Social and Cultural Awareness as Strategy for International Civilian Police


By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr.

UN peacekeeping operations involve many actors who carry out a variety of roles and duties. The demand for and size of the UN Civilian Police, in particular, has increased, and their roles have expanded (Langholtz 2008). According to Langholtz (2008), there are different mandates for different missions, but the UN Civilian Police Officers have four essentially defined objectives:

  • Create a safer environment
  • Protect people and communities
  • Prevent criminal activities
  • Fight criminal activities by impartial investigations based on the rule of law.

It is important to note that much of this work is carried out in war-torn countries where there is a history of violence and chaos. Finally, this paper culminates by drawing from the failed mission in Somalia and demonstrating how cultural and social awareness can offer strategic direction to an international civilian police officer in peacekeeping operations.

In order to fulfill the above-mentioned objectives, it is imperative to have an understanding of the social and cultural conditions underlying different environments. Essentially, one cannot create a safer environment or protect people when they are not socially and culturally aware of the dangers and harms faced by those within such communities. Neither can one effectively prevent or fight against criminal activities without a social and cultural understanding of the root causes of such crimes. Social and cultural norms can be viewed as “…a kind of grammar of social interactions. Like a grammar, a system of norms specifies what is acceptable and what is not in a society or a group” (Bicchieri and Muldoon 2014). Additionally, norms are identified by various authors as observable, recurrent patterns of behavior and normative beliefs and expectations (Bicchieri and Muldoon 2014). A lack of awareness of these norms can compromise peacekeeping missions or lead to mission failure altogether.

To that accord, UN Civilian Police officers should diligently seek to understand the differences between their national backgrounds, those of the host nation, and those representing the UN from other countries (Langholtz 2008). Their attitudes should reflect “international respect” for local “cultures, customs, traditions, and behavior patterns” (Langholtz 2008, 34).

Where personal prejudices exist, every attempt should be made to conceal them to prevent any appearance of a regretful attitude toward duties. Any sign of regret would exacerbate other unintentional (albeit offensive) sub-norm behaviors that would work counterproductively to gaining persuasive influence or support.

In the multilateral operations in Somalia, there is ample evidence demonstrating how a lack of social and cultural awareness hampered operations. Most representatives interpreted their presence and actions there as “strictly humanitarian” (Rubinstein 2005, 529). That is, surely there was nothing antagonistic about saving lives by feeding the hungry.

Although representatives were fulfilling their objectives of creating a safer environment and protecting people and communities by addressing food insecurity, many Somalis viewed the actions as attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity, threaten their communities, and undermine their leadership. Still further, there were cross-cultural differences amongst the military and civilian elements of the operation that frustrated coordination efforts. These differences in understanding the operational models of ‘security’ and ‘management’ obstructed progress (Rubinstein 2005, 529).

As Rubinstein points out, interveners assume their actions are legitimate, they are the right person or group to carry out the intervention, and they have the authority (Rubinstein 2005). However, whether all these assumptions are accurate or not is a matter of perception owned by those who have experienced the intervention and would be subjected to their social and cultural interpretations.

There is a very real prospect that in a society where the majority of the population is Muslim, the need to communicate religious neutrality  would be of utmost importance to the international civilian police officer. Such neutrality could be expressed by researching the host population’s religious customs and practices and avoiding any behavior (to the best extent possible) that could be interpreted as undermining, violating, or disrespecting the respective religion. This display of respect would enhance (not guarantee) the prospect for cooperation.

Next, it is socially and culturally normal for Somalis to identify themselves by clan membership, make decisions through consensus, and interpret punishment of specific individuals as humiliation of an entire clan (Heide 2006, 5). This social and cultural awareness offers insight into strategies UN Civilian Police Officers could utilize to gain persuasive influence over the local community. For example, while millions were starving, relief agencies attempted to bring food, but “…fifty percent of their aid shipments were stolen by clan gangs” (Heide 2006, 6).

In similar situations,  UN Civilian Police Officers could consult with clans regarding acceptable punishments for those engaging  in those crimes. Such consultation would demonstrate “international respect”, solicit cooperation from those presumably on the right side of the law, and fulfill the objectives of preventing and fighting against criminal activities. This strategy lies in direct contrast to the failed mission in Somalia where a plethora of atrocities occurred after Somali factions were not consulted and thus refused to accept the deployment (Heide 2006).



Bicchieri, Christina and Muldoon, Ryan, “Social Norms”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

Heide, Rachel. “Obligation of the Home Front: The Necessity of Cultural Awareness Training for Interventions in the New World Order.” “After the Fall: Theory and Practice of Post-Intervention Security.” Ottawa : Centre for Security and Defence Studies Conference, 2006. 1-37.

Langholtz, Harvey. United Nations Police: Restoring Civil OrderFollowing Hostilities. Prod. Peace Operations Training Institute. 2008.

Rubinstein, Robert. “Intervention and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Peace Operations.” Security Dialogue (Sage Publications) 36, no. 4 (2005): 527-544.


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