The Protection Gap: Policies and Strategies
by Enrique Eguren June 2003

International NGOs have failed to protect the people they are trying to help in complex emergencies. The old idea of aid without protection is no longer adequate, or justifiable. International NGOs are well-placed to protect: they are in the field, close to the affected population. Moreover, they have an undoubted capacity for advocacy before governments and other bodies. These strategic advantages bring moral responsibilities, and international NGOs cannot ignore human-rights violations affecting the people they are trying to help. Although no international conventions compel international NGOs to provide protection, the universal responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights, together with their own mission statements, commit many to doing so.

There are, of course, obstacles. Too often, governments take humanitarian action, but not political action, leaving humanitarian agencies on their own in the midst of protracted conflicts. Humanitarian NGOs themselves are reluctant to do human-rights work. As a result, protecting human rights risks being nothing more than a ‘politically correct’ complement to humanitarian assistance, devoid of a real strategy to address these problems. In other cases, human-rights protection and humanitarian assistance are kept separate in policy and planning, despite the fact that they are closely entwined in the field, severely hindering the implementation of an effective strategy for protection.

What does ‘field protection’ mean? In a nutshell, it comprises the strategies and activities that ensure that the human rights of affected people are respected. In conflicts, there are few bodies with a formal and established mandate to protect human rights; some UN organisations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), for example. These institutions alone cannot deal with the vast demand for protection, especially where internally displaced people (IDPs) are concerned. In any conflict, especially in complex emergencies, what prevails in the field is a mixture of NGOs and governmental and intergovernmental organisations, which does not necessarily guarantee adequate protection.

Strategies: deploying international personnel

The mere presence of international staff can aid protection, but cases tend to be isolated or the result of individual initiative, and there are as many instances where an international presence has had no effect at all. Failure to act could even be taken as acceptance of such abuse.

Just as it is impossible to fight a famine simply by setting up food warehouses (you need a strategy behind them), so too it cannot be assumed that, simply by being there, an international presence is providing protection. What is needed is a strategic international presence. This means international observers, tasked with dissuading people from committing human-rights abuse, and informing authorities and institutions when such violations take place so that perpetrators can be punished. The presence of international observers is key when governments or officials make decisions about the affected population. They may act as ‘brokers’, linking by their presence the government’s actions and international standards of humanitarian aid and protection.

A field strategy for protection: Peace Brigades International in Colombia

According to Amnesty International, the human-rights crisis in Colombia has reached ‘alarming proportions’. The country is in the midst of an armed conflict between the security forces and the self-named Autodefensas, or paramilitaries, and insurgent groups, mainly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The conflict has displaced more than a million people over the past 15 years; in the first six months of this year alone, over 1,000 civilians were killed. Armed groups are targeting human-rights and humanitarian workers as well as IDP organisations. According to the UN High Commissioner’s Report on Human Rights in Colombia of April 2000, the state’s efforts to guarantee the right to life and to protect the population have been ‘inadequate’.

Peace Brigades International (PBI) has maintained an international observer/accompaniment team in Colombia since 1994. The objectives of PBI Colombia are to protect IDPs, and the human-rights workers who suffer repression as a result of what they do. It always operates at the request of local organisations.

PBI Colombia deploys permanent teams of observers to accompany IDPs and organisations under threat, and pay regular visits to conflict zones. It has four teams in four areas of the country, staffed by 42 people, seven of whom are Colombian. PBI Colombia also carries out extensive advocacy work before the civil and military authorities and the diplomatic corps, and liaises and coordinates with UN bodies and national and international NGOs, church organisations and others.

As well as accompanying local groups, its observers also participate in verification commissions and negotiations with the authorities, and pass on their main concerns regarding the protection of IDPs to local officials, embassies and UN offices. The organisation is also engaged in post-trauma rehabilitation and attempts to rebuild the social fabric of communities which have experienced violence. In all these ways, PBI Colombia creates an ‘umbrella’ of protection for IDPs, and for the NGOs which support them.


It is difficult to measure the impact of the protection that the presence of international observers provides. Nonetheless, PBI is in demand; the majority of Colombian NGOs have asked for staff to accompany them, and both the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR) have acknowledged PBI’s protection work, as have several international NGOs.

IDPs, international observers and humanitarian workers move in areas under dispute between the army, self-defence groups or paramilitaries and guerrilla groups. In such a complex environment, the presence of international observers is just one factor in a whole series aimed at providing protection. It can never be seen as the single, determining factor when judging the results of protecting displaced people.

Where can observers be deployed?

The presence of international observers is not effective in all types of conflict. One prerequisite is that a violator must be susceptible to the international pressure which an international NGO can bring to bear. Usually, this is the case in a conflict which has received some media coverage, and in which a variety of NGOs are working.

An international presence is particularly effective when the violator is the state, or an actor against which the state can take action. This implies that the government is capable of maintaining its executive role within the state. In situations of open conflict where a state or a government stops fulfilling this role (as in Somalia at the beginning of the 1990s), there are likely to be no bodies to which NGOs can appeal which are susceptible to international pressure.

The state has to take responsibility for protecting the human rights of its citizens and for providing assistance to conflict-affected people, especially IDPs. But international NGOs need a clear strategy for exerting pressure on the state when, as often happens, it does not meet its obligations.

Frequently, international NGOs do not pay enough attention to the role that local civil society can play when planning humanitarian assistance and human-rights protection. This is crucial in any strategic approach to protection: since it is impossible for international NGOs to protect the whole affected population, an international presence should focus on the key nodes of the society – the people and bodies that are most at risk of abuse, such as local NGOs, grass-roots organisations and key individuals.

Getting there

These reflections can be applied to all international observers, be they part of a UN mission or any other organisation. Field protection requires a strategy and specific activities which are not usually included in international NGOs’ plans for dealing with human rights, or delivering humanitarian aid. International observers must maintain a constant or regular presence, should meet regularly with national and international authorities and officials, and disseminate information concerning abuses. Human and financial resources need to be allocated to such work, and staff should be properly trained. Only in this way can the presence of international personnel become a real protective umbrella for the affected population.

In order to undertake this role, humanitarian NGOs need to widen their limited protection strategies, and either train all their workers, or dedicate a number of their workers specifically to this task. Alternatively, some international NGOs – PBI, for instance – specialise in protection, and implement this work in coordination with both humanitarian and human-rights NGOs. International NGOs should work towards:

  • developing a shared mandate and strategy for action, so that such cooperation could be easily implemented in different scenarios;
  • training staff of those international NGOs providing humanitarian aid in the protection of a displaced population’s human rights; and
  • allocating the resources for implementing the field-work necessary for protection.

Only in this way will IDPs and organisations operating locally be able to look to international NGOs for assistance in protecting their human rights.

Enrique Eguren is Coordinator, PBI Colombia.

Resources Jon Bennett, ‘Internal Displacement: Protecting the Dispossessed’, Norwegian Refugee Council, 1997

Liam Mahony and Enrique Eguren, Unarmed Bodyguards. International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights (West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1997).

Diane Paul, Protection in Practice: Field-Level Strategies for Protecting Civilians from Deliberate Harm, RRN Network Paper 30 (London: Relief and Rehabilitation Network, 1999).

Protecting Refugees, UNHCR, 1999.