Protection of Civilians in Robust Peacekeeping Operations

The Role of United Nations Special Operations Units


Maj. Josias Marcos de Resende Silva, Brazilian Army

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The United Nations (UN) faces a huge challenge today: implementing effective peacekeeping operations able to ensure the protection of civilians (POC) in complex and hostile environments. Since the end of the Cold War, the threat of conventional wars between national armed forces from different countries has decreased to a lower level. On the other hand, civil wars taking place among nationals in fragile states seem to be a tendency in contemporary conflicts. Because of these significant changes, the UN has endeavored to develop an efficient peace operation model as an attempt to stabilize countries devastated by war.

UN peacekeeping operations had to evolve from a passive and reactive mechanism, which sought to freeze or to paralyze a conflict, to a proactive actor at the conflict zone able to conduct the peace process in a broader way. In this context, the UN created wider or multidimensional peacekeeping operations combining military and civilian activities. Later, a police component would become the third pillar of these comprehensive missions. Nevertheless, the first generation of multidimensional peacekeeping operations was implemented under the auspices of Chapter VI of the UN Charter. Thus, the success of those missions depended excessively on the goodwill of the warring parties.1

Lamentably, the first generation of multidimensional peacekeeping operations failed to deal with post-Cold War conflicts. In the mid-1990s, the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda and the UN Protection Force were not capable of preventing atrocities such as genocide and ethnic cleansing against the civilian population in both Rwanda and Bosnia. As a result, the UN realized that it should be prepared to “engage in more ‘robust’ or ‘muscular’ peacekeeping” capable of effectively protecting civilians.2

Following a series of studies and debates, the UN 2005 World Summit approved the concept of responsibility to protect, which stresses that states have the primary responsibility to protect their civilians against grave violations of human rights. Nonetheless, when a state fails to do so, either by lack of capacity or willingness, the international community must take timely and decisive action to prevent serious violations of human rights such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.3

A few years later, the UN capstone doctrine, Peacekeeping Operations: Principles and Guidelines, incorporated the concept of robust peacekeeping, allowing multidimensional operations to use all necessary force to protect civilians and fulfill their mandates.4 Based on this new doctrine, in the last two decades, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has issued several resolutions under the auspices of Chapter VII of the UN Charter.5

However, despite the bold attitude adopted by the UNSC when issuing more robust resolutions, blue helmets deployed in hostile regions failed to use effective force to protect civilians from existing threats. In South Sudan, blue helmets refused to engage in combat on multiple occasions, allowing the massacre of civilians and the invasion of UN bases by armed groups.6 In the Central African Republic, over a hundred peacekeepers have been killed by rebel groups without an appropriate military response.7 Moreover, in a more emblematic event that took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Goma was taken over by rebels with no reaction from the 1,500 blue helmets deployed in the Congolese city, damaging the mission’s credibility.8

As an attempt to avoid further harm to its credibility, the UN decided to adopt special operations units within the structure of its most critical missions, sometimes integrated with intervention mechanisms. Thus, in 2013, a Tanzanian Special Forces company was deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of the Force Intervention Brigade, complementing the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Special Forces Task Force.9 In the UN Mission in South Sudan, the Nepalese Special Forces company, also known as the High Readiness Company, was created in 2016 within the framework of the Regional Protection Force. Furthermore, the National Detached Force, composed of a Portuguese commando company, has become part of the UN Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic since 2017.10

Given the high quality normally associated with these specialized troops, the recent adoption of special operations units within the structure of peacekeeping operations has created a significant expectation regarding the increase in UN missions capability of fulfilling their ambitious mandates and protecting civilians. In this context, how can special operations units best contribute to the protection of civilians in a robust peacekeeping operation?

Deployed by the UNSC since the last decade, UN special operations units are a significant innovation in peacekeeping history. In addition, the UN Department of Peace Operations (DPO) emphasizes that protection of civilians has become the most common standard for assessing the performance of UN peacekeeping.11 Hence, understanding how these troops can enhance the protection of civilians emerges as a key factor for the success of robust peacekeeping operations.

