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Informality and protection: understanding the role of informal non-state actors in protecting civilians

Communities affected by conflict are not passive in the face of threats to their safety and security: they take action to protect themselves, their families and other community members, and look to political, military and other actors – including those operating in the informal sphere, such as tribal networks, faith-based groups and youth groups.

There is currently a dearth of research on how these informal non-state actors define and conceptualise the norms and rules governing their behaviour as ‘protectors’ of civilians in armed conflict and their relationships with the wider community, and the degree to which these actors themselves abide by these norms or expect others to do so.

Little is known about whether these norms are different from or not perceived as being part of those laid down by international law (international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law). While there are studies that look at, for example, the role played by armed non-state actors or the engagement between tribes and governments, traditional mediation strategies and peacekeeping through local networks and faith-based organisations, this work is limited in scope.

There is limited systematic and in-depth analysis on how these structures engage in protection, what kind of rules and codes they use, how they enforce them within their communities and how these actors, structures and codes interact with the formal humanitarian system.

Do informal actors have stronger bargaining capacities with those posing a protection threat than formal actors within a humanitarian crisis, and thus better access to affected people? What are the costs and benefits of protection by informal actors as compared to formal ones?

This project takes as its subject of study groups of non-state actors, and more specifically unarmed non-state actors that are organised to some degree and whose existence predates a particular conflict. The research seeks to identify who these informal actors are in a given context, and shed light on their understanding of protection and how they can contribute to – or undermine – protection outcomes for civilians in conflict.

It will investigate how informal non-state actors (excluding armed groups or de facto authorities) define protection, the assets (social, economic and cultural capital) they use and how they engage among themselves as well as with other institutionalised actors/entities; how affected communities perceive the outcome and impact of informal non-state actors’ role in protection; and the degree to which affected communities make a distinction between formal and informal actors when it comes to protection outcomes.

The aim is to assist actors engaged in ‘formal’ protection activities, including national governments, peacekeepers and humanitarian organisations, in deciding how to engage with entities whose point of reference may not necessarily be IHL, but whose role may be critical for the protection of civilians affected by conflict.


Victoria Metcalfe-Hough, Sarah Adamczyk, Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy, Larissa Fast

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