This memo was prepared for a WPF seminar on “New Wars, New Peace” held at the Fletcher School, January 12-13 2012.

Chad Hazlett’s memo is based on an important study he undertook with Alex de Waal, Christian Davenport and Joshua Kennedy, sponsored by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (hereinafter, “the Darfur study”). It looks at violence in Darfur between January 2008 and July 2009. Both the process of data collection and findings are striking. They have direct bearing on the conduct of peacekeeping operations – especially for the protection of civilians – which will be the focus of my comments.

I. Data gathering

As Kelly Greenhill made clear in her presentation to this workshop, data-gathering in post-conflict societies is a challenge.  The Darfur study relies on a combination of open sources and reports from the Joint Mission Analysis Cell of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). JMAC’s are a fairly recent development in the UN and, while they are now standard in large peacekeeping operations, they do not exist in all conflict and post-conflict societies where the UN has a presence.  Moreover, how JMACs are used and their effectiveness varies from mission to mission, depending largely on the extent of buy-in from senior mission management. It also depends on whether humanitarian and other agencies are willing and able to provide reliable, timely information.

More generally, the notion of “event-based data collection” is not without controversy in the UN, especially when it includes an assessment of who was responsible for what, supported by whom, etc. That sort of information and analysis looks like “intelligence-gathering” to some constituencies who, historically, have opposed the UN being in the intelligence business. This has started to change with the advent of robust peacekeeping operations, where good information and analysis are clearly necessary, but old habits die hard.

That being said, the ability of the JMAC in Darfur to gather accurate data is noteworthy, and not only for analysts.  The information can and should be used in real time to develop strategies, plan operations, assess the effectiveness of those operations and, when appropriate, reconfigure missions. Hazlett and his co-authors were not able to draw causal inferences about the impact of UNAMID on the protection of civilians, but that is precisely the sort of function JMACs themselves are designed for – though not all perform as well as they might. Some notable successes are the JMACs in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC/MONUSCO).

As noted, JMACs do not exist in small political and peacebuilding missions. This suggests that, outside the peacekeeping context, it may be difficult for missions and mediators to get actionable information quickly and reliably enough – for example to help design peacekeeping operations.  Could the functional equivalent of JMACs be established in smaller missions?  If not, are there other ways of doing event-based data collection? The Darfur study relied on open-source as well as JMAC data. Would open-source data alone ever be enough?

II.  Implications for peacekeeping doctrine  and ‘protection of civilians’

Three key findings of the study are that: i) the Darfur conflict in 2008-09 was multi-sided and fluid, but not a war of all against all; ii) most civilians were killed by the government and allied forces (militias and signatory movements); and iii) many casualties resulted from inter-tribal fighting that may or may not have been government-sponsored.

These findings have important implications for the application of peacekeeping doctrine. The traditional principles of peacekeeping — consent, impartiality and non-use of force except in self-defense – have been updated in recent years to account for the changing nature of conflict and the contexts into which peacekeepers are deployed. Contemporary doctrine distinguishes tactical from strategic consent; impartiality is now understood to mean impartiality in the execution of mandate, not neutrality; and the use of force for limited purposes beyond self-defense is a regular feature of robust operations. (This cuts across UN, AU and NATO doctrine.)

Data gathered by Hazlett et al highlights the complexity of applying those principles in Darfur.  On consent, the UN’s Capstone Doctrine stipulates that you need the cooperation of the main parties to the conflict (strategic consent) but can act forcefully against minor parties or ‘spoilers’ at the tactical level.  A challenge in Darfur (and elsewhere) is that it is hard to know whether a minor spoiler is a proxy for or allied with a main party; moreover the situation is fluid so allegiances change.  Impartiality in the execution of a mandate means to look at the actions of the parties — what they are doing in relation to the mandate — not who they are. In Darfur, the Government and its allies were the main source of threat to civilians, thus they would see robust action to fulfill a protection of civilians mandate as taking sides in the conflict.  While consistent with the ‘impartiality’ principle, this is hard to sustain when the presence and every move of UNAMID depends on the cooperation of the government.  A complicating factor is that many of the deaths in Darfur during the period under study were caused by inter-tribal violence.  Did they also fall within UNAMID’s protection mandate?

The complex politics of UNAMID’s presence in Darfur — and the severe constraints under which it operates – partly explain why it relies on a  “comprehensive protection strategy ” that entails good offices, civil affairs, human rights monitoring, humanitarian relief and institution-building as well physical protection.  Though appealing in principle, this holistic approach encompasses almost everything a peace operation does, casting doubt on the analytical and operational utility of the concept (indeed some describe civilian protection as the end result of all peacekeeping and therefore redundant as a distinct task).  In any case, this more comprehensive approach has implications for the kind of data that must be gathered in order to develop effective strategies – not just fatalities but displacement, sexual violence, human rights abuses and other dimensions of violence.

In sum, the Darfur study demonstrates both the importance and the feasibility of event-based data collection in the midst of conflict, while pointing to a number of policy implications – from the utility of JMACs to the challenge of protecting civilians while adhering to peace operations doctrine. Analysts, conflict management practitioners and – most important – the victims of violence will benefit greatly from further work of this sort.

Ian Johnstone is a Professor of International Law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He is also a member the World Peace Foundation Board of Trustees.

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