How Much Force is Necessary to Protect Civilians?

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Image courtesy of MONUSCO Photos/Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This article was originally published by the IPI Global Observatory on 24 September 2019.

The use of force by United Nations peacekeepers has always been contentious. As far back as 1956, the then-Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld warned that resorting to force in situations other than self-defense risked compromising the UN’s impartiality, and making peacekeepers a party to the very conflicts the UN was trying to defuse through political engagement.

The UN’s role in conflict management has evolved considerably since Hammarskjöld’s time, and with it the UN’s doctrine on the use of force. Starting in the 1960s, the UN began to argue that force could be justified not only in self-defense but also “in defense of the mandate” (the exact language has varied). This has produced a curious yet rarely discussed tautology: because Security Council mandates are increasingly offensive in letter and spirit, many of today’s peacekeeping operations “defend” their mandates by “proactively” using force. This phenomenon, well known to conventional military operations, collapses any meaningful distinction between (defensive) peacekeeping and (offensive) peace enforcement.

Equally important is that, since 1999, use of force considerations have become closely intertwined with protection of civilians (POC) mandates. The Security Council has expressly mandated POC on a number of occasions over the last twenty years. Today most of the UN’s large peacekeeping operations can use all necessary means, including lethal force, to protect civilians, most notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), South Sudan (UNMISS), Mali (MINUSMA), and the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

From Lethal to Non-Lethal Force

Given past failures to protect civilians in Rwanda and Srebrenica, it is understandable that the UN has spent considerable energy changing the mindset of peacekeepers from traditional Chapter VI ceasefire monitoring to robust Chapter VII peacekeeping. Much progress has been made since the 1990s, but something may have also been lost along the way. There is now a tendency to analyze use of force questions primarily through the lens of robust military action and lethal force. When the UN Security Council authorizes peacekeepers to use “all necessary means,” this euphemism is widely understood to encompass military operations resulting in combat and, ultimately, casualties. In other words, a peacekeeper may lawfully take the life of another person if certain conditions spelled out in a mandate are met. While this is uncontroversial as far as self-defense is concerned, when peacekeepers protect civilians through “all necessary means,” such authorizations to use lethal force have far-reaching and still poorly understood consequences.

Emblematic of this mentality is the 2017 Cruz report, which advocates robust military action to accomplish peacekeeping mandates. Lieutenant General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz goes so far as to suggest that if the UN does not “deter and repel attacks” and “defeat attackers,” more peacekeepers will end up losing their lives. Cruz does not say if a lack of robust action also results in greater civilian harm, but this is widely assumed to be true among UN staff and observers (for a different view, see here).

In reality, the relationship between POC and use of force is more nuanced. The Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians encourage peacekeepers to “be prepared to use force to protect civilians,” but they expressly note that such action includes not only “direct military action” but also a “show of force as a deterrent” and “interpositioning” between armed actors and civilians. Likewise, the UN’s 2015 POC Policy and the 2017 Guidelines on the Use of Force by Military Components carefully distinguish deadly force from minimally required force and a graduated application of increasing levels of force.

In short, the question is not whether to use force, but how much force is necessary to accomplish POC goals. Answering this question will become increasingly important for the UN, as most peacekeepers now operate in hostile environments where the boundaries between armed conflict and ordinary crime (and increasingly counterterrorism) are blurred. In such hybrid contexts, robust military action is not necessarily the solution to POC challenges. Sending in an infantry battalion to eliminate gang violence in Haiti or, more recently, in the Central African Republic (CAR), can have unexpected consequences, including high civilian casualties.

When peacekeepers seek to arrest gang leaders, as was the case during Operation Sukula in Bangui last year, the objective is not fundamentally military in nature. The operational methods and mentality must be different in an urban setting where thousands of innocent bystanders can be caught in the cross-fire. MINUSCA learned this lesson the hard way: there is a still disputed number of civilian casualties and lingering allegations of disproportionate force by Rwandan peacekeepers.

The UN’s internal investigation of Operation Sukula will likely never see the light of day, but pinning the blame on the Rwandan battalion may be missing the point. The UN still relies on military contingents for the vast majority of its non-civilian personnel. In fact, it is UN Police, in particular formed police units (FPUs), that will be more and more important in some missions. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is the police—not the military—who are trained to arrest people. Since killing is always a last resort in any peaceful and law-abiding nation, police officers are expected to use primarily non-lethal force in their home countries. By contrast, militaries are trained to perform lethal combat operations in exceptional times of war. It may simply be a category mistake to expect UN military contingents to carry out effective law enforcement operations in hybrid contexts like Bangui.

