstanding experience that successful substitution works better at the beginning, where we do not have more than, at best, initial operational capacity, and an enthusiastic population, as well as a somewhat muted group of former powerholders. Then we struggle with generating the necessary means, and meanwhile things get difficult for us for a million reasons. Sooner or later they don’t like us that much, any more. And then we see that there is no sustainable alternative to domestic protection of civilians. At times, or often, we realize that too late.

Substitution needs the implementation of capacity building from the very first day on, as an exit strategy. And here we run into a plethora of challenges. Let me pick two: We don’t like to talk to former militia and else, they may be subject to war crime investigations. But to whom do I talk? Or I heard, in Mali and in CAR: We can not do capacity building, because they have to run through their elections first. So, we delay capacity building. Or, in Mali, I saw that we got the responsibility to capacitate four different law enforcement branches. Unfortunately, the former group of Tuareg controlled by terrorists had taken away the police cars, radios, ripped the electricity cables from the police stations, and they used the cars for attacking the population during power cuts in the dark. And when I asked the international community to help not only with training, but with equipment, the response was very muted, to put it mildly. Or in Bangui: I saw the DG of the Police in his headquarters. A few pieces of paper from destroyed criminal archives were still floating around, a rusty skeleton of a police car stood on the compound, windows were broken, and the one AK 47 I saw I would not even have test-fired without standing behind a solid wall.

 

Protection against what?

 

Every police and military planner will ask this question first: What is the threat? Contemporary conflict environments are facing a dimension of threats which is very different from parties to a conflict having agreed to a peace agreement and still some flares of violence continue. Our environments include asymmetric threats, sometimes we talk about “non State actors”, but I talk about a complex web of interests between local and State powerholders, extremists, terrorists, organized crime, former warlords, rebellious military and police commanders, and and and. Any physical protection by police and military is being set into a political context where SRSGs need to talk and negotiate and exercise coercion and nurture agreements, but where stakeholders within the economy of crime and conflict tend not to talk openly to those SRSGs. Rather, they at best disregard the political, military and police means given to the peacekeepers. If these peacekeepers run across their interests, they are being targeted, and/or the population is, because if one wants to control a population, one needs to disrupt communication between those who protect them, and themselves. Then, offer some social services yourselves, and the Stockholm Syndrome will help deepening the divisions.

Protection requires communication between the protectors and the protected at the core. I will spare examples for the discussion.

Secondly, the threat is hybrid: On the extreme side, it is a military threat. On the other side of the spectrum, it may be a criminal threat, and a threat to order because of the absence of elements of order. But in the huge middle part of the spectrum of threats, these threats are hybrid. This does not allow for applying distinctly separate military and policing means. When the Bridge Watchers in Mitrovica-North had taken advantage of some foolish international police officers who thought they could flex their muscles, any international presence broke down. I flooded the place with short-sleeved police officers, under heavy area protection by KFOR and heavily armed Formed Police Units. Their task was to go where the Bridge Watchers were, and to talk to the population, and to shopkeepers. Explicitly, they had to disengage if subject to provocation. And they had to come back the next day, and the next day, and the next day. I can explain how we turned the situation around. Later.

So what I say is that military and police peacekeepers are within an extremely robust environment where they both need to exercise policing logic and means. This does not only require sufficient police, but also sufficient soldiers who are trained in policing logic, and it requires a joint structure of command. In my view, my friend Maqsood Ahmad, MilAd, and I, PolAd, were not successful in trying this in Bangui. Because neither Military Commanders nor Police Commanders were willing to trust each other under one chain of command. Neither when we gave it to the Police Commissioner, nor later on, after heavy violence, to the Force Commander.

 

Which leads to the last topic:

Protection with which means?

 

I will be brief, because this needs to be discussed:

  1. POC begins with a sound political understanding.
  2. Political leaders of peacekeeping operations need to make both Force Commanders and Police Commissioners a core element of their daily consultations. They need to hold these Commanders accountable for jointness, and they have to demonstrate leadership in checking on to which extent military and police leaders in peacekeeping operations work together, rather than only saying they do. SRSG have to reach out to both, and not to talk about “The Force”, meaning their military means, and the Police Commissioner as an annex. Likewise, a Police Commissioner who does not entrust policing tasks to military colleagues, and instead saying he needs more attention, and police officers, just hides behind this seemingly correct argument, instead of embracing the reality: He or she won’t get more officers, and even if there were enough, still there is a massive need of jointness of thinking and planning and implementing concepts to protect civilians. And if police and military leaders tell you that the respective counterpart doesn’t work with you, and you hear it from both leaders, fire them both.
  3. We can complain about the absence of enough police capacity for policing problems, it will not change. I have deliberately not commented on the POC strategy, and what I did between 2013 and 2017 to come up with a POC doctrine for UNPOL. The message that I want to get through at the end is that colleagues in green and blue fatigues with blue helmets are facing a challenge which they can only solve in unison. This needs to be reflected in training. I have repeatedly said: I don’t care about the color of the uniform. I care about the function to be implemented. In vast parts, this is about policing in a rough and dangerous environment. So, I suggest we overcome the hesitation that comes into play when military colleagues begin to think and to train like police. It is the single-most important challenge on the side of uniformed peacekeepers to overcome the divide between green and blue, and to be both green and blue in hearts and minds.

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