Politics and practice: the limits of humanitarian protection in Darfur
by Victoria Wheeler, HPG June 2005

The protection of civilians has occupied a central position in the policy and operational responses of many actors in Darfur. There have been protracted and numerous debates at the highest political levels, including at the UN Security Council (see the article by Oliver Ulich, page 5), and humanitarian actors have been unusually ambitious in their efforts to enhance civilian protection. Protection officers have been deployed, both by mandated and non-mandated agencies, UN and NGO, and cooperation with human rights agencies and monitors, while not always harmonious, has been notably better than in past crises. Such cooperation has produced positive, though limited, results. To achieve more lasting protection, warring parties must be brought to adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL), and relief strategies must be designed to mitigate civilian risks from violence, civilians must be able to access secure sanctuary and asylum and, ideally, warring parties must be engaged in effective peace negotiations to stop the violence.

This article draws on ongoing work by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) on protection approaches. It reviews three elements of the international response to the Darfur crises in terms of their impact on civilian protection. These elements are: the internationally mediated peace talks; the African Union (AU) mission in Sudan; and the Protection Working Groups (PWGs) that have been formed to overcome the policy and operational fragmentation brought about by continuing insecurity and bureaucratic obstructions to access.

Protection and peace talks

While IHL requires that civilians be protected even in the midst of conflict, ultimately a genuine peace will give Darfurians the greatest protection from violence. With international support, and under international pressure, the government of Sudan and Darfur’s rebel leaders have engaged in several peace processes ? the N’Djamena, Addis Ababa and Abuja processes ? and have signed ceasefire agreements, and security and humanitarian protocols. The government has made commitments to disarm and neutralise the Janjaweed militia, lift restrictions on humanitarian access, and support the safe voluntary return of internally displaced people (IDPs). As part of the peace processes, the Sudanese government also agreed to the African Union (AU) fielding a mission to monitor adherence to the N’Djamena and Addis agreements. These agreements have, however, been more honoured in their breach, signalling a lack of genuine commitment to them by all parties, and the absence of effective international support or enforcement.

The peace negotiations have combined both humanitarian and political issues, and have presented challenges for the humanitarian community in both practice and principle. On the one hand, it has been argued that humanitarian access and an end to violence against civilians have been at the forefront of many of the internationally supported peace negotiations. Some humanitarian workers report that they have benefited from being able to refer to humanitarian protocols in negotiations with rebel groups (though not with Janjaweed leaders, who have not been effectively involved in the peace talks). It has also been suggested that discussion of humanitarian issues has played a ‘vanguard role’, getting warring parties to the table, and providing a fallback position should talks on political issues falter – as happened at critical times in both the N’Djamena and Abuja processes. On the other hand, the ICRC and others are concerned that combining humanitarian issues and peace negotiations allows warring parties to view their humanitarian obligations as subject to political agreement, rather than as a non-negotiable requirement of IHL. This is an important debate, and worthy of further exploration.

Protection and the African Union mission

One possible instrument available to the international community to respond to a protection crisis like Darfur is a military-led intervention to defend civilians from attack. Many have looked to the African Union’s mission in Sudan, AMIS, to play such a role, although considerations of an enhanced protective force were stymied for too long by regional politics within the AU, and divisions in the UN Security Council. In October 2004, the mission’s mandate was expanded from monitoring and reporting on the N’Djamena and Addis agreements to include the protection of civilians ‘under imminent threat and in the immediate vicinity within its resources and capability’.

AMIS has had some success in deterring attacks against civilians. Sexual and gender-based violence has reportedly decreased in areas it patrols, and the mission has taken risks to negotiate with rebels and the Janjaweed to halt attacks. However, its mandate and capacity are critically weak. As of April 2005, AMIS numbered just over 1,900 personnel. It is monitoring a ceasefire that exists in name only, across a vast area, and it has no mandate to disarm militias. It has been unable to provide more than a ‘bubble’ of protection outside some towns and camps, and it has been reportedly slow in translating its new mandate into active rules of engagement. Nonetheless, given indications of even limited success in reducing violence against civilians, there is a case to be made for a much larger, multilaterally sanctioned, military-led force to protect civilians in Darfur, preferably under the auspices of the AU. In late April 2005, the AU Peace and Security Council decided to expand the force size again to a total of 6,127 by September 2005. NATO, including the UK, Canada and other countries, has also indicated that it is ready to provide equipment (including helicopters), and logistical and financial support. It remains to be seen, however, how far such an increase in size will support AMIS’ protection mandate, however restrictive this is. It also remains to be seen whether the 10,000-strong peacekeeping force to be deployed to support the North–South peace process can assist efforts in Darfur.

Protection Working Groups: roles and limits

The humanitarian imperative, and indeed the logic of humanitarian law, demand that civilian protection is assured at all times in conflict – it is not subject to the outcome of political processes to secure peace or deploy third-party protection forces. Given the inadequate international response on both these fronts, and the abrogation of their protection responsibilities by the Sudanese government and other armed groups, humanitarian agencies have been attempting to address protection concerns. Three humanitarian bodies with clear protection mandates are present in Darfur: the ICRC (IHL); UNHCR (international refugee law) and UNICEF (the Convention on the Rights of the Child). These agencies have, however, been unable to persuade the warring parties to comply with their obligations under international law.

