Tag Archives: protection of civilians

PoC as a concept for UN peacekeeping

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The Protection of Civilians (POC) has gradually become central to UN peacekeeping both in policy formulation, in mandates, and in practice. Yet, the concept is broad, and few actors agree on its meaning. Such a broad understanding hinders coordination on issues across agencies, and makes the implementation of POC challenging. Few agree on whether POC is a specific task of peacekeeping mandates, or it should be an overall concern across all tasks.

The issue is further exacerbated by the lack of differentiation between POC and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The somewhat contested status of R2P thus contributes to undermine the inclusion of POC concerns in peacekeeping mandates. The introduction of a related system-wide agenda, Rights Up Front (RUF) is not about to make that more clear. An essential task at the policy level is therefore now to clarify the status and meaning of POC both vis-à-vis other tasks and other broader protection concerns.

Entering the UN peacekeeping system from Kofi Annan’s emphasis on the need for a “culture of protection” as a remedy to the failures of peacekeeping in the mid-1990s, the POC has since become an established part of the peacekeeping vocabulary and repertoire of actions. Today, while not a central concern to all UN agencies involved in peacekeeping operations, POC is nevertheless a factor taken into consideration by most of them. While it was for long seen as the prerogative of OCHA, it is now also an equally important concern to DPKO. The prominence given to POC in UN documents is symptomatic of a growing awareness of protection issues within the international community. However, these good intentions and interventions have not always led to the security and peace desired. Effective implementation of POC still involves practical challenges at the operative level as well as resolving the conceptual muddle characterizing POC today.

For the UN is routinely accused of not protecting when expected to in practice, and at the conceptual level little has been done to clarify what POC actually entails, and the extent to which it should figure in peacekeeping: is POC but one aspect of a vast array of measures, and should it therefore be compartmentalized alongside other policy areas, or is it an overreaching or cross-cutting concern for peacekeeping operations as a whole? In which case, should it also guide the work of agencies not formally part of the operation?

Yet, the past years have seen an increasing number of policy and doctrinal processes aimed at streamlining POC. Combining the UNs military capacities with the humanitarian ethics of protection produces both opportunities and challenges. On the one side it makes the PoC framework more robust, putting greater political (and military) capital behind preventive protection efforts, while also enabling actual physical protection of civilians. On the other side, it risks politicising protection, and conflate the UNs political-military agenda with the humanitarian, in turn jeopardising the humanitarian principles so central for the legitimacy of PoC.

The PoC is central to peacekeeping operations in seeking to manage war-to-peace-transitions. This involves both civilian and military entities, and a critical problem is their lack of a shared understanding of what PoC means in and entails for practices. This is partly due to the UNSC who feared defining and operationalising PoC would make it too binding for member states and override the UN’s lack of resources. Hence it was never properly defined and instead the UNSG opted for mainstreaming a ‘culture of protection’ throughout the UN system. The problem here is that distinct actors interpret this culture differently and contextually, thus making interagency harmonisation difficult. The paradox of this is that while mainstreaming POC would seem to require a simplification of the concept, so to speak, in order to make it more tangible, this in turn would run the risk of undermining the aim of POC, which is to be malleable enough as to provide protection in all situations.

There is a crucial need for more grounded reflection on how to provide effective protection. As long as understandings of “protection” vary, ranging from the provision of direct physical protection to the wider framework adopted by the UN, greater flexibility should be shown in which interpretation of protection is taken as the point of departure, depending on the aim of the case in question.

POC is broad, lacks tangibility, and is still elusive to many involved in peacekeeping. Accordingly, it has become a conceptual battlefield with little agreement of the status of POC, ether as a legal principle rooted in International Humanitarian Law, guidelines for humanitarian action, or a comprehensive doctrine including coercive means. This confusion is due to the fact that POC is vague and open for interpretation and contextualisation. This inherent feature of POC has been exacerbate by the fact that a number of actors eager to further legitimize the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) have been deliberately confusing the two concepts. While both the POC and R2P concepts are related in terms of aims, there are clear differences between them. R2P is interventionist, POC is not.

R2P faces the problem of legitimizing humanitarian intervention which POC does not face, and its disciples have therefore sought to attach or confuse the two in order to take a share in the broad legitimacy POC has enjoyed, but which R2P has lacked.

Even so, these distinct concepts are routinely referred to as synonymous and used interchangeably in the same contexts. This is not likely to change with the recent launch of the Rights Up Front (RUF) Action Plan, yet another concept aimed at remedying the failures of peacekeeping. If no concerted and central effort is made within the UN to conceptually clarify how POC, R2P and RUF relate to different agencies, contexts, policies and actions, UN peacekeeping will have to deal with three related, often competing, ideas or cultures of protection – all good intentioned, yet not clearly defined as to enable action. Such a reflection must take the field as its starting point, as the key to understand protection in any given context is to understand how it translates into practice, and the extent to which its application addresses the needs on the ground.

UN at War

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In reality, nothing is more dangerous for a peace-keeping operation than to ask it to use force when its existing composition, armament, logistic support and deployment deny it the capacity to do so. The logic of peace-keeping flows from political and military premises that are quite distinct from those of enforcement; and the dynamics of the latter are incompatible with the political process that peace-keeping is intended to facilitate. To blur the distinction between the two can undermine the viability of the peace-keeping operation and endanger its personnel.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali.[1]

“If you have a hammer, the problem will look like a nail”. With the inclusion of the Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC, the UN has got a hammer and has showed that it can use force against specified targets to ‘neutralize’ them. On the other hand, MINUSMA can be seen as a laboratory for including some of the concepts and lessons learned from Afghanistan. It will be essential to support this process by providing the new arrivals to the UN with a better understanding of the similarities and differences between NATO and UN missions, and the need to take a less combative stance in Mali.

Modern peacekeeping needs intelligence capabilities in the shape of surveillance drones, tactical human intelligence teams and so forth. However, there seems to be an unspoken link made between the inclusion of modern military capabilities and the more robust version of stabilization, leaning towards peace enforcement. With the Western capabilities the MINUSMA mission is becoming more robust. But the robust posture may also have a self-fulfilling effect, drawing attention to the mission and increasing the chance of targeted attacks against the UN. In the longer term, retaliatory attacks may target the soft underbelly of the UN – the funds, programmes and agencies carrying out development and humanitarian work.

