Protection of civilians, the use of military force to deter and/or halt violence against civilians, is a major concern for peacekeeping doctrine, planning, and practice. Much of the protection of civilians literature has focused on what peacekeepers can and should do to protect civilians from death and other serious human rights abuses. What civilians do in their own defense is often absent from these discussions, and as a result some of the moral and ethical implications for peacekeepers of civilians’ own activities risk being ignored.
In this essay, I would like to focus on just one way in which civilians’ self-protection activities raise ethical questions for peacekeepers: civilian self-protection is the action of particular civilian organizations. These may be formal, like NGOs, or informal, like kin-group networks. But what they have in common is that they make clear that peacekeepers’ partners in protection will be particular loci of power within civilian society, not “civilians” as an idealized, undifferentiated mass.
The presence of civilian organizations creates a number of tensions for peacekeepers. Peacekeepers try to remain impartial, but their core task of ending violence involves them in social conflicts. Working with civilian groups provides opportunities for better protection of civilians, but those civilian groups have interests and perspectives that may not be widely shared. Further, alliances risk corrupting civilians by making them tools of external influence as much as it does peacekeepers by rendering them partial. Finally, by working with civilian groups, peacekeepers may be effectively putting the tools of violence in the service of a social conflict, in the name of removing the social conflict from the sphere of violence.
One might think that peacekeepers should keep aloof from civilians’ own organizations and activities and only strive to “do no harm.” Whatever peacekeepers do, it should add to civilians’ own strategies, and the main way in which peacekeepers should attend to civilian strategies at all is to be sure to stay out of their way — for example, by not creating safe area boundaries that cut civilians off from their livelihoods or placing food distribution points in ways that incentivize civilians to displace themselves. These concerns should perhaps lead peacekeepers to interact with civilian groups in as hands-off a fashion as possible. But, while in the abstract it may be clear what kinds of things are likely to interfere with civilian strategies, determining the likely impact of a peacekeeping strategy on particular civilian work in a conflict is complicated, messy, and requires deep knowledge of the dynamics of the situation. Civilian organizations are in much better positions to understand these dynamics than outside interveners. Especially when using military force, peacekeepers do not make surgical incisions into a society that leave the rest of the situation untouched; their presence and operations have drastic effects on at least the local environment. People are displaced, armed factions are created, destroyed, or splintered, control changes hands, movement becomes more difficult or easier, areas become safe havens or danger zones. If peacekeepers do not in some way work with civilian groups, acting so as only to protect civilians and disrupt nothing else will be difficult or impossible.
Another possibility is that peacekeepers work with civilians engaged in self-protection. This is the right answer, I think, and it is endorsed by the UN. But it is not uncomplicated. Working through its complications will be the theme of this essay.