Security within and near camps remains an issue. Agencies have sought to deliver their assistance in ways that mitigate violence (for example by delivering fuel to camps so that women need not forage for wood in areas where they are likely to be raped), although they have been criticised for responding too slowly in this area. The UN Country Team has adopted ‘protection by presence’ as part of its humanitarian protection strategy in Darfur. Among other things, this aims to provide a continuous presence in IDP camps, in the belief that this will deter would-be aggressors.

There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that ‘protection by presence’ works, but it is by no means a sure science, and can increase civilian risks in other areas; it may simply displace violence elsewhere, or it may encourage post-visit harassment if a constant presence cannot be maintained. Moreover, most agencies are still unable to field workers outside major towns in Darfur, due to ongoing insecurity and staffing pressures. Adding to the restrictions, staffing pressures also affect the UN’s security assessment apparatus, UNDSS, effectively making many regions ‘no-go’ areas for many agencies. Put crudely, protection by presence is most difficult to implement where it is most needed.

Beyond mitigating risk locally, operational agencies may choose, security permitting, to engage with other actors (human rights advocates, peacekeepers and international government representatives) to highlight protection concerns and encourage action to address them. There are, however, risks in being seen to be publicly monitoring and reporting on abuses; access may be jeopardised, and agency resources may be diverted away from assistance. Many humanitarians are thus cautious about doing this, individually or publicly, particularly in Darfur, where the Sudanese government’s position is that protection is outside the remit of humanitarian agencies.

In recognition of the need to develop collaborative approaches to garner the widest possible range of skills, mandates and capacities, share risk analysis and achieve ‘strength in numbers’ in the absence of broader support, UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs formed protection working groups (PWGs) at Khartoum and state levels in 2004.

Views of the effectiveness of the protection working groups are mixed. As a coordination and information-sharing mechanism, the PWGs have provided useful fora for NGOs and UN agencies working in the field. They have reportedly developed a sense of cohesion around protection issues, to counter the Sudanese government’s opposition to their involvement in protection issues, and have provided the space to share joint analysis of humanitarian needs (including protection needs) which UN officials have then been able to pursue through political channels. Joint analysis and group advocacy have produced some tangible results. The government has, for example, removed some of the obstacles in the way of medical care for victims of sexual and gender-based violence, and agencies have changed relief distribution mechanisms in some areas to avoid post-distribution raids. The PWGs have also supported the Humanitarian Coordinator’s pressure on this front over the course of 2004. Similarly, PWGs have also fed solid analysis into reports to the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council, as well as other international missions, helping to keep protection issues on the international political agenda, where it is much needed.

Cohesion has not always been assured, however, and there have been complaints over inadequate consultation by the Khartoum-level PWG in the development of the ‘protection by presence’ strategy. While agencies have reportedly found the ‘protection matrix’ valuable, it has not enabled the sequencing of activities, and has often ended up being a list of current activities (sometimes running to 40 pages long), rather than a basis for prioritising activities and roles.

Moreover, while the general consensus appears to be that the field-level PWGs have functioned most effectively, being best in touch with local risk patterns as they emerge, developing agreement around priority actions has at times proved difficult. For instance, some members prioritise reactive measures, such as the investigation of individual cases of abuse or obstructed humanitarian access, while others argue in favour of identifying and responding to patterns of impending risk. Neither approach should preclude the other, and disputes have at times hindered much-needed concerted action. In addition, staffing is a constant issue: despite an increase in mid-level (UN and NGO) staff acting as protection officers, crucial gaps remain; there is a lack of experience in handling sensitive negotiations and in high-level decision-making. At times, knowledge of basic aspects of IHL is missing.


Protecting people, particularly from their own authorities, is an enormous political challenge – existing systems of collective security still do not facilitate automatic responses, even to crimes against humanity. Even if they did, little is known about the effectiveness of different kinds of international interventions (rather more is known about the immediately negative effects of sanctions, for instance, than is known about their positive effects in reducing violence against civilians, and evidence to suggest that humanitarian presence reduces violence is anecdotal and contested). The institution of protection working groups amongst the UN and humanitarian communities may have served to focus attention on civilian protection at field level, and may help to overcome divides between the humanitarian and political/security communities, making coherent responses possible – but evidently more is needed to stop the ongoing and widespread violence against civilians in Darfur.

Victoria Wheeleris a Research Officer with the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at ODI. Her email address is: v.wheeler@odi.org.uk.

References and further reading

Alex de Waal, ‘Words and Meanings – The Consequences of Defining Genocide’, Index on Censorship, 2 February 2005, www.indexonline.org.

House of Commons International Development Committee (IDC), Darfur, Sudan: The Responsibility to Protect – Volume II Oral and Written Evidence, House of Commons, London, Fifth Report of Session 2004–05, 2005.

IDC, Darfur, Sudan: The Responsibility to Protect – Fifth Report of Session 2004–05, House of Commons, London, 2005.
International Crisis Group (ICG) ‘Darfur: The Failure to Protect’, Africa Report 89, 2005.

Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Inter-Agency Evaluation of the Humanitarian Response to the Darfur Crisis, 2005.

Hugo Slim, ‘Dithering Over Darfur? A Preliminary Review of the International Response’, International Affairs, vol. 80, no. 5, 2004, pp. 811–33.

Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria, Darfur Conflict – Key Documentation, http://www.iss.co.za/AF/profiles/Sudan/darfur/index.htm.