In 1993, John Ruggie warned that the UN had entered “a vaguely defined no man’s land lying somewhere between traditional peacekeeping and enforcement – for which it lacks any traditional guiding operational concept.”[2] His warnings were not heeded and the UN soon failed miserably in Srebrenica and Rwanda. The solution to the problem was to come to a new understanding that impartiality should be understood from the perspective of protecting civilians, and that the UN could not stand idly by while atrocities were committed. The Brahimi Report held that the traditional principles ‘should remain the bedrock principles of peacekeeping’, but that peace operations should be sufficiently mandated with robust rules of engagement for civilian protection and have the necessary resources to react where civilians were in danger. Today the UN is finding itself in a similar predicament, taking on new tasks that border on peace enforcement. The question is whether the gap between principles and practice signify a need to update principles, or whether this is a function of practice leaving still valid principles behind.

At the strategic level there is a need for careful consideration of what kind of instrument UN peacekeeping should be. Can the UN deploy peace enforcement operations? While it may be a tempting solution for members of the UN Security Council and for the UN Secretariat, wanting to show leadership and resolve and with limited interest in engaging bilaterally or through regional organisations, the urge to equip UN peacekeeping operations with enforcement mandates that target particular groups should be considered carefully. The use of force should be limited to critical instances when civilian populations are in grave and immediate danger. The urge to satisfy short-term objectives such as showing the UN Security Council and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations to be ‘doing something’ should be resisted. UN Security Council mandates should not specify any potential enemies, should resist the inclusion of euphemisms such as ‘neutralise’, and force should be used only for short periods in order to protect civilians.

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[1] Boutros-Ghali, Boutros (1995) A/50/60-S/1995/1: Supplement to An agenda for peace. New York: United Nations: para 35.

[2] Ruggie, John G. (1993) ‘Wandering in the Void: Charting the UN’s New Strategic Role’, Foreign Affairs 72 (5): 26–31.

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Read the (open access) article on which this blogpost is based, here:

Karlsrud, John (2015) ‘The UN at War: Examining the Consequences of Peace Enforcement Mandates for the UN Peacekeeping Operations in the CAR, the DRC and Mali’, Third World Quarterly 36 (1): 40-54.

Do they really care? Protection of Civilians and the Veto Powers in the UN Security Council

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It was not until the advances of IS in Syria and Iraq turned into an international security threat that a military intervention was launched in September 2014. A horrendous civil war had then killed tens of thousands Syrian civilians and displaced millions without provoking any similar reaction. In this blog post I reflect on what this tells us about the commitment of major powers to the principle of protecting civilians across borders. Do they really care? And do they agree on its meaning and implications?

A report of the UN Human Rights Commission from 13 August this year describes the humanitarian situation in Syria as follows:

With 6.5 million internally displaced persons and 2.9 million registered refugees, Syria has become the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. According to UN agencies, 10.8 million Syrians are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance inside the country, 241,000 people still live under siege and 4.7 million reside in hard-to-reach areas.

Yet, the veto powers of the UN Security Council have not been able to agree on any effective response. This ‘failure’ seems to contradict their repeated statements in the Council on their commitment to the Protection of Civilians in armed conflict (PoC).[1]

Unlike the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), PoC is on the agenda of the UN Security Council. This gives significant weight to PoC as a normative agenda, and has contributed to its integration in peacekeeping mandates and non-military responses to humanitarian crises. The US, UK and France are generally associated with the promotion of protection across borders, while Russia and China are seen as critics of such interventionist normative agendas. The mandate for intervening in Libya in 2011 to protect civilians from their authorities with all necessary means short of an ‘occupation force’ (UN Security Council Resolution 1973) was perceived as a new development in this regard. China and Russia abstained from voting but did not veto the resolution. Perceiving that NATO failed to comply with the limits to the mandate, Russia and China opposed a similarly interventionist response to the crisis in Syria the following year.

This development could be interpreted as the rise and fall of PoC in the Council. Yet, I do not see the blow to the political momentum of PoC that the ‘Libya trauma’ caused as fatal. That assumption would presuppose that (1) the difference in mandates over Libya and Syria reflects a changing stance on the principle of PoC as such, and (2) that the commitment by the veto powers to PoC can be reduced to their positions over Libya and Syria.

With regard to the first assumption, I think it is uncontroversial to argue that other matters, like a concern for NATO interventionism, military considerations of the prospects of success, strategic alliances and economic interests were more decisive than a general normative stance on the principle of PoC.[2] Focusing on the positions of emerging powers (or BRICS) on RtoP, scholars like Oliver Stuenkel and Ramesh Thakur have argued that the vetoes against military intervention in Syria do not reflect a general rejection of international protection by Russia and China.[3] What these countries do not accept is a general norm of military intervention against the will of sovereign authorities (Pillar III of RtoP).[4] Meanwhile, they have expressed a continuous commitment to PoC as a principle of state governance, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, refugee management, conflict prevention and resolution, and for international humanitarian and human rights law.[5] These spheres of protection (associated with Pillars I and Pillar II of RtoP) leave extensive room for governance by international actors, with highly significant political implications. The norm of protection opens for a wide range of political interpretations, and having the power to define the meaning and implications of PoC is a useful way for the five permanent members of the Council (the P5), including China and Russia, to justify their foreign policies.

Furthermore, I think it is important to point out that the concept of protection still limits the scope for international engagement vis à vis more radical calls for promoting peace, justice or democracy globally. It mirrors the classic justification of state authority that has been criticised for being too conservative and hierarchical ever since Thomas Hobbes formulated it in the seventeenth century. The norm of protection is thus also useful for the P5 in bolstering the current international system upon which their privileged position rests.

In my view, the question regarding the positions of the veto powers on PoC is therefore not whether they support the principle or not; but which political meanings of PoC they support under which circumstances. While seemingly a question of the regulation of peacekeeping operations and the work of international humanitarian organisations, this question concerns the very regulation of international order: exactly where does the responsibility of states end and of international institutions begin when it comes to efforts at granting protection and preventing mass atrocities?

How ought international organisations to operate in relation to states that are incapable of protecting all people within their territory? Which measures should be applied, including sanctions and international law? How should incentive structures for sovereign authorities be managed? And, fundamentally, according to which conceptions of protection and civilians should states and international actors operate? Is for instance the promotion of human rights, democracy and economic development a part of the protection agenda through their supposed virtues in preventing civil war and mass atrocities?[6] Or does protection come at the expense of international promotion of economic justice and political freedom? Which models of state governance are consistent with the prevention of conflict and the promotion of PoC?

