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Global Protection Cluster

Protection of Civilians
The Issue

Protection for the civilian population is a basic element of humanitarian law: civilians and all those not taking part in the fighting must on no account be attacked and must be spared and protected.

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Despite this, the reality in sit shows that civilian populations suffer most from the consequences of armed violence.

Civilians are not only increasingly directly caught up in the violence, but control over the civilian population is often one of the things at stake in a conflict. The development of such a situation can be attributed to increased intercommunal, ethnic and religious tensions, the collapse of State structures, the struggle for control over natural resources, the widespread availability of weapons, the rise of acts of terror and the proliferation of so-called asymmetric armed conflicts.

Today, the general lack of protection in crises affecting civilians caught up in armed conflict and other situations of violence is due, not to an inadequate legal framework, but to poor compliance.

The Approach

All parties to armed conflicts are responsible for ensuring that the civilian population is protected. Guaranteeing compliance with and promoting accountability for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law; ensuring protection through UN peacekeeping and other missions; providing humanitarian access; and delivering protection specifically to those who are most vulnerable, such as women and children during armed conflicts are essential elements of effective protection of civilians.

For UN peace operations, protection of civilians includes the use of force to protect civilians under imminent threat as well as other activities such as contributing to creating the security conditions conducive to the delivery of humanitarian assistance; taking measures to ensure security in and around IDPs camps; and contributing to the provision of security required for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of internally displaced persons and refugees.

Effective dialogue and interaction between humanitarian and military actors (including UN peacekeeping missions, stabilization forces and regional military arrangements) have sometimes been hampered by concerns on the part of humanitarian actors about the impact that closer association may have on their ability to operate in an independent, neutral, and impartial manner and be perceived as doing so.

Humanitarian action alone cannot protect civilians from the effects of armed conflict. Military actors may be able to enhance the physical protection of civilian population. They may also be able to contribute to a security environment conducive to the provision of humanitarian assistance. In addition, for instance, peacekeeping missions and humanitarian organizations may undertake activities that compliment protection cluster’s response in the areas, for example, of mine action, child protection, etc. Protection clusters in countries where there is a peacekeeping mission can contribute to the development of the mission’s protection strategy and facilitate coordination with mission’s counterparts. Thus, some degree of interaction and dialogue between these different actors is essential for improving and strengthening their respective protection response. The modality and degree of interaction between humanitarian and military actors differ according to the operational contact

Field protection clusters have signalled to the Global Protection Cluster (GPC) the need for guidance to address the challenges they face in interacting with peacekeeping and military actors. In response, the GPC is currently developing a guidance note. A separate workstream has also been established for civil-military coordination for protection overcomes. Further guidance on interaction between humanitarian actors and international military actors will also be available in the forthcoming revised ICRC Professional Standards for Protection Work.

Humanitarian and protection actors can seek to influence the nature of the protection mandates that are assigned to peacekeeping missions by the Security Council. The GPC and field protection clusters participate in the inter-agency coordination mechanisms facilitated by OCHA and regularly update the UN Security Council Informal Expert Group on key protection issues in countries considered by the Council.

Protection of Civilians

Houda Chalchoul

Snr Legal officer
International Humanitarian Law
Mail: chalchou@unhcr.org