In The Media

Civilians need protection

by Geoffrey Johnston (feat. Kyle Matthews)

The Whig
September 8, 2016

As sectarian, ethnic and tribal violence engulf many vulnerable nations, the United Nations urgently needs to revamp peacekeeping in order to protect civilians from mass atrocities and crimes against humanity.

"The world is clearly in crisis," Simon Adams, an expert on genocide prevention, said. "We have 60 million people displaced: asylum seekers, refugees, internally displaced people.

"We have these large and complex crises across the world," continued Adams, who is the executive director of the New York City-based Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. "It's a difficult and tough time in world history. And I think upholding the Responsibility to Protect, upholding these principles, upholding human rights is more important now than ever."

Under the Canadian-inspired Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, adopted at the United Nations World Summit in 2005, the community of nations has an obligation to prevent genocide and mass atrocities, using any means necessary, including diplomatic and/or humanitarian initiatives. And as a last resort, military intervention in the affairs of a sovereign nation-state is permitted in order to halt or prevent mass civilian death.

However, simply deploying UN peacekeepers to hot spots is not enough to uphold R2P and protect defenceless innocents. UN peacekeepers must be prepared to do the right thing in times of crisis, and that means, in certain circumstances, using military force against local militias, government soldiers or terrorists.

When civilians are faced with killers with machetes, they expect UN peacekeepers to do something. "They expect protection," Adams said. "And as well they should. It's a moral responsibility that the UN has when it's in these situations."

Kigali Principles and Canada

"I think when we look around the world, we face a growing number of situations where it is necessary to deploy UN peacekeepers," Adams stated. "We need those peacekeepers to be deployed in keeping with the Kigali Principles, so that civilians on the ground can be absolutely assured that those blue helmets will protect them and not turn their backs on them in their moment of need."

According to the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect website, the Kigali Principles are "a non-binding set of 18 pledges for the effective implementation of the protection of civilians in UN peacekeeping." And the principles also "address broader deficiencies that undermine the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations conducted in volatile situations, including peacekeeper abuse."

For example, notes the centre's website, the Kigali Principles "address the most relevant aspects of peacekeeping, including assessment and planning, force generation, training and equipping personnel, performance and accountability."

The Kigali Principles were "endorsed by multiple governments" in May 2016, said mass atrocities prevention expert Kyle Matthews. They are designed to "prevent another Rwanda," stated Matthews, who is the senior deputy director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University. He is also a Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

Under the direction of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada is preparing to get back into the business of peacekeeping in a big way. To that end, the Canadian government will soon announce significant deployments of Canadian peacekeepers to hot spots in Africa. The government has already announced that up to 600 soldiers and 150 police will be deployed in the yet-to-be-announced missions, which will almost certainly put Canadian peacekeepers in harm's way.

"Canada supports the Responsibility to Protect, will continue to advocate for it, and are taking steps and joining the appropriate and necessary initiatives designed to implement it," Joseph Pickerill, spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, wrote in an email. "For example, Canada's commitment to the Kigali Principles is just one of the concrete ways we are meeting our obligations and our commitments," he said.

Does Canada view the Kigali Principles as a significant contribution to R2P? Pickerill responded by saying that "the Kigali Principles draw on over 20 years of experience to provide practical and specific guidance on how peacekeepers can effectively implement mandates to protect civilians from physical harm in situations where the host country is unable or unwilling to do so."

Earlier this year, Canada endorsed the Kigali Principles. "We are one of 30 countries to have done so, collectively accounting for more than a third of the uniformed personnel serving in UN Peace operations," Pickerill said.

Meeting on UN peacekeeping

In May 2016, Foreign Minister Koenders of the Netherlands convened a special ministerial meeting at the United Nations to discuss the future of peacekeeping and civilian protection. The gathering was awkwardly dubbed the UN Ministerial Meeting on the Future of Civilian Protection in Peace Operations: Endorsing and Implementing the Kigali Principles.

"I was very honoured when the Dutch minister and the Rwandan minister asked me if I would moderate the discussion," Adams stated. And he said that many people may be surprised to learn that peacekeeping was not part of the UN's original mandate when the world body was established after the Second World War. "It's not in the UN charter, even though it's one of the things that people associate most closely with the UN."

Peacekeeping was a uniquely Canadian contribution to the United Nations. When the Suez Crisis erupted in 1956, then external affairs minister Lester B. Pearson proposed the establishment of a multinational peacekeeping force to de-escalate the crisis and prevent another major war. Pearson's innovation saved the day, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.

In the second half of the 20th century, noted Adams, peacekeeping involved UN peacekeepers in blue helmets and berets keeping two warring armies apart, monitoring the demarcation between the combatants. "But that reality doesn't really exist for UN peacekeeping anymore," he said. "Even though we have less war in the world, we have more internal conflicts, which have been as catastrophic, and in some ways, more catastrophic for civilians."

Civilians targeted by combatants

In the 21st century, combatants often deliberately target civilians. For that reason, the majority of UN peacekeeping missions are now focused on civilian protection. Adams pointed out that 10 of 16 current UN peacekeeping missions have civilian protection mandates. "And I think that hasn't really been incorporated into peacekeeping doctrine, and hasn't been thought through in terms of implications to budgets, training, resources, mandates, accountability, and command and control issues," he said.

The shortcomings of UN peacekeeping must be addressed, and that's where the Kigali Principles come into play. "The Kigali Principles were really an attempt by a number of states to say the issue of protection of civilians from mass atrocity crimes and in situations of armed conflict are not a peripheral matter for the UN," Adams explained.

