Humanitarian protection
by Humanitarian Practice Network June 2003

Everyone (more-or-less) agrees that the aim of humanitarian assistance is to help people survive conflicts and disasters by ensuring the basics for survival – food, water, healthcare, shelter. In situations of armed conflict, people face many threats: of violence, of being forced from their homes, of being denied access to relief. Often it is precisely these ‘protection’ issues that lie behind the need for relief intervention. The attempt to protect people from these threats is part of the humanitarian agenda, but it is unclear what this means in practice. The ‘failure to protect’ is a charge that can be levelled at the state, the international community or at humanitarian agencies; in each case, however, something different is implied. The question of how to protect civilians from deliberate harm is a matter of increasing debate among humanitarian actors as well as politicians.

International humanitarian law provides a framework and range of instruments to help protect people during conflicts. However, the way wars are now fought, with attacks on civilians often a deliberate strategy rather than a side-effect, puts civilian populations at far greater risk. The political and military interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and now also possibly in Iraq, have been justified by those undertaking them at least partly on humanitarian grounds; but many believe that this merging of political and humanitarian agendas further complicates the protection of people against threats to their security.

Humanitarian protection is the subject of the special feature of this issue of Humanitarian Exchange. Taking Iraq as an example, James Darcy reexamines the relevance of questions of legality and legitimacy for protection strategies in the light of the new forms of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Peter Marsden explores where protection responsibilities lie for returning Afghan refugees. Madeleine Rees examines the lessons learnt in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the protection of civilians during and after conflict. Looking at humanitarian protection more generally, Andrew Bonwick discusses what is required to achieve ‘protective’ access, and Henk van Goethem describes an initiative to help organisations recognise assistance and protection as two sides of the same coin. Finally, Christian Captier offers a word of warning about the ‘resurrection’of protection.

Other articles in this issue address a range of practice and policy concerns. Alex de Waal and Fabrice Weissman take a fresh look at famine in Africa. Geoff Prescott discusses the implications of weapons of mass destruction for humanitarian operations. Harvey Redgrave, Nick Thompson and Agnès Callamard look at various aspects of how the NGO sector works, and Natalie Folster considers official Canadian aid. As an endpiece, Tony Waters questions the emphasis on return in current refugee policy.