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Twenty Years On, Time for an Accountability System for the Protection of Civilians

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by Namie Di Razza

On this day in 1999, the United Nations Security Council passed its first thematic resolution on the protection of civilians in armed conflict and expressed its willingness to consider how peacekeeping mandates might better address the negative impact of armed conflict on civilians. Since then, UN peacekeeping has radically changed.

Today, protection of civilians (POC) is a top priority in a number of multidimensional peace operations and peacekeepers are asked to use all necessary means to prevent and respond to threats of physical violence against civilians, regardless of the source of the threat. However, as POC has become a new paradigm for UN peace operations, its implementation remains inconsistent. Despite the many policies and actions established over the last two decades to improve the protection of civilians, an accountability system is critically needed to make sure that all actors unswervingly fulfill their duty to protect.

Continued Failures

Since 1999, a substantial amount of policy and guidance has been produced by the UN Secretariat, and peacekeeping missions in the field have developed many tools, established dedicated mechanisms, and diversified their posture and activities to improve POC. Missions in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR), Darfur, and Mali, now have an array of staff and structures dedicated to POC including protection advisors, joint protection teams, protection working groups, or protection tasks forces. The posture of military components have also expanded to include robust or offensive operations to protect civilians. Peacekeeping operations mandated to protect local populations have saved many lives, and often act as the last layer of protection for vulnerable communities threatened by violent armed groups, predatory state forces, and social unrest.

However, UN missions have on several occasions failed to properly prevent, preempt, or respond to POC threats. Numerous reports and investigations have highlighted performance shortfalls and called for better accountability, such as the Cammaert report on the Juba incidents of July 2016, and the Amoussou report on incidents in CAR in 2017. Most special investigation reports into POC failures have remained confidential, and the corrective actions undertaken to address identified gaps often escape the public eye.

Despite the declared ambitions and the institutionalization of POC objectives and activities, there is still insufficient accountability for peacekeepers—whether uniformed or civilian—involved in the implementation of POC mandates. POC ambitions, as set forth by the Secretariat and the Security Council, have not always been met with an appropriate level of dedication for UN personnel on the ground, and by effective results and consistent outcomes for local communities. Also, while the Council explicitly established ambitious expectations for POC, there are still tremendous gaps in the provision of adequate resources for missions to implement it. In other words, there has been a growing gap between the institutionalization of POC and the pursuit of accountability for POC.

Dilution of Responsibilities

POC has been defined by the Department of Peace Operations as encompassing three tiers: protection through dialogue and engagement; provision of physical protection; and establishment of a protective environment. It is therefore a whole-of-mission task and a multidimensional endeavor, pursued by the military, police, and civilian components of peace operations, which all share responsibility for POC.

This broad, inclusive, and integrated approach has led to mainstreaming and institutionalizing POC for all mission actors, but concomitantly, has also triggered a dilution and diffusion of responsibility. There is a sense that by being everyone’s responsibility, POC has become no one’s responsibility. Today, protection of civilians has tended to become an elusive and abstract goal, for which no single actor can be held accountable.

The 1990s were marked by peacekeeping operations in which some individuals wanted to do more to protect civilians, but faced the resistance from traditional perspectives in the UN system that pushed for a neutral approach to peacekeeping. While there were cases of peacekeepers trying everything to protect civilians in Rwanda, those were often attributable to outliers acting without the support of the UN as an institution.

Nowadays, POC has become a bureaucratic task, entailing establishing protection matrices, writing protection reports, setting up early warning systems, and pursuing community liaison initiatives to improve local protection plans. Its normalization has sometimes led to a disempowerment and disengagement of staff. POC is not framed in terms of proactive commitment at the individual level, but has been systematized, bureaucratized, and professionalized, so that the whole UN machine establishes processes and mechanisms for its pursuit regardless of the level of personal interest of its agents. In this framework, it counts less on the persons than on the institutions, which has tended to diminish the sense of personal accountability.

Blame Games

The integrated and coordinated approach to POC has also fed blaming games. Civilian components of peace operations criticize the lack of response to protection crises on the part of their military counterparts. Military components get frustrated at bearing the blame for all POC failures and at seeing civilian components not delivering on peace processes and stabilization promises. Civilian and military personnel complain about the limitations of the police component, due to unclear roles and uncertain handover and coordination processes.

These blame games also exist beyond the missions in the field. Relationships between the Secretariat, the Security Council, and troop- and police-contributing countries (T/PCCs) tend to be marked by mutual criticism, as POC failures can altogether be imputed to the lack of initiative and dedication by certain T/PCCs, the dysfunction of the UN’s bureaucracy, or the insufficient political and financial support from the broader Security Council membership.

As a consequence, accountability remains a sensitive topic at the UN. Attached to the idea of blame and sanctions, it is often understood in negative, punitive terms—there is indeed a general association with repatriating troops or sacking force commanders, such as in the case of the Juba incidents in South Sudan. The conversation has thus deviated from “accountability” to “monitoring and evaluation” and “performance monitoring”—less politically charged concepts that are likely to get greater buy-in and traction among member states.

At the Security Council, the debate on accountability has mainly focused on issues related to ending impunity for international humanitarian law and human rights violations, and to prosecuting perpetrators. Accountability has also been an important theme in the area of sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by peacekeepers. There has, however, rarely been discussion on the accountability of peacekeepers for fulfilling their protective role.

Recent Promising Initiatives

Both member states and the UN Secretariat have recently launched several initiatives to increase accountability. Rwanda has been at the forefront and has championed the topic of accountability through the development of the 2015 Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians, endorsed by 49 signatories. However, the pledges are non-binding, and have not translated into systematic enforcement.

