Protection of Civilians

Protection of Civilians - POC

Lara Kajs | 11 December 2020 |

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is a set of policies that work to limit the effects of armed conflict and exists to provide the protection of civilians who are not involved in the conflict and/or are victims of the conflict. IHL also limits the means and methods of carrying out warfare.

Humanitarian Groups

Although it may seem like a good idea to keep humanitarian and military action separate, humanitarian personnel need the military for protection and logistical support. And, since military operations have a mandate of protection of civilians (POC), humanitarian groups and personnel oftentimes benefit from collaboration. When there is armed conflict, the military has an obligation under IHL to provide protection to humanitarian groups and personnel, as well as assistance to populations in need in territories under their control.

International Peacekeeping Missions

IHL mandates that occupying powers are obligated to assist and protect civilians. Peacekeeping forces are never considered occupying powers. A State that holds a certain degree of power or control over persons is obligated under International Human Rights Law (IHRL) to provide protection and aid for the civilians under their jurisdiction. However, it is never that clear-cut.

There are many questions regarding peacekeeping forces and their responsibility under International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law. One example Marco Sassoli, professor of International Law, and Director of the Department of International Law and International Organization at the University of Geneva illustrates the situation in Srebrenica. At first, Dutch peacekeepers accepted Bosnians who were fleeing into their camps but then left the Bosnian refugees to the brutality of the Bosnian Serbs. In this case, the peacekeeping forces failed in their duty: the protection of civilians.

Cooperation with Military Forces

Mandates for the protection of civilians exist for a reason. Most humanitarian groups support the inclusion of humanitarian elements in mission mandates; for example, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO). However, the position of neutrality taken by humanitarian groups can be compromised when military forces are used in protection activities.

Navigating the Divide

One of the problems is that there are many different understandings of how the protection of civilians is interpreted. In most cases, it depends on how it serves the purposes of the State. One way to avoid misperceptions and miscommunication is for all parties (the humanitarian groups and military forces) to clearly state the working definition for the protection of civilians and for all parties to agree to the working definition.

Humanitarian groups vary in methods for strengthening the protection of civilians. For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) relies on confidential point negotiation with military forces, unlike other groups that rely on public advocacy. Some prefer a combination of the two. Military actors often use force as their primary means of implementing protection of civilians – such as in Columbia where military bases were established in villages. This act put villages at risk of becoming victims of attacks by FARC. The government justified it by saying the villagers needed protection.

In situations of armed conflict where IHL and POC are not respected (such as in Syria and Yemen), humanitarian groups may compromise their neutrality to ensure protection. Coordination is critical. Whereas in the past, when there were few humanitarian groups, it was not critically necessary to coordinate with all the actors involved.

Today, there is a higher need for coordination regarding the protection of civilians. Humanitarian groups may interact with military forces and peacekeeping forces as part of a protection solution; in which case the opposing side or armed opposition may look upon humanitarian groups as partial to a particular cause or side.

In addition to the protection of civilians, there needs to be a dramatic increase in protection for impartial organizations and agencies on the ground.

POC in Yemen

The situation in Yemen is completely man-made. Civilians have been forced to bear the burden of the fighting since the start of the conflict in 2015. Shelling and ground operations have destroyed hospitals, schools, and critical infrastructure.

The results of constant war are more than 100,000 people killed, 45,000 have been wounded; half the country’s population (some 15 million people) have been internally displaced and nearly 14 million are on the brink of starvation. There is a complete breakdown of infrastructure. Clean water is a commodity that is nearly non-existent. Cholera, a completely preventable disease, has infected more than 2 million people, a third of which are children under the age of five years old.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has called the situation in Yemen “unrelenting violations of international humanitarian law.”

POC in Syria

What started as a peaceful demonstration against the president of Syria on March 15, 2011, quickly turned into a full-scale war by the government against the people. Nine years later, there is no end in sight. It is critical that there is greater respect for the protection of civilians – not only by the participants in the conflict but also by the sponsors.

At the heart of this conflict is the blatant disregard for International Humanitarian Law. There is a complex battlefield in Syria and the actors include many different States, proxies, advisers, armed groups, and warlords. There is a severe lack of responsibility for conflict accountability that is often met with outright denial of actions.

Hospitals and schools have been bombed into barely recognizable buildings. Infrastructure, including communications, electricity, and water has been destroyed. Aid workers have been killed. Tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – civilians have disappeared. There is mass internal displacement and millions have fled the country. In this conflict, civilians have been the target, rather than the protected.

All parties have a legal and moral obligation to hold and respect the law. The law is there to protect the civilian population: the vulnerable, the injured, the displaced, and the detained. Aid agencies need access to everyone – IDPs, detainees, camps, besieged areas – EVERYONE. Humanitarian access in Syria is being used as a bargaining chip and this must stop! Access to civilians must be regular and consistent. At the end of the day, International Humanitarian Law and the Protection of Civilians is the law, and it is non-negotiable.

Photo Credit: Protection of Civilians Site – Malakal, South Sudan – UN Photo/JC McIlwaine