African Actors Are Leading the World to a New Model of Civilian Protection

This is the fourth post of a series of blogs that complement the book African Actors in International Security: Shaping Contemporary Norms. The book is a One Earth Future supported project evolving out of a call for research surrounding the role of southern regions in norm creation and contestation in an African context. This blog series explores a sampling of the themes addressed in the volume and provides further commentary on the ways African actors have contributed to the development of international peace and security norms.

In May, the UN Secretary-General’s office released its most recent report on civilian protection in armed conflict. The report described the distressing state of civilian protection around the globe and offered recommendations for how to better achieve this critical mission. While UN missions are key to protecting civilians in armed conflicts around the world, many recent developments in the norms surrounding civilian protection and their implementation in peacekeeping have been driven not by the UN, but by African actors at the regional and state level.

How African leadership is influencing the evolution of civilian protection norms, and international security more broadly, is covered in great depth in the new book African Actors in International Security: Shaping Contemporary Norms. The chapter by Dr. Annette Seegers on civilian protection is particularly insightful. One of the three major trends Dr. Seegers identifies is that African actors have “promoted more coercion in the protection of civilians.” Coercion in this context refers to the offensive military action taken against conflict actors who are deemed to be political spoilers or a particular threat to civilians. This differs from more traditional models of civilian protection typified by a more passive orientation in which peacekeepers only use force in self-defense or in the defense of civilians under imminent or ongoing attack. This is an incredibly important observation, as the trends in UN peace operations towards more offensive mandates, robust military capabilities, and targeting of specific conflict actors are reshaping civilian protection. This evolution in civilian protection has been made possible through African political leadership at the state, regional, and international levels, as well as through the commitment of significant resources to the implementation of these new strategies.

Responsibility to Protect

African leaders and institutions have been instrumental in moving international institutions away from more orthodox notions of peacekeeping towards more proactive, robust models of peacekeeping which are explicitly focused on civilian protection. This can be seen in 1990s when, in the wake of tragic failures of civilian protection in the Balkans and Rwanda, African actors at various levels, including Secretary-General Kofi Annan, began to push for UN peacekeeping forces to take a more proactive approach to protecting civilians. The end of that decade saw the first civilian protection mandate in Sierra Leone in 1999; today 95% of UN peacekeepers operate under such a mandate. Six years later the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept was adopted by the UN after being championed by Annan and various African states. In subsequent years, African governments have provided much of the normative support for the R2P concept in international forums and have enshrined a more robust form of civilian protection in the norms of the African Union.

More recently, African actors have continued their role as “norm entrepreneurs”—those who promote new and developing ideas—by bolstering these earlier civilian protection norms with additional peacekeeping requirements. Rwanda played a key role in developing the Kigali Principles in 2015 and in hosting a summit for member states to endorse them. Signatories pledge to ensure peacekeeping deployments have appropriate training and equipment; are deployed quickly; operate under a unified, decisive command structure; are willing to use force; and take a generally more proactive approach to civilian protection.

Operationalizing Civilian Protection

African actors are not only critical in shaping norms around coercive civilian protection, they are also at the cutting edge of operationalizing these new norms. African actors have done nearly all the heavy lifting to make coercive, proactive civilian protection in peacekeeping a reality. This is demonstrated clearly in the development of the UN’s unique Force Intervention Brigade in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The Intervention Brigade is given the mandate and capabilities to pursue offensive operations against some of the armed groups in the area which pose significant threat to civilians. African member states contributed all of the troops (one battalion each from Malawi, Tanzania, and South Africa) as well as some of the key equipment (such as South African attack helicopters) for the brigade.

In other missions with more coercive mandates, such as the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), African soldiers have also largely carried the load. As of May, two-thirds of MINUSMA’s contingent troops came from African member states. Beyond the numbers, African troops tend to have fewer restrictions on their activities when deployed, often taking on much more arduous and dangerous tasks within the mission. A recent report by the Danish Institute for International Studies describes how African contingents are deployed to the most dangerous areas of the country and tasked with the most difficult missions. As a result, it concludes that African troops are “at the frontline of the fight of MINUSMA, and thus also on the frontline of the UN’s evolving role from peacekeeping to stabilization.” Not surprisingly, African states have also paid the highest toll in defense of this new model of peacekeeping; in MINUSMA, 83% of fatalities have been from African member-state deployments.

Africans Leading the Way Forward

African stakeholders are leading the way in the evolution of UN peace operations and civilian protection. This is not to say that this evolution towards more coercive civilian protection is without controversy. Many feel that peace enforcement is beyond the bounds of what the UN should be undertaking, and that it may change conflict dynamics in ways that put civilians in further danger and undermine the UN’s ability to facilitate a political resolution to conflicts. This emerging model of peace operations is relatively new, and concrete conclusions about its impacts will require further research. However, what will be critical is that as African stakeholders take on larger and more central roles in UN peace operations, they continue to shape the future of what these operations, and civilian protection more broadly, look like.

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