Issue 23 - Article 6

What does humanitarian protection really mean?

May 29, 2003
Christian Captier

Why should humanitarians be worried about humanitarian protection? Sometimes it is useful to ask provocative questions, and to reflect on the strange buzzwords that regularly emerge within the so-called ‘humanitarian community’. These buzzwords are interesting inasmuch as they somehow embody the spirit or trend of a period. The word ‘protection’ recently seems to have attained this status, after being resurrected from the legal trenches where it had been buried. Yet the new concept of humanitarian protection is worrying. If not properly handled, it may do more harm than good, marking a step down a dangerous and slippery path.

Repositioning protection

The resurrection of protection is undoubtedly an essential step, a concrete sign of the widespread recognition that protection, or rather its lack, lies at the heart of humanitarian crises. This change in discourse is well captured in a recent article entitled ‘The Responsibility to Protect’, by Mohamed Sahnoun and Gareth Evans of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. In it, they write: ‘There is a developing consensus around the idea that sovereignty must be qualified by the responsibility to protect’. What is most important in this article is the close association of protection with the fundamental idea of responsibility. This is all the more significant because this concept of responsibility has largely been under-appreciated by humanitarian actors.

Part of the explanation for this may be traced to Rwanda in 1994, where relief actors were strongly criticised for their incapacity – through technical failure and amateurism – to cope with the humanitarian consequences of the political crisis there. That is not to say that these criticisms were not accurate (many were), but rather that the humanitarian community has focused so much on these issues that the main lesson of Rwanda has been largely forgotten: what about the failure to protect millions of people when the so-called international community, or rather its main Western actors, had the means to prevent the genocide? For a decade, many in the humanitarian arena preferred to concentrate on performance, coherence and accountability, leaving the notion of responsibility, theirs and others’, behind. Thus, this recent shift towards protection, of which this special issue of Humanitarian Exchange is further proof, is undoubtedly positive. It reinforces the view that modern humanitarian action cannot be grounded in the old-fashioned relief–development continuum/contiguum. Humanitarian action is closely related to the notion of violence, and here the concept of protection is essential.

In late 1996, the ICRC invited a group of agencies to a series of workshops on protection, which lasted until early 2000. The initial idea behind the first workshop mirrored somehow the Sphere initiative in that it aimed to develop professional standards for protection. This was mainly because, at that time, the ICRC felt that its protection mandate was being eroded by new actors and new practices. Curiously, the process initiated through these workshops moved away from the idea of developing standards towards the more pragmatic and useful objective of forging a commonly-accepted language between diverse actors such as the ICRC, human rights organisations and humanitarian and UN agencies. It was hoped that this would foster a better understanding of the various roles and modus operandi of these actors in protection. The ultimate objective was to promote better operational cooperation between agencies.

This was a sensitive area. Some agencies were still claiming that they had nothing to do with protection, which was either perceived (too narrowly) as an arid legal concept, or (too widely) as a dangerous political activity. Thus for many it seemed that discussing protection in Geneva was enough; back at headquarters, business would go on as usual. For Action contre la Faim (ACF), however, we were convinced that, to improve our practice and assume our humanitarian responsibility, we had to operationalise protection.

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Operationalising protection: ACF’s approach

The first step was to recognise and accept the emergence of a new paradigm for humanitarian action, replacing the old and inadequate concept that saw a progression from relief through rehabilitation to development. Aside from ‘pure’ natural disasters, it is now widely acknowledged that humanitarian needs result from processes of violence, and must be analysed as such, i.e. violations of fundamental rights and the failure of national or international mechanisms regulating violence. With violence as a central element, this new approach builds on the permanent tension and dialectic between assistance and protection by focusing on the constraints and violations ‘victims’ face.

1. Contextualising actions using an assistance/protection framework

Humanitarian action operates as only one element of a wider political, economic, cultural and social order. The assistance/protection framework we use is called Michotte’s graph, after the person who implemented this approach in the field, mainly in Burma and Liberia. By applying this framework to a specific situation, we can visualise the mechanisms that regulate violence, the various actors involved and, most importantly, the multiple interactions between them.

Our primary responsibility is to render appropriate humanitarian assistance, but this has to be done by looking at the side-effects – positive and negative – of such assistance on the pattern of violence. Actions have to be placed in a wider framework; thus, by applying this approach to programmes in Burma, it emerged that a pure assistance strategy could render ACF or indeed any organisation complicit in the government’s policy of discrimination against certain groups. Our humanitarian responsibility holds us to delivering the best assistance possible but, by being close to the population, it also impels us to describe the pattern of violence creating needs and denounce those responsible or their active or passive accomplices. Only then can we assume our responsibility as humanitarian actors, which at the extreme may lead to withdrawal from a region or a country, as ACF and some other agencies have done in North Korea. Assistance and protection are two sides of the same coin – the coin of responsible humanitarian action.