The United Nations Concept of Protection of Civilians

The protection of civilians is a complex issue with different meanings for the humanitarian, political, legal, and military components of a UN peacekeeping operation. Furthermore, since the protection of civilians is not a task that usually appears in national military doctrines, identifying protection operations has become a true challenge for most peacekeepers deployed all around the world. Thus, under the umbrella of protecting civilians, a varying range of activities has been tasked to the blue helmets according to conflicting interpretations.12

In compliance with the UN Protection of Civilians manual and within the framework of multidimensional peacekeeping missions, the DPO understands that the protection of civilians must be implemented based on a three-tiered approach: affording protection through political process, providing protection from physical violence, and establishing a protective environment.13 Hence, the three-tiered approach has been created as an attempt to provide missions leaders, troops, and police contributors an operationally focused and practical concept for protection of civilians to be applied in a peacekeeping environment.

The three tiers are equally important and must be conducted simultaneously, providing effective and lasting results regarding the POC in conflict environments. However, peacekeeping operations are generally the only international actor able to play a direct role in protecting civilians from physical violence.14 For this reason, failure in addressing the second tier has the potential to harm the mission’s overall legitimacy and credibility, both locally and globally, preventing the peacekeeping operation from successfully accomplishing the remaining two tiers.

In addition to the three tiers, the DPO explains that the POC must be implemented along four phases: prevention (no clear risk has been identified), preemption (existence of likely threats), response (attacks against civilians are imminent or occurring), and consolidation (threat has been mitigated or eliminated). Like the tiers, the POC phases are not mutually exclusive and can overlap.15 As they require a secure environment and focus on the long-term solutions for the conflict, the activities performed under the prevention and consolidation phases are normally associated with the first and the third tiers of the POC concept. Conversely, the preemption and response phases aim at the short-term actions to reduce violence against civilians, which is an essential condition for creating a secure environment. Thus, activities conducted under these phases generally correspond to the second tier of the POC concept.


Therefore, in a peacekeeping operation, the success in the protection of civilians highly depends on the capacity of the military contingent in reducing violence and creating a secure environment.16 Once the minimum degree of stability is established, the political and humanitarian actors take the lead, engaging with national authorities to address the roots of the conflict and to achieve a long-term solution.


Military Protection Tasks in Robust Peacekeeping Operations

To determine which POC activities are appropriate for UN special operations units, it is first necessary to identify the main POC tasks assigned to the military components of current UN robust peacekeeping operations. In this sense, this research considered all military protection activities described in the UNSC resolutions concerning the six ongoing multidimensional peacekeeping operations that are based on Chapter VII of the UN Charter:

  • the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO),
  • the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS),
  • the UN Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA),
  • the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA),
  • the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), and
  • the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).

Although the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur is not an exclusive UN operation, this research also considered it for data collection because the mission conserves most of the characteristics found in a UN robust peacekeeping operation.

In tables 1–6, the main POC tasks are listed in two different columns. The first column lists all military protection tasks in which the military component of a UN peacekeeping operation takes prominence. Normally, most of these activities are related to the second tier of the POC concept and become more relevant during the preemption/response phases. On the other hand, the second column lists POC tasks in which the military force participates as a support element to allow other peacekeeping components, UN agencies, and humanitarian actors to fulfill their purpose. These activities are commonly associated with the first and third tiers of the POC concept and grow in importance during the prevention/consolidation phases. It is also important to note that the UNSC resolutions enumerate other activities under the first and third tiers mostly concerning political, legal, and humanitarian issues. However, they were not taken into consideration because either the military component does not participate or contributes very little to their fulfillment.


The six tables describe the POC activities for the military component in each of those robust peacekeeping operations. The amount of POC tasks performed by the military component varies in accordance with a series of factors involving the available troops, the mission, and the operational environment. Nevertheless, most of the identified POC tasks are coincident in two or more UN missions, which means that the UNSC follows a similar pattern to address the protection of civilian activities in multidimensional peacekeeping operations under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. In summary, the military POC tasks can be condensed and organized (see table 7).

