Some Takeaways on Civilian Protection in a Humanitarian Context

Most people who engage in the killing and harming of civilians are operating in the fear and fury of war, or are submerged beneath an overwhelming sense of authority, conformity, and denial.

According to international humanitarian law, each state is responsible for ensuring that the rights of its citizens are respected. The need for international protection (and this discussion) therefore only arises when the state is unable to fulfill these duties.

International humanitarian law is binding to both the state and armed groups. However, often members of armed groups are not aware of the principles humanitarian law. The ICRC has explored the possibility of educational projects to bring awareness to issues related to the protection of civilians, including the introduction of policies to introduce courses in humanitarian law to members of armed groups. Although this can be framed as a step in the right direction, insurgent groups are often motivated by a lack of trust in external authorities. Humanitarian programming cannot rely on the assumption that international law holds legitimacy or authority to armed groups, or that these groups are even aware of the intricacies of international law, a western concept. The emergence of regional human rights declarations may give more legitimacy to the body of international humanitarian law as a whole, but widespread ignorance of international law, not simply its rejection, drives this disconnect.

The Role of Civilian Populations

Among calls for national and local governments to monitor adherence to humanitarian principles, the role of civilians in fulfilling these goals seems to be under-utilized. As political or social tensions often drive protection needs, greater input and involvement from affected communities is crucial to the development of an effective protection strategy. There is a vital need for sub-national level coordination, decentralized decision-making, and localization of standards. Upstream advocacy, characterized by strategies that enable citizens to exercise their political and social agency, as well can improve communication between external protection actors and the community. However, these policies should be cohesive at the national level, so it seems that at times there is a necessary tradeoff between localization and national cohesion. (Further reading: Framework for the Establishment of a Protection Cluster Strategy)

Operationalizing Protection in Humanitarian Programming

The tradeoff between localization and cohesion is one of the forefront challenges of humanitarian programming, and thus, central to the author’s discussion of this topic. The benefits of both will not be discussed at length, but offer sustainable and effective programming when balanced appropriately. This discussion will focus on potential methods for discovering that balance.

Localization at the community level can be as nuanced as the bare idea of community, a term which has no universally-accepted definition. Some argue that 2 individuals alone can constitute a community. This alone illustrates the convoluted nature of localization. More practically speaking, there has been a shift in the universal understanding of the term emphasizing shared cultural characteristics and away from those defined by geographic proximity. This updated concept reflects not only the effects of globalization, which may be less potent among refugee populations, but primarily the transitional nature of refugees and internally-displaced persons due to phenomena such as urban growth and climate change. (See also: Some Takeaways on the Subject of Community-Based Research Methods)

Meanwhile, broad and cohesive programming informed by thorough research, even on the global level, can be very powerful. This discussion, for instance, attempts to come up with generalizable takeaways that can feasibly apply to all humanitarian programming. Berlin-based think tank Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi)’s Scoping Study on protection programming outlines three primary protection strategies that can be applied globally: providing remedy to victims of harm, reducing risk exposure, and changing harmful behavior of perpetrators. These of course do not come without their ethical hangups and operational challenges, not only in what they purport but in the way research is conducted.

Evidence on the effectiveness of these activities is usually biased because response is limited to specific, usually powerful, groups. Data collection can put marginalized individuals at risk if their privacy isn’t protected. Disclosing sensitive information on protection interventions may compromise neutrality in a broader sense, which especially relevant to public advocacy campaigns.

This is not to say that this research is flawed, but that the nature of the global humanitarian system is messy.