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Protection of civilians mandate

  • Displaced people living in flooded protection site.
    UN Photo/UNMISS/JC Mcilwaine
Many peacekeeping missions have a mandate to protect civilians, in particular those under threat of physical harm. 

The Protection of Civilians (POC) is a responsibility which includes all parts of a peacekeeping mission, civilian, military and police functions. In many cases, peacekeeping missions are authorized to use all necessary means, up to and including the use of deadly force, to prevent or respond to threats of physical violence against civilians, within capabilities and areas of operations, and without prejudice to the responsibility of the host government.

The POC mandate in peacekeeping is guided by a set of principles:

  • Protecting civilians is the primary responsibility of governments;
  • Peacekeepers with a mandate to protect civilians have the authority and responsibility to provide protection within their capabilities and areas of deployment where the government is unable or unwilling to protect;
  • The protection of civilians mandate is a whole-of-mission activity, not only a military task, which embodies an active duty to protect;
  • Protecting civilians is done in cooperation with humanitarian actors and with respect for humanitarian principles;
  • The protection of civilians mandate is consonant with the principles of peacekeeping, including the consent of the host state, impartial mandate implementation, and the use of force only in self-defence or as authorized by the Security Council;
  • The protection of civilians mandate is a priority mandate, pursuant to Security Council resolutions.

How do missions carry out POC activities?

Depending on the nature of the threat to civilians, the mission will carry out a range of activities including engaging with parties to the conflict and affected communities, providing physical protection and the establishment of a protective environment.

  • All mission components engage in dialogue and political advocacy, such as support for reconciliation, peace agreements or mediation, liaison with the government, or the resolution of local conflicts. Even if these efforts are not always very visible, the importance of this work, aiming to support the host government in its responsibilities to protect civilians should not be underestimated.
  • Peacekeepers also take action to provide physical protection, usually by deterring attacks on civilians through active patrolling but using force if necessary.
  • Finally, peacekeeping missions also conduct activities which support the establishment of a protective environment that increases security and protects civilians from violence. The majority of these activities consist of strengthening the host government’s capacities to protect, including through the rule of law and security sector reform. Mission personnel are also engaged in building the capacity of national authorities to promote and respect human rights, prevent and respond to violence against children and sexual and gender-based violence.

The POC Advisors

Everybody in a peacekeeping operation, including the civilian staff, military and the police, plays a role in protecting civilians.  Dedicated personnel, including a Senior Protection of Civilians Advisor, support the implementation of this mandate and ensure that POC concerns are appropriately mainstreamed and prioritised within the Mission. They perform an advisory, coordination, monitoring and reporting role. Specifically, the Senior Protection of Civilians Advisor is responsible for working with mission components to develop and regularly update POC threat assessments; establishing POC coordination structures and the development of a mission-wide POC strategy.

The Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the Department of Field Support (DFS) in New York are also devoting significant attention to assisting all peacekeepers fulfil their role in protecting civilians effectively and efficiently by:

  • Advising UN decision-making bodes such as the Security Council and General Assembly about threats to civilians in areas where peacekeepers are deployed;
  • Developing policy and guidance to inform the implementation of POC mandates;
  • Supporting missions to develop comprehensive POC strategies, based on the particular needs and situation of the mission which assists them in harnessing all available resources for the task;
  • Developing POC training courses targeted at personnel prior to deployment, as well as those already working in peacekeeping operations. These courses are aimed at military, police and civilian personnel.

Ongoing POC Activities

Tens of thousands of UN peacekeepers put themselves in harm’s way every day in order to protect civilians from the effects of physical violence. Some of the ongoing work undertaken by these peacekeepers includes:

  • Providing physical protection to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in POC sites, like in South Sudan;
  • Deploying additional military and civilian mission personnel when a crisis erupts to provide protection, monitor human rights violations and create an environment conducive for humanitarian assistance,  was carried out in the Democratic Republic of Congo;
  • Developing mechanisms including early warning systems, community alert networks, community liaison arrangements, public information and reporting systems.

Challenges in implementing POC mandates

Peacekeeping operations face challenges in implementing this complex, but critically important mandate:

  • We often protect civilians in harsh conditions and in difficult terrain, with limited resources, and where other actors lack the will or capacity to do their part.
  • Peacekeeping operations often deploy amidst the unrealistic expectation that they will be able to protect all civilians at all times.
  • The dynamic nature of the places in which we operate means the security situation can change very quickly.

The protection of civilians is not solely the responsibility of UN Peacekeeping operations. States bear the primary responsibility to protect civilians, and peacekeepers are not a substitute for political engagement to tackle root causes of conflict and violence. POC is a systemic effort that includes:

  • The host State who has the primary responsibility to protect civilians;
  • The Security Council which provides protection of civilians mandates;
  • DPKO and DFS who plan, deploy and manage peacekeeping operations;
  • The troop and police contributing countries that provide the personnel for our operations;
  • The peacekeepers on the ground who implement the mandate provided to them;
  • Humanitarian organisations on the ground;
  • Local populations, who share critical information and protection plans.