Protecting the Protectors: For an Effective Peacekeeping

MONUC Peacekeepers (South Africa Contingent, 1 Parachute Battalion) at Kalengera MOB, North Kivu.

Protection of Civilians (PoC) mandates have rightly captured the central narrative of UN Peace Operations (UNPOs). It is essential to acknowledge that a key to the successful implementation of the mandate also rests on a ‘reasonable protection framework for the peacekeepers’, who stick their necks in alien lands. International Day of UN Peacekeepers is observed every year on 29 May to recognize the ultimate sacrifices of peacekeepers. The day also recognises and honours the memory of 4,330 peacekeepers who lost their lives for the cause of peace. In the last decade, more than ever, the UN peacekeepers have increasingly been tasked to protect vulnerable people in some of the most fragile political and security situations. But as the peacekeepers’ casualties show, protection has a cost, as nearly 30% of fatalities due to malicious acts have come in the last decade itself. The UN Data shows that from the first establishment of UNPOs in 1948, as many as 4,330 peacekeepers (1,118 due to malicious acts) have died till 30 September 2023[1]. After 2020, the majority of the fatalities have taken place in Mali,  South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo missions. Unfortunately, only 8% of these have been legally followed up in terms of investigation, prosecution and holding perpetrators to account. Many consider these casualties as a consequence of conflicts and an outcome of deploying armed peacekeepers. This has a demoralising effect on the participating troop/police-contributing countries (T/PCCs) and the nations increasingly have questioned the sacrifices of their citizens without the accountability of the host state.[2]

As the threat to peacekeepers increased in the 1990s, it enhanced and initiated new normative measures to bring the protection of peacekeepers into a central focus. Somalia and Operations in former Yugoslavia brought the 1994 Convention on the Safety of the UN and associated personnel with certain safeguards.[3] The Convention was followed up with Optional Protocols, on the Safety of UN and Associated Personnel on 08 December 2005[4], which expanded the legal protection to all other UN operations and personnel. A strong and assured legal provision with a quick yet thorough investigation, fair trial and bringing perpetrators to justice were considered the minimum requirements.

The “Santos Cruz Report”[5] of 19 December 2017 attempted to explain the spike in UNPO casualties and suggested measures to reduce these. Its principal policy conclusion was of a “strong posture to reduce casualties” (p. 12). The Santos Cruz Report was criticised for lacking any scientific rigour and focussing entirely on security, ignoring humanitarian and political activities. On the contrary, Hanke (2018) through a statistical regression of the dataset on UN fatalities found that a robust peace enforcement mandate increases the probability of a UN troop fatality due to hostile acts by 13% per contingent/month. But even multidimensional missions increase fatalities by 4%. These results counter a call to use even “more robust” mandates in the future. Congo, Mali, Somalia, Sahel, Libya and South Sudan provide a renewed debate on the evolution of the peacekeeping instrument itself [6].

Image source: UN Photo/Catianne Tijerina

Notwithstanding the criticism, the UN Plan of Action has taken inputs from the Cruz report and has been working on the safety and security of UN peacekeepers. The UN has taken some concrete measures in force protection, training, accountability, and situational awareness.  The linkage of the PoC mandate with the safety of the peacekeepers, performing the protection roles, is considered critical. One reads many reports and research papers apportioning blame on the UN peacekeepers for not leaving their posts or fortified positions to save civilians. But very few delve into the reasons and apprehensions of the peacekeepers, who are sent out of their countries to keep and maintain peace. The deployed contingents lack all the essential tools of war-fighting. An added disadvantage is that there is impunity for the perpetrators of violence in the host countries, which acts as a deterrence to take forceful action; especially in a Chapter VI UNPO mission. 

Taking cognisance of the recommendations of the T/PCCs and creating a better normative environment for the protection of peacekeepers, the UN Security Council Resolution (SCR) 2518 (2020)[7] and SCR 2589 (2021)[8] are important steps with assuring provisions for the peacekeepers. The UN Procedures provide a framework to ensure accountability and ending impunity. Paragraph 3 of SCR 2518 (2020) called “on all Member States hosting peacekeeping operations to promptly investigate and effectively prosecute those responsible for attacks on UN personnel”. SCR-2589 (2021) was moved under the presidency of the Government of India, co-sponsored by 84 member countries and adopted unanimously by the UNSC. The resolution looked at the security threats and targeted attacks against the UN personnel including detention and abduction. The resolution asks the host country to investigate, arrest and prosecute perpetrators of such acts in line with their national law, consistent with the applicable international obligations.

The UN peacekeepers going into harm’s way in strife-torn countries must be at least assured that in case of any hostile act against them, they will have the backing of the nation and the UN, who will stand behind them. They expect to have strong legal provisions and that any such incident be thoroughly investigated and perpetrators held to account. The UN missions cannot replace the national criminal justice processes and certainly do not have the authority to punish crimes committed against their peacekeepers. However, the UN missions can support national authorities in doing so.[9] While there is a justifiable debate and censure against the peacekeepers for failing to prevent and punish their sexual misconducts (SEA) of the very people in need of protection[10]; the other part of the debate – protection of the peacekeepers from the spoilers and hostile elements of the same population, remains relegated to either legalise or acceptable risk of war-fighting. Ignoring either of these undermines the UN’s credibility, effectiveness and values.

Domestic and international legal frameworks exist for investigating and prosecuting crimes committed against the UN personnel of field missions. However, investigation and prosecution are weakened by the lack of rule of law and weak security institutions in the conflict and post-conflict situations of host countries. A trial requires acceptable forensic and other pieces of evidence and securing of the evidence.  The first basis for the prosecution of individuals responsible for crimes against the UN personnel remains the national legal framework of the host State. This is generally reflected in the status-of-forces and status-of-mission agreements signed between the UN and host states. The UN is increasing its focus on enhancing a state’s capacity in the Justice delivery system, which will eventually assist in meeting the requirements of SCR 2589 (2021).

[1]. UN Peacekeeping (October 2023), Total Fatalities since 1948, accessed on November 9, 2023 from:

[2]. Agathe Sarfati, “Accountability for Crimes against Peacekeepers”, International Peace Institute, March 2023.

[3]. Office of Legal Affairs Codification Division, “Convention on the Safety of United

Nations and  Associated Personnel”, accessed on February 24, 2023 from:

[4] Optional Protocol (2005). Accessed on 22 May 2022, availabe at:

[5]. UN Peacekeeping, Improving Security of UN Peacekeepers, UN HQ, accessed on December 24, 2022 from:

[6] Haeri, D. (Feb 28, 2018). Strengthening UN Peacekeeping: Placing the Santos Cruz Report in Context. IPI Global Observatory.

[7] UN Security Council Resolution; S/RES/2518 (2020) dated 30 March 2020.

[8] UN Security Council Resolution; S/RES/2589 (2021) dated 18 August 2021.

[9]. Stéphane Jean, “Supporting National Justice and Security Institutions: The Role of UN Peace Operations”, UN Chronicle, February 23, 2023.

[10] Kelly, A. (2016). Global: Ending impunity for crimes committed by UN peacekeepers. Online Journal – International Bar Association. Accessed on 28 May 2022, available at:

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Col. (Dr) Kulwant Kumar Sharma (Retd)

The author is Visiting Fellow at United Service Institution of India, and Professor at Chitkara University, Chandigarh. With a background as Chief Instructor at the Tactical and Combat Wing, Army Air Defence College, he has extensive experience in diverse terrains, including Glaciers. His expertise extends to roles in UN Peace Operations and collaboration with the UNHCR.

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