Ramesh Thakur writes: ‘As power and influence seep out of the U.S.-led transatlantic order and migrate toward Asia and elsewhere, who will manage the transition from the Westphalian system of world affairs to an alternative system, and how?’.[7] Oliver Stuenkel (2014) makes a similar observation concerning the position of emerging powers on PoC as a response to a situation where both the sovereignty principle is changing and a new multipolar world order emerging.[8] Anne Orford (2011) relates the question of protection to the very distribution of power between the UN, major powers and the rest, and criticises the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect for failing to address this underlying problem.[9]

As I see it, two visions of world order are at stake in the commitment of the veto powers to PoC: (1) an order in which sovereignty, conditional upon a commitment to PoC, remains with the state, but where international institutions play an active role in supporting and influencing the decisions and capacities of the states, and (2) an order where the UN Security Council trumps state sovereignty and actively regulates the internal affairs of weak or conflict prone states. If conceived as a continuum, the P5 could be placed along this scale, with Russia and China closer to model 1 and the P3 (US, UK and France) leaning towards model 2.

Does this difference reflect a stronger commitment by the P3 to the norm of PoC as such? Presumably not, I would argue. PoC is not the leading motive of their international engagement. Given the military and political strength of the P3, the interventionist model of PoC rather serves their interests by allowing the expansion of their political influence and control across borders. This self-interest is still, as we have seen, compatible with a universalistic normative agenda like PoC, but takes it in certain political directions. Similarly, the emphasis by Russia and China on the principle of state sovereignty in model 1 should arguably not be seen as a commitment to state sovereignty as such or a rejection of PoC but a reflection of their geopolitical self-interest in limiting the global expansion of Western powers. In effect, it can be assumed that Russia and China would become more eager proponents of protection across borders had they shared or replaced the global predominance of the P3 and their allies.[10]

On these premises we may conclude that the veto powers really do care about PoC in the Security Council, and acts upon the principle when it harmonises with their interests. Regarding countries torn by civil war and disasters, the interests of all P5 have tended to converge over effective peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. In Syria, their interests did not harmonise with any substantial measure for the protection of civilians, demonstrating the evident limits to PoC as an organising principle of world politics. The international failure to react effectively also demonstrates the urgent need for novel political instruments for protection in the shadow of stalemates in the UN Security Council.

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[1] E.g. UN Security Council (2014), Statement by the President of the Security Council – S/PRST/2014/3, 12 February, p. 1, where the commitment of the Council is reaffirmed ‘regarding the protection of civilians in armed conflict, and to the continuing and full implementation of all its previous relevant resolutions including 1265 (1999), 1296 (2000), 1674(2006), 1738 (2006), 1894 (2009)’.

[2] See e.g. Brent Steele and Eric Heinze (2014), ‘Norms of Intervention, R2P and Libya: Suggestions from Generational Analysis’, Global Responsibility to Protect 6: 88-112; Jeremy Moses (2013), ‘Sovereignty as Irresponsibility? A Realist Critique of the Responsibility to Protect’, Review of International Studies 39 (1): 113-135.

[3] Oliver Stuenkel (2014), ‘The BRICS and the Future of R2P: Was Syria or Libya the Exception?’, Global Responsibility to Protect 6 (1): 3-28; Ramesh Thakur (2013), ‘R2P Libya and Syria: Engaging Emerging Powers’, The Washington Quarterly 36 (2): 61-76; Jennifer M. Welsh (2013), ‘Norm Contestation and the Responsibility to Protect’, Global Responsibility to Protect 5: 365–396.

[4] Ironically, the norm of protection was nonetheless invoked by Russia in connection with the annexation of Crimea against the will of Ukraine authorities earlier this year, as well as in the 2008 Russian intervention in Georgia.

[5] Hugh Breakey distinguishes these aspects of the PoC agenda through the concepts of Combatant PoC, Peacekeeping PoC, Security Concil PoC and Humanitarian PoC. As he himself argues, Security Council PoC overlaps with the other categories because the Security Council is tasked with overseeing combatant PoC and mandating humanitarian and peacekeeping PoC, in addition to devising other political responses. Hugh Breakey (2012), ‘The Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Four Concepts’, in Angus Francis, Vesselin Popovski and Charles Sampford, Norms of Protection: Responsibility to Protect, Protection of Civilians and their Interaction (New York: UN University Press).

[6] This role is for instance invoked in §28 of UN Security Council Resolution 1894 (2009) on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.

[7] Thakur (op cit, note 2), p. 62.

[8] Stuenkel (op cit, note 2), p. 4.

[9] Anne Orford (2011), International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), Chapter 5.

[10] These presumptions are substantiated in a forthcoming paper co-authored with Simon Reid-Henry in the Protection of Civilians project. For a similar argument on the commitment of major powers to the normative agenda of ‘liberal peacebuilding,’ see Kristoffer Lidén (2013), ‘In love with a lie? On the social and political preconditions for global peacebuilding governance’, Peacebuilding 1 (1): 73–90.

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Kristoffer Lidén is a researcher in the Protection of Civilians project of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies. He recently conducted a series of interviews in New York on the commitment of the P5 to PoC in the UN Security Council, and presented the findings in a research course and workshop at PRIO on Humanitarian Action and the Protection of Civilians 28-30 October.

UNHCR – A Humanitarian Organization with a Mandate to Protect Civilians in Refugee Camps

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It is difficult to imagine a more humanitarian space than that of the refugee camp, whose foremost purpose is to provide refugees with temporary shelter, assistance, and protection until they are voluntarily repatriated to their country of origin, locally integrated in the host state, or resettled to third countries. The categorization of refugee camps as civilian and humanitarian is not, however, unproblematic. Refugee protection has always been deeply affected by greater security issues; rather than serving as civilian and humanitarian safe havens, camps for refugees (and internally displaced persons) have on a number of occasions become notorious for serious problems of insecurity, including armed attacks, arbitrary killings, torture, exploitation and military recruitment. But who can, and should, be held responsible under international law for these human rights violations?

This is the initial question discussed in my book Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unable and Unwilling States, UNHCR and International Responsibility. Here, I examine the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) international responsibility for human rights violations taking place in refugee camps. The book argues that UNHCR under certain circumstances can, and should, be held responsible under the International Law Commission’s nascent framework of the Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations. Specifically, UNHCR’s international responsibility will depend upon an evaluation of the host State’s ability and willingness to provide effective protection.

UNHCR and the Protection of Civilians in Refugee Camps

The book essentially finds that UNHCR’s mandate to provide refugees with ‘international protection’ includes the provision of physical safety and basic rights, and that UNHCR furthermore holds an affirmative duty to act and intervene to secure the basic human rights of refugees. That said, it is clear that UNHCR occupies a challenging place in the international arena when it is both entrusted with an ambitious mandate and also frequently caught in a vice between the preferences of actors such as donor governments and host states. It is to be a norm entrepreneur, supervisor and enforcement agency of refugee rights at the same time as it is expected to be a cooperative partner to states and NGOs, and the ultimate provider of material assistance. As Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps highlights, UNHCR’s protection role has become increasingly pragmatic, focusing more on the provision of food and shelter, and refugee security has as such had to give way for other competing priorities.

