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Peacekeeping and the Responsibility to Protect

Rachel Gerber
The Interdependent
May 2012

Like everything else in global politics, contemporary UN peacekeeping looks little like what was imagined at the close of the Cold War. Two decades of experimentation, loss and strategic reevaluation have clarified the parameters of “peace operations” and developed a set of policy tools tailored to specific circumstances, roles and objectives in support of global peace and stability.

The “responsibility to protect” (R2P) was born of the same history that forced the rethink of modern peacekeeping, with Lakhdar Brahimi’s landmark Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (2000) issued just weeks before International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) announced it would seek to forge a new consensus on what was then understood as “humanitarian intervention.”

Building on the notion of “sovereignty as responsibility,” ICISS famously reframed the presumed “right to intervene” in the face of genocide and other mass atrocities as a “responsibility to protect,” and set the foundations of a political principle that – as adopted at the UN’s 2005 World Summit – reaffirms three concurrent and mutually-reinforcing responsibilities, or “pillars”: 1) the primary responsibility of the State to protect its population from genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 2) the responsibility of the international community to assist States in their efforts to do so, and 3) the responsibility of the international community to take collective action should national authorities fail to protect their populations from imminent or unfolding atrocities.

Over the same period in which political consensus surrounding R2P’s basic principles has deepened and focus has turned to implementation, the United Nations and its Member States have striven separately to refine the basic identity of UN peace operations and build a set of shared expectations for their application. Peacekeeping has been thus shaped as a “niche” policy tool – one that provides invaluable support to both States and the international community in upholding their R2P obligations, but only in circumstances that operate within what has become the core assumption of UN mission engagement: stated consent of parties to a conflict.

Contemporary peacekeeping mandates, objectives, strategy and doctrine operate explicitly on the principles of consent, impartiality and non-use of force (except in self-defense or defense of a mission’s mandate). Reminded successively in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda that ambitiously mandated, under-resourced UN missions are ill-suited to bullying unwilling belligerents into a ceasefire, the Brahimi Report fervently advocated these principles. It recognized UN peacekeeping’s comparative advantage as one of assistance – facilitating an established political process driven by consenting local parties and grounded in the broadest possible base of international political support.

In reality, these principles frame mandates and equip missions that operate in contexts of incredible ambiguity, where consent is fickle, power diffuse and shifting, and violence often ongoing. Thus, while engaging the State and other local parties to assist the transition out of conflict, these missions are also often mandated to protect civilians from the many threats that remain. Such mandates are written in the language of “civilian protection,” (POC) a collection of conflict-focused humanitarian objectives that, in political terms, have come to refer almost exclusively to the strategic objectives of peacekeeping missions mandated to use force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Civilian protection extends beyond the four mass atrocity crimes circumscribed in the R2P framework, but captures the spirit of the principle and outlines its operational approach on behalf of UN actors in the limited context of conflicts that host a POC-mandated, consent-based mission.

Peace operations with a civilian protection mandate reinforce all three pillars of the R2P framework, though in varying ways and degrees depending on the form and objectives of the mission. At the strategic level, all UN peace operations are approached as a “pillar 2” tool to “assist States under stress” in protecting their populations through direct security provision and local capacity building. While rare, peace operations such as the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo temporarily assume full “pillar 1” responsibility in the territory they administer. More frequently, POC-mandated peacekeeping missions act under “pillar 3” to ensure protection when local actors prove unable to do so.

Defining peacekeeping as a tool of consent may seem soft, overly restrictive, and divorced from ground realities in which the intent and authority of the “consenting parties” may be highly questionable. Yet, consent – however tenuous – creates physical and political space for maneuver that would not otherwise exist. It sets commitments against which parties must then justify their actions, and allows for coercive tactical responses to violations when appropriate. Relatively muted objection to the UN Operation in Cote d’Ivoire’s forceful ouster of Laurent Gbagbo last spring underscores how a premise of consent can shift the parameters for engagement and make robust responses more politically palatable when force becomes the only option.

Yet, as Libya and Syria have made abundantly clear, not all atrocities begin with armed conflict and not all perpetrators are willing to engage with the international community, much less consent to UN presence on the ground. While POC shares many tangible objectives with R2P, few of its principles, doctrine or tactics are transferrable to cases of “peace enforcement,” or overtly coercive efforts to counter a perpetrator bent on a civilian-targeted strategy.

While consensus over R2P’s overarching principles has deepened significantly in recent years, the international community has yet to formulate a shared understanding of how it should approach cases in which State actors prove entirely unwilling to respect their obligation to protect their populations from mass atrocity crimes. UN Member States, Security Council members in particular, have yet to develop common expectations for the policies that are appropriate and acceptable for peace enforcement, and the ways in which “enforcers” will be held accountable to them.

Lacking such shared expectations – or even a common language to speak about them – the Security Council resolution (1973) that authorized coercive force against Colonel Gaddafi borrowed the language of civilian protection, with the added caveat that NATO was free to employ “all necessary means” to achieve this objective. Civilian protection, however, has become largely synonymous with the principles of consent, impartiality and minimal force that define the peacekeeping mandates in which it is typically invoked. The dissonance between these principles and NATO’s interpretation of “all necessary means” opened the door to forceful criticism, backlash and political posturing in the wake of the Libya campaign. Some POC advocates fear hard won consensus over peacekeeping’s protection-focused principles and mandates have been damaged by the Libya experience.

Yet, the core of current contention over R2P implementation lies outside the space where UN peacekeeping is an appropriate tool.

Global events continue to remind us of the urgent need to clarify consensus and develop a set of shared expectations for the rare cases in which coercive force, without consent, is the only means to counter mass atrocity threats. This summer, the United Nations General Assembly will gather for an open dialogue on the third pillar of the R2P framework. Serious consideration of these needs is critical if Member States are to fully realize their self-proclaimed responsibility to protect all populations from atrocity violence.
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