Tag Archives: protection of civilians

Protection of civilians and the future of urban warfare roundtable

What do current trends in armed conflict and military technology mean for the future of urban warfare? This was just one of the many important issues discussed at a recent virtual roundtable on the future of the protection of civilians in urban warfare, hosted by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in association with the Norwegian Red Cross (NorCross) and the NCHS.

In this fascinating and informative discussion, roundtable participants also explored issues such as the future prospects for International Humanitarian Law in settings of urban warfare, as well as implications for the regulation of uses of explosive weapons in populated areas as a means of protecting civilians.

Led by Kristoffer Lidén, Senior Researcher at PRIO, the roundtable features an opening interview with Hugo Slim (Oxford Institute For Ethics Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC), University of Oxford). Comments and reflections are also provided by Wanda Muñoz (International Consultant on Victim Assistance), Radhya Al-Mutawakel (Mwatana Organisation For Human Rights), Abigail Watson (Saferworld), and Nicholas Marsh (PRIO).

You can now view a recording of the full roundtable discussion below. The discussion is also featured in a bonus episode of PRIO’s Peace in a Pod podcast and is available here.

You can view the original PRIO event here.

Collateral damage in Court

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“Collateral damage” – that much maligned term for civilian victims of military operations – has been a recurring feature of the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East for the past two decades. Cases where civilian casualties were clearly unintended have mostly involved US-forces or their allies, yet they very rarely end up in a court to decide culpability or award compensation. The recent outcome of a case that after more than ten years reached the European Court of Human Rights was therefore a watershed – a symbolic marker for thousands of similar civilian victims and their families.

The material facts of the case (Hanan vs Germany) are not in dispute. Late in the evening of 3 September 2009, the Taliban captured two fuel tankers that became stranded in a dried river-bed in Kunduz, a northern province of Afghanistan. The area was technically allocated to a German military contingent in a complex arrangement between the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan Government, whereby the forces of various NATO countries and other US allies had responsibility for providing “security assistance” in different parts of the country to keep the Taliban at bay. The commander of the nearest German base, Colonel Georg Klein, was told by a local informant that a large number of persons had gathered near the fuel tankers, and that they were all Taliban.

It was now close to midnight and all German personnel were on base. The colonel requested assistance for American planes to bomb the site. Two planes arrived and two 250-pound bombs were dropped. Subsequent investigation showed that numerous civilians, including children, were killed. They had come from a nearby village to collect free fuel from the stranded tankers. Casualty figures vary due to difficulties of ascertaining human remnants after the fireball caused by the exploding tankers. The UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) settled for 74 civilians deaths, including “many children”.

German authorities investigated and in April 2010 the Federal Prosecutor reported his findings. The colonel was cleared. He had not committed a war crime because he had not intended to kill civilians. He “reasonably believed” at the time that the persons assembling around the tankers were all Taliban. Thus he could not be prosecuted under international war crimes provisions incorporated into German law. Nor could he be prosecuted for wrongful deaths under domestic criminal law because the airstrikes were permitted under the laws governing armed conflict. Case closed.

But the matter did not end there. Human rights activists took up the case of a local villager, Abdul Hanan, who had lost two young sons in the flames. They appealed to the European Court in Strasbourg, invoking the right to life of Art. 2 in the European Convention on Human rights. Choosing a minimalist strategy, Hanan’s supporters did not argue that Germany had violated the substance of Art. 2 by taking the life of Hanan’s two sons, but merely that Germany had a duty to investigate the matter effectively, and had failed to do so. 

The Court’s conclusions, issued last month, were based on long and (to a non-lawyer) intricate discussion of jurisdictional matters. Did the Court have jurisdiction over German actions undertaken extra-territorially in a UN-authorized multinational operation? Did German investigation in itself constitute recognition of responsibility that triggered the Court’s jurisdiction? In the end, the Court answered yes to the first question, and a qualified no to the second.

Some international lawyers saw the Court’s judgment as a partial victory for the applicability of European human rights law in extra-territorial situations. It might be a precedent that other civilian victims could draw comfort from. Others saw the Court as striking “a complex balance in the face of delicate issues” that might affect the willingness of states to participate in international military operations and investigate “deaths occurring in that context.