Considering the clear link between UNHCR’s international protection mandate and physical security, why, then, does the physical security and basic human rights of refugees and others of concern to UNHCR appear to be only a peripheral issue within the organization? The book presents several explanations. Firstly, UNCHR appears to believe that if it ‘flaunts’ its own responsibility, this risks detracting attention from the responsibilities of host states, who, after all, have the primary responsibility to protect refugees on their territory.  Secondly, however, because it surfaces at the crossroads between state sovereignty, national security and international human rights, refugee security is generally considered to be ‘high politics’ and exposes a tension between human rights norms and realpolitik. Organizations such as UNHCR tend to view attention to physical protection issues as a threat to their neutrality, impartiality and independence. Thus, for fear of jeopardizing relationships with governments, UNHCR appears to emphasize ‘soft diplomacy’ and prioritize less controversial tasks, such as the provision of material assistance, in the face of ‘hard’ human rights concerns. But, as even UNHCR itself has noted, it has a duty to fulfill its mandate regardless of ‘political circumstances and imperatives’. UNHCR’s challenge thus lies in staying true to its main principles, and not throwing them overboard as soon as it meets resistance. This logically means that UNHCR also cannot expect to please all sides.

Without downplaying the fact that UNHCR often has to make choices between bad and less bad options on the ground, it is arguable that without an increased focus on basic human rights and physical protection, UNHCR runs a real risk of ‘simply administering human misery’. More importantly, ignoring refugee security arguably affects the situation as much as confronting it. While UNHCR’s international protection mandate may be ready to be fully implemented in theory, because it appears not to be a current priority within the organization, it is far from certain that the mandate is fully understood, and applied thereafter, among the main actors concerned with protection and security within UNHCR.

Wide Scope for Improvements

Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps suggests that there is wide scope for improvements within UNHCR aimed at strengthening refugee protection. First, in order to ensure full and proper implementation, it is important to clarify UNHCR’s mandate vis-à-vis physical security both internally within the organization, and externally among its operative and implementing partners. In 2009, the UN Office of Internal Oversight (UN OIOS) undertook an extensive study of UNHCR’s approach to the safety and security of staff, operations and persons of concern. This study suggested that UNHCR’s mandate was often misunderstood among the main actors dealing with security issues.

A clarification of this mandate will hopefully also lead to a security focus that is more proportional between staff security and refugee security, and, on an international level, this may alleviate the current eclipse of UNHCR’s mandated responsibilities vis-à-vis physical protection of refugees and others of concern in refugee camps by the more pragmatic and operational activities of actors such as UN OCHA. In fact, recent years’ activities within the Security Council concerning the ‘protection of civilians’-framework have contributed to UN OCHA, whose mandate is essentially that of coordinating humanitarian response (and thus not protection), becoming the primary actor involved in refugee camp security. In a 2005 report by the UN Secretary-General, no mention of UNHCR’s role in protection monitoring is made – rather it is suggested that UN OCHA shall collect data on attacks against refugee camps and collate baseline information on issues such as security related to internally displaced persons.

A clarification of UNHCR’s mandate may also lead to improvements with regard to training and administering UNHCR staff: a shortage of protection staff seems to be an endemic problem within the organization, and is something which clearly has serious consequences in some operations where UNHCR has not even been aware of persistent rights violations. UNHCR must also reward staff who voice protection concerns – currently there appear to be no institutional incentives to do so.

It is also arguable that the current system of periodic rotation of staff between departments, headquarters and the field deprives UNHCR from any true expertise or staff specialization in the field of refugee physical security. Roughly speaking, there seems to be a general sentiment that each individual UNHCR staffer shall be able to tackle most of UNHCR’s various tasks, whether these tasks concern refugee camp security or material assistance. This system arguably impedes upon UNHCR’s possibility to use the skills acquired over the years to best effect. As one UNHCR staff argued in a 2005 study of UNHCR organizational culture: ‘Rotation is a serious problem … If a finance specialist has to move and become a programme person, it lowers things down to the lowest common denominator.’

Monitoring the human rights situation is an integral part of UNHCR’s exercise of its international protection mandate, and international protection cannot be advanced without full knowledge and understanding of the human rights situation. It appears as if UNHCR needs to reconsider the manner in which it collects, analyzes and, perhaps most importantly, uses the information on protection concerns in refugee camps. UNHCR’s experiences with security concerns in refugee camps are currently neglected or disguised through generalizations and shortcuts in the monitoring process. As such, new incidents can flourish. UNHCR’s internal evaluations have also shown that many field staff are not sufficiently aware of the relevant policies and guidelines, or about their monitoring roles and responsibilities. This was also emphasized in the 2009 UN OIOS Report, which inter alia found that UNHCR lacked adequate guidelines for security and protection officers in the field to enable joint assessment and physical protection of refugees and other persons of concern, and that the accountability framework, reporting mechanism, definition of security responsibilities and arrangements for monitoring the implementation of security measures were not adequately defined. It is clear that the protective effect of UNHCR’s protection monitoring depends upon how the gathered information is used.

More Protection, Less Material Assistance

A renewed focus on UNHCR’s international protection mandate might entail that UNHCR focuses less on providing material assistance. However, experience suggests that in cases where UNHCR has been unable or otherwise unwilling to provide material assistance, other organizations have stepped into the void. Such was the case in Thailand, when UNHCR sought to minimalize its involvement in the camps that were controlled by Cambodian military factions. This clearly suggests that there is an abundance of international and non-governmental organizations that can provide material assistance. Only UNHCR, however, has the mandate to provide international protection.

UNHCR’s accountability is the topic of an upcoming panel – organized by members of and affiliates to the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies – at the Humanitarian Studies Conference in Istanbul October 24-27, 2013. More information about the conference and the panel ‘UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability: an examination of parallel regimes’ is found on http://www.humanitarianstudiesconference.org/. The book Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unable and Unwilling States, UNHCR and International Responsibility can also be pre-ordered through Brill’s webpage: http://www.brill.com/products/book/protecting-civilians-refugee-camps.

Protection: From deeds to words?

