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Learning from practice-oriented documents in UN Peacekeeping

Dustin Johnson | 21 February 2022

Global studies scholars often find themselves reading the pronouncements of world leaders or key UN policy initiatives. I, however, found myself reading a UN military manual about infantry operations, which raised a number of interesting questions about the textual sources we base our work on. A wealth of scholarship in international relations and related fields examining various aspects of global politics often focuses on analyzing key, high-level documents such as UN Security Council Resolutions, various international treaties, or public reports from the UN, NGOs, and governments. For instance, a large and important literature considers the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) resolutions from the UN, National Action Plans for the WPS agenda, and various NGOs’ responses to the agenda. These organizations also produce a wide range of practice-level documents, such as internal policies, manuals, training materials, and guidelines. In many cases, these documents have received less scholarly attention. In a recent journal article in International Peacekeeping, I focus on such practice-level documents in child protection in UN Peacekeeping. In this post, I reflect on some of the advantages and challenges of approaching such material.

There are, of course, good reasons, both epistemological and methodological, that higher-level documents have received so much scrutiny in international relations. They are in some cases legally binding and reproduce and shape global discourse on various issues from peace and security to development to climate change. They are also more accessible for study as they tend to be publicly and freely available online, especially compared to policymakers or practitioners working in these institutions or with more internal documents. However, some research questions cannot be addressed by looking at higher-level documents. And the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have made interview and participant observation-based research challenging.

For instance, in research on UN Peacekeeping, most research has drawn on higher-level documents, quantitative data, or interviews and participant observation. However, the daily work of peacekeepers is more directly guided by lower-level policy and training materials than the higher-level mandates, policies, and Security Council Resolutions from which they derive. Many of these lower-level documents are freely accessible on various UN websites, which is not the case for many organizations. For instance, one peacekeeper I interviewed who served in the MONUSCO mission in Democratic Republic of Congo referred to that mission’s Force Commander’s Directive on Child Protection as her “bible,” the most critical document guiding her work (unfortunately for my paper, this document is classified).

With the COVID-19 pandemic constraining my ability to carry out interviews in peacekeeping missions and the clock ticking on my Ph.D., I decided to focus the first paper of my compilation thesis on analyzing the lower-level UN documents used in peacekeeping child protection. While this was a pragmatic decision, it has led to some valuable insights. Fortunately for me, global discourses on child protection, especially concerning child soldiers, as (re)produced through international law, principles, Security Council Resolutions, and other sources, had already been identified in Jana Tabak’s excellent book on the subject. In brief, she notes that child soldiers are largely either constructed as innocent victims of armed conflict who need to be saved through international intervention or as dangerous and disorderly through both the violence they perpetrate and their disruption of what is considered a normal, proper childhood. In either case, children are considered to lack agency, only doing as adults make them do or under the duress of their circumstances.

When I analyzed a range of UN documents such as the Specialized Training Materials on child protection for the military or the UN Infantry Battalion Manual, I noticed several interesting points about how this more global discourse was reproduced and challenged in these documents. For instance, while they often explicitly denied that children such as child soldiers have agency during armed conflict, they often implicitly acknowledge their agency, such as noting that children often choose to leave armed groups despite the significant coercion to remain that they face, or that a child soldier might think of themselves more as a soldier than a child. By extension, peacekeepers should approach them as active agents. In contrast to the either/or construction of child soldiers as vulnerable or dangerous, the training materials portray them as simultaneously vulnerable and in need of protection and as dangerous.

The question then becomes how much these materials influence what peacekeepers do on the ground. UN peacekeeping training has been critiqued for not necessarily impacting what peacekeepers actually do. At the same time, another of my interviewees noted that she thought the child protection training materials were dry and difficult to teach. Such manuals and training materials consequently do not reflect actual practice but are idealized. But, these materials are also created in part based on the feedback of peacekeepers drawing on their deployment experiences. While military peacekeepers tend to only be deployed for one or a few year-long tours, most civilians involved in child protection are career staff with years of experience.

Consequently, we might expect in a specialist field like child protection that, on the one hand, military peacekeepers previously unfamiliar with it might lean on their training materials and manuals more. At the same time, civilian staff have more time to integrate policy guidance and practice. I am probing these important considerations in my interviews, among other questions.

Drawing on my experience, I argue that these low-level, practice-oriented documents can provide a valuable layer of analysis when studying organizations like the UN. They may better reflect the experience and input of practitioners than higher-level documents that involve more political negotiation to be released and, in some cases, may be easily accessible. However, they also present epistemological challenges since their relationship to practice and how people use them is not easy to determine—though the same often goes for higher-level documents which are difficult to access due to secrecy or classification.


Dustin Johnson is a doctoral student in peace and development research at the University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies and a Research Advisor at the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security at Dalhousie University in Canada. His Ph.D. research focuses on gender dynamics in child protection in UN peacekeeping, which is part of a project based at the Dallaire Institute funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. You can find him on Twitter at @WarAndCoffee. The views expressed in this post are his own.


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