Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Community Liaison Assistants: A Bridge between Peacekeepers and Local Populations

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Community Liaison Assistants: A Bridge between Peacekeepers and Local Populations

Article excerpt

The protection of civilians has become a central tenet of United Nations (UN) peacekeeping. Most peacekeeping missions are now mandated to support host authorities in various forms but are also required to take unilateral action should the host government be unable or unwilling to protect civilians under threat of physical violence. It has become increasingly clear that, to be able to do this, peacekeepers require greater local understanding and consideration for existing protection mechanisms.

UN Peacekeeping1 has long struggled to engage with local communities in their own protection. The focus of international interventions has typically been on political processes at the macro level and the implementation of mandated milestones, such as supporting and enabling peace agreements to be signed and elections to be held. Accordingly, most of the civilian staff of UN peacekeeping missions are based in the capitals and regional centres. While support to these processes is important for the creation of an environment conducive to the protection of civilians, the actual protection work of UN peacekeepers happens at the local level. The UN's military contingents, known as 'Blue Helmets', are deployed in many remote locations and often do not speak the local language. Rapid rotations do not not leave them enough time to become knowledgeable about the history and socio-political elements of local conflicts.

This disconnect has considerably reduced the effectiveness of protection efforts. Communities that are sidelined - however unintentionally - by peacekeeping missions tend to perceive this behaviour as arrogant and demeaning and often react with various forms of resistance. In addition, the peacekeeping mission might be so disengaged from them that local populations do not understand their complex mandate and their considerable practical limitations. Instead, they see numerous white landcruisers, armoured vehicles and helicopters, and come to develop unrealistic expectations that can alter their perceptions of security and thus further endanger them.

In return, peacekeepers - who do not fully understand local conflict dynamics - tend not to recognise warning signs and therefore have experienced difficulties intervening in a timely manner. In the most dramatic cases, this has led to the failure of UN peacekeepers to prevent extreme violence against local communities. One such incident was the Kiwanja Massacre in 2008 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where 150 civilians were killed less than a mile away from a UN base. The failure of the peacekeepers to take action triggered harsh criticism but also spurred the development of a major innovation.

Towards better community liaison

After careful analysis of the massacre, the Civil Affairs Section of MONUSCO (the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC) convinced the mission leadership that more local knowledge and understanding were needed in order to prevent similar incidents in the future. It was decided that rather than just hiring more interpreters, peacekeepers should be provided with a resource that could take on a more comprehensive role through engaging with local communities. A new instrument was created - the Community Liaison Assistant (CLA).

CLAs are national staff who act as an interface between the peacekeeping mission, local authorities and populations. They are deployed directly with uniformed peacekeepers on the ground, where they help commanders to understand the needs of the local population and to plan adequate responses to threats faced by those communities. They also manage MONUSCO's early warning system by establishing radio networks, widely distributing emergency telephone numbers and providing telephones and credit to key contacts. This system enables communities in remote areas to alert MONUSCO and by extension national security forces to respond to immediate threats. In addition to passing on alerts, CLAs provide all sections of the mission with alerts, background information and analysis from the field through daily, weekly and flash reports. …

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