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2. The three modes of action (adapted from Paul Bonnard’s work)

The ACF framework starts from the premise that the objective of humanitarian action is to limit the effects of violations on victims, using three distinct, but complementary, modes of action: denunciation, persuasion and substitution. The idea is to achieve a more coherent approach within an organisation, and to develop a logic of complementarity between actors based on the specificities, such as mandate or skills, of each organisation. It also important as it recognises the primary and ultimate responsibility of what we called authorities – not solely states – vis-à-vis their population.

3. Elaborating operational strategies through the three modes of action

ACF is now developing and implementing operational strategies. In doing so, we do not expect any firm answers to the dilemmas confronting us, but we do hope that this will help us to define more precisely our position. Then, in accordance with our core values and specific goals, the question becomes defining concrete operational and advocacy objectives to which programmes and actions are tailored, before implementation using the three modes of action described above, alone or in partnership with other actors. Applying this framework to the Lao or Burmese policy on displacement of population or to the complex situation in Bentiu in Sudan, via defining the nature/structure of the pattern of violations and the position of the various actors, has helped us to refine our assistance and advocacy strategies. This is work in progress, which needs to be regularly monitored and evaluated, especially given the effort required to disseminate this approach through all layers of the organisation, and to integrate all the technical aspects, such as targeting and monitoring, that are essential to efficient humanitarian assistance.

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The limits of humanitarian protection

This framework is not without its limitations and its dangers. The first is that it risks condemning you to a legalistic approach. But NGOs are, hopefully not so ‘legally straight-jacketed’, and can still oppose a legal argument with a moral discourse. Obviously, this requires NGOs to develop a profound knowledge of the legal framework to avoid undermining it unintentionally. Furthermore, grounding part of our action in legal foundations, especially in international humanitarian law, reinforces this framework. The law is still one of the best tools available to exert pressure on those with responsibility to protect victims (states, mainly).

Another risk with this approach is that it may transform humanitarian actors into human rights organisations. There is complementarity here, especially over objectives and modes of action, but it would be a mistake to try to fuse the two; victims need both.

But the most important danger in the assistance/protection approach is that it may give NGOs the impression that they are in charge of protecting people. Humanitarian actors have to be extremely careful not to be swallowed up in the protection vacuum created by states’ reluctance to shoulder their protection responsibilities. NGOs possess neither the means nor the mandate for this. Trying to take on such a heavy responsibility will not only be fatal to humanitarian NGOs, but will also surely be detrimental to victims in the long term.

This is where we approach an answer to the question of what humanitarian protection really means. It cannot mean shouldering the primary responsibility for protecting people; this is for states, not non-governmental, humanitarian actors. Rather, what it should mean is identifying and denouncing failures of protection and highlighting the proper responsibilities of states, warring parties, mandated international organisations or new non-state actors, like multinational companies and private security firms. This denunciation is particularly urgent when the failure lies within our own societies. Just because becoming involved in the local politics of the societies in which we operate is fraught with difficulty should not prevent us from doing so at home. This is not a side issue; if war comes in Iraq, independent humanitarian action will certainly be one of the victims.

Concepts such as ‘humanitarian protection’, beyond being nonsense, lead to the false and dangerous impression that humanitarian actors have the responsibility to protect. Our responsibility is rather to compel others to assume theirs; protection, not humanitarian protection, is required. If humanitarian protection has any meaning, it lies in protecting our commitment to the preservation of humanitarian values and independent humanitarian action, not for itself, but for the dignity of the millions of people, from Somalia to Chechnya, who are abandoned by all but a few. As David Rieff puts it, ‘The tragedy of humanitarianism may be that for all its failings and limitations, it represents what is decent in an indecent world’.

Christian Captier is Vice-President of Action contre la Faim, Paris.

References and further reading

Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, ‘The Responsibility To Protect’, Foreign Affairs, November–December 2002.

First Workshop: International humanitarian law and protection (Geneva: ICRC, 1996).

Second Workshop: Protection – Towards Professional Standards (Geneva: ICRC, 1998).

Third Workshop: Protection – Doing Something About It and Doing It Well (Geneva: ICRC, 1999).

Fourth Workshop: The Challenges of Complementarity (Geneva: ICRC, 2000).

Synthesis of the Four Workshops: Strengthening Protection in War (Geneva: ICRC, 2001).

Paul Bonard, Modes of Action Used by Humanitarian Players: Criteria for Operational Complementarity (Geneva: ICRC, 1999).

Christian Captier, ‘Nouveaux Conflits, Nouveau Paradigme Humanitaire’, Nouveaux Mondes, Spring 2002.

David Rieff, ‘Humanitarianism in Crisis’, Foreign Affairs, November–December 2002.


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