Expanding the role of international civilian observers

IssueDecember 2000 - February 2001
Feature by Luis Enrique Eguren

Civilian third party interventions are one of the new paths currently being explored for transforming conflicts and keeping and building a sustainable peace, beyond the traditional diplomatic and strategic interventions (and also beyond their traditional objectives). But this new path goes into uncharted territory, and we still have to ask ourselves some key questions in order to gain a sense of direction and, as a result of this process, learn directly from our experiences.

One of the major challenges is to analyse those key aspects of civilian third party interventions in particular, one of them: the deployment of international observers in conflict scenarios. This is a promising path, and I suggest that there is an expanded role for international observers to be played in different scenarios and at different stages of a conflict. To realise this expanded role, we have to analyse in depth some prior requirements: to define strategies, how to select a conflict, how to decide between engagement and security in the midst of field work, and how to select people to participate in the field work.

For the purpose of this article, we will draw extensively on the experience of Peace Brigades International (PBI), as an NGO providing international observers in internal armed conflicts for the past 17 years. PBI observers play an expanded role of accompaniment, developing the work of protecting human rights defenders, organisations of displaced people and refugees, trade unionists, NGOs and activists (through violence control, peacekeeping and interposition); lobbying (low-level power mediation), track-two diplomacy, observation, monitoring and verification, workshops (training and consulting) and through the dissemination of information. Currently there are more than 40 PBI international observers working in several conflict scenarios (Colombia, Mexico, East Timor and Indonesia), supported by about 14 country groups.

Conflict transformation

War, massive human rights violations, structural violence and other forms of conflict are an inherent reality in any civilian third party intervention and such intervention can play a role in the transformation of conflict, in a long-term effort for peacebuilding.

Authors belonging to different fields of the social sciences (conflict analysis, social psychology, international relations, diplomacy, etc) have described several possible roles for third party interventions, always from the point of view of each authors field of research. But the requirements of a global field strategy suggest the need to avoid the intervention in only one dimension (for example, a mediator alone would not be able to transform a conflict), and the need to choose forms of intervention which relate to the desired outcomes.

Combining both research and field experience, we have defined the so called expanded role of international observers as an integrated tool for third party intervention.

Within the limited range of options for intervening in conflicts, there is one method which shines out: the deployment of observers at the scene of conflict. Such observers usually aim to monitor the enforcement of an agreement or a behavioural norm, as previously established at an international level (such as respect for human rights), or in negotiations (for example, the fulfilment of certain agreements). While observing or monitoring the enforcement of agreements, the observers have the role of dissuading transgressors from breaking the agreement or norm. If such transgressions occur, observers can report them (on a confidential, private or public level) setting in motion a series of negative consequences for the transgressor in such a way that the norm will be respected in the future.

Observers do not of course generate such negative consequences on their own, but simply play a role in acting as a catalyst, governments themselves being the ultimate agents with the capacity to carry out such actions. Observers simply play the role of witnesses. Alongside that, the presence of international observers can constitute a key factor in the governmental decision-making process. Observers can focus, limit, and make uniform the perceptions of different state agents with responsibility for the fulfilment of the agreement or norm (ie provide a common reference point for governmental employees, security forces, state bureaucracies, etc). They also operate as brokers, with their presence linking local and international matters; and limit the tendency to formulate strategies with a narrow vision, based on a particular point in time or with self-serving or short-term criteria.

Supporting civil society

In any conflict the protaganists are the only ones who can really solve it. The intervention of third parties must therefore be focused on transforming the conflict in such a way that the parties themselves take steps towards finding solutions. One of the main voices heard in the scenes of conflict is civil society, which often finds itself limited and repressed in its efforts to find peace and social justice. For that reason a determining factor in the transformation of the conflict is the protection of those entities and organisations within civil society who suffer repression due to their non-violent search for solutions. The protection provided by international observers can modulate the behaviour of local agents in a conflict (for example, respect for human rights, or paying the necessary attention to an internally displaced population) and thus contribute to the transformation of the conflict. I would like to emphasise the need for providing such protection, because it requires a clear commitment by the third party intervening, and the absence of such commitment is a characteristic of many third party interventions.

