Community engagement during COVID-19: Challenges for UN peacekeepers

By Loes van der Graaf

  1. The civilian side of peacekeeping

United Nations peacekeeping operations are one of the UN’s main tools for conflict resolution and ensuring sustainable peace in countries worldwide. Based on the principles of consent of both parties, impartiality and non-use of force (except in self-defence or defence of the mandate), the UN peacekeeping troops are perceived as one of the most legitimate peacekeeping mechanisms in existence.

UN peacekeeping missions are mostly known for their deployment of multinational troops, but increasing attention is given in recent years to the interaction of UN troops with local communities (presented as the “people-centred  approach” of peacekeeping). Increased community engagement provides peacekeepers with detailed insights into local needs and concerns, builds trust and understanding between community members and peacekeepers, and ultimately helps peacekeepers design and implement sustainable mechanisms that respond to communities’ needs and effectively support the protection of civilians. National community liaison assistants and community alert networks utilized in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) from 2010 onwards, were one of the first initiatives to create stronger relationships between UN peacekeeping troops and local communities. 

Following the DRC example, community engagement slowly found its way into UN peacekeeping guidelines and resolutions. The UN High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) report of 2015 highlighted that “to sustain peace, lessons must be learned, and new approaches embraced to help prevent relapse into conflict including through broadening community engagement, with women and youth playing a prominent role.” Three main dimensions, or rationales, for community engagement are listed by the UN, namely:

  • Relationship and confidence building, and sensitization
  • Information gathering and analysis
  • De-escalation, mediation, and community-level peacebuilding

Today, in 2021, peacekeeping mandates actively incorporate community engagement protocols and objectives. For example in the current MONUSCO (DRC) and UNMISS (South Sudan) and to some extent in MINUSCA (Central African Republic) and MINUSMA (Mali). A crucial element of community engagement by UN peacekeeping missions is the do-no-harm principle, which ensures that communities are not put at any kind of risk (e.g. of retaliation) through their engagement with peacekeepers. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the do-no-harm principle got another dimension.

2 UN peacekeeping during COVID

The outbreak of the global pandemic affected the execution of peacekeeping missions around the world. On the one hand, the pandemic enhanced uncertainty, chaos, and gender-based violence, particularly in already unstable countries, which increases the importance of UN peacekeepers to maintain stability. On the other hand, peacekeepers themselves can form a danger to communities if strict COVID-19 safety measures are not followed (do-no-harm). Some peacekeepers even noted that the local communities blame them for bringing COVID to their country or region, which heightens the complexity of building trust, confidence, and relations. In South-Sudan, for example, the movement of UN workers is restricted and controlled by the government as they are perceived as the bringers and spreaders of the virus. The role of peacekeepers has in many cases been expanded to raising public awareness about the dangers of COVID and related sanitation measures. In the DRC, for example, MONUSCO, UNICEF and the Congolese National Radio joined forces to disseminate COVID-19-related information to over 22 million Congolese people. The new role of peacekeepers as disseminators of correct information is of crucial importance to ensure that relations with the communities are not damaged by fear or misinformation.

Due to the spread of COVID, peacekeepers’ community engagement practices have been strongly reduced, particularly in densely populated areas like refugee camps. The reduced interaction with communities prevents peacekeepers from gathering information on local attitudes, contexts, and risks. An important potential consequence of the lack of interaction with communities is that any possible build-up of violence by any of the parties, enhanced by the COVID-19 chaos and uncertainty, remains unnoticed. In fact, some scholars fear that the COVID-19 induced economic decline, chaos, and fragile political situation in some countries may form a hotspot for renewed conflict.

Clearly, the COVID-19 mitigation measures impede both the literal “bringing different parties to the mediation table” and the legitimacy of the UN peacekeepers as the mediators. Despite the concrete challenges regarding community interaction opportunities and the diminished trust in UN peacekeepers, community engagement has not disappeared completely. Peacekeepers use existing contact or focal points in the communities to get their messages across, and new measures for remote engagement have been developed. However, virtual or other remote engagement has crucial limitations regarding peacekeepers’ ability to connect with populations who have limited or no access to the internet. This also applies to the community liaison assistants, mentioned above, who are forced to work from home, but may not have the necessary resources (internet, computer) to do so. 

3. Good practices of community engagement during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant challenges and and highlighted and exacerbated existing inequalities and vulnerabilities in societies around the world. Despite the restrictions on face-to-face interaction and movements, various UN peacekeeping missions have found ways to continue their community engagement practices and work with communities towards a more equal post-COVID world.

