Use of Force and UN Mandates to Protect Civilians

by | Feb 16, 2023

Protection of civilians

The UN’s protection of civilians (PoC) concept remains contested twenty-three years after the first PoC mandate given to the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) in 1999. The PoC component of a UN peacekeeping mandate can consist of all sorts of measures from the robust use of force to peaceful communication campaigns with local communities and human rights training with host State forces. Recently, PoC within UN peace operations has burgeoned into an agenda that authorizes the use of force, alongside comprehensive whole-of-mission activities. These measures often produce lofty expectations from populations under protection that the UN will respond with force and establish peacebuilding programmes to deter future violence.

Despite attempts to ground PoC in international legal frameworks of human rights, humanitarian law, and the use of force, the Security Council typically invokes PoC as a general, non-legal concept to address a wide range of threats to physical insecurity. Legal scholars seldom investigate the legal obligation of peacekeepers regarding the protection of civilians. How then should the UN formulate PoC mandates and when should peacekeepers use force to protect civilians? Clarity on these issues will support the essential work of UN peacekeepers by implementing PoC mandates consistently and effectively.

Use of Force and Protection of Civilians

Among the multitude of activities included in many PoC mandates is an authorization to use of force, but when should force be used? How should a PoC mandate authorize the use of force, and should peacekeepers be obliged to do so? PoC mandates that require peacekeepers to use force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter are a very different proposition from those that merely authorize the use of force. The UN usually intends to implement protection mandates to protect those in imminent threat of physical danger. But despite possessing such mandates, numerous missions have not responded to violence committed against civilians with the use of force, such as MONUC and UNAMID, both of which failed to protect civilians.

Previously, the Security Council regularly specified that all necessary measures could be used “to afford protection to civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.” But the UN Security Council has since shifted away from including the narrowing factor of imminence in its PoC mandates. Instead, peace operations have moved to more general authorizations to protect civilians under threat of physical violence. Alongside mandates to use robust force and assist the host State in extending its authority, they are key features of the UN’s current “stabilization” missions.

In so doing, the Security Council has opened the door for peacekeepers to use force in a wider variety of situations. This could well be useful in the field where peacekeepers have a broader legal remit to respond to threats. But with peacekeepers only responding to 20% of cases where civilians were in imminent physical danger or being attacked in the area of deployment, the question whether peacekeepers need a broader remit of protection arises. This is particularly so in light of public expectations of providing effective protection.

What is most concerning is that even seventeen years after the first PoC mandate, it remained unclear “to what extent pre-emptive or proactive force is authorised or expected, and if the use of force is at all obligatory.” Lack of guidanceon whether the use of force is obligatory is rooted in the UN not wishing to provide an expectation of blanket protection.

It is all the more concerning then that PoC mandates have expanded their wide range of activities alongside “a continuing lack of knowledge at all levels of command” on the obligation to use force. Even among troop-contributing State military advisers, there are concerning differences in the understanding of PoC mandates and whether force should be used. Lack of clarity extends from the Security Council to mission rules of engagement (RoE).

A mandate to use “all necessary means” is not a blank check to use any amount of force. UN peace operations have an upper limit to what they may lawfully do to protect civilians. As a result, it can equally be suggested that there may be a minimum that peacekeepers must implement to meet their legal obligations. However, discretion at the tactical level has meant that “force is almost never used to protect civilians under attack,” with forces favoring a “low profile use of power.”

The UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) concluded in 2014,

Successive Council resolutions have authorised missions to use force, including deadly force. Legally, this creates a requirement to do so within their capabilities when civilians are in imminent physical danger or actually being attacked in their areas of deployment. While no mission can be expected to protect all civilians all the time, each can reasonably be expected to provide protection in areas of highest risk. (emphasis added).

Similarly, the Leuven Manual on the International Law Applicable to Peace Operations, prepared by a private group of legal experts, states, “Peace Forces who witness violence against civilians are required to do what they can to stop it.”

Both statements appear to suggest a minimum legal standard from which to measure the implementation of civilian protection. The minimum standard must draw from the Security Council mandate and the other legal underpinnings of UN peace operations, including international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and international refugee law, included in UN guidance on PoC.

