The Protection of Civilians (POC) has gradually become central to UN peacekeeping both in policy formulation, in mandates, and in practice. Yet, the concept is broad, and few actors agree on its meaning. Such a broad understanding hinders coordination on issues across agencies, and makes the implementation of POC challenging. Few agree on whether POC is a specific task of peacekeeping mandates, or it should be an overall concern across all tasks.
The issue is further exacerbated by the lack of differentiation between POC and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The somewhat contested status of R2P thus contributes to undermine the inclusion of POC concerns in peacekeeping mandates. The introduction of a related system-wide agenda, Rights Up Front (RUF) is not about to make that more clear. An essential task at the policy level is therefore now to clarify the status and meaning of POC both vis-à-vis other tasks and other broader protection concerns.
Entering the UN peacekeeping system from Kofi Annan’s emphasis on the need for a “culture of protection” as a remedy to the failures of peacekeeping in the mid-1990s, the POC has since become an established part of the peacekeeping vocabulary and repertoire of actions. Today, while not a central concern to all UN agencies involved in peacekeeping operations, POC is nevertheless a factor taken into consideration by most of them. While it was for long seen as the prerogative of OCHA, it is now also an equally important concern to DPKO. The prominence given to POC in UN documents is symptomatic of a growing awareness of protection issues within the international community. However, these good intentions and interventions have not always led to the security and peace desired. Effective implementation of POC still involves practical challenges at the operative level as well as resolving the conceptual muddle characterizing POC today.
For the UN is routinely accused of not protecting when expected to in practice, and at the conceptual level little has been done to clarify what POC actually entails, and the extent to which it should figure in peacekeeping: is POC but one aspect of a vast array of measures, and should it therefore be compartmentalized alongside other policy areas, or is it an overreaching or cross-cutting concern for peacekeeping operations as a whole? In which case, should it also guide the work of agencies not formally part of the operation?
Yet, the past years have seen an increasing number of policy and doctrinal processes aimed at streamlining POC. Combining the UNs military capacities with the humanitarian ethics of protection produces both opportunities and challenges. On the one side it makes the PoC framework more robust, putting greater political (and military) capital behind preventive protection efforts, while also enabling actual physical protection of civilians. On the other side, it risks politicising protection, and conflate the UNs political-military agenda with the humanitarian, in turn jeopardising the humanitarian principles so central for the legitimacy of PoC.
The PoC is central to peacekeeping operations in seeking to manage war-to-peace-transitions. This involves both civilian and military entities, and a critical problem is their lack of a shared understanding of what PoC means in and entails for practices. This is partly due to the UNSC who feared defining and operationalising PoC would make it too binding for member states and override the UN’s lack of resources. Hence it was never properly defined and instead the UNSG opted for mainstreaming a ‘culture of protection’ throughout the UN system. The problem here is that distinct actors interpret this culture differently and contextually, thus making interagency harmonisation difficult. The paradox of this is that while mainstreaming POC would seem to require a simplification of the concept, so to speak, in order to make it more tangible, this in turn would run the risk of undermining the aim of POC, which is to be malleable enough as to provide protection in all situations.
There is a crucial need for more grounded reflection on how to provide effective protection. As long as understandings of “protection” vary, ranging from the provision of direct physical protection to the wider framework adopted by the UN, greater flexibility should be shown in which interpretation of protection is taken as the point of departure, depending on the aim of the case in question.
POC is broad, lacks tangibility, and is still elusive to many involved in peacekeeping. Accordingly, it has become a conceptual battlefield with little agreement of the status of POC, ether as a legal principle rooted in International Humanitarian Law, guidelines for humanitarian action, or a comprehensive doctrine including coercive means. This confusion is due to the fact that POC is vague and open for interpretation and contextualisation. This inherent feature of POC has been exacerbate by the fact that a number of actors eager to further legitimize the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) have been deliberately confusing the two concepts. While both the POC and R2P concepts are related in terms of aims, there are clear differences between them. R2P is interventionist, POC is not.
R2P faces the problem of legitimizing humanitarian intervention which POC does not face, and its disciples have therefore sought to attach or confuse the two in order to take a share in the broad legitimacy POC has enjoyed, but which R2P has lacked.
Even so, these distinct concepts are routinely referred to as synonymous and used interchangeably in the same contexts. This is not likely to change with the recent launch of the Rights Up Front (RUF) Action Plan, yet another concept aimed at remedying the failures of peacekeeping. If no concerted and central effort is made within the UN to conceptually clarify how POC, R2P and RUF relate to different agencies, contexts, policies and actions, UN peacekeeping will have to deal with three related, often competing, ideas or cultures of protection – all good intentioned, yet not clearly defined as to enable action. Such a reflection must take the field as its starting point, as the key to understand protection in any given context is to understand how it translates into practice, and the extent to which its application addresses the needs on the ground.