How Can Conventional Arms Control Strengthen UN Peace Operations’ Efforts to Protect Civilians?

20 June 2022
How Can Conventional Arms Control Strengthen UN Peace Operations’ Efforts to Protect Civilians?

1 June 2022


Last week, the Security Council held its annual open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. In his latest report on the subject, which was presented at the debate, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General highlights the ongoing alarming patterns of civilian harm in armed conflicts across the globe. Whether in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ukraine, or Yemen, civilians continue to bear the immediate and long-term effects of the use of conventional weapons by an array of armed actors. Yet, the report pays little attention to the important role that conventional arms control can play in enhancing the protection of civilians (PoC) in UN peace operation settings.

As outlined in a recent joint study by UNIDIR and the International Peace Institute (IPI), conventional arms control is an important but often neglected element of UN peace operations’ efforts to protect civilians. While the specific drivers of violence may vary from one context to another, the use of arms to engage in conflict and perpetrate attacks against civilians is a constant that is often poorly accounted for in protection strategies of UN peace operations. Therefore, as the UN re-considers its approach to PoC, with a greater focus on civilian-led protection activities, a more targeted and innovative application of conventional arms control tools and measures could prove vital for ensuring the effectiveness and sustainability of its protection work. There are several ways in which arms control could be better leveraged within the PoC efforts of missions, of which two are outlined below.

Using conventional arms control to bridge political and protection priorities

The protection of civilians should be a core aspect of a mission’s political strategy for preventing and resolving conflicts. Although arms are always a potential spoiler for UN-supported peace efforts, arms-related risks are rarely integrated into mission strategies to manage and resolve conflicts. Addressing the continued presence and use of weapons by different armed actors and their impact on peace processes is therefore crucial not only to ensure that weapons do not derail such efforts, but also to mitigate their effects and reduce their use against civilians. As missions strive to link their protection of civilians and conflict resolution efforts, leveraging arms control measures within these activities becomes increasingly important. For instance, mine action can act as a confidence-building measure between conflict parties and help implement ceasefires or peace agreements – as seen recently in the case of Libya and Darfur – while also reducing the threats posed by explosive hazards to civilians.

Senior mission leadership political engagement and good offices are critical for advancing peaceful solutions to conflicts and promoting the adoption of measures that limit the impact of a conflict party’s use of weapons against civilians. Last month, the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) brokered a peace accord between the two communities in the region that is expected to reduce the harm caused to civilians by high levels of intercommunal violence. In April, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen helped negotiate a two-month nationwide ceasefire – the first in six years – leading to a significant reduction of civilian casualties in the country. As the end of the truce period in Yemen approaches, with hopes for broader peace talks to begin, considering how arms control measures such as transitional weapons and ammunition management can be used to help build trust between the warring parties and prevent a resumption of active hostilities that would have devastating impacts on civilians is vital.

The Secretary-General’s report also underlines how UN missions are already taking steps to scale up the capacity of their civilian components to conduct protection activities at field level, including through dialogue and community engagement, as demonstrated in Mali or South Sudan. As the role of these activities in promoting the protection of civilians grows in relevance, the UN will need to consider how to tailor them to address armed threats to civilians, including by integrating arms control into their conflict resolution and civilian harm reduction strategies.

Using arms-related information to inform evidence-based advocacy on protection concerns

Due consideration of arms-related risks and impacts on civilians is also central within monitoring and reporting – including by mission human rights components – and provides concrete entry points for engaging with parties to a conflict. In particular, civilian casualty recording can support evidence-based advocacy to influence the behavior of conflict parties to prevent and reduce civilian harm. As previously noted by the Secretary-General in his reports on the protection of civilians, UN missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia have used casualty recording data to engage with various armed actors on protection concerns. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has demonstrated that an analysis of specific weapons and tactics employed by different armed actors – whether State security forces or non-State armed groups – can be particularly useful to support mission engagement efforts for reducing civilian harm.

Casualty recording is most effective in informing dialogue to enhance the protection of civilians when it includes arms-related information and analysis and is accompanied by a clear and targeted advocacy strategy. Recognizing the value of these activities, the UN Secretary-General, in his 2018 Agenda for Disarmament, requested all UN peace operations to introduce casualty-recording mechanisms, including reporting on the types of weapons used, and for missions to engage with conflict parties to reduce civilian harm. Unlike UNAMA, however, most missions do not have well developed mechanisms in place or the required arms control expertise to systematically gather civilian casualty data disaggregated by types of weapons. A joint initiative led by OHCHR and UNODA is expected to help strengthen the capacity of UN peace operations to collect and analyze arms-related data as part of casualty recording and similar human rights monitoring and investigation activities. This is critically important to reinforce the ability of mission civilian personnel to undertake protection work.

Putting conventional arms control on the UN protection of civilians’ agenda

As the proliferation and misuse of weapons will remain a critical enabler of armed conflict and civilian harm, missions will need to more fully leverage the arms control tools and measures they have at their disposal to strengthen civilian-led protection efforts. Therefore, the ongoing debate about the future of UN peace operations should give due consideration to how conventional arms control can contribute to the implementation of protection of civilians’ mandates, and what capacities and expertise are required to enhance the capabilities of mission civilian components to prevent and reduce the use of arms against civilians.


Barbara Morais Figueiredo is an Associate Researcher with UNIDIR’s Conventional Arms and Ammunition Programme

Damian Lilly is an independent consultant with over 20 years’ experience working on protection, humanitarian and development issues