Observer missions may be on behalf of a government (for example, members of a state observing the electoral process of another state), international organisations (such as the UN observers of civilian missions) and non-governmental organisations (for example PBI observers). Typically, the different origins of these observers are reflected in the great differences in their behaviour. But they also feed on common values, such as universal concern for human rights; and all find themselves conditioned (though in different ways) by the geo-strategic decisions of governments (especially world or regional powers). And all are equipped with a common means of action the capacity for dissuading violations of the norm.

The effectiveness of protection

It is difficult to measure the impact of the protection provided by the presence of international observers. One indicator is the continued demand for accompaniment by Colombian NGOs: since working in the region PBI has received petitions of accompaniment from the majority of Colombian NGOs who work with internally displaced people in the field (though PBI cant cover all of them). In his report on Colombia, Francis Deng1 specifically quoted PBI's work: ..the presence of international personnel, such us the International Committee of the Red Cross and Peace Brigades International, has served to provide protection to civilians at risk in outlying areas...2 Also the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR) offices in Colombia have expressed their acknowledgement to the protection work provided by PBI, as well as a number of INGOs.

Human rights defenders, international observers and humanitarian workers move in areas under dispute between the army, self-defence groups or paramilitaries and guerrilla groups. In such a complex scenario, the presence of international observers is just one factor in a whole series of activities aimed at providing protection. It is a factor which gains in significance when fully integrated, but it can never be seen as being the single, determining factor when judging the results of protecting the displaced population.

Conflict scenarios

The protection offered by international accompaniment does not have the same value in all conflict scenarios. A prerequisite is that the violator must be able to be affected by the international pressure which an international NGO (INGO) can bring to bear. What this implies is that the violator must be keen on having a good international image and that the potential pressure that can be brought to bear by such an INGO is considered to be threatening by the violator. Usually such conflict scenarios have already attracted some attention from the media and have a variety of international bodies working on them.

The international presence is particularly valid when the violator is the state or an actor against which the state is able to take action. This also implies that in such a scenario the government has to be capable of maintaining its executive role within the state. In those situations of open conflict where a state or a government stops fulfilling its role (such as in Somalia at the beginning of the 1990s), there is no body to which international NGOs can appeal that is likely to be susceptible to international pressure. It is the state that must take responsibility for the protection of its citizens human rights and provide assistance to the conflict-affected population. When, as it often happens, a state does not fulfil its responsibilities, INGOs have to develop a clear strategy for exerting pressure on it and this strategy must go beyond the traditional delivery of aid.


These reflections can be applied to all international observers, be they part of a UN or OSCE mission. But, as suggested earlier, INGOs also face the challenge of deploying protection missions. The mere physical presence of international staff is not enough: field protection requires an ad hoc strategy and specific activities which are not included in the usual plans of INGOs dealing with human rights or humanitarian aid. For example, it is necessary for international observers to maintain a constant or regular presence; that they meet regularly with authorities and officials (both national and international); and that they produce information. Of course, human and financial resources must be allocated for such work, and staff should be properly trained. Only in this way can the presence of international personnel really become a protective umbrella for the affected population. In order to undertake this role, an obvious path is that some INGOs should specialise in protection and implement their work in coordination with both humanitarian and human rights NGOs: This is the case, for example, of Peace Brigades International. The eventual success of any civilian third party intervention will rely on the ability to apply different tools, adapted to the different stages of a conflict, integrated with local initiatives, with well-defined objectives, and with the necessary strength and means to achieve such objectives. Potentially, all these requirements can be met by the presence of international observers in the conflict scenario. Only by this method can the human rights defenders, the displaced population and the organisations who operate locally look to international NGOs for assistance in the protection of their human rights, and work to build a base for solving protracted conflicts.


1 Special Representative of the UN General Secretary for Internally Displaced Persons
2 Christian Science Monitor, 6 Oct 1999)