Table 7 depicts the intermediate product of this analysis by organizing all current military POC tasks into two different categories: military-led tasks and military-supported tasks. Under normal circumstances, the police and the civilian components may take the lead in some “military-led” tasks such as “secure UN POC sites and refugee camps” and “provide security for UN personnel and facilities.” Nonetheless, in situations of crises, the military component is the ultimate responsible for leading all those tasks.


The Role of United Nations Special Operations Units

The Department of Peace Operations does not clearly distinguish special operations forces from Special Forces since the UN does not want to override national doctrines. In fact, both terms are often used as synonyms in the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission Military Special Forces Manual. For this reason, this article uses the term special operations forces (SOF), which is broader and covers different national definitions of Special Forces.

According to the United Nations Peacekeeping Missions Military Special Forces Manual, “Special Operations are military activities conducted by specifically designated, organized, trained and equipped forces, manned with selected personnel using unconventional tactics, techniques, and courses of action.”17 Moreover, SOF differs from conventional forces due to the use of small teams, their independence from friendly support, their high situational consciousness, and the political repercussion of their actions.

In the context of peacekeeping, UN SOF can contribute to the achievement of the UN operation mandate during the prevention, preemption, response, and consolidation phases.18 Throughout these phases, UN SOF must perform three principal missions: Special Tasks, Special Reconnaissance, and Military Assistance.19

Special tasks. Special Tasks are precise offensive operations, conducted with minimum collateral damage, limited in scope and time in order to acquire, disrupt, recover, neutralize, or disable designated high-tech value and high-payoff objectives. In addition to that, “Special Tasks are focused on specific, well-defined objectives of strategic and operational significance or the conduct of decisive tactical operations.”20

When conducting Special Tasks, SOF must obtain “relative superiority” over their enemies, which is the association of the six principles of special operations: simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed, and purpose. Hence, by creating simple and concealed plans, realistically and extensively rehearsing those plans, and executing them with speed and purpose, SOF are able to create a decisive temporary advantage over a much stronger or well-defended enemy force.21

Considering the military POC tasks (see table 7), Special Tasks will normally encompass, with or without the support from conventional forces, “neutralize actors who pose imminent threat to civilians”; “capture weapons and members of armed groups who pose imminent threat to civilians”; and “respond to threats or attacks on civilians, including UN personnel and international/UN associates/humanitarian actors.” Nonetheless, before deploying SOF to perform the aforementioned tasks, it is essential to ensure that these missions are above the capability of the conventional troops available, they involve political risks and/or extreme danger, and they will have an impact on the long-term stabilization process. Given the actual or imminent presence of threats, Special Tasks occur during the preemption and response phases.


Special reconnaissance. As a second principal SOF mission, “Special Reconnaissance provides specific, well-defined, and time-sensitive information in support of the Force intelligence collection process.”22 Also, UN special operations units conduct Special Reconnaissance to collect or verify information of strategic or operational significance. Usually, Special Reconnaissance consists of long-range reconnaissance and surveillance techniques of targets located in a hostile, denied, or sensitive territory.

When conducting Special Reconnaissance, special operations units observe the principle of “certain access,” which is the ability to rapidly and securely insert and extract from a hostile area of operations, normally undetected, enabling operations in areas where or when conventional operations are not possible.23

Taking into consideration the military POC tasks (table 7), SOF are suitable for conducting Special Reconnaissance to “establish surveillance and monitoring on possible threats to civilians.” In this context, especially during the preemption and response phases, special operations units are able to produce force-level intelligence, accessing sensitive and/or hostile areas not recommended for conventional troops.

Military assistance. Finally, military assistance is the third principal mission for UN SOF. According to the UN special operations doctrine, “the range of military assistance includes, but is not limited to, engagement with local, regional, and national leadership or organizations, and capability building of friendly security forces.”24 The main activities under the umbrella of the military assistance are training, advising, and mentoring. Thus, in the context of military assistance operations, UN SOF can be tasked to provide training to the armed forces of a host country; assist the UN mission in training conventional blue helmets; and mentor local units through direction and guidance to plan, prepare, and conduct operations.

