Statement by Hilde F. Johnson at the International Conference on the Protection of Civilians

Hilde F. Johnson
Former SRSG UNMISS & Member of the UN High Level independent Panel for Peace Operations

28 May 2015

I am speaking here in a personal capacity.

The imperative of never standing by –

POC in UN peacekeeping was coming out of the failures of the ‘90s – of Rwanda and Srebenica. After the Brahimi-report in 2000, the majority of peacekeeping missions receiving POC-mandates, most of them under Chapter VII. The imperative was never again to be seen to be standing by while civilians were under threat.

But – what is happening in practice? Many UN peacekeepers have taken corageous action to protect civilians. However, in too many cases have they been accused of standing by. A recent UN-evalutation (OIOS) has documented this in a report last year. The report is too shallow in its analysis, however, and forgets essential elements that are needed for missions to deliver on their POC-mandates.

What can be done to respond more rapidly when civilians are at risk?

POC starts at home –

Delivering on a pro-active and robust POC-response can only be achieved at home – in three ways: (i) at home in NY – with misson planning & (ii) with TCCs own preparations and (iii) in-country, by host nations.

• Any mandate needs to be based on a solid analysis of conflict dynamics, and the threats to civilians, including scenarios of possible developments. Without such an analysis – the UN and the Security Council will get it wrong.

• Building on this, it needs to be clear what is needed from a military capability perspective. In far too many cases, decisions are made on the basis of a crude analysis, driven more by what the market can bear – than the capabilities that are necessary to deliver.

• Any in-depth threat assessment needs to be supplemented with a critical analysis of infrastructure in the country, and challenges in relation to climate, terrain, logistics and supply lines. This is about support capabilities. You can have many troops, but if you don’t have mobility, you will fail.

• Too many times, missions are designed on the basis of blue print approaches, and not tailored to country conditions. The threat analysis needs to determine the structure of the force and the force lay-down, must be adapted to mobility and responsiveness, tailored to the context.

The key is flexibility and adaptability:

• We need to move away from static deployments in areas of operations, with more flexible and mobile operations, adaptable to changing circumstances; For this to happen, you need significant mobility assets and you need to move to smaller high capability units in tents…..

• When – because of the urgency of crisis – there is no time to do this, then we need to look at immediate responses, and a more sequenced mandating process, making sure one gets it right over time.

Example – UNMISS: In South Sudan, anyone with military background would know that the resources did not match the mandate or the context, – under normal operations in South Sudan – prior to the crisis. We had the lowest number of soliders per kilometer or mile, overall compared with any other mission with a similar mandate, and with very limited mobility and capability assets: and if you compared with infantry – it was even worse. UNMISS was also without military helicopters for 14 months…

The assets were not fit for purpose, and the lay-down did not correspond to the threats. I conveyed this to the Security Council several times. After the crisis in Dec 2013, of course, the situation was even worse, with glaring gaps in capacity and capabilities.

So – we need to get it right from the outset.

The same information on threats and constraints, on context (which provides the basis for the decisions of the Security Council and the design of the Mission), should also be available to potential TCCs. POC starts at home – in their capitals.

• With in-depth understanding, they can take an informed decision on whether they are ready to engage pro-actively to protect civilians in relation to these scenarios;

• When they have decided to do so – they need to prepare their troops optimally, train them for the purpose, and make sure that they bring COE that corresponds to the situation, and not the standard set-up.

• They also need to commit to take risk – to deliver on the mandate, and prepare their troops to do so.

Example UNMISS: In UNMISS, we experienced not only that our capabilities were not matching the threats. The military component in NY never asked for what was most urgently needed – all-terrain vehicles, – because – as they said – no one has them, except some Western countries – and they will not provide them…. These are among the things I really hope that the Biden-initiative on force generation will help resolve. Even worse, most of the APCs were dysfunctional of one contingent, but also that the equipment they brought was not fit for purpose. It got stuck in the mud.

POC at home – in-country: The government remains the primary responsible actor to protect its own civilians. Also in this way, POC starts at home. Often, this is not happening. In other cases, their response is inadequate and does not protect the most vulnerable.

A pro-active and robust POC-response by UN-operations can only happen if you have 3 things:

(i) the right information at the right time, (ii) mobility and capability to face the threat and (iii) the mindset to take risk and take action to protect civilians.

1. Right information at the right time:

• A precondition for any POC response, is to have timely and accurate information about the threat. Early warning early enough. Very often very bad in UN missions. Makes us re-active, every time.