The rest of the Court’s findings raises different questions. The Court found that the German investigation had been effective, and at no point did it question the German prosecutor’s conclusion: The colonel’s actions were justifiable. His subjective understanding of the situation at the time was what mattered, and he was convinced they were all Taliban. Yet the Court did not ask:

  • Was the investigation effective when the German investigators did not interview the families of the victims? The German prosecutors accepted the colonel’s assumption that no civilians would be out at night and that no civilians would be at the site of the strike since the nearest village was 850 meters away. No one asked if this was too far to walk for poor villagers when offered free fuel.
  • Did the colonel use the minimum force necessary to deal with the situation, as arguably called for by international humanitarian law? For a start, the colonel misinformed American forces when requesting air support, reporting that there were “troops in contact” on the ground. But, as the Court noted in an aside, “there had been no enemy contact in the literal sense of the term.” Neither German nor Afghan troops were on the site. Once the first plane arrived, the colonel refused the pilot’s suggestion to ‘buzz’ the site to scare people away rather than bomb them.
  • Did the colonel observe the principle of precaution in international humanitarian law to “do everything feasible” to ascertain whether civilians were on site before ordering airstrikes? The colonel relied on one informant who lived nearby. The Court notes positively that the colonel made seven phone calls to that one informant. Calls to seven different sources might have yielded better intelligence. Moreover, the oil tankers were only 7 km away from the base. Could not the colonel have sent out a few men to assess the situation?

In other cases, the Court has applied the principles of international humanitarian law more robustly by asking such questions and awarded damages to the victims (Isayeva vs Russia and Isayeva, Yusupova and Bazayeva vs Russia). In the present case, there was not much for Abdul Hanan to take home to his village of Omar Khel. For Colonel Klein, the matter ended better. He was in 2012 promoted to Brigadier General in the German army.

Who are the Civilians in South Sudan?

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This text first appeared on Security Dialogue and is re-posted here. Read the full article this blog post is based on here. The article is an outcome of a larger project supported by the Research Council of Norway: “Protection of Civilians: From Principle to Practice“. Nicki Kindersley and Øystein Rolandsen are featured in the Security Dialogue Podcast Series where they speak about their article, and the podcast can be accessed here.

Displaced children residing at a United Nations transit site take time to play. South Sudan’s conflict has affected the lives of many of these children, who are the future of the country. Photo: United Nations/Isaac Billy

Why are local communities so often targeted in South Sudan’s civil wars? How do their attackers justify violence against people defined as civilians in international law? In our article in the current issue of Security Dialogue, we answer these questions by placing recent brutalities within a longer history of conflict logics and practices in South Sudan’s modern history of violent governance. These evolving local norms inform how armed actors engage with residents in today’s conflicts.

State governance has always been violent towards South Sudan’s populations. Since slave raiders and traders shaped the first colonial incursions in the mid-1800s, ordinary people have been strategic assets to be managed and exploited. As such populations are not just legitimate targets in conflicts, but key resources to capture and control. State power was extended over Sudan’s peripheries in the 1900-1920s through mass forced displacement and depopulation of strategic areas (such as Kafia Kingi); through collective ‘punishment’ of defensive populations (for example, the aerial bombardment of Nuer communities); and violent raiding by proxy fighters from other communities, turning residents against each other. Sudan’s civil wars in the South from the 1960s continued these practices. Communities were targeted collectively based on ethnicity and imputed loyalty, displaced, and forced into camps for ‘protection’ and control, by both government and rebel forces.

Today’s UN Protection of Civilians camps, the first UN bases in the world to be turned into protection camps for local populations, are a part of this long history of violent governance. These armed groups continue to see the population in contested areas as part of the war, where everyone is (potentially) part of the collective enemy, and where controlling desperate poor populations is also a convenient way of gaining access to external aid and cheap labour. It thus makes more sense that, since 2013, armed groups have targeted populations in forced displacements, collective ‘punishments’, violent raids and armed control of refugee camps.

The article also shows how this distinction between armed combatants and those defined as civilians in international law is further blurred by violent governance tactics since the colonial period. Successive governments have actively sought to incorporate the population into their militarised security apparatus. During colonial rule, men and women were pressed into service as enslaved or otherwise dependent servants, soldiers, and workers in fortified and militarised garrison towns. After Sudan’s independence in 1956, the government encouraged or coerced residents into acting as spies, ‘national guards’, informers and ‘local protection’ forces. This militarised security state continues, and continues to blur the South Sudanese definition of civilian.

This analysis does not excuse the massive and systematic violence against the general population of South Sudan. But without due consideration of these deeply engraved historical systems and logics of violent governance, today’s brutal conflicts become incomprehensible. Any attempt to implement protection measures for populations affected by war needs to be informed by a proper understanding of these local logics of conflict. In this logic, the UN in South Sudan is already another military-political authority managing local populations and controlling their movements. With the NGOs servicing them and the UN peacekeepers guarding them, these PoC camps are a strategic political asset to be managed and exploited.  

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.


[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.


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)


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.