Protection of Civilians (PoC): What did we learn?

Jon Harald Sande Lie, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Alex de Waal at ‘Humanitarian Changes, Humanitarian Challenges and the Protection of Civilians ‘seminar, 27 April. Photo: Ane Teksum Isbrekken/ NUPI

April 27 and 28, the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS) hosted a successful event to mark the end of the Protection of Civilians: From Principle to Practice research project, funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Research Council of Norway’s HUMPOL program.  This blog post is based on project leader Kristin Bergtora Sandvik’s presentation of the main findings from the project.

The Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies: Forging a new field of research

In the following, I would like to highlight a number of the achievements and findings of the PoC-project. This overview is preliminary and non-exhaustive.

As part of the portfolio of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies, the PoC-project has contributed to the development of humanitarianism as a field of study in its own right, internationally and in Norway. The Centre has provided a platform to further critical debate on humanitarian issues and humanitarian policy in Norway. Over the last three years, the Centre has hosted and co-hosted 62 popular and academic events on humanitarian issues to raise public awareness, to contribute to agenda setting, and to increase collaborations between researchers, practitioners and policy makers.

Additionally, the Centre has been successful is consolidating research collaborations between its founding, partner institutions CMI, NUPI and PRIO.

Researching Protection of Civilians:  On Finding Ethical Foreign Policy Relevance

“Policy relevance” has emerged as a major criteria for evaluating the utility and fundability of research. While we have rightly been challenged to rethink the role of academic research and academic expertise in the field of peace and conflict studies, including humanitarian studies, we also have a responsibility to think critically about which notion of policy relevance we should go after.

Here are three issues where we need to be more reflexive and critical in our attempts to be relevant; there are many more on my list.

First, I suggest that while the 1990s and 2000s saw a continuous expansion of legal and political victim categories, this category now appears to be shrinking. In recent years, we have witnessed a stronger trend towards excluding men from the civilians’ category. An unintended consequence of the PoC discourse is the compartmentalization of combatants and civilians. This dichotomization can have adverse effects, particularly in irregular warfare and conflict formation.  I argue that the bifurcation of men as combatants and women as victims prevents seeing how also men, often including the perpetrators, also are victims of conflict. This includes victims of drone signature strikes, the mass killing and disappearance of young men in the war on drugs in Latin America, or the way male migrants are deemed to be ineligible for asylum or resettlement. At the same time, I acknowledge that the increased attention given to sexual violence against men – which was the theme of the first PoC conference hosted by CMI in 2013 – represented progress.

Second, I note that while PoC had been “freed from the shackles of buzzwordom”, important ethical dilemmas have emerged with respect to how an obligation to protect of civilians relates to the resilience agenda. The resilience agenda places a strong emphasis on self-responsibilization, in a period of time where the humanitarian enterprise is increasing enormously in size and scope, while also becoming more bunkerized and remotely managed. How are civilians being protected when they are given the responsibility to rescue themselves?

Third, I would also like to express deep concern about the how the reorientation of humanitarian aid towards the twin purpose of combatting migration and radicalization impacts the protection of civilians. I observe that from early 2015, the political rhetoric of migration has been recast from civilian’s quest for protection through mobility to a security threat to our own society. In response, there is a danger that humanitarian aid is being shifted from solving their problems of insecurity, hunger and disease to solving our problem with their humanitarian problems. As such, the seemingly apolitical and moral field of humanitarianism is not unaffected by the gradual securitization observed in other social and political domains.

Taking these developments as my point of departure, I would like to suggest that we need to focus on ethical foreign policy relevance in research on protection of civilians. In my view, ethical policy relevance should be understood as

  • A way of adding to the library of knowledge underpinning a knowledge based humanitarian policy;
  • A mode of unpacking the type of power and resource distribution that flow from PoC initiatives – or do not flow.
  • A commitment to push back on PoC policies that purport to be humanitarian but are not about protecting vulnerable civilians.

The project: What did we learn?

 I now move to a reflection on project findings, more narrowly construed. I contend that while PoC could be defined according to the actors involved or according to analytical levels, a useful common approach had been to see PoC as a “battlefield of knowledge” where the concept is worked and reworked in practice as actors compete to infuse the discourse with meaning, while borrowing from its moral supremacy.

