In Hindsight: UN Guard Units
The Secretary-General recommended in 2013 the creation of three guard units—in the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya and Somalia—to protect UN political and peacebuilding missions operating in deteriorating security environments. What was once perceived as an exceptional measure taken in 2004 in a particularly difficult context (Iraq) may be becoming a common practice as special political missions are deployed in increasingly volatile settings. These developments, which have not attracted much publicity, nevertheless have led to a number of questions being asked, including whether Department of Political Affairs-led missions are the appropriate tool to tackle such situations, the mandate and expectations for guard units and other institutional issues within the organisation.
Procedurally, these guard units have been proposed by the Secretariat with the Council mainly taking note of the recommendation. The rationale for this is that the deployment of these units amounts to a management decision by the Secretary-General, but some Council members have grown wary of the recent increase in these deployments and their potential impact on UN involvement in fragile settings in general given the lack of clarity about the way they operate. In discussions about this issue, some Council members have noted that the provision of security is a responsibility of the host country and have inquired whether the Department of Safety and Security (DSS) or other civilian resources were capable of providing the needed security for political missions in fragile contexts. The effectiveness of the command and control and reporting lines of such units in the absence of a military hierarchy has also been raised.
Two guard units were created through exchanges of letters in October and December 2013 in order to protect the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the CAR—now subsumed under the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR—and the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia, respectively. The Secretariat engaged in consultations to generate the forces. A Moroccan contingent, numbering 560 troops, started deploying in January to the CAR and after the host government confirmed its consent, 410 Ugandan troops started to deploy in April to Somalia.
In the case of Libya, in November 2013 the Secretary-General developed plans for the establishment of a guard unit consisting of up to 235 military personnel mandated to guard and protect the increasingly vulnerable compound of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and UN personnel and assets inside the compound (S/2013/704). Although the Council took note of the information and the arrangements proposed in the letter (S/2013/705), the unit was never deployed following concerns by Libya on the impact such deployment could have on the security situation and the withdrawal of the troop contributor that was expected to provide the forces. After rejecting the option for an armed private security company, as is the case with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (General Assembly resolution 67/254 of 12 April 2013 recommends such a measure only as a last resort), the Secretariat proposed in April 2014 to strengthen and restructure the security section of UNSMIL with additional positions and logistical resources (A/68/327/Add.12). This decision is pending the approval by the Fifth Committee.
The first UN guard unit was deployed in Iraq in 2004 after the Secretary-General reported to the Council that three 160-person armed guard units were required to protect the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq. In that first instance, the Secretary-General acknowledged that a specific Council mandate to obtain and deploy the guard units was required and indications from member states that had been approached to provide the troops were that “without a clear and unambiguous legal basis, many if not all of the potential contributors may decline to contribute units” (S/2004/710). Following an exchange of letters between the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council, the Council welcomed the deployment of such a guard unit. A unit composed of a company from Fiji with the logistical support of Australia was deployed in November 2004. Currently, the UN guard unit deployed in Iraq is composed of troops from Fiji and Nepal.
The recent establishment of two units and discussions about a third one has forced the Secretariat to clarify some of the norms under which they operate. Most of the discussions in the Council were based on the little information Council members had received about the arrangements under which these units work: legal, political and logistical. Until now, guard units have worn blue berets but earlier this year the Secretariat suggested a distinct uniform. This distinction is meaningful. The mandate, responsibilities and legal protection of peacekeepers differ significantly from those of guard units. Some Council members have been concerned that in the absence of differentiated uniforms, an unforeseen consequence of the deployment of such units in fragile theatres could be the expectation among the local population that the troops have a mandate for protection of civilians. Also, some governments—Libya being the most recent example—were wary of the visibility of UN military personnel in blue berets. In the Status of Mission agreements between the UN and host governments, the latter authorise the actions guard units can undertake, mostly limited to the protection of UN premises and personnel as well as their eventual evacuation. These reassurances have also been given to Council members that were concerned about the impact of these units being deployed without Council authorisation through a resolution. Questions still remain regarding the obligations for these troops to act if grave crimes are committed in their sight, as well as about the legal protections that cover them.
Even if the case can be made that the security situation on the ground has deteriorated significantly, the use of guard units seems mostly a consequence of the limitations in the establishment of peacekeeping operations. Guard units are being deployed to protect political missions that are not necessarily a suitable response for the needs on the ground but the only option available as an interim solution or when creating a peacekeeping operation seems politically—or at times financially—unrealistic.