There appears, however, to be less and less understanding of what the legal requirement to act entails. The UN’s inability to provide clear and concise guidance to missions either in Security Council mandates, RoE, or other guidelines and policies from the UN Department of Peace Operations is largely to blame.

The Future of Use of Force by UN Peacekeepers

In the future, the Security Council must be encouraged to delimit mandates. It must also return to strict use of terms such as “imminent” and “within the area of deployment” alongside clear guidance for commanders to formulate protection plans that warrant the use of force. Consistency in mandate terminology would promote a “deliberate, conscious and concerted focus on civilian protection” and ensure commanders know when force may be used lawfully.

The UN has, at a minimum, a moral obligation to the populations the organization commits to protect under Chapter VII of the Charter. Particularly when peacekeepers witness atrocities, there is a general expectation that UN forces possessing a Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians will use force to protect those under threat. This expectation has been described as one where peacekeepers “try and stop” atrocities. Lethal force may potentially be used if a temporally imminent threat to life exists, with force less likely to be lawful under international human rights law if such an imminent threat is not or is no longer present. While upper limits on the use of force are a legal necessity, it can equally be argued that a minimum obligation to “try” to protect would provide further legal clarity and prevent idleness and inaction where UN peacekeepers are unclear on their legal obligations.

It cannot be the case that a PoC mandate imposes an unachievable legal obligation to prevent harm or similar effects, both in situations of imminence and where imminence is not present. But for the UN to temper the expectations of those it is mandated to protect, PoC mandates should impose a minimum legal obligation on UN peacekeepers to undertake specific actions aimed at protecting civilians under imminent threat of physical violence. That obligation should apply within the area of deployment and according to the mission’s reasonable capabilities, up to and including the use of force where necessary.

Mandate language must be consistent. Currently the text of a PoC mandate differs from mission to mission. The PoC sections of the linked mandates for MONUSCO, MINUSMA, MINUSCA and UNMISS reveal little consistency beyond text on the protection of civilians under threat of physical violence. For instance, the UNMISS PoC mandate does not stress the primary responsibility of the South Sudanese government to protect civilians (although statements to this effect appear elsewhere in the Resolution) while the other mandates do. The most recent mandate for MONUSCO is also the only one of the four to single out geographic locations. It states that several provinces would be the primary focus “whilst retaining a capacity to intervene elsewhere in case of major deterioration of the situation.”

The example mandates include a wide array of PoC activities, such as work on the rule of law, community engagement, and countering hate speech. These activities detract from the core legal obligation to protect civilians from the imminent threat of physical violence. This is not to say that missions cannot and should not undertake these broader activities. But PoC mandates must be legally distinct from other obligations and activities that do not provide direct protection to those under imminent threat of violence. The Security Council cannot continue to negotiate terminology that obscures the legal obligation imposed by a PoC mandate from mission to mission or eschews the need for clarity due to political contestation.

The mandate should consistently use key phrases such as requiring action where civilians are “under imminent threat of physical violence” and that peacekeepers must do what is “reasonable within their capabilities” and area of deployment. Other activities found under PoC mandate headings should appear elsewhere in the mandate to avoid any potential for ambiguity and to ensure they are separate but complementary activities.

Alongside clear and concise mandates, the missions, and, importantly, the contingent commanders must be given detailed, mission-specific RoE and UN-wide guidelines on PoC that crucially detail the actions to be taken in foreseeable situations. This should include minimum expectations of where peacekeepers are expected to use force or steps short of force to meet their legal obligations to protect civilians under the mandate. Indeterminacy in the implementation of PoC is its Achilles heel. As one military adviser states, “you have failed your mission if you don’t protect civilians. You have failed humanity.”

Concluding Thoughts

With over twenty years of practical experience and numerous investigations into the implementation of PoC, concrete actions must be detailed for peacekeepers. Mandates should set clear expectations of where force should be used while retaining discretion to act as appropriate in a given scenario to ensure peacekeepers are not caught idle. PoC cannot suffer further failures where UN guidance is lacking and legal obligations are again not realised. Without these cures, multilateral buy-in for PoC mandates, and consequently many of the large, multidimensional peace operations undertaking necessary work, may be lost.


Alexander Gilder is Lecturer in International Law and Security at the University of Reading, UK.


Photo credit: International Peace Cooperation Activities Training Unit