• We need to overcome the info-gap! This implies that JOCs and JMACs in Missions need to be empowered with the best possible tools to generate and process information, and to do so quickly. This includes the use of technologies, whether satellite information, drones or other tools. If we are real about our commitment to protect civilians – this is needed. During the worst crisis in South Sudan, we had to get satellite information on the phone from a member state, as we could not get timely satellite photography ourselves.

• Without timely and accurate information we will fail – collectively. Without capabilities and technology to detect threats against civilians, we will fail to deliver. This is not about politics, it is about saving lives.

• Timely and strong situational awareness: intel collection and analysis systems to complement the integrate Early Warning systems of missions; Without early warning, no early action.

• UNMISS Example: Inter-communal violence in Jonglei: we were repeatedly taken by surprise – by numerous attacks in the cycle of violence in Jonglei. When there were columns on the way of 6-8 000 in singular attacks – army formation, they could be detected – but we didn’t have the numbers and capabilities to confront them.

• Due to logistical challenges, the highest numbers of infantry we could get in one place was 900, and 700 in the rainy season. It would take days to deploy this number, so we had to get the timing right. In traditional military terms, we should have been 12-18 000 infantry to face such a threat.

2. Mobility and Capability:

• The UN will never have the full complement of capabilities to face POC threats. We don’t have blanket POC-mandates. However, there needs to be adequate capabilities, mobility assets and an ability to respond that at least has a chance to protect.

• To enable a robust posture: empowered with enabling capacities adapted to terrain and climate (i.e. all-terrain vehicles, including –APCs, riverine units, airlift capacity, attack helis), able to fight any threat to civilians;

• I felt this was not the case for the Mission I was in charge of, UNMISS. With the capabilities and mobility assets we had prior to the crisis, our chances of ever delivering in protecting civilians were very limited.

We had three major problems:

(i) We did not have the numbers we needed – when faced with these types and scale of threats;

(ii) When the numbers (of troops) are not at all commensurate to the threat, force enablers and force multipliers are essential to be a credible deterrent in POC-situations, but this was not granted the Mission. We had to make do with what we had.

(iii) The mission was in a perpetual mobility crisis. We were literally stuck in the mud. Even in the dry season – which was shorter than the rainy season in the most critical locations where civilians are under threat, we had major mobility challenges.

• In many cases, a Quick Reaction Force that is mobile and with special forces capabilities can have better chances of success than a large static force, but then one needs the right capabilities and mobility assets, and not least early warning early enough – and accurately;

• More must be done to get high quality equipment with contingents – Inspections of functionality every quarter, and old equipment to be replaced with new and more functional equipment (obligatory – part of MOU);

• This was one of the reasons why we ended up opening our gates tocivilians fleeing for their lives – 10-11 times prior to the most recent crisis, and when the conflict started in December 2013. It was a last resort, a default-ption, but it was the only remaining one when we could not protect civilians in any other way.

• This is fraught with challenges and problems. But the alternative would have been that thousands were killed. We can just imagine what the story had been then, about the failure of the UN to act faced with massive atrocities.

3. Mindsets – the willingness to respond and take risk: 3 Cs.

• Command – unified command in every Mission to be respected by all contingents, and parallel command structures to be avoided;

• Caveats – national caveats: Performance is directly linked to national caveats, where capital – the home – instructs forces not to follow instructions from Mission leadership, or from the very outset introduce conditionalities for their contributions.

• Control of aviation assets: Military helicopters should not be subject to ICAO-rules; MedEvacs: Without credible MedEvacs, contingents will not take risks. Mandatory: night-vision equipment – it is unacceptable that this does not exist in many missions.

• Reporting on POC-incidents: There are significant differences between contingents and their willingness to take risk and to take action in the protection of civilians. Some are impressive in their performance, others are not. Reporting on this is sensitive, and while Missions should report failure to perform to DPKO in NY, it will have to be the UN-leadership that takes this forward with the TCCs and the Security Council. Mechanisms for such reporting should probably be considered.

To sum up:

Delivering on POC does not start in the field, but at home – This is about flexibility and adaptability at NYHQ and in the Council, as well as among TCCs and host governments. The key is flexibility and adaptability, on both sides.

To deliver on POC, three things need to be addressed: (i) getting the right information at the right time, (ii) mobility and capabilities (iii) mindsets. Doing one and not the other will not help.

All these aspects need to be addressed, systematically and comprehensively. Only then will we have a chance of succeeding, and meeting the expectations of those who need protection.