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Interview: Reflections on ‘Protection of Civilians’ Week

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A Palestinian girls walks amidst the debris a day after an operation by the Israeli Special Forces in the Nuseirat camp, in the central Gaza Strip last week, amid the ongoing conflict. – Picture: Eyad BABA / AFP / Taken on June 9, 2024

By Dirk Druet and Jill Stoddard

Over the past seven years, “PoC week” in late May has brought together representatives of governments, the United Nations (UN), humanitarian organisations and other civil society actors to discuss difficult questions surrounding the protection of civilians (PoC).

This year’s series of meetings and events were held during a time when the challenges of protection are in sharp relief due to the recent withdrawal of large multidimensional UN peacekeeping missions with PoC mandates, and the large number of civilian deaths in the wars in Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan, and Myanmar, among other conflict settings.

This year marks 25 years since the Security Council first recognised the protection of civilians as a matter of international peace and security.

In this interview around this year’s PoC week, Dirk Druet, a researcher, policy adviser and former official in international peace and security pillar of the United Nations, and a non-resident fellow at the Brian Urquhart Centre for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute, answers questions for Global Observatory Editor Jill Stoddard on a few of the topics related to this year’s PoC week.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jill Stoddard: It appears to me that protection efforts have decreased over the past few years, including as a result of the recent or impending closure of several large-scale peace operations. This seems to be contributing to a sense that the international community has “lost interest” in strengthening protection, possibly feels dispirited about the lack of options available, and moved on to focus on the other peace and security issues. Is that your sense?

Dirk Druet: In New York, there is a tendency to identify trends based on a couple of data points, and I think we need to be careful about that. But, indeed, the last several years have seen several instances in which the large multidimensional peacekeeping operations, for which the protection of civilians is a core function, have withdrawn, often with serious consequences for the protection of civilians.

But I don’t think we should count out a future role for protection by the United Nations (UN) and by peace operations, partly because we’ve now seen the consequences that the absence of a mission can have for protection.

Though with that said, peacekeeping, like all peace operations, has always been a fundamentally political exercise, and PoC mandates, even as they became a very prominent function of peacekeeping, have always only provided an interim and inevitably insufficient solution, while the larger process of securing political settlements is ongoing.

And so, as peace operations continue to evolve, I think it’s essential that they take on more flexible, tailored formats to deliver those political solutions and potentially different approaches to protection as well, within the global and operational conditions in which they find themselves today.

JS: The violent assaults, deaths and displacements of civilians in Sudan and Gaza look like horrific failures of protection. What can these conflicts tell us about the main challenges confronting international protection efforts?

DD: When we talk about the UN’s role in protecting civilians and limiting civilian harm during armed conflict, it’s important to separate that into roughly two categories. One is the political configuration that responds to armed conflict, primarily via the Security Council. The second is the effectiveness of the UN system in taking actions to protect civilians within that political environment. The determinants of success in those two categories are often very different.

On the political side, it seems from this year’s Security Council thematic debate on the protection of civilians that there has been a reduction in collective willingness to place human suffering in a category unto itself within the geopolitical environment.

We see this trend manifested in the failure to respond forcefully to large scale offensives with inevitable large-scale consequences for civilians in Darfur, Gaza, Sudan and Yemen, among other conflicts.

It’s therefore unsurprising that many of the discussions that took place during this year’s PoC week focused the lack of basic respect for the universal application of international humanitarian law (IHL) that is prevalent in so many situations.

JS: I was curious if you think that protection efforts have been hamstrung by the uneven application of IHL. Since some states seem to be able to disregard international humanitarian law without being, for example, charged by an international court, and some states aren’t.

DD: There is an inevitable tension between the aspirational universality and the political realities of the application of norms of human rights and civilian protection in any given situation. The UN, as a subsidiary of the balance of power in the world, is often where the rubber hits the road in the negotiation and resolution of these tensions.

When powerful states tolerate exceptionalism in the application of IHL, the universality of the norm is eroded, and this in turn has profoundly negative consequences for the ability of UN officials and UN actors working on behalf of the international community to appeal to these norms.

