In Hindsight: The Informal Expert Group on the Protection of Civilians
The informal expert group on the protection of civilians was formed in 2009 at the initiative of the UK, the penholder on the protection of civilians. The group, which continues to meet regularly in 2016, receives briefings from OCHA and asks questions of OCHA and other UN entities on relevant protection concerns prior to the mandate renewals of peace operations. While the expert group is not a formal subsidiary body of the Council, the idea for it grew out of a recommendation in the Secretary-General’s 2007 protection of civilians report, which called for establishing “a dedicated, expert-level working group to facilitate the systematic and sustained consideration and analysis of protection concerns, and to ensure consistent application of the aide-memoire for the consideration of issues pertaining to the protection of civilians”. (The aide-memoire, which includes a compendium of protection language in Council outcomes, is designed to facilitate the Council’s consideration of protection issues in country-specific situations.)
The briefings, which are held in a conference room in the Secretariat building, provide an update on key protection concerns in country-specific situations, describe actions taken to address these concerns and offer suggestions for possible language to be incorporated in resolutions based on the aide-memoire. Proposed language—as well as relevant precedents for such language in other country-specific cases—is integrated into a “building-blocks” document focusing on the situation under consideration that is circulated to Council members in hard copy at the outset of each expert group meeting.
While tailored to the specific case, the “building-blocks” documents nonetheless adhere to the same format. They start with a brief overview of “key facts and trends” related to the protection environment in the country under consideration, followed by a one-page summary of the key recommendations for language in the mandate. After these introductory sections, the document describes the recommended language (and the rationale for these recommendations) under six separate sections: “conduct of hostilities and impact of conflict on civilians”; “human rights violations and abuses”; “humanitarian access”; “protection issues related to displacement”; “gender-based protection concerns, including conflict-related sexual violence”; and “specific protection concerns pertaining to children”.
Preparation for these meetings usually begins several weeks in advance. At that time, OCHA solicits input from its staff in the field and from other UN entities to help inform the development of the building-blocks document for the meeting. This input is solicited in the form of questions focusing on key protection concerns since the prior mandate renewal, together with recommendations for Security Council wording on protection of civilians. OCHA may seek clarification on the information provided by other UN entities, as required, while putting together the building-blocks document.
An expert group meeting usually occurs three to four weeks prior to the expiration of the mandate of the mission under discussion. This gives Council members sufficient time to consider language suggestions made in the expert group sessions prior to the distribution and negotiation of the draft resolution renewing the mandate in question. It is worth emphasising that resolutions are not negotiated at these meetings. Rather, the meetings are designed to lay the groundwork for upcoming negotiations, preparing the diplomats with the background to consider relevant protection options before they enter into discussions on the mandates of peace operations.
Expert-level Council diplomats whose portfolios include the country under discussion and those covering the thematic protection of civilians issue are invited to participate. Most Council members attend these meetings on a consistent basis. China is the one Council member whose diplomats do not attend these meetings, while Russia attends sporadically.
Prior to mid-2013, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) was the only other UN entity apart from OCHA to participate in these meetings, but at that time, the UK started to invite other relevant UN representatives to the meetings to answer questions from Council members. Currently, representatives from various UN entities—DPKO (for discussions on peacekeeping operations), the Department of Political Affairs (for discussions on political missions), the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNICEF, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Mine Action Service, the UN Office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, the UN Office of the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict and UN Women—frequently participate in these meetings. The presence of representatives from other UN entities is critical because this makes it possible for Council members to receive informed answers to questions they may have on particular aspects of a mandate from UN officials with relevant expertise.
Expert group meetings generally last about two hours. While the meetings are chaired by the UK, OCHA briefs at the outset. Other UN entities are asked if they have any relevant information to add. This is followed by questions from Council members, which are answered by the UN entity or entities best placed to respond. The discussions are meant to be interactive.
On rare occasions, the expert group has met to discuss issues not related to mandate renewals. For example, in February 2012 the group held a thematic meeting on the challenges related to humanitarian access. It also met in December 2012 to discuss the proposed African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), and in November 2013 to discuss UN support for the AU International Support Mission to the Central African Republic.
In 2015, the expert group held meetings on several peace operations: UNAMA (Afghanistan), MINUSCA (Central African Republic), MONUSCO (Democratic Republic of the Congo), MINUSMA (Mali), UNMISS (South Sudan) and UNAMID (Darfur). The group’s eight meetings in 2015 are relatively consistent with its level of activity in recent years, including 2011 (ten meetings), 2012 (ten meetings), 2013 (11 meetings) and 2014 (nine meetings). So far this year, the expert group has convened seven times regarding the situations in Afghanistan, the CAR, Darfur, the DRC, Iraq, Mali, and Somalia (AMISOM).
It appears that the quality of the briefings has improved in recent years. Furthermore, the presence of representatives from a wide array of UN entities to respond to queries and to contribute to the discussion has made the sessions more informative. Members have noted that the forum is a useful mechanism for discussing protection issues on a consistent basis.
However, some maintain that more might be done to further engage the participants and enhance the usefulness of the meetings. OCHA is currently exploring ideas to bring in additional voices, including from the field. Visits of relevant protection field officers to UN headquarters could provide opportunities to convene expert group meetings. Employing video-teleconferencing would be another option for enabling members to hear from relevant voices in the field, as the informal expert group on women, peace and security has done.
Another option is to expand the range of meetings to include country-specific situations in which the UN (or the AU) does not presently have peace operations, as well as pertinent thematic issues. In 2015, some interest was expressed in holding a meeting on the impact of Boko Haram on civilian populations, although scheduling difficulties prevented the meeting from taking place. The general practice of focusing on peace operations limits the scope of the group’s reach, as recent experience has demonstrated that protection concerns can be most dire in places without peace operations. For example, protection concerns were worse in northern Sri Lanka than nearly anywhere else in the world in 2009, and the conflict in Syria, where there was only briefly a military observer mission in 2012, has claimed more than 470,000 lives since 2011. Defining the scope of the expert group’s work in relation to concrete needs rather than the form of the UN presence (i.e. a peace operation) would be consistent with the Secretary-General’s recommendation in his most recent protection of civilians report, which encouraged “the Council…to consider broadening [the expert group’s] agenda to encompass other situations of concern, including where peace operations are not deployed” (S/2016/447).
A further possibility is to allow agencies other than OCHA to provide the main briefing at some of the meetings, depending on the protection issues most pertinent to the case under discussion. This is a sensitive matter that has given rise to contrasting views. On the one hand, some have argued that the expert group was established primarily as a humanitarian forum, providing an important avenue for OCHA to interact with Council members on the mandates of peace operations, which are managed by DPKO and the Department of Political Affairs. On the other hand, it is often maintained that there is not a clear dividing line between different forms of protection—whether under the “humanitarian” rubric or otherwise—and that in crisis situations various protection approaches and strategies need to be integrated. Making the Executive Office of the Secretary-General the Secretariat for the expert group briefings could be one way of enabling the Council to explore the protection of civilians in a more holistic way and mitigate the effects of inter-system tensions.