There are two main types of operations associated with military assistance: unconventional warfare and integrated operations. SOF normally conduct unconventional warfare when operating and exploiting the capabilities of foreign military and paramilitary forces. Concerning integrated operations, SOF have the ability to address the different types of threats by integrating elements of national power and operating with other military forces and nonmilitary agencies.25

Compared to the military POC tasks, military assistance corresponds to “provide expertise, advice, and training to local defense/security forces” and to “provide expertise, advice, and training to UN troops.” Hence, the application of the military assistance within the framework of the protection of civilians enhances the quality and effectiveness of local legal forces and other UN troops in the mission. Unlike Special Tasks and Special Reconnaissance, which are normally conducted during the preemption and response phases, the military assistance usually takes place during the prevention and consolidation phases, contributing to the long-term stabilization process. By enabling a significant number of local and UN troops to protect civilians and achieve their objectives, the UN special operations unit works as a true force multiplier in a UN peacekeeping operation.

The figure explains how SOF missions are related to military POC tasks. It also proposes the military POC tasks more suitable for special operations units to perform in a robust peacekeeping operation. Furthermore, it is important to consider that when conducting the six activities listed in the figure, special operations units are expected to improve the entire military performance in a peacekeeping operation. This is because Special Tasks aim at obtaining a deterrent effect on adversarial forces, Special Reconnaissance produces accurate intelligence in a hostile or denied environment, and military assistance improves the UN troops and/or local defense/security forces quality and morale.

Incipient in the context of peace operations, UN SOF units have already delivered encouraging results where they have been deployed. Notable among their main achievements are the victories over the armed groups Mouvement du 23 Mars and Forces Démocratiques Alliées (Allied Democratic Forces) in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as over the rebel Central African Republic groups Union for Peace in the Central African Republic and Popular Front for the Rebirth of Central African Republic.26 Furthermore, shortly after the implementation of UN SOF units, deaths as a result of armed conflicts decreased markedly in their respective areas of responsibility, which correspond to the Eastern Congo for the Special Forces Task Force, Juba for the High Readiness Company, and the Central African Republic for the National Detached Force. This initial impact, which is demonstrated in table 8, helps to increase local people’s hope and confidence in the peace process.


Due to the complexity of contemporary conflicts, it is premature to attribute the reduction of deaths exclusively to the deployment of UN SOF units in conflict zones. However, especially in Eastern Congo and Juba, where the impact of these units can be better measured because they operate in a more restricted geographic area, this decrease indicates that the use of UN SOF units emerges as a viable tool in the future of robust UN peacekeeping operations.


UN robust peacekeeping operations use a three-tiered approach to protect of civilians in hostile environments. While the first and third tiers aim at creating long-term conditions for the safety of local populations, the purpose of the second tier is to immediately protect civilians against physical violence.

When analyzing the UNSC resolutions for the six ongoing multidimensional peacekeeping operations under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, it is possible to determine the core military tasks related to the protection of civilians in hostile environments. These POC activities are organized into two different categories: military-led tasks and military-supported tasks. Most military-led tasks are linked to the second tier of the UN POC concept. Thus, the military component of a UN peacekeeping operation is a key actor to reduce violence in the short-term, which is essential to create a stable environment.

There are six specific military POC tasks that are compatible with UN special operations doctrinal missions and work as force multipliers to enhance the performance of the entire military component in a robust peacekeeping environment. These tasks are neutralization of actors who pose imminent threat to civilians; capture of weapons or members of armed groups who pose imminent threat to civilians; response to threats or attacks on civilians, including UN personnel and international/UN associates/humanitarian actors; establishment of surveillance and monitoring on possible threats to civilians; provision of expertise, advice, and training to local defense/security forces; and provision of expertise, advice, and training to UN troops. Moreover, by conducting these tasks, UN special operations units contribute to peacekeeping operations from the early stages to peace building, covering all phases of a POC mandate: prevention, preemption, response, and consolidation.

The relevance of UN SOF units already deployed in robust peacekeeping operations is validated by the great decrease in the number of deaths due to armed conflict in their respective areas of responsibility, which is one of the most important POC indicators.

