July 10, 2020

Just Another Tool in the “Toolbox” of Humanitarian Assistance? The “Kigali Principles”

By Alexis Herr, PhD



Noncombatants living in areas plagued by violence do not always receive the protection afforded to them by international humanitarian law and far too frequently, United Nations troops lack the training and discipline to help the most vulnerable (i). In response, Rwanda organized the International Conference on the Protection of Civilians in Kigali last May, which brought together representatives from the 30 top troop and police contributing countries of the UN, the 10 principal financial contributing countries to UN peace operations, scholars, and additional high ranking UN officials. The resulting “Kigali Principles”—an 18-point pledge—calls for a deeper commitment by UN member states to effectively protect civilians in armed conflict zones.


Among the most noteworthy of the proposed principles are those that discuss the use of force to protect civilians. Historically, UN troops have been instructed to not use force and as such have failed to safeguard noncombatants. On the eve of the Rwandan Genocide (1994), the United Nations Security Council voted to withdraw troops, reducing the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) from a force of 2,500 to 270 (ii). During the Bosnian Genocide (1995), the International community failed to provide UN peacekeepers stationed there additional support and overall, attempted to minimize the nature of the conflict. Instead of providing an armed force to confront the genocidaires, the UN focused its efforts on providing medical assistance and feeding the displaced (iii). It is with these failures in mind, that we can look at points 3 and 4 of the Kigali Principles as an attempt to correct previous failures.


3. To be prepared to use force to protect civilians, as necessary and consistent with the mandate. Such action encompasses making a show of force as a deterrent; interpositioning [ibid.] our forces between armed actors and civilians; and taking direct military action against armed actors with clear hostile intent to harm civilians.


4. Not to stipulate caveats or other restrictions that prevent us from fulfilling our responsibility to protect civilians in accordance with the mandate.


While the Kigali Principles do not propose anything completely new, they do emphasize a greater commitment to serving those in need. We may have all the tools in the toolbox of humanitarian assistance, however, it never hurts to sharpen them when needed.



i. In the Central African Republic, members of the U.N. peacekeeping force have allegedly raped the women they are charged to protect. See: Kevin Hahn, “The growing U.N. scandal over sex abuse and ‘peacekeeper babies,’” The Washington Post (27 February 2016): http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/world/2016/02/27/peacekeepers/ and Joshua Berlinger, Holly Yan, and Richard Roth, “U.N. peacekeepers accused of raping civilians,” CNN (6 April 2016): http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/06/africa/united-nations-peacekeepers-sexual-abuse/

ii. The UN Security Council established UNAMIR in October 1993 to help implement and support a transitional government in Rwanda. For more information, see: “Rwanda – UNAMIR Background,” United Nations: http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/past/unamirS.htm For a general timeline of the events leading up to, during, and after the Rwandan Genocide, see “100 days of slaughter: A Chronology of US/UN Actions,” Frontline: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/evil/etc/slaughter.html

iii. For more information on the international community’s response to the Bosnian Genocide, see “Response,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: https://www.ushmm.org/confront-genocide/cases/bosnia-herzegovina/bosnia-response

For a full list of the Kigali Principles and an overview of the 2015 conference, see: http://civilianprotection.rw/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/REPORT_PoC_conference_Long-version.pdf

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