Protecting Civilians in Disasters and Conflicts

Elizabeth Ferris

Policy Brief #182

Protection of people from oppressive governments, civil conflict and disasters has moved to the top of the international agenda. The United Nations Security Council authorized all measures necessary to protect civilians in Libya as the airstrikes began. Humanitarian agencies-working in more places and under more difficult conditions than ever before-are grappling with the aftermath of Japan’s massive earthquake even as they are also working with displaced people in Haiti and Ivory Coast and responding to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Libya. And increasingly these agencies are not only trying to assist people through provision of relief items, but also trying to protect them. But with so many global organizations mobilizing to protect civilians when disasters strike and conflicts break out, the concept of protection has begun to lose its distinctive meaning.

Can anyone “do” protection? In The Politics of Protection: The Limits of Humanitarian Action (Brookings Institution Press, 2011), I describe how protection has been stretched to include all manner of important activities-from provision of food to curriculum development, from advocacy to monitoring, from building latrines to voter registration. Beyond affirming the responsibility of governments to protect their people, international law offers no clear guidance on how to translate the principles of protection into action.

Given the likelihood that conflicts will continue and natural disasters will increase in the future, much more attention is needed on the question of protection, which has emerged over the years from international humanitarian law, refugee law and human rights law. The most visible part of the international humanitarian system is the vast array of U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations. Yet military forces, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and thousands of civil society organizations are also major actors in humanitarian response. This brief describes observations and recommendations on protection in humanitarian work culled from my forthcoming book.

spacer.gif With changes in the nature of conflict and with the likelihood of increasing severity and frequency of sudden-onset disasters because of climate change, more attention needs to be paid to understanding how humanitarian actors can-and cannot-protect people. The United Nations and other humanitarian actors should consider the following recommendations:

  • Humanitarian agencies need to re-evaluate what protection means in the context of today’s conflicts and to recognize their own limitations in keeping people safe. If they are serious about protecting people, they need to work with national military and police forces which have the resources to provide such physical protection. This is hard for humanitarian agencies that see their work as grounded in principles of impartiality, independence and neutrality. NGOs should review their current policies and practices on protection to ensure that they are not promising more than they can deliver or being used as a cover for the lack of effective political action.
  • ” As the term “protection of civilians” has come to mean different things for different actors, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs should develop a very short summary statement of what it means to protect civilians that can be broadly used by a range of different communities and individuals in different contexts. The office should then collect the best practices to illustrate how protection of civilians is effectively carried out on the ground.
  • As both conflicts and disasters take on a distinctive form when they occur in urban areas, much more work is needed to retool humanitarian assistance for urban environments. This means that humanitarian agencies need to work with municipal authorities in preparing for and responding to urban residents affected by violence and disasters.
  • In light of the fact that climate change is likely to result in more large-scale and varied types of displacement, U.N. agencies and researchers should analyze the gaps in international legal protection for those forced to leave their countries because of climate change-induced environmental factors. Guidelines should be developed to assist governments considering evacuation or relocation of populations from areas likely to be affected by natural disasters or climate change.
  • Given the pace of technological change taking place with robotic armaments, the International Committee of the Red Cross should convene a group of experts from the military research and international law communities to begin to identify the gaps in international humanitarian law resulting from the widespread use of those technologies.