Community engagement and capacity-building in protection: United Nations peacekeeping during African conflicts

Civilians are the primary agents in their own protection, and international actors have only recently begun to support civilian self-protection efforts. Engaging locals in their own protection, however, does not come without challenges. 

Written by Leigh Hamilton

The protection of civilians during conflicts is one of the UN’s most significant undertakings. While the humanitarian branches of the organisation perform protection activities, it is mostly UN peacekeepers who act to prevent or respond to threats of physical violence against civilians. The UN Security Council first authorised peacekeepers to use force to protect civilians in 1999 during the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). Since then, the UN has launched 17 peacekeeping missions, the majority of which have been mandated to protect civilians. Some missions, such as the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), have mandates that make the protection of civilians the mission’s chief priority.

Precisely how UN peacekeepers protect civilians is a much-discussed topic, particularly how UN peacekeepers often fail to protect civilians and the myriad of reasons why: limited resources, poorly trained troops, weak mandates and lack of political will, to name a few. Most of these discussions frame the protection of civilians as a top-down approach, emphasising the roles of international actors and humanitarian interventions. They largely ignore civilian agency and actions that civilians take to increase their own safety or ensure their own physical protection; they rarely acknowledge that civilians are in fact the primary actors in their own protection.

More recently, however, the UN has begun to recognise that conflict affected communities take steps to keep themselves safe and the importance of supporting those self-protection measures during peacekeeping operations. Recent changes in UN policy regarding the protection of civilians specify how peacekeepers are meant to engage with communities regarding their own protection and how they are meant to build the capacity of the communities to protect themselves. While the UN has matched this rhetoric with action in both the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, enhancing civilian self-protection does not come without challenges.


Local communities are the gatekeepers of protection

Civilians will always act to protect themselves from harm. Before and even during international interventions, community protection mechanisms operate. Self-protection refers to actions undertaken by conflict-affected individuals or communities “with the intention of countering, mitigating, deterring or avoiding a threat.”[1] Examples include non-engagement tactics, such as flight and taking shelter; non-violent engagement, such as tax payment to armed actors and girlfriending; and violent engagement, such as the formation of self-protection militias.

Civilians self-protect everywhere. Researchers and practitioners – mostly anthropologists – have recorded many examples of self-protection in Africa. For example, during the Ugandan Bush War (1981-1986) and the subsequent insurgency of the Lord’s Resistance Army (1987-present), attacks on civilians were common. Civilians survived by attempting to remain neutral, for instance avoiding wearing clothes that suggested allegiance to either side; by avoiding potential threats, including ‘night commuting,’ when tens of thousands of children and youths walked to town centers each night to sleep in public places to avoid rebel attacks and abduction; or by accommodating armed groups, for example running errands or providing information.

Only more recently have external protection actors begun to identify and support community protection mechanisms. This is significant because, while community protection measures are important, they are often inadequate – especially in the context of state-sponsored campaigns of violence against civilians.


The UN and community protection mechanisms: Policy and rhetoric

The UN admits that the protection of civilians is an extremely complex task, often performed in a resource-strapped environment, which benefits from multi-actor involvement and the engagement of local communities. The UN began to include self-protection in its civilian protection strategies in 2011, including its most recent policy and guidelines regarding protection of civilians during UN peacekeeping operations issued in 2015. There are three significant clauses in the policy regarding civilian self-protection. First, the policy acknowledges civilians as protection actors themselves. Second, the policy explicitly stipulates that operations with civilian protection mandates must adopt a community based-approach. This means that civilian protection strategies must be planned in consultation with local communities and civil society organisations in order to assess vulnerabilities, seek early-warning information and support pre-existing self-protection mechanisms. Finally, the policy stipulates that peacekeepers should actually prioritise their civilian protection activities in support of community protection mechanisms where appropriate.

The inclusion of civilian self-protection in UN policy regarding civilian protection during peacekeeping operations is encouraging. While the inclusion is not indicative of a paradigm shift in the international approach to protection from “protection-from” to “protection-with,”[2] it nonetheless makes clear that the UN understands that civilian involvement is tacit in successful civilian protection. Civilians are the most valuable source of information regarding threats, vulnerabilities and effective protection strategies. Moreover, the inclusion acknowledges civilian agency where it was formerly denied; it adds human resources to an endeavor chronically under-manned; and it potentially mitigates the unexpected disruption of community protection mechanisms by peacekeepers, which can have mortal consequences. Ultimately, by augmenting community protection mechanisms, the UN can produce better protection results.


Does reality match rhetoric?

 The inclusion of civilian self-protection in UN policy regarding civilian protection during peacekeeping operations is encouraging, but is it matched by action? In a word, yes. The best example is the use of Community Liaison Assistants (CLAs) during UN peacekeeping operations in Africa. The UN developed CLAs after the Kiwanja Massacre in 2008 in the DRC when 150 civilians were slaughtered less than a mile from a UN base. The massacre convinced the UN that more local knowledge was needed in order to effectively protect civilians. CLAs are national staff that are deployed with uniformed peacekeepers. They help peacekeepers understand local protection expectations and needs, manage early warning systems, disseminate messages from the missions to the local populations, facilitate field visits and support communities to create their own Community Protection Plans. Due to the success of the CLA programme in the DRC, the UN has mainstreamed the instrument and now uses CLAs in CAR, Mali and South Sudan.

In South Sudan, peacekeepers have also worked with communities to create Community Watch Groups (CWG) within protection of civilians’ sites (PoC sites). CWGs augment the peacekeepers efforts to maintain internal safety in the camps. The community nominates members to the CWG, who then patrol for dangerous activity; accept complaints from community members about misbehavior; investigate and mediate in minor disputes; and liaise with and report to mission police.

CLAs and CWGs provide missions with improved situational awareness and augment the missions’ protection capabilities. However, they also present serious challenges. CLAs perform a very difficult job. They are often deployed in dangerous situations with limited office support and restricted mobility, making regular reporting problematic. They must build strong relationships with communities but remain unbiased. And, due to the rigidity of the UN’s bureaucratic system, missions do not receive extra managerial capacity to support CLAs or additional flexibility to deploy CLAs as needed. CWGs have experienced incidents where members abuse their power, for example imposing physical punishments on alleged offenders or demanding payment for protection. Importantly, protection issues are shaped by cultural norms, and residents of UNMISS’ PoC camps have complained that CWGs cannot punish behavior such as adultery or elopement. And, for both CLAs and CWGs, lack of female representation is a considerable issue.

Unfortunately, the UN does not currently have a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) mechanism in place to provide critical feedback about the community-based approach to civilian protection during its peacekeeping operations (though a few evaluations of isolated aspects of the community-based approach do exist such as the best practice review of CLAs in the Democratic Republic of Congo). The UN needs to be more transparent about how peacekeepers are engaging with communities in order to identify, assess and enhance existing community protection mechanisms. Publishing a survey of best practices regarding community-based protection and peacekeepers would be most helpful.

Finally, efforts to bolster community self-protection mechanisms must be complemented by peacekeepers’ military responses to threats against civilians. As aforementioned, community protection measures are important, but they are often inadequate – especially in the context of state-sponsored campaigns of violence against civilians. Peacekeepers must demonstrate willingness to protect civilians or risk the legitimacy of the entire mission.



[1] Gorur, A., ‘Community Self-Protection Strategies: How Peacekeepers Can Help or Harm’, Stimson Center, August 2013, http://www.stimson.org.

[2] Levine, D. (2013). Some Considerations for Civilian-Peacekeeper Protection Alliances. Ethics and Global Politics, 6 (1), pp. 1-23.