[Leslie Schildt is a criminal prosecutor at the Monroe County District Attorney's Office in Rochester, New York and previously worked in the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.]
Earlier this year, the United Nations created its first ever offensive combat force – the “Intervention Brigade.” It enters the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of MONUSCO, the long-standing United Nations peacekeeping operation in the DRC. According to Security Council Resolution 2098, the Intervention Brigade will act unilaterally or alongside the Congolese army. The Brigade is a creature of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which governs peace enforcement operations. The force will execute “robust, highly mobile ... targeted offensive operations” to find, engage, “neutralize,” and disarm the heavily armed rebel forces. This is an unprecedentedly aggressive humanitarian combat force that arguably is the first of its kind.
The Intervention Brigade raises serious questions regarding how the offensive mission might affect the non-combatant peacekeepers in MONUSCO. To understand the potential dangers to peacekeepers and how to avoid them, one must first understand the core legal distinctions between peacekeepers and peace enforcers.
UN peacekeeping operations operate under three bedrock principles: (1) Consent of the main parties, (2) impartiality, and (3) non-use of force except in self-defense and in defense of mandate. Consent of the parties requires commitment and acceptance from the main parties to the conflict. Without consent, “the peacekeeping operation risks becoming a party to the conflict; and being drawn towards enforcement action.” Impartiality requires the peacekeepers’ even-handed treatment of all parties to the conflict, but not neutrality in execution of their mandate. Indeed, where one party commits blatant violations, “continued equal treatment of all parties by the United Nations can in the best case result in ineffectiveness and in the worst may amount to complicity with evil.” (Brahimi Report) Peacekeepers also cannot use force except in self-defense or in defense of mandate. “Defense of mandate” may accommodate offensive use of force in some circumstances (e.g., to protect civilians under imminent threat), but peacekeepers certainly cannot lawfully conduct offensive seek-and-disarm missions.
Because peacekeepers are not “used outside the humanitarian function to conduct hostilities,” they remain protected as civilian non-combatants. During an armed conflict, “all persons who are neither members of the armed forces of a party to the conflict . . . are entitled to protection against direct attack unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.” This attribute enables combatants to distinguish lawful enemy targets from protected persons. However, it is another matter entirely when peace enforcement units conduct aggressive seek-and-pacify operations.