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I have just finished reading a book on protection that tells a rather different story than the one we typically hear. The conventional narrative on protection (of civilians) goes more or less like this: it is a central legal concept in International Humanitarian Law, it has over the last ten years been made an operational concept in UN peacekeeping operations (then under the heading “protection of civilians). Since the UN World Summit in 2005, moreover, it has been incorporated – many say distorted – in the concept of a “responsibility to protect” (R2P). Those who follow policy debate will no doubt recall that UN Security Council resolution 1973 on Libya in 2011 authorized “all necessary measures” under chapter VII of the UN Charter precisely to ”protect civilians.” Not long after, a strongly worded resolution on Cote D’Ivoire – resolution 1975 – similarly authorized the use of force to protect civilians in the context of the post-election violence attributed to Laurent Gbagbo. The story can be more specific and detail the many gross violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and the deliberate targeting of civilians in many of today’s conflicts, as is on display now in Syria. And so the end-point of the standard story is that there is a set of principles that the international community should aim to implement in practice – that one needs to move from words to deeds.

In International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect (Cambridge University Press, 2011), legal theorist Ann Orford argues – as the title of this blog indicates – that the concept of protection could, and at some level also should, be understood as moving from deeds to words. The book provides what I consider a must-read for scholars and others interested in contemporary debates about protection. The analysis starts with an important analysis of Hobbes’ Leviathan and the stakes involved in the development of a novel concept of sovereignty. The analysis weaves together early legal and political debates about sovereignty on the jurisdiction of the Roman Emperor and the Pope relative to European kings. Orford argues that the core of Hobbes’ formulation of sovereignty in terms of a social contract is that people submit to it because the sovereign can offer protection. Thus, the de facto capacity to offer protection is that which secures sovereignty. Written, of course, in the context of religious warfare in Europe, Hobbes’ treatise was important because it gave European Kings a stronger rationale in their efforts to challenge the claimed jurisdiction of the Pope: the fact of being able to offer protection within their realm became more important than the (claimed) right of being universally sovereign with reference to the Pope’s religious authority.

To cut a long (and very interesting) story short, then: the privileging of fact over right, of making capacity to protect a crucially important ingredient in the constitution of sovereign authority has significant implications for how we think of protection today. For Orford, whose focus is on the UN’s role in peacekeeping and peacebuilding since the Congo operations in the early 1960s, the capacity to protect is the driver of the story, with different justifications given ex- post, as it were. Her main empirical focus is on the concept of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) that was officially sanctioned by UN member states at the 2005 UN World Summit. It was formulated, she says, in an effort to secure the renewed legitimacy of what she calls the UN’s long-standing tradition of “executive action” inaugurated by Dag Hammarskiold during the UN’s Congo operation.

I’m not entirely convinced about the story Orford tells about R2P as simply a justification for existing practice. Certainly R2P was formulated in the context of an effort to render possible and legitimize interventions to stop genocide and mass atrocities. But to say that it was formulated quite specifically to fill a “justificatory void” of what the UN had been doing for quite some time is insufficiently nuanced. But there is truly a wealth of important insights here. Let me briefly identify three that I think have bearing on research on humanitarian actors and their work on protection.

First, this analysis links protection to broader questions of sovereignty and the authority to rule also outside the realm of humanitarian law and humanitarianism. If the authority to govern in far-away places can be, and is, claimed by reference to de facto capacity to protect, we need to consider how protection is used to justify a range of practices that may move well beyond protection of civilians as stipulated in IHL, including development and peacebuilding efforts. Indeed, R2P – mostly described in terms of its legitimation of humanitarian intervention and conditioning of sovereignty – emerges in this light also as a principle that is markedly different from the more ambitious efforts aimed at so-called liberal peacebuilding: R2P is about avoiding genocide and mass atrocities. It is not about the advancement of liberal principles. R2P says little about the contents of domestic governance arrangements and as such bears a close affinity to rather than only condition sovereignty:  as long as the state protects its population against atrocities, it can pretty much do as it pleases, and need not be democratic. The UN’s work under the R2P agenda has also been very much on advising governments on how to organize itself to be able to offer protection more effectively.

Second, protection can be used as a justificatory register for humanitarian actors to branch out, as they are currently doing to address urban violence. Shifting between the generic reference to protection and references to IHL offers a bridge between traditional humanitarian work and other areas traditionally not under the humanitarian umbrella. But this also means having to work with other actors, some of which humanitarian organizations often have necessary yet difficult relations, such as police forces and the military. If the ability to offer protection is indeed a powerful argument for jurisdictional control, we should expect considerable battles between humanitarians and other actors over jurisdictional control over specific tasks.

Third, if authority and ultimately sovereignty is premised on claims to de facto protection capacity, then the obverse is also true, that lack of protection may entitle others to step in to do the job. And then we face the question of who are in a position to authoritatively interpret what constitutes “protection” and whether lack thereof should open up for other actors – such as international or non-governmental organizations – to step in. Here, Orford offers much food for thought in her analyses of the many layers of sovereignty. In short, who interprets and who decides becomes important. From this follows another set of questions about accountability and representation. Who are authorized to speak on behalf of whom? Are not some humanitarian and human rights groups claiming to represent victims and indeed “humanity” without being accountable to those on whose behalf they claim to speak (and act)? As Alex de Waal has pointed out several times, there is a tendency of advocates of protection (broadly defined) to describe and define the problem in question in terms geared solely towards the mobilization of western, and particularly US political actors. This move incurs considerable political costs, for the political solutions that are thereby legitimized are often not at all attuned to and based on solid factual knowledge of the problem in question.

In conclusion, protection is about more than the no doubt politically laden processes of operationalizing and implementing it in practice. This process of moving from words to deeds raises a range of questions about the voice of beneficiaries, the categories (of gender, for example) used to assess what, and who, needs protection. But there is also another story that has to do with the move from deeds to words: de facto capacity to offer protection has historically been a central ingredient in the formation of authority. Thinking through what it means to invoke protection as a justification for some activity, or to be able to assert that there is lack of protection, seems important as humanitarian action confront new challenges in defining the proper relationship with its environment.

The Protection of Civilians in UN Peacekeeping

By Benjamin de Carvalho (NUPI) and Ole Jacob Sending (NUPI)

Abstract

The Protection of Civilians (PoC) is now the central concern of most UN peacekeeping missions. Based on an overview of the evolution of PoC in UN peacekeeping, this collection offers a comparisons and in-depth studies of protection mandates in UN peacekeeping missions in Africa focusing on the challenges that emerge from this interface between the policy and practice of protection. Our main aim with this volume is to show how various understandings are implemented. Showcasing this heterogeneity of understandings and practices is central to any future effort at refining the policy tools available to those seeking to implement a protection mandate. Challenges remain, both at the conceptual level and in the practical implementation of PoC, including the practical challenge of implementing a concern rather than a clear policy on the one hand, and the conceptual challenge of how to best conceive of protection. Based on reviews of how PoC has been implemented in UN peacekeeping, the book seeks to show that however PoC is defined at headquarters level, successful implementation must rest on an understanding of the limits and challenges encountered in mission, on the ground.