This study does not exhaust the knowledge on the use of special operations units in robust peacekeeping operations. On the contrary, the deployment of these specialized units is an innovation in UN history and their impact on the protection of civilians is incipient. Therefore, future research on peacekeeping missions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, particularly those who received special operations units, would efficiently complement and improve this research.


  1. Kai Kenkel, “Five Generations of Peace Operations: From the ‘Thin Blue Line’ to ‘Painting a Country Blue,’” Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional 56, no. 1 (2013): 129, accessed 8 November 2021,
  2. David Ucko and Mats Berdal, “The Use of Force in UN Peacekeeping Operations: Problems and Prospects,” The Rusi Journal 160, no. 1 (2015): 7,
  3. Nicholas Wheeler and Alex Bellamy, “Humanitarian Intervention in World Politics,” in The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, ed. John Baylis, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens, 6th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 486.
  4. United Nations (UN), United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Principles and Guidelines (New York: Department of Peace Operations, 2008).
  5. Cedric de Coning, “Peace Enforcement in Africa: Doctrinal Distinctions between the African Union and the United Nations,” Contemporary Security Policy 38, no. 1 (2017): 148,
  6. Scott Lyons, “New Robust Peacekeeping,” Proceedings of the ASIL [American Society of International Law] Annual Meeting 112 (2018): 110, accessed 8 November 2021,
  7. “United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic [MINUSCA],” UN MINUSCA, accessed 23 November 2021,
  8. Sudarsan Raghavan, “In Volatile Congo, a New UN Force with Teeth,” The Washington Post (website), 2 November 2013, accessed 8 November 2021,
  9. UN, Standard Operations Procedures: Special Forces Task Force Cell (Goma: United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Force Headquarters, 2015), 3.
  10. Musa Paulino, “Missão na República Centro-Africana: 1ª Força Nacional Destacada,” Revista Mama Sume, no. 80 (2017): 18, accessed 8 November 2021,
  11. UN, Protection of Civilians in Peacekeeping Operations (New York: Department of Peace Operations, 2020).
  12. UN, Protection of Civilians (New York: Department of Peace Operations, 2012), 18.
  13. Ibid., 65.
  14. Ibid., 70.
  15. Ibid., 12.
  16. Mary Kaldor, “Inconclusive Wars: Is Clausewitz Still Relevant in these Global Times?,” Global Policy 1, no. 3 (2010): 280,
  17. UN, United Nations Peacekeeping Missions Military Special Forces Manual (New York: Department of Peace Operations, January 2015), 9, accessed 23 November 2021,
  18. UN, United Nations Peacekeeping Missions Military Special Forces Manual, 12.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 18.
  21. William McRaven, “The Theory of Special Operations” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 1993), 11–37, accessed 8 November 2021,
  22. UN, United Nations Peacekeeping Missions Military Special Forces Manual, 17.
  23. Robert Spulak Jr., “A Theory of Special Operations,” Military Technology 33, Special Issue (2009): 25, accessed 23 November 2021,
  24. UN, United Nations Peacekeeping Missions Military Special Forces Manual, 19.
  25. Spulak, “A Theory of Special Operations,” 26.
  26. Josias Silva, “Unidades de Operações de Paz: uma Solução Viável para o Uso da Força no contexto das Operações de Paz?,” Observatório Militar da Praia Vermelha, 30 June 2020, accessed 8 November 2021,


Maj. Josias Marcos de Resende Silva, Brazilian Army, is a staff officer in the Brazilian Army Special Operations Command. He holds a master’s degree in international relations and conflict resolution from the American Military University/American Public University System. During his career, Josias served with the 11th Infantry Mountain Battalion, the 1st Special Forces Battalion, the 1st Commando Battalion, and the Special Operations Training Center. He commanded the Command Company of the 14th Motorized Infantry Brigade. Josias has also been deployed in Ivory Coast and South Sudan. In the latter, as an United Nations Mission in South Sudan staff officer, he contributed to the planning and preparation for the deployment of Nepalese Special Forces company in Juba, also known as High Readiness Company.


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May-June 2022