The UNAMID peacekeeping mission in South-Sudan implemented an awareness campaign in Central Darfur, which focused both on COVID-19 prevention and on peaceful co-existence. Besides training the communities on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, use face masks, use soaps and sanitizers and protective equipment, the Mission also focused on the need to jointly address the concerns of the different communities in the region to promote peaceful co-existence. This project is an excellent example how the UN can use the COVID-19 context to bring rival or conflicting communities together to address a common challenge.

Similarly, the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) supported a Youth-led initiative to make and distribute face shields and masks. The initiative brought together both Kosovo Albanian and Kosovo Serb youth to produce 3D-printed face shields. Additionally, the Mission helped the youth deliver reusable masks to Albanian, Serbian, Roma and Ashkali families in different communities. This is another great example of how a “common challenge” like COVID can bring people from different ethnicities together to support their communities.

In other countries, the UN Missions were able to effectively utilize and empower youth for the purpose of community awareness. The UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) launched a community sensitization campaign supporting young taxi-motorcyclist drivers. The youth were trained on COVID-19 risks and mitigation measures, equipped with speakers and guidelines, and set loose in the towns. According to the organizers, “this unique motorized awareness campaign on COVID-19 also helped strengthen peace and social cohesion between communities, especially since the taxi-motorcyclists repeated that COVID-19 has no religion, no political party, no race, and no one is immune.” The Mission made effective use of the youth as “mediators” between the knowledge of the mission and the culture and context of the local communities to ensure that information on COVID-19 was brought to the communities in the most compelling way. 


4. Conclusion

Misinformation, uncertainty, economic decline, and the risk of renewed conflict caused by COVID-19 all call upon UN peacekeepers to earn and keep the trust of the local communities they serve to protect. While the role of peacekeepers in sharing correct information on the pandemic and training community members on hygiene and social distancing is crucial, it should not replace their tasks to gather information and mediate between different groups who experience tensions. COVID-19 recovery entails reducing the spread of the virus and preparing for the post-pandemic situation. Peacekeepers must stay vigilant of new or enhanced instability that can result in clashes in the upcoming months. 

On the other hand, COVID-19 grants peacekeepers a unique opportunity to spread the message of equality, unity, and cooperation, as shown in both examples above. If planned and executed well, peacekeepers can support cooperation between rival communities for post-pandemic recovery. However, this is only possible if the foundations are laid already during the COVID-19 lockdowns and mitigation measures. 
Therefore, current community engagement should be designed to mitigate the COVID-19 spread; gaining and regaining trust of the community; monitoring new developments and tensions; and set up structures for post-COVID-19 cooperation for recovery. 

End notes

Harley Henigson (2020) “Community Engagement in UN Peacekeeping Operations: A People-Centered Approach to Protecting Civilians” International Peace Institute.

UN DPKO (2016) “Community Liaison Assistants in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Survey of Practice” United Nations; and Center for Civilians in Conflict (2018) “Community Engagement by MONUSCO with Reduced Field Presence.” Policy Brief. Center for Civilians in Conflict.

UN General Assembly and Security Council (2015) “Report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations on Uniting Our Strengths for Peace: Politics, Partnership and People”, United Nations UN Doc. A/70/95–S/2015/446

UN DPKO (2020) “The Protection of Civilians in United Nations Peacekeeping: Handbook,” United Nations; and UN DPKO (2016) “Community Liaison Assistants in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Survey of Practice”.

Harley Henigson (2020) “Community Engagement in UN Peacekeeping Operations: A People-Centered Approach to Protecting Civilians”

Cedric de Coning (2020) “The impact of COVID-19 on peace operations in Africa” ACCORD Conflict Trends 2020/Special Edition.

Robert U. Nagel and Julia Maenza (2020) “The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Effects on United Nations Peacekeeping” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.

Harley Henigson (2020) “Community Engagement in UN Peacekeeping Operations: A People-Centered Approach to Protecting Civilians”

Tom Buitelaar, David den Dunnen & Diego Salama (2020) “The impact of the corona virus on UN peacekeeping at the field, state, and global level” The Hague University of Applied Sciences.

Harley Henigson (2020) “Community Engagement in UN Peacekeeping Operations: A People-Centered Approach to Protecting Civilians”

Cedric de Coning (2020) “The impact of COVID-19 on peace operations in Africa”. 

                 

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