Complete article available here.

PoC: Protection clusters and the formation of ambiguity- the view from Bor and beyond

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How come the policy realm of protecting civilians is increasingly being challenged on both conceptual and practical grounds, all the while efforts are being done in policy headquarters and in the field to refine its idea the implementation of it?

One such refinement seeking to alter established practices is the introduction of the protection cluster among humanitarian organisations in South Sudan in July 2010. Initially, the PoC unit of the United Nations’ Mission to Sudan (UNMIS) served as the link between the UN mission and various civilian UN and non-UN entities regarding civilian protection. The 2010 reorganisation advanced the cluster approach as a means to coordinate diverse and dispersed protection activities, with the aim to think more broadly about protection concerns drawing on interagency cooperation and coordination among the humanitarian organisations present in the area. In southern Sudan the protection cluster was to be led by UNHCR (and co-chaired with the Norwegian Refugee Council), now serving as protection lead and focal point for protection issues in the area. The cluster chair’s role is to facilitate a process aimed at ensuring coordinated and effective humanitarian response in relation to protection.

Cacophony and dissonance, however, seemed to prevail when I attended a protection meeting in Bor during my fieldwork in South Sudan’s Jonglei state in late 2010. While the distinction between the humanitarian community and the UN peacekeepers had become clearer as a result of the reorganization, the cluster approach had also brought a host of new actors into the protection folder and into the very same meeting room. The diverse and, at times, conflicting understandings of protection among the various humanitarian organizations now seeking to coordinate their efforts did not promote unity, harmony and dialogue. Rather, it seemed like all the actors involved instead used the meeting as a forum for presenting their own, distinct views and approaches to protection. In nourishing the particular and operational distinctiveness the organisations, in effect, prevented to consign to any overarching approach to or notion of protection. So, by the time everybody had presented their own work and how their organisation dealt with protection concerns, the meeting was over and people started to leave to attend to other duties.

The members of the protection cluster mainly saw it as an arena for exchanging information, without questioning each other’s diverging and sometimes conflicting notions of protection. Limited attention was paid to practical solutions, thus causing for some discontent among the participants. Although “protection” was what brought this diverse group together, their practical interface during the meeting revealed the absence of a shared understanding of what protection means and entails in and for practice. Perceptions differed not only between the humanitarian segment, government representatives and the UN mission (including its military commanders). Also among the humanitarian organisations themselves were there diverging and conflicting perceptions and usages of the protection discourse. Basically, all seemed to interpret the protection framework according to their own institutional culture without an eye for harmonisation and coordination.

I hold that these observations are not particular to the protection cluster in Bor. Indeed, I’ve come across similar ambiguities and challenges in other settings, including more central UNMIS levels, among other NGOs and at the UN headquarter in New York. As such, the observations in Bor could be seen as indicative for a larger and more general concern pertaining to the protection of civilians; that is, the lack of a common and shared conceptualisation of the term.

The ambiguity of protection relates to protection’s institutional trajectory within the UN starting in the late 1990s and the political challenges the UN had to overcome when initially dealing with it: on the one hand there was the need to establish a robust framework to secure civilian protection, on the other hand it was a need to have this framework adopted at the most authoritative level. Hence, when the protection framework – infused by the language of the humanitarian principles – was brought to the Security Council, the council refused to adopt it in fear of it becoming too binding and political. In shredding of the principles, the council rather opted for a milder version; that is, a non-binding ‘culture of protection’ to be disseminated throughout the UN. Hence, there exists no unifying notion of protection within the UN, and this ambiguity transfers onto the field level and the organisations involved. It seems that the lack of a clear definition of protection permeates the UN system which inevitably affects non-UN organisations when these seek to coordinate their efforts with UN entities.

The cluster approach seemed to have emerged as an effect of the lack of a stringent protection definition. This illustrates another phenomenon, i.e. the inversion of policy and practice: when the policy concepts that aim to direct practice are unclear, new practices tend to evolve and these practices can be counterproductive to the original policies. As such, the ambiguities of the cluster approach and the lack of a protection definition draw attention to the complex relationship between policy and practice. Nominally policy aims to direct practice, being the very raison d’être of policy-making and the answer to why policymakers invest so many resources into hatching and formulating policies. This positivist faith in planning and top-down approaches have, however, the unfortunate effect of producing a growing ignorance to the local variations and multiple contexts where these policies are being implemented. Such centralized planning is also largely dismissive of the many nodes and intersections any policy passes through when moving from the global to the local, and the unpredictable transformations the original planned intent may take in the diverse junctures between policy and practice. An adverse inevitability, at least from the perspective of the planners, is an ever widening discrepancy between the policy and the practice of it. And the more ambitious the scope is – and the idea of civilian protection based on a set of universal principles is indeed grand – the greater the disjuncture between policy and practice tend to become.

While the policy-practice discrepancy is seen as a challenge to policymakers at the central level, it might give opportunities to the practitioners and assist the beneficiaries at the local levels. As was the case in Bor where the lack of a stringent protection definition meant greater autonomy at the local level for the different agencies. It also meant that all humanitarian actors were included in the fold without having to pay attention to who passes an abstract threshold or not. The loose definition of protection, or the culture of protection, brought different people and agencies together. And although this produced cacophonies when trying to harmonise diverse protection agencies and approaches, it nevertheless allowed for operational variation and complexity that arguably was more in tune with the local needs than any centrally devised policies. And while such complexity and multitude might be a challenge to universal principles and ambitious policymakers, such plurality – indeed an effect of the ambiguous protection framework – might in fact be conducive to a more contextual, sensitized and effective approach to civilian protection.

PoC: The Politics of Counting Rape in Darfur

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During my fieldwork in Khartoum in February/March this year a paradoxical development was brought to my attention. The records of UNAMID, The African Union/UN Hybrid operation in Darfur, indicate that sexual violence is on a decrease in Darfur. These records are, because of their sensitive nature, not open to the general public. Several interviews with both diplomats and humanitarian actors supported this assertion.

If sexual violence in Darfur is in fact on the decrease, that is good news indeed. But the validity of the assertion invites critical scrutiny.

Interviews conducted with humanitarian and political actors suggest that only the reporting of rape cases to UNAMID has gone down. Sudanese informants referred mockingly to UNAMID as “the African mistake in Darfur”, implying that the largest peacekeeping operation to date is not up to the task. They explain that the reporting to UNAMID has gone down because in 2009, the Sudanese government has expelled the humanitarian actors that were most active in referring cases to UNAMID and in speaking out publicly and bringing attention to the systematic and widespread rape in Darfur.

