Protection of Civilians Symposium: A Multiplicity of Legal Frameworks and Practical Challenges
[Ralph Mamiya is team leader for the Protection of Civilians Team in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations but writes here in a purely personal capacity, and the views expressed do not represent official positions of his Department or the United Nations. This post is the concluding post of the Protection of Civilians Symposium.]
This week’s symposium on the protection of civilians highlighted the range of legal and practical issues facing UN peacekeepers. Featuring posts from two contributors to the new volume, Protection of Civilians from Oxford University Press, former Senior UN Legal Officer Mona Khalil and University of Ulster law professor Siobhan Wills, as well as responses from distinguished colleagues Professor Ray Murphy, Legal Counsel Marten Zwanenburg and Professor Kjetil Mujezinović Larsen, the symposium has covered both very familiar ground for me and issues that I rarely have the opportunity to wrestle with.
Taken together, Mona’s and Siobhan’s discussions of peacekeepers’ authority and responsibility to use that authority to use force to protect civilians highlight the complexity of the issue. As Marten notes, we can read Mona as putting forward a strong but narrow concept of the protection of civilians mandate, rooted firmly in Security Council resolutions and Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The simplicity of this argument is its strength: the Council provides a strategic directive to protect (not merely an authorization), and this directive creates some form of responsibility. The challenge of this argument is, as those who deal regularly with UN bodies know, that determining the content and intent of Council resolutions is no simple matter, particularly in an era of political divisions in the Council. The “protection mandate” itself is often brief, providing a general direction with little detail. Generating meaningful positive obligations from such basic material is supremely difficult and gives rise, in part, to many of the practical peacekeeping challenges that Mona points out.
Professor Wills, on the other hand, searches beyond the mandate itself for sources of an obligation to protect that are, perhaps, more susceptible to legal analysis, and, also perhaps, more binding. She returns, however, to the UN’s own Human Rights Up Front initiative, which she interprets as a potential acknowledgement by the UN of its own protection obligation. Whether this is a stronger or weaker foundation than Mona’s implicit presumption that peacekeeping mandates create a responsibility to act is somewhat uncertain in my mind (particularly as elections for the next Secretary-General are upon us). Her approach to filling in the content of the UNPKO’s responsibility to protect, however, seems a practical, procedural approach.
Professor Murphy takes up Siobhan’s appeal to the UN’s own commitment to human rights norms and raises her, proposing a Secretary-General’s bulletin on the application of human rights law to peacekeepers, analogous to the Secretary-General’s bulletin on international humanitarian law. The IHL purist, and the IHRL purist, may not give a great deal of weight to what the Secretary-General thinks about the application of international law to blue-helmeted troops, but such bulletins can be highly influential for the legal and policy architecture of peacekeeping and, ultimately, the way mandates are implemented.
Professor Larsen also follows Professor Wills, but in the direction of “hard law,” looking to treaty law as potential sources for an obligation to protect with regard to de-mining. This is a particularly interesting area. Professor Larsen’s discussion highlights not only how important protection issues are becoming to militaries around the world (not just UN peacekeepers) and further clarifies, in case there was any doubt, that protecting civilians is not only a matter of using force. The obligation that he argues for echoes the human rights-based norms that Professor Murphy raised.
Marten, in addition to providing wonderful summaries of Mona’s and Siobhan’s chapters in the book (going beyond just their posts), raises two points that I find particularly fascinating. First, with regard to the accountability of peacekeepers: despite the importance of UN privileges and immunities for so much of the UN’s work, if the international public perceives those privileges as being abused they may be whittled away. Second, with regard to Mona’s very interesting discussion of consent: the legal concept of consent and what host states permit missions to do at a practical level, particularly when it involves supporting or substituting for state functions (such as protection).
There is a common refrain that protecting civilians is simple in concept but difficult in practice. In one sense this is true—we tend to agree that protecting civilians is a good thing but we, as the international community, seem to disappoint ourselves on a regular basis—but in another sense simplifies what is a complex issue. One thing that I hope that this week’s symposium has highlighted is that practical challenges, and these are legion, are often tied to legal questions that we are still struggling to answer.
Many thanks to the distinguished panelists for contributing, and to Opinio Juris for hosting this symposium for Protection of Civilians, now available, with a foreword from Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, and contributions from Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Andrew Clapham, Hugo Slim, Mona Khalil and Siobhan Wills and many others.