Does the 21st century concept of civilian protection that underlies the Kigali Principles fit within the framework of R2P? "It definitely does," Matthews replied. "A lot of it focuses on protection of civilians, which is also about armed conflict and prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity."

The impact of the Rwandan genocide on the United Nations cannot be understated. "The scale of the tragedy in Rwanda makes it historically unique," Adams said. He believes that to understand the Kigali Principles, we must understand the UN's failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

"You can't understand the Responsibility to Protect norm, either, without understanding the legacy of the Rwandan genocide and the genocide at Srebrenica, and the complete and utter failure of UN peacekeeping to keep its promise to the vulnerable that where a blue helmet was around, we were safe," Adams said.

"What I think the Kigali Principles are about is saying, in situations where we send UN peacekeepers into the field, the people who they interact with, the vulnerable civilians, should be absolutely confident that these people will protect them," he said. "That they won't pack up and leave if things get ugly. And they won't hand them over to people who are sharpening the machetes and digging the mass graves."

However, UN peacekeepers still cannot be counted on to always protect the vulnerable.

Peacekeeping failures

Earlier this year, UN peacekeeping forces stationed in war-torn South Sudan apparently ignored a call for help from civilians. And that shocked UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. According to the UN News Centre, the secretary general was "alarmed by preliminary findings on the 11 July attack on a hotel in Juba, South Sudan, in which one person was killed and several civilians were raped and beaten by men in uniform."

When the Hotel Terrain in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, came under attack by uniformed soldiers, foreign aid workers and UN officials contacted the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), pleading for help. Even though UN peacekeepers were nearby, they did not respond.

Ban is supposedly determined to get to the bottom of the controversy. To that end, he has launched an independent special investigation into the conduct of UNMISS.

Unfortunately, UN peacekeepers have a shocking history of failing to live up to their responsibility to protect. A 2014 report by the UN's internal oversight office found that peacekeepers virtually never used armed force to protect civilians between 2010 and 2013.

Are such peacekeeping failures a problem for R2P? "I don't think it's a problem for R2P," Matthews responded. "I think it's a problem for the United Nations."

Too often, said Matthews, peacekeepers are "not given the authority to take action" to prevent mass murder or other atrocities. Another issue is the reluctance of some peacekeepers to take action.

In many cases, peacekeepers "don't have the right equipment," Matthews said. He pointed out that the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda "only had enough ammunition to engage in a firefight for two hours."

In addition, Matthews asserted that peacekeeping missions are "often not well staffed." In other cases, peacekeepers from the developing world lack both training and equipment. And he stated that "there's sometimes a lack of leadership on behalf of the UN at the highest level to use forces more effectively."

Peacekeeping vs. peacemaking

Former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin believes it is important to draw a distinction between peacekeeping and peacemaking. "I don't want to get too involved in an academic distinction, but what I think you are talking about are peacemakers, not peacekeepers," he said of the failure of UN peacekeepers to use military force to protect civilians.

Martin, one of the architects of the R2P doctrine, also stated that "peacekeeping, essentially, in my opinion, is something like Cyprus was, where you are actually keeping the peace that has been agreed to. It may be a very small distinction."

"But I think where you really need the ability to use the force of arms is peacemaking," said Martin. And he declared: "If peacekeepers need to use their arms, they should do so. But I think there would be a far greater reluctance in the case of peacekeepers than peacemakers [to use force]."

In a published report, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan acknowledged that the traditional notion of peacekeeping doesn't apply to the 21st century reality of civil conflicts. "Even using the terminology of peacekeeping is not valid at this time," Sajjin told the Globe and Mail in August. "Those peacekeeping days, those realities, do not exist now and we need to understand the reality of today."

Should the community of nations come up with another name for peacekeeping? "No, I don't think so," Martin told the Whig-Standard in a May interview. And he stressed that the R2P doctrine should be applied when a state is "behaving badly" or when it is incapable of preventing mass atrocities within its sovereign territory.

In the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo, said Martin, "the DRC was unable to act" to prevent mass atrocities from occurring as the country descended into chaos in 2003. And that eventually necessitated the deployment of the largest UN peacekeeping force in history.

It is hard to keep the peace, said Matthews, when non-state actors are targeting civilians and detonating suicide bombs. "It's a very, very different era we're in now," he said of peacekeeping in the 21st century. In the age of asymmetrical warfare, conflicts today are "much messier" than they were 60 years ago, he said.

Will the Kigali Principles help to address the failure of UN peacekeepers to implement R2P? "That's their aim," answered Matthews. He noted that African Union peacekeeping forces are actually engaged in combat against terrorist militias, such as al Shabab. And the Kigali Principles will supposedly "provide better guidance in multilateral operations."

The Kigali Principles are about holding peacekeeping nations to account. "It's about saying to states: 'If you want to be part of these missions, if you're going to send troops, they have to be equipped, trained and ready and willing to actually physically protect civilians, if that's necessary, If you're not prepared to do that, don't send them,'" Adams said.

The protection of civilians from mass atrocities and genocide "is the heart and soul of the future of UN peacekeeping," Adams stated. "And we need principles around which to organize that future, to realize the future of UN peacekeeping."

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Suite 2720, 700–9th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3V4


Calgary Office Phone: (587) 574-4757


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 5S6


Ottawa Office Phone: (613) 288-2529
Email: [email protected]


Making sense of our complex world.
Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.


©2002-2024 Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Charitable Registration No. 87982 7913 RR0001


Sign in with Facebook | Sign in with Twitter | Sign in with Email