Unarmed Civilian Protection: Protecting People in Crisis and War Zones without Violence

Peacekeeping is not just the preserve of the military, argues Christine Schweitzer. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP) teams can also help to keep civilians and human rights defenders safe in crisis and war zones.

In democratic countries, it is considered the task of the police and the military to protect people from violence. But in war zones or fragile states, including countries in the Global North, this does not always happen. Sometimes the security forces are among those who violate human rights, or are even the ones from whom human rights violations emanate in the first place – think of Belarus, Turkey, or many countries in Latin America. In such cases other mechanisms of protection are needed.

There is also a deep-seated conviction that as soon as there is a war, there is nothing more that can be done by civilians; that soldiers are needed to protect civilians. But practice shows that this is not always true.

There are nonviolent approaches to protecting people. One of these is “Unarmed Civilian Protection” (UCP). Others speak of “civilian peacekeeping” or “protective accompaniment”. The terms refer to the protection of civilians in general and of (nonviolent) activists from violence in conflict situations by unarmed peace workers, whether staff or volunteers. They are present on the ground and use a variety of instruments to prevent violence and protect people. In so doing, they can help to open space for dialogue, for finding solutions to the conflict, and space for the struggle for justice, peace, human rights or the protection of the environment.

This task can be carried out by international and local peace workers. It also involves a variety of methods of self-protection. Central to this is ongoing risk-analysis and preparation for different scenarios. Standard Operating Procedures usually include things like always working in teams of at least two, alerting authorities when travelling to a place, restrictions on private activities so as not to offend locals, wearing clothing to identify themselves so that potential aggressors are aware of their presence. Maintaining  a stance of non-partisanship is hard to achieve but very easy to lose.

Working in war zones or where human rights violations are commonplace is never completely safe. That is why all organisations doing this work put a lot of emphasis on security measures. But unlike military peacekeepers, these are designed to allow close contact with the population – there is no retreating behind fences or walls. Building relationships with all sides plays an essential role, as do communication networks with different concerned agencies and organisations – reminding those threatening violence that there is an international awareness of their activities.

Protection is also always a reciprocal relationship – not only do the outsiders protect the locals, but the reverse is also true. A residual risk always remains; this applies to people in civilian peacekeeping just as it does to many other professions, fire fighters or police for example.

Isn’t that what the UN does?

The term peacekeeping was coined by the United Nations, which deploys troops (so-called “blue helmets”) to monitor ceasefires and peacekeeping. Weapons are carried for self-protection and sometimes to enforce the mandate. Blue helmets are deployed at the invitation of the host country and following a decision by the UN Security Council.

UCP is not comparable to this. Civilian peacekeepers do not carry weapons. If they belong to civil society organisations, they are not bound by the directives of specific governments. In terms of numbers, UCP projects are usually smaller – a maximum of hundreds, rather than the many thousands deployed on UN Peacekeeping missions.

However, there have also been missions by international organisations that can be regarded as civilian peacekeeping. For example, there was  the Kosovo Verification Mission deployed by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 1998-1999.

So who does UCP?

There are various NGOs around the world working on UCP. They, include:

However, it would be a mistake to assume that only international organisations are active in this field. In many countries there are local or national organisations that successfully protect their fellow citizens from harm.

But what do they actually do?

The types of work undertaken are manifold. They include:

Observation and early warning. For example:

  • Monitoring ceasefires and other agreements.
  • Establishing local early warning systems or controlling rumours.

Protection of civilians and prevention of violence. For example:

  • Presence and violence prevention in refugee camps.
  • Protection from gender-based violence.
  • Protective accompaniment for human rights defenders and other activists.
  • Monitoring and pursuing dialogue with potential perpetrators to prevent violence
  • Protecting politically engaged communities that declare themselves peace zones.
  • Protecting refugees or marginalised groups from attacks by racist violent mobs.
  • Various forms of accompaniment of those threatened by violence – children walking to school, check-points, market areas.
  • Intervening in acute situations of violence. Depending on the situation this may mean calling military commanders or leaders of militant groups who can stop those on the ground, or in rare cases also physical inter-positioning.

Fostering dialogue and conflict resolution. For example:

  • Creating safe places where communities can resolve their conflicts through dialogue.
  • Initiating dialogue between groups and communities in conflict.

Training and building local capacity. For example:

  • Actively encourage and empower civil society to take their protection into their own hands.
  • Training and information dissemination on relevant topics.

Advocacy and profile-raising. For example:

  • Conducting public advocacy for concerns and problems that have been observed.
  • Raising the international profile of local conflict issues with the media, other governments or international organisations, including the UN.

Does UCP work?

Scientific research on civilian peacekeeping or UCP is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, a growing number of evaluations and other studies, including the work of PBI, NP and the US organization Cure Violence, show that it can be effective.

There are several factors at work in making UCP effective. First is the fact that the “world is watching” and taking note. This is often a factor that stops those otherwise willing to use violence. A second is that peace workers build relationships with “influencers” on the ground, who in turn can stop those willing to use violence. Building trust-relationships with all parties on the ground facilitates communication and civil conflict transformation. Finally, the capacity of local communities to protect themselves is strengthened through engagement with UCP.

In recognition of this effectiveness, civilian peacekeeping is identified as a task to be promoted in the German Guidelines on Crisis Prevention. It has also been supported in various UN reports including the report of a High Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO, 2015), the Review of Peacebuilding Architecture (2015), and UN Women’s Global Study on the implementation of the Security Council’s landmark Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.


Christine Schweitzer, Ph.D. (Hamburg, Germany) is a researcher at the Institute for Peace Work and Nonviolent Conflict Transformation (IFGK), Coordinator of the Federation for Social Defence, and co-editor of the bi-monthly magazine Peace Forum.

An earlier version of this article was published in a 2020 conference report.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Photo Credit: © Christine Schweitzer: “Peace workers of Nonviolent Peaceforce watch a peacemaking ceremony between two communities that had been fighting each other for months in South Sudan in 2011. NP had, through shuttle mediation, made that peace agreement possible. But now they just watch; making peace can only be done by those who have been in conflict.

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