JS: Were you struck by anything in particular in the UN’s new Agenda for Protection report?

DD: At a moment in which respect for global human rights and humanitarian norms is under strain, the Agenda for Protection was a timely rearticulation of the UN’s commitment and the responsibility of every UN official at all levels to protect human rights as a core part of their job. This is significant in and of itself.

At the same time, as noted by Jennifer Welsh and Damien Lilly in their recent piece for the GO, the fact that it took a number of years to release the agenda is also reflective of the political priority accorded internally in the organisation despite the strong normative statements that are contained within it.

Implementing the agenda in a consistent and robust way and ensuring accountability for all UN actors is going to be a challenge for the UN internally. Nevertheless, it gives us a strong benchmark against which to hold the UN externally accountable.

JS: Do you think that that was one of the motivations behind the agenda, that some parts of the UN are lagging behind in placing protection at the centre of its work?

DD: For UN peace, security and development actors, there are inevitably other priorities that can be seen as in competition with taking a strong principled position on respect for human rights and protection. These can include very valid priorities such as the UN’s positioning as a mediator in sensitive political negotiations.

It can also be seen to be a tension with the maintenance of host government consent at a moment in which consent is weakened and threatened by other actors in the space such as the Wagner Group. And it can be seen in some cases as at odds with fundraising priorities.

And so, I think it’s enormously useful to rearticulate that this is a universal responsibility of all of those actors. Moreover, as a recent study led by Professor Charles Hunt recently found, the well-coordinated implementation of human rights mandates can often have a positive impact on opening political space, as we have seen, for example, in Afghanistan.

It’s important to note, however, that a common responsibility does not mean that every UN actor needs to work on protection in exactly the same way. The UN’s collective impact has often been greatest in situations in which there is strong coordination and a division of labour amongst different UN entities and, for that matter, other international, regional and subregional actors.

So, we can foresee as part of the implementation of the agenda, stronger coordination between, for example, a peacekeeping operation, a regional envoy and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on issues of protection. It’s not that every UN entity needs to become a tip-of-the-spear human rights defender, but rather that there needs to be a recognition of the responsibility to participate in the collective goal of protection.

JS: You mentioned the Wagner Group. In some contexts, there is a complex landscape of security actors like the Wagner Group, and bilateral forces and regional group forces – what are the implications of this for the protection of civilians?

DD: Indeed, many conflicts today feature multiple international security actors of various characters, ranging from UN peacekeeping missions to the forces of regional and subregional organisations, to ad-hoc military coalitions, to private or state-sponsored security companies.

The implications for protection depend on the actor. Some regional and bilateral forces have the potential to play stronger roles in the protection of civilians within the evolving international peace and security architecture. The African Union, for example, has a protection of civilians’ policy, the implementation of which is part of the global agenda to strengthen peace support activities.

There, we can see an opportunity for increased collaboration and capacity building, and perhaps even divisions of labour that collectively strengthen protection.

For the Wagner Group and actors of that type, as I’ve previously argued in the Global Observatory, we see serious negative consequences for the protection of civilians, both as a result of that group’s consistent, direct targeting of civilians but also in the ways in which they’ve undermined the relationship between governments and populations, on the one hand, and protection actors, be they peacekeeping or humanitarian operations, on the other.

In addition to closing the physical space, they have undermined confidence in protection actors through the spread of mis- and disinformation. In many settings, we see a confluence of interests between government figures who are seeking to retain undemocratic controls on power and civilian populations that are legitimately frustrated with the perceived failure of more traditional international actors to decisively protect civilians and/or eradicate insurgent forces.

In the short term, actors like the Wagner Group appear to offer an attractive solution to both of those frustrations. In the long term, I’m very sceptical that those types of forces will lead to meaningful improvements.

JS: This brings me to a question about state sovereignty and the tension between states, multilateral organisations and IHL – if the states don’t consent to external involvement, what are the choices people have when they need protection?