It is close to impossible to get research permits to Darfur for a Western researcher. But my interviews in Khartoum with International and Sudanese nationals active in Darfur before and after the expulsions suggest that the violence, including sexual violence, may actually be on the increase. In the words of a former minister from Darfur “the violence is escalating (…) It is out of control and it has become an everyday event by the police, the security, the Janjaweed and the rebels. The international community is deserting them. UNAMID is doing nothing. They are not protecting civilians. They cannot even protect themselves. (…)”.

The lack of reporting and the implicit conclusion that sexual violence might be on the decrease, potentially has significant political implications; it backs President Bashir’s claim that the evidence for the systematic and widespread sexual violence in Darfur was fabricated by the international community in an effort to undermine the Sudanese government.

Systematic and widespread sexual violence in Darfur: Government denial

In 2005, the UN published a report on sexual violence in Darfur concluding that the Government of the Sudan and the Janjaweed were responsible for widespread and systematic violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

An arrest warrant for Bashir was issued on 4 March 2009 indicting him on five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape) and two counts of war crimes (pillaging and intentionally directing attacks against civilians). The indictment speaks to 1325 (2000), 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009) 1889 (2009) and 1960 (2010) on women, peace and security and acknowledges the sexualization of violence in Darfur. The President insists that the allegations of widespread and systematic rape were being fabricated for political purposes. In an interview with Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 Bashir argued that

“When it comes to mass rape, there is no document or evidence, just accusations (…). We are fully convinced that no rape took place. It might have happened at an individual level, but this is a normal crime that can happen in any country in the world. Mass rape does not exist.

Expulsion of humanitarian actors from Darfur

The Sudanese government’s reactions to this indictment have had dramatic repercussions for the humanitarian presence in Darfur, including within the area of gender based violence (GBV) programming.

Immediately following the ICC indictment, the Sudanese government expelled 13 international NGOs operating in Darfur and de-registered prominent national NGOs that between them employed nearly 40% of Darfur’s aid workers. The Vice-President stated that

“Whenever an organization takes humanitarian aid as a cover to achieve a political agenda that affects the security of the county and its stability, measures are to be taken by law to protect the country and its interests.”

Government officials made it clear that they would fill the void left by the International NGOs with “national and friendly foreign NGOs”.  In addition to the international NGOs that were expelled, the Sudanese Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) de-registered three Sudanese NGOS; the Amal Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, the Khartoum Centre for Human Rights Development and Environment and the Sudan Social Development Organization (SUDO).

The Sudanese government harbours a particular antipathy towards those humanitarian actors that address gender-based violence, and/or speak out publicly about rape cases. As a consequence, a humanitarian worker explains “The meetings in the GBV cluster used to be packed. Now they are empty (…)”.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was accused of spying for the ICC. In 2005, MSF published The Crushing Burden of Rape,  a report  on the widespread sexual violence in Darfur. MSF reported treating nearly 500 rape survivors from October 2004 to early February 2005. Two senior members of MSF Holland were arrested charged with espionage and publishing false information. In 2006, the Norwegian Refugee Council was expelled from Darfur after publishing a report on 80 cases of rape around Kalma Camp in southern Darfur. Khartoum claimed the findings were false.

In 2013, one of the major concerns on the ground is the diminished capacity on reporting on GBV violations. In the words of an activist from Darfur:

“The arrest warrant of Bashir has affected our work in Darfur. The word ‘protection of civilians‘ became very sensitive. If we use that term then the government thinks that we are collecting rape cases and reporting them to the ICC.  With the ICC, reporting of rape has become more difficult. (…)”.

Similarly, according to an international organization working within the area of GBV violence in Darfur; The gaps left by the expulsion of 13 NGOs following the announcement of the arrest warrant for President al-Bashir in March 2009, remain. (…) The expulsion of the International NGOs has significantly reduced the capacity for monitoring and referrals, as well as diminished the reporting capacity on GBV issues”.

International NGOs as political tools?

The International NGOs most forceful in the work and advocacy on GBV has been expelled. Remaining humanitarian agencies openly admit their reluctance to speak out about sexual violence. Because of government restrictions and intimidation, it is increasingly difficult for the remaining actors to work within the field of GBV without the risk of expulsion. As a consequence the reporting of rape to UNAMID has gone down. This poses an ethical dilemma to the remaining International NGOs:  On the one hand, if the government restricts or even blocks work on GBV, the humanitarian NGOs can still provide vital services in water, sanitation, and food security. On the other hand, by keeping silent on GBV, do the remaining humanitarian actors, described by the government as ‘friendly foreign NGOs’,  simply serve as political tools for Bashir in his claim that ‘Mass rape does not exist’ in Darfur?

Somalia from Humanitarian Crisis to Struggling Statehood

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March 21, more than 90 people attended a Breakfast seminar “Return to Somalia, a New Era” jointly hosted by NCHS and PRIO’s Migration Research Group. Speakers were Abdi Aynte, executive director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) , HIPS researcher Anab Ibrahim Nur and PRIO senior researcher Cindy Horst.  HIPS is a recently established Somali think tank based in Mogadishu, and a collaborative research partner to NCHS on the Somali case study for the Protection of Civilians project. A recording of this event is available here.

Abdi Aynte explained that after more than 20 years of wars and widespread disorder, Somalia entered a new era of optimism during the last quarter of 2012. A UN-backed process culminated in the selection of 275 members of parliament, and a new leadership was subsequently elected. The capital Mogadishu is considerably safer than it was two years ago. The new government has extended its domain of control to a number of regions outside the capital, and business vibrancy and civil society activities are slowly but steadily returning to Somalia. Despite the progress, significant challenges remain. The Somali state is profoundly fragile, and the state of chronic contestation over political and resource control persists. The new government has yet to articulate a set of national policies on most crucial issues, and the nature of Somalia’s federal structure remains disputed.

In her presentation (available here, under related files to the left), Cindy Horst discussed protection, displacement and return to Somalia. Her main message was that considering the profoundly fragile state of the road towards stabilization in Somalia, it is very premature to return people there at the moment. Not only can their protection not be guaranteed, but ultimately, a large influx of “involuntary returnees” is likely to destabilize an already fragile situation in the country. Horst also argued that the increasing return visits and stays of Somali diaspora to places like Mogadishu cannot be used as an argument to force others back, as protection upon return depends on many different factors – not the least having a foreign passport that allows a quick exit again if the security situation turns bad. She expressed her concern over the shrinking protection space for refugees and IDPs worldwide – not just affecting those trying to find protection from violent conflict but also increasingly in the transitional phase towards stability.
Both speakers asked a number of critical questions relating to the issue of Repatriation and “Voluntary” Return: What will be the humanitarian implications as the Kenyan government attempts to repatriate more than half a million Somali refugees?  Many Western countries have buffed up their repatriation programs, including repatriation of rejected asylum seekers and also potentially Somalis with a criminal record. What will be the plight of these civilians and what kind of protection is available for them once they get off the plane in Mogadishu? While the new Somali government has started to reach agreements with a number of countries offering conditionality packages (aid for return), can it deal with the impact of a large influx of people?

