Ford Institute Hosts Paul Williams


Story courtesy of Sean Wolfgang

On October 28, the Ford Institute for Human Security welcomed Dr. Paul D. Williams to speak about his paper “Enhancing Civilian Protection in Peace Operations: Insights from Africa,” recently commissioned and published by the National Defense University. Williams, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, drew on the cases of Rwanda, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to explain current problems with civilian protection and suggest ways in which international actors should seek to improve future protection efforts.

The protection of civilians during conflict is important for several reasons, according to Williams. There is a moral imperative to save innocent lives; international law requires protection of civilians; it is the core concept of the “responsibility to protect” agenda, signed by all member states of the UN; civilian protection is vital to the credibility of the UN; and violence against civilians undermines viability of peace and stability.

Despite its importance, there is considerable confusion over the definition of civilian protection and responsibilities involved. From a military point of view, protection requires “gates, guns and guards.” For humanitarian NGOs, protection requires “rations, rights and rules.”  The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations thinks in terms of political process, physical protection and a protective environment. To cut through the confusion, Williams suggests an ‘onion’ hierarchy of protection, with a core of physical protection surrounded layers of providing basic needs, recognizing human rights, and creating broad enabling conditions.  He argued peacekeeping forces are better able to secure physical protection and help with the provision of basic necessities than to promote human security and a broadly secure environment.

Professor Williams drew on examples from Rwanda, Sudan, and the DRC to illustrate the challenges posed by chaotic environments, political sensitivity to intervention and inadequate resources. Environmental factors that make civilian protection difficult include the disorganized nature of many armed groups, which lessens the control officers have over the actions of their soldiers, and lack of transportation infrastructure.  Local and international politics play a role when host nations frustrate the mission of peacekeepers, and when some countries oppose the idea of intervention in general.  Resources are too often measured by the total number of troops, without regard for the specialized units that enable a military mission, to operate over large areas, such as engineers, intelligence gatherers, and medical personnel.  This affects the commander’s willingness to act since he will be less likely to put his forces in harm’s way to protect civilians without adequate medical personnel and transportation capacity.

Dr. Williams highlighted several priority needs and suggested possible steps to take towards meeting them. First is the dire need for peacekeeping forces to have adequate information about their operational area and opposing forces. As it is, information is gathered in an ad hoc manner and is often inadequate. While peacekeeping forces can rely on their military training for a variety of response options, to be effective they must understand what Williams referred to as a particular group’s “repertoire of violence” in order to set priorities.

Second, there is a need for action that is clearly focused on a political end to the violence.  This requires selecting the appropriate response while keeping in mind that each situation is unique. Referring to Professor Seybolt’s book and the Mass Atrocities Response Operations Handbook,  Williams concluded that offensive operations may be better suited to protecting civilians than the default defensive stance if the preferred option of deterrence is not effective.

Third, over the long term, Williams argued, prevention and deterrence need to be strengthened through international norm building and action, to show that there will be consequences for mass attacks on civilians. Security sector reform in troop contributing countries must remain a priority, to instill the professional ethos necessary for success.  Furthermore, the United Nations must be clearer about the objectives of future operations, and manage local and international expectations in a realistic manner.

Fourth, in the short term, troop contributing countries and the UN must invest in preparing personnel for likely missions, grooming capable mission commanders, better equipping and coordinating deployments. A focus on learning lessons, especially sharing information between past and future commanders, is a useful tool that still is not widely utilized.

Following his presentation, Williams responded to student and faculty inquiries regarding the roles of NGOs in peace operations, who is responsible for officer development, and the controversial idea of using private security contractors in peacekeeping operations. He concluded with the observation that the U.S. military is increasingly interested in the issues raised by operationalizing civilian protection concepts.

Paul Williams’ paper “Enhancing Civilian Protection in Peace Operations: Insights from Africa,” can be accessed here.

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