The problem isn’t just what types of military and police personnel are deployed to peacekeeping missions. The Security Council and member states bear some of the blame for not granting enough space to non-lethal actions in mission mandates. It is regrettable that only one out of fourteen peacekeeping operations currently has an express mandate to “arrest and detain” spoilers. Yet, even for MINUSCA, arrest and detention “to maintain basic law and order” is understood as a limited, time-bound and exceptional activity “without creating a precedent and without prejudice to the agreed principles of peacekeeping operations.” The paradox should be obvious to see: why is arresting spoilers exceptional and “all necessary means,” including killing, unexceptional? Should it not be the other way around?

There are a host of reasons why the UN Security Council and member states do not want to expressly empower peacekeepers to arrest and detain. This includes sensitivities around host state sovereignty and logistical challenges around the UN’s detention capabilities. But if the UN is serious about prioritizing non-lethal uses of force, as POC doctrine already requires, the Security Council should lead the way by explicitly mandating arrests of spoilers, and deploying more FPUs trained to conduct such operations. This would encourage a change in mission posture, and maybe even result in fewer unnecessary deaths, whereas the cryptic “all necessary means” phrase is, rightly or wrongly, equated primarily with robust military action and lethal force.

Using Force Against Government Troops

Using force against government troops is particularly contentious. The reality is that peacekeeping operations, even when they are deployed under Chapter VII, invariably operate with the consent of the host state. When the host state withdraws consent, peacekeepers have little choice but to leave. Not surprisingly, managing positive relations with the government has been a challenge that most peacekeeping operations have faced at one point or another.

Maintaining consent is especially difficult when government forces commit abuses against civilians. Recent UN doctrine and Security Council mandates seem clear in that they require peacekeepers to protect civilians irrespective of the  “source of the threat.” For instance, the 2015 POC policy underscores that “military and police components may conduct security operations to stop on-going violence against civilians by state security forces at the tactical level.” This implies there is an almost inevitable clash between peacekeeping missions and security services in countries like South Sudan, Darfur, and the DRC, where state agents are regularly accused of abuses against civilians.

The reality is different. UN personnel in New York and in the field have disparate views on whether peacekeepers may use force against government troops. Distinctions are often made between strategic and tactical uses of force. Some believe that tactical force is required, for instance if peacekeepers come upon rogue army elements raping civilians. However, more serious divergences remain with respect to organized governmental violence, for instance if national security services deployed to secure demonstrations open fire on protesters.

There are few reported instances of peacekeepers actively intervening against government forces to protect civilians. While this may seem like an indictment of the UN’s POC performance, the devil is in the details. Three observations are in order.

First, as seen above, using force encompasses a spectrum of activities, from (non-lethal) pre-emptive deployment to active hostilities resulting (potentially) in deaths. Peacekeepers have, on occasion, mounted a “show of force” to deter government abuses against civilians in CAR, the DRC, or South Sudan. However, peacekeepers do not usually escalate a situation through warning shots, or engage in prolonged exchanges of fire with government troops. This would naturally make headlines, especially if there are casualties, whereas non-lethal pre-emption slips under the radar.

Second, the UN does not, for obvious reasons, publicly advertise when its troops take action against government troops. Diplomacy requires that incidents of this nature are kept under wraps. By contrast, failures to protect civilians from host state forces, for instance as detailed in Brigadier General Cammaert’s report on UNMISS’s role in the July 2016 violence in Juba, receive widespread attention. The UN should consider publicizing instances of successful interposition against government troops, especially if this can be done well after the operational environment has improved and when such publicity no longer undermines relations with host state authorities.

Third, despite these two caveats, it must be frankly acknowledged that levels of governmental violence against civilians remain alarmingly high in countries where peacekeepers operate. In the DRC and South Sudan, human rights reports have for years publicly accused state agents of committing the majority of violations against civilians. The conspicuous absence of reported cases of interposition or armed intervention by peacekeepers against governmental forces is patently not just a function of UN diplomacy. On many occasions, peacekeepers have simply failed to intervene to stop governmental abuses, which raises legitimate questions as to why patrols never seem to reach certain areas or why other pre-emptive action is not taken in a timely enough manner.

To be sure, peacekeepers cannot and should not be expected to pre-empt most abuses in countries where they operate. However, capacity shortfalls only partly explain the persistence of government abuses in the proximity of peacekeepers. The few instances of interposition and other demonstrations of force in the DRC, South Sudan, and Darfur underscore continued disagreement within the UN about the legitimacy of using force against government forces. Confronting the host state remains a contested topic where uncertainty about peacekeepers’ authority to challenge host state authorities has negative effects for civilians.


The consolidation of POC as a primary objective in peacekeeping mandates is one of the greatest achievements of the last twenty years. However, defining the relationship between POC and robust peacekeeping is a continuously evolving conversation at the UN. The UN Secretariat, the Security Council, and member states must find a way to strike the right balance between lethal and non-lethal force, and knowing when to use force against government actors. How the UN responds to these challenges will largely determine the effectiveness of POC going forward.

About the Author

Patryk I. Labuda is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a Non-Resident Fellow at the International Peace Institute.

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