DD: The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect reconciles this tension by asserting that states have a universal responsibility to protect civilians under their control and, when a state is unable or unwilling to serve this role, their claim to sovereignty is weakened.

In the current political context, the operationalisation of this proposition is difficult at best. The best that we can hope for in the short term is to increase consent for external protection activities by strengthening international consensus that these activities are necessary and are worth spending political capital on to pressure states to accept them.

I hope that awareness of the suffering in Gaza and Sudan, among other conflicts, will serve to strengthen that consensus. The recent action taken by the ICC prosecutor to hold leaders of Israel and Hamas accountable for the civilian harm they have inflicted, and the decisions of the ICJ on Gaza will hopefully also help to strengthen this consensus.

JS: There was a recent ‘Washington Post’ editorial centred around the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). Do you have a sense if it’s being brought back into conversations?

DD: Many of the norms that surround the responsibility to protect are the same ones that find their way into the Agenda for Protection. The struggle to articulate a consistent line between the imperative to protect civilians and human rights, while upholding the political formulation that makes up the UN including, the principles of consent and of sovereignty, is as old as the UN itself.

The Agenda for Protection as articulated today is the next in a series of attempts at institutionalising that balance.

The good news is that, along the way, each of those endeavours has left behind meaningful things below the political level. The Human Rights Up Front initiative, for example, left behind valuable early warning and political response mechanisms, particularly the regional monthly review (RMR) structure that is now a core part of the SG’s Executive Committee decision-making process.

The RMR brings country-level issues that might not otherwise be at the top of the headlines into the awareness of the UN senior leadership structure and represent important continuity between this SG’s prevention agenda what came before it.

We can hope that the Agenda for Protection similarly contributes to the evolution of those mechanisms, in particular, by holding UN entities and officials more systematically accountable for taking principled action.

JS: It is challenging – I mean, logically, how are state sovereignty and protection norms ever going to find a way to live in harmony? And yet, the UN keeps saying, “This is important. We have to find a way.”

DD: In a sense, the harmony is the tension. The objective is not the triumph of one norm over the other, but rather the consistent and principled management of those tensions. And that is a key function of the UN Secretariat as an operational and bureaucratic entity – to produce international public policy that manages those tensions in a given situation in a way that is effective and consistent.

JS:PoC week” at the UN was a full week of meetings on the topic. Anything stand out to you this year that we haven’t covered yet?

DD: A common theme across the meetings I attended highlighted the extraordinary consequences that the breakdown in respect for and good faith interpretation of IHL have had on protected workers attempting to help civilians affected by conflict.

For example, the 2023 Safeguarding Health and Conflict Report cited a 25 percent increase in attacks on healthcare workers in conflict situations over the last year an extraordinary figure that highlights crisis of respect for IHL at the moment.

Another theme is the targeting of international humanitarian and protection operations by mis- and disinformation and the consequences of these narratives for trust and acceptance of these operations.

This PoC week highlighted information as a humanitarian necessity and a human right, for example, in ensuring that civilians in conflict have accurate, reliable information that they trust on safe locations during hostilities.

JS: This last question is about the UN’s “Pact for the Future”. The latest draft includes a commitment to protect all civilians in armed conflict. Are there any specific commitments on protection you’d like to see from member states?

DD: Ahead of the Summit for the Future, there is a wide gulf between the strongly principled approach in the Agenda for Protection and the organisation’s track record in executing this approach consistently and courageously.

It would therefore be helpful for the Pact for the Future to include clear and tangible expectations for how UN member states expect the Secretariat to work consistently and independently, and how they will support and protect that work. Reaffirming a commitment to an independent, merit-based approach to the appointment of senior officials would, I believe, go a long way in safeguarding the vitality of the Secretariat.

For member states, a recommitment to good-faith interpretation of IHL would be very important, including in emerging spaces such as the information environment, the digital sphere and cyberspace. Tied to that, new commitments constraining the targeting of what are sometimes dual-use facilities – for example, civilian infrastructure like power grids and water and communications services – would help ensure that the norms remain up to date.

This article was first published on Global Observatory