Exploring the production of global PoC governance, authority and actors. The enormous humanitarian suffering resulting from the failed engagements with Syria and Libya and the continuing fallout for international politics has been the key backdrop of this project. In response, the project has studied protection of civilians as a form of global governance, where political actors are produced as protection actors. This includes both the Veto Powers of the Security Council as well as countries considered emerging humanitarian donors such as Turkey and Brazil.  The project has reflected on how humanitarian aid and protection discourses are used as foreign policy while simultaneously re-shaping the humanitarian field.

Pushing the law back into PoC. The Secretary Generals 2016 Agenda for Humanity calls for a concerted global effort to prevent the erosion of international humanitarian and human rights law, demand greater compliance with them and uncompromisingly pursue the protection of civilians. The project has responded to this call by illuminating the complex social and political web which even progressive legal institution building and law reform to protect civilians find themselves in. Here, attention was given to ICC‘s indictment of president al-Bashir and the consequences for activism on reproductive rights and rape law in the Sudan. At the same time, the project has looked at the importance of tailoring PoC to state capacity and existing human rights protection mechanisms.  Specifically, the project has focused on how the Kankuamo indigenous people in Colombia used the Inter-American human rights system for protection and as part of their self-protection efforts.

Developing theories of violence. The project has also begun to develop theories of violence to make sense of deliberate violence against civilians in very different situations of airpower used by state-actors possessing highly sophisticated military technology in Afghanistan, and irregular armies in the context of the Sudanese civil war. Our research on South Sudan suggests there must be a focus on the long-term development of local and regional military practices. Moreover that philosophies of war are of major importance in our understanding of why civilians are not adequately protected, and why they are often targets or legitimate collateral, in particular settings. The US military in Afghanistan did change procedures to reduce unintended civilian casualties from airstrikes. The principal reason was a change in military strategy that prioritized “winning hearts and minds” of the local population. While external vigilance through monitoring and independent investigation had an impact, it did in itself did not lead to the change in “system design” in operations that altered the balance of risk in favor of civilians.

Conceptual Work: Revisiting Boundaries and Assumptions. Through a study of Northern Uganda, the project has laid the groundwork for revisiting the humanitarian-development nexus: at a time of “unprecedented crisis”, when and how to draw the line for what constitutes a humanitarian crisis, and how humanitarian actors relate and respond to changes in their operational environment is of key importance. The transition from humanitarian action to development aid in Northern Uganda saw the formation of a humanitarian–development nexus driven by humanitarian actors’ pragmatic stance in seeking to assist civilians despite the situation had been recast as one of recovery and development. The case demonstrates not only the contextual malleability of protection and the humanitarian principles, but also how the mission creep is not something orchestrated by the donors and politicians at the top, but rather evolves from the bottom where field actors struggle to juxtapose humanitarian principles, practice and pragmatics.

Studying return programming for Somali refugees, the project has examined how humanitarian aid provision and withdrawal are instruments for preventing displacement or encouraging return. In many contexts around the world, states use funding for humanitarian programming as an active part of their attempts to manage populations displaced by conflict. Humanitarian aid to refugees and internally displaced is commonly understood as a temporary activity that ends when people will return home. Yet returnees can often not be provided with protection and ‘return’ for many entails a first encounter with a new place. Hence, the project finds that there is a risk that humanitarian aid – due both to its sedentary bias and practical (funding) realities – becomes implicated in government attempts to govern mobility.

Finally, as a contribution to the development of future research agendas on protection of civilians, the project has mapped out a set of key assumptions underpinning the “cultures of protection” concept. This includes: taking civilian identity for granted, the myth of the passive civilian, the sedentary bias, gender essentialism and protecting ambiguous groups, and the fallacy of terra nullius.

Taken together, these findings yield a rich starting point for further research on the protection of civilians, a topic which has not lost any of its normative and ethical importance.

The seminar was streamed and recorded, and can be seen following this link.

Updates about project results can be found at

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik is an Associate Professor at the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law at University of Oslo and a Senior Researcher, PRIO, where she is the coordinator for the Humanitarianism research group. Sandvik is also the project leader for Aid in Crisis? Rights-Based Approaches and Humanitarian Outcomes, funded by the Research Council of Norway.