In September 2018, the Security Council adopted a landmark resolution on improving behavior, leadership, and accountability in peacekeeping. It notably reaffirmed its support for the development of a comprehensive and integrated performance policy framework for evaluating peacekeeping personnel to ensure accountability for underperformance and responses to performance failures, including public reporting, withholding of reimbursement, and repatriation or replacement of units.

The resolution called for capable and accountable leadership, support to training and capacity-building, and the use of special investigations. It specifically stressed the importance of “continued and further engagement by senior mission leadership, with a view to ensuring that all mission components and all levels of the chain of command are properly informed of, trained for, and involved in the mission’s protection of civilians mandate and their relevant responsibilities.”

The Department of Peace Operations is also working to enhance performance management in its field operations. The Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative sets specific goals related to the establishment of effective performance and accountability. The Comprehensive Performance Assessment System (CPAS) is being rolled out in field missions to assess whole-of-mission performance through data collection and analysis. The Force and Sector Commander’s evaluations of military units and formed police unit assessments are also being rolled out in a more systematic way.

The Secretariat also developed the policy addendum on “accountability for implementation of POC mandates” in May 2018. The addendum filled a significant gap and was a remarkable step forward in defining and clarifying the roles and responsibilities of mission personnel in the implementation of POC and in improving the integration of POC in performance management tools.

Key points include reference to both individual and organizational responsibility, and a breakdown of responsibilities for civil, military, and police leadership, at headquarters and field offices levels, and for both substantive and support components. The document also recognizes the role of all personnel—not only leadership—noting that accountability “cascades down the organization,” and calls for the integration of POC in existing performance management systems.

Towards a System of Accountability

Building on these positive steps, it is crucial to pursue more efforts in establishing a multi-actor, multilayered, and multidimensional accountability system for POC. As we are entering a new decade for protection of civilians in peace operations, “accountability” is one of the most urgent shifts needed to improve POC on the ground.

Beyond the normative developments and the establishment of practical tools for POC, better accountability will improve a mission’s readiness to deliver on POC mandates, push UN personnel to properly anchor POC in their various strategies and plans, and ensure outputs are connected to impact.

There are two important shifts to operationalize. The first is to shift the debate around accountability from a negative to a positive narrative. It is time to demystify accountability discussions, and to adopt a definition of accountability that goes beyond a punitive connotation of the concept and the blaming and shaming impulse and rather promotes a culture of positive and active accountability for all actors. An effective accountability system would not only sanction under-performance, but would also clarify roles and responsibilities, offer adequate training and preparation, provide appropriate resources, and create incentives to deliver on POC.

Another needed shift is to pursue an inclusive rather than a confrontational approach. Because POC is a shared responsibility, an effective accountability system would apply at all levels and to all actors and stakeholders: the leadership, working-level staff, and the military, police, and civilian components of peace operations. The system would also encompass the roles of the Secretariat in effectively supporting field missions, the Security Council member states in following up beyond the adoption of a resolution, and the T/PCCs in providing the appropriate troops with the right mindset.

Such shifts will enable the adoption of a system of accountability for POC, in which shared responsibilities are backed by a comprehensive scheme of mechanisms, tools, and processes for all stakeholders involved in the adoption and implementation of POC mandates in peace operations.

This system would ideally include, but not be limited to, the following components:

  • Defining roles and responsibilities, as the recent addendum to the UN policy initiated;
  • Promoting a common view of performance for POC by sharing lessons learned and good practices, and having inclusive conversations on standards, criteria, and indicators of good performance;
  • Training and preparing personnel, including through continuous learning mechanisms; Providing the means and resources to implement POC;
  • Reporting on implementation, including performance and under-performance, with a focus on outcomes rather than outputs;
  • Sanctioning under-performance and rewarding effective performance.

Accountability to Whom?

To establish a meaningful accountability system, one should also consider the “answerability” dimension of accountability, which creates an obligation to account for one’s action or inaction to a third actor. In this regard, it is important to clarify to whom peacekeepers are accountable.

The complexity of peacekeeping resides in the multiple reporting lines of mission personnel, who can be held accountable to the mission leadership, the UN Secretariat, the Security Council, or their own capitals. Most importantly for the protection of civilians, peace operations should be accountable to their beneficiaries: local communities. To make the UN peace operations more people-centered, as called for by the report of the High-Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations, they will have to be more accountable to people.

To do so, any accountability system would need to have a certain level of transparency in order to ensure its credibility. Public reporting and transparency are not only key to improving trust, they are also crucial levers that can spur good performance and trigger emulation.

A Culture of Accountability

Beyond the system that needs to be progressively put in place through policy development, training initiatives, performance monitoring mechanisms, and sanction and incentive tools, promoting a culture of accountability for POC is urgently needed. Changing the mindsets and instilling pride in protecting civilians for all peacekeepers deployed is a key element of internalizing a sense of accountability across the board.

Within missions, there is a need to create a sense of urgency for POC, to remind personnel of the human, universal urge to avoid the worst atrocities. This goes beyond the bureaucracy created to implement the POC mandate. Having in place the procedures, legislation, and structures to improve performance and sanction inaction, can create the space for such a culture of accountability to thrive, but it will not be sufficient without firm, unequivocal political commitment from both the UN leadership and member states. With the UN General Assembly opening this week, and on this twentieth anniversary of the inscription of POC on the agenda of the Security Council, there is a singular opportunity for all stakeholders to renew their engagement on this issue.

Namie Di Razza is a Senior Fellow with the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI).

"Originally Published in the Global Observatory"