Three specific issues were highlighted in the discussion that followed the presentations. The first is the Contested Role of the Diaspora as Humanitarians and Leaders and the development of what has been termed ‘Diaspora Hate Syndrome’ in Mogadishu and other places.  While the Diaspora has often played an important role in providing humanitarian aid for Somalis inside Somalia, the influx of a large number of Somali individuals carrying European, American or Australian passports who want “top jobs” in the reconstruction phase is currently generating tension on the ground.

The second concerned the proliferation of land disputes, which is becoming a topic of particular concern. As noted in a 2009 report by ODI on land, conflict and humanitarian action, “Land and property disputes tend to increase in the post-conflict period, particularly in the context of large-scale returns of displaced populations. If these issues are overlooked, they are likely to threaten the fragile stability of post-conflict transitions”. Hence, one of the most acute needs  is for the government to re-establish some way of managing the increasing number of land disputes, sometimes fueled by individuals in control of old registries issuing deeds and titles.

Finally, the international humanitarian community, which has a less than impressive track record in Somalia must now face up to new challenges. As pointed out in a 2012 report by Refugees International: “With security in Mogadishu improving, international aid agencies should be able to increase their presence on the ground, allowing them to learn more about how these gatekeepers operate and to whom they are connected. With this increased knowledge and greater presence, the aid system in Mogadishu can become more open and accountable”.

Urban Humanitarianism: Accessing informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya

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This blogpost is based on the first phase of my PhD fieldwork in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Over the next four years you can follow the developments of the NUPI/PRIO project Armed Violence in Urban Settings: New Challenges, New Humanitarianisms on this site. Our goal is to explore the humanitarian engagement in the field of urban violence.

Access is a critical issue for any humanitarian organization making their entry into a new field. Often, the question of access is purely physical:  During the rainy season, populations in villages connected to rest of the world by a single dirt road can be impossible to reach. The informal settlements of Nairobi do not fall into this category. Huruma can be seen from the Northeastern corner of the UN compound. Resident expats catch an excellent view of the Kibera Slum from the 11th hole at the Royal Nairobi Golf Club. Nevertheless, short physical distance is no guarantee of easy access.

Urban access. If access to an informal settlement is not granted by the local residents, there will be no security for staff and no project. Negotiating access to such informal urban settlements can be daunting, as humanitarian actors  must navigate several layers of formal and informal governmental structures. While permission from the central government is required, nothing will happen without the seal of approval from the presidentially appointed chiefs, assistant chiefs and village elders who hold key positions at the local level. The loyalty of these elders is primarily to the community, including at times those engaged in criminal and violent activities.

While the police might have achieved some sway in Mathare, the law is enforced by youth gangs in many of the Kibera villages, where The twelve disciples and Yes we can! are among the groups providing protection.  While  the defeat of the dreaded Mungiki is widely proclaimed in Mathare, the gangs remain a formidable force in this settlement. Financed by “taxation” of the community they ensure that the residents’ property and lives remain safe from external and internal threats. Any organization setting up projects in Mathare will need their tacit approval. Landlords are also important actors. Rents are rapidly adjusted to changing circumstances; a local water and sanitation project can result in increased prices that force the residents into financial exodus. Any structures or renovations in the slums need approval of the de jure owners, who are not known for their philanthropic nature.

The INGOs interviewed for this project have almost exclusively relied on a Community Based Organization (CBO) to negotiate first access. This, however, is not a fail-safe plan. These organizations are often centered around a charismatic leader, whose politics can compromise neutrality. There are also several “suit-case CBOs” with few real ties to the community and no actual projects. Selling projects to the humanitarian and human rights organizations is potentially very good business; a fact that creative entrepreneurs have learned to capitalize on.

Having managed to work with and around these political structures, humanitarian actors still face a real risk of involuntary involvement in the tribal and ethnic conflicts that dominate Kenyan politics.  Tribal suspicions run high, and skewed representation of one tribe among the staff could potentially be enough for the INGO to be seen as a partisan.  Rumors run fast through the settlements and any organization wishing to operate in this area must keep one ear constantly to the ground: Catching and disproving rumors early is of vital importance for staff safety.

Put to the test? While the conflict during the 2007-08 elections was between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin, the current political drama is playing out between the Kikuyu and the Luo. Prior to the 2013 election,  the graffiti “No Raila: No Peace” could be found everywhere in Kibera, including at the gates of the MSF Belgium clinic. In 2007-08, the violence spread from the city to the country side – eventually engulfing most of the country. The death toll rose beyond a thousand and estimates of the number of displaced vary between 180 000 and 600 000.

Despite the large number of humanitarian organizations in Nairobi, the humanitarian community was caught off guard. Evaluations of the response indicate that while IDP camps received the necessary aid, the humanitarians were largely incapable of aiding those who settled elsewhere. Those who sought shelter among family and friends in the settlements were hard to identify and support.

At the time of writing, it appears that in 2013, the  humanitarian community has been better prepared. OCHA has initiated a hub-based coordination system that ensures that actors know of each other and the relevant government structures in the areas where they operate. Nairobi has been divided into seven sub-hubs, each of which is led by an organization with solid local knowledge. The responsibility for the life and dignity of Kenyans rests with the Kenyan government. Making government actors aware of the resources they can call upon from the humanitarian community, and making sure that humanitarian response complements the government efforts, has been a cornerstone of the preparation.

The move from a sector-based to an area specific coordination of humanitarian action and the inclusion of the CBOs and Faith Based Organizations in the disaster preparedness plan are approaches which on a general basis could enhance access to urban populations during crisis and   strengthen the humanitarian response.

Update April 2nd: In the end there was no test. The Kenyan Supreme Court decided against the petition fronted by Odinga, confirming the election of Uhurru Kenyatta as the president to succeed Kibaki. Raila Odinga held a speech reaffirming his commitment to the constitution and thereby also the decision of the Supreme Court. There was no outbreak of political violence, though two deaths were reported by Kenya Red Cross in the immediate aftermath of the announcement.