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For Civilian Protection, Mission Matters, Too

Guest post by Ben Denison, Ph.D Student in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.

A couple of recent posts on this blog (here and here) have examined whether UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs) can help prevent mass atrocities and reduce battlefield violence, especially in the context of South Sudan. The conclusions reached on how peacekeepers can shelter civilians and save lives are well taken.

As the second of those posts briefly discusses, however, thinking about the role of UN PKOs in protecting civilians from mass atrocities has to extend beyond mere numbers to consider the specific role they are serving. For a PKO to be effective, it must be committed to carrying out a mission that specifically involves defending civilians. Without a clear chain of command and rules of engagement that permit active defense of the civilian population, the numbers and supposed mission of the peacekeepers may not matter much.

Maybe this seems obvious, but history suggests that it isn’t. Almost 19 years ago, the UNPROFOR mission in Bosnia was party to the worst mass atrocity of the Yugoslav war, at Srebrenica. One aspect of the UN response to the war in Bosnia was the creation of so-called safe areas for Bosniak civilians in Serb-controlled areas of eastern Bosnia. This idea was to provide protection for the internal refugees created by the war and for the UN forces to protect the citizens. The UNSC passed Resolution 836 which allowed UNPROFOR,

“Acting in self-defense, to take the necessary measures, including the use of force, in reply to bombardments against the safe areas by any of the parties or to armed incursion into them or in the event of any deliberate obstruction in or around those areas the freedom of movement of UNPROFOR or of protected humanitarian convoys.”

This mission seems to fit what Hultman, Kathman, and Shannon describe as a condition for UNPKOs to successfully protect civilians from atrocities. Unfortunately, the Dutch peacekeepers assigned to Srebrenica as part of UNPROFOR were not able to carry out that mission, and over 8,000 Bosniak civilians were murdered. The Republika Srpska military forces (VRS) under Ratko Mladic had targeted the Dutch peacekeepers, using a form of salami tactics to test their resolve of protecting the civilians. After kidnapping some of the Dutch troops and meeting with their commander, Mladic’s forces apparently concluded that the Dutch forces would not be able to defend the citizens in the safe areas.

As Hultman, Kathman, and Shannon’s research implies, a larger PKO force might have been more effective in defending the safe areas and deterring VRS attacks. More problematic, though, were the rules of engagement given by the UN and the bureaucracy that impeded the material support the mission required.

First, the rules of engagement explicitly stated that the peacekeepers could only use force for self-defense. This rule implies that the main concern was for the peacekeepers’ safety and not the safety of the civilians, and it revealed that the main role the peacekeepers were playing was one of deterrence. Under these circumstances, a larger PKO force might have increased the deterrent effect, but once the VRS had decided to attack the safe areas, the rules of engagement still would have prevented that force from defending the civilians sheltering there.

Second, the Dutch peacekeepers did not receive the material support they needed. The NATO air support they requested did not arrive, and without that air support, it was clear that the peacekeepers could not stop the VRS.

Similar issues arose in Rwanda in 1994. In his memoirs, Romeo Dallaire recounts an episode in which citizens were told to go to a nearby soccer stadium to seek shelter and protection, and then UN forces were ordered to leave the stadium and not defend it.

In sum, UN peacekeepers protecting civilians in safe havens or zones are only effective to the extent that they are capable of repelling attacks and have the authority to do so. In the 1990s, we saw instances where massacres were made easier because the UN gathered civilians into one place but did not firmly commit its PKO troops to their defense. Under these conditions, UN actions can make mass atrocities even worse than they otherwise would be.

Looking at South Sudan, I see cause for hope that this lesson has been learned. While there have been attacks on civilians under UN protection, PKO troops have stayed their ground and defended the rest of the population, returning fire on the forces attacking the civilians. In fact, the UN commander noted that their rules of engagement clearly delineate they are to use force to protect civilians that are sheltering at the base. This change from the rules of engagement in the UNPROFOR mission provides a clearer and more consistent set of instructions for protection of civilians instead of just self-defense of the UN forces. Without the authorization to defend the populace at all costs, atrocities will be difficult to prevent.

Of course, defining the rules of engagement in a multi-national force is quite difficult. Getting all of the relevant nations to agree on the goals of a mission and what measures should be used to advance them is not a simple matter. Although the UN has seemingly learned from the horrors of the 1990s, it is not inconceivable to future UNPKO where the unclear nature of their rules on engagement produces another significant failure of civilian protection.