Why We Need an International Standing Civilian Protection Service

Fletcher Professor Ian Johnstone has a modest proposal for the UN to meet the security challenges the world faces.
International Standing Civilian Protection Service with kids

Proposals for a UN standing army have a long history. Indeed, the UN Charter itself calls for armed forces to be put at the disposal of the Security Council (SC) on the basis of  Article 43 “special agreements” to be signed by the SC and member states.  However, the Cold War intervened in 1947 and negotiations between the US and USSR on the forces they would make available ground to a halt. With the world’s two most militarily powerful states unable to take the first step, no “special agreements” were ever signed.

Since then, other ideas have surfaced, ranging from Trygvie Lie’s modest proposal for a UN Guard of 5000 in 1948, revived by Brian Urquhart in 1993, to an ambitious plan for an International Peace Force of 800,000 suggested by Lopez-Claros, Dahl and Groff in 2020¹.  A middle ground is Peter Langille’s call for a United Nations Emergency Peace Service of 13500 military, police and civilians.

The notion of a UN standing army (or police force) of any size bumps up against a deep reluctance to empower the organization in that way. The principle of state sovereignty is still clung to by most member states — from the Global North and Global South. The world is not ready for a standing force of even 13,000 let alone 800,000.

Nevertheless, there may be a willingness to entertain less ambitious proposals.  To that end, at a recent workshop of the Global Governance Forum, I introduced the idea of a Standing Civilian Protection Service (SCPS), composed of 20 “joint protection teams” of approximately 120 civilians, police, and military. In this essay, I will outline why these teams are needed, what they could look like, and what they would do.  The SCPS of course is not the answer to all challenges the UN faces in managing international peace and security. But it is a first step that could pave the way to more ambitious reforms or, at a minimum, generate debate about what reforms are feasible.

Why is a Standing Civilian Protection Service needed? 

First, the protection of civilians has become a priority for peace operations. There is widespread political, legal, and moral support for that proposition. Virtually every UN peacekeeping mission established since 1999 has been given that mandate, AU operations engage in protecting civilians, the EU has deployed emergency operations solely for that purpose, and NATO is developing a policy on it.   

Moreover — and this is equally important — it is now well understood that a holistic “whole-of-mission” approach is needed to effectively protect civilians. Physical protection through the military use of force is sometimes necessary, but often active police patrolling, human rights monitoring, and community engagement will be more effective. 

Second, there are obstacles to operationalizing protection in peace operations. Existing approaches tend to be more reactive than preventive, and the UN and regional organizations have struggled to craft techniques that are tailored to the circumstances where operations are deployed.  There are often logistical constraints, such as a lack of mobility. A lack of contextual knowledge and situational awareness that effective protection requires is also a problem. 

Third, the future of large-scale military peace operations is in doubt. There has been a slow decline in the number of UN peacekeepers deployed around the world since 2014.  Several of the UN’s largest missions have been terminated in the last four years, including in Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, Liberia and Darfur. Others are scaling down, for example in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And no major new UN operation has been established since the mission in the Central African Republic in 2014.

Yet the need for civilian protection continues. Sudan illustrates the point. UNAMID – the joint UN-AU peacekeeping operation – was terminated in December 2020. It was replaced by a much smaller, entirely civilian, mission called UNITAMS. Yet understanding that the threat to civilians in Sudan remained, UNITAMS was given a protection of civilians mandate to be carried out in a very different manner from how UNAMID operated.  While the demand for large-scale multidimensional operations will not disappear, alternative mechanisms for protection in high-threat environments must also be developed. 

What would the Service look like?

The SCPS would be a standing service established under the auspices of the UN, designed to provide an integrated, well-trained, highly mobile, elite capacity for the holistic protection of civilians.  The total size would be about 2400 personnel, composed of 20 Joint Protection Teams of approximately 120 civilians, police and military each. Depending on the circumstances, anywhere from one to ten teams could be deployed to a particular conflict-affected state. Normally they would be deployed to reinforce an existing UN peacekeeping or political mission. The teams could also be made available to regional organizations that lack adequate capacity for civilian protection.

A typical Joint Protection Team would consist of the following elements, with indicative numbers suggested for each: 

  • A leadership unit (10 people)
  • Civilians with expertise in mediation, civil affairs, human rights, sexual violence, child protection, etc (about 50 people)
  • Lightly armed or unarmed civilian police (24 officers)
  • One formed police unit (24 officers)
  • Two special forces units (12 military personnel each)
  • Two transport helicopters and crew (8 people)

They would be based in six to ten hubs scattered around the world.  At those hubs they would be trained in generic protection of civilian tasks, as well as the particular dynamics and context of conflicts to which they could be deployed. The teams would establish liaison arrangements with regional organizations and non-governmental organizations. That would enable them to acquire the necessary knowledge and situational awareness to maximize their effectiveness when and where deployed.

The business model, so to speak, is that by creating this standing capacity, the teams would train together, acquire generic expertise on civilian protection, and rapidly acquire context-specific expertise when it became apparent they were about to be called on.

What would the Joint Protection Teams do?

The precise tasks the Joint Protection Teams would undertake would depend on context, but the overarching concept of operations is a multi-dimensional approach to civilian protection that is tailored to the particular conflict environment. The teams would be capable of performing a range of protection functions in high-threat environments, including:

  • Dialogue and community engagement
  • Negotiating conflict resolution at the local level 
  • Support for community-based early warning
  • Advising and supporting local law enforcement institutions
  • Proactive support to vulnerable groups, such as women collecting firewood
  • Active patrolling to create a deterrent presence
  • Temporarily securing key sites
  • Arrest and detention of perpetrators of violence against civilians (if mandated by UN Security Council)
  • The use of force to provide physical protection when needed

Such small teams would not be tasked with the full range of protection functions. For example, they would not be expected to engage at what the UN Department of Peace Operations calls the third tier of protection, namely “establishing a protective environment.” That entails high level political engagement to get at the root causes of conflict, and longer-term activities such as security sector and justice sector reform. The Joint Protection Teams would perform more targeted interventions to deal with protection crises, leaving the political process management and peace-building to other actors. 


From the point of view of the security challenges the world faces, this is a modest proposal. From the point of view of the practical and political realities of the UN and regional organizations, the proposal is ambitious. It would require not only political will but the financial, human resources and managerial capacity to stand up and sustain such a service. The UN may lack that capacity today, but it is not unreasonable to imagine it could be built over time. If the political will for an SCPS can be mustered, and the concept proved its worth through a record of accomplishment, it could generate momentum for more far-reaching future reforms.


1. Augusto Lopez-Claros, Arthur Dahl and Maja Groff, Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century (Cambridge University Press, 2020), pp. 168-178. In Lopez-Claros et al model their proposal builds on Glenville Clark and Louis Sohn’s proposal for a UN Peace Force of 200,000-600,000, outlined in World Peace Through World Law (1966).