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Advocating for humanity? Securing better protection of civilians affected by armed conflict

Briefing/policy papers

Written by Victoria Metcalfe-Hough

Hero image description: United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) peacekeeper watches over the camp for internally displaced people in Khor Abeche, South Darfur in 2014 Image credit:Albert Gonzalez Farran/UNAMID Image license:CC BY-NC-ND

In 2020, more than 30 violent armed conflicts are raging across the world. Though they vary in duration, geographic spread and geopolitical impact, these conflicts are all characterised by one common factor: the devastating impact on the civilian population. More humanitarian actors are delivering more assistance and services to more people than ever before, so why are violations of international humanitarian law by state and non-state parties to conflict still so widespread and systematic? Why have humanitarians been unable to persuade conflict parties to stop attacks against, or incidental harm to, civilians?

This briefing note explores some of the key inhibitors to more impactful advocacy or engagement with conflict parties and third-party states on the protection of civilians affected by armed conflict.

Key messages

  • Engaging conflict parties in order to persuade them to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law and thereby protect civilians is a core tenet of humanitarian protection work.
  • But current engagement efforts are generally ad hoc, unstrategic and, critically, largely ineffective in influencing the behaviour of states and non-state actors.
  • International humanitarian actors that have a responsibility to engage conflict parties on protection issues often fail to capitalise on local agency or to work in complementarity with other international actors that share similar goals of protecting civilians affected by war.
  • Geopolitics, the increasing complexities of armed conflicts, system-wide gaps in capacities for analysis and negotiations, high levels of risk aversion and inadequate leadership all inhibit more effective protection advocacy.
  • A radical rethink of strategies and tactics is required: drawing lessons from recent popular non-violent action, partnering with local and other international actors in a way that minimises risks and maximises respective comparative advantages, and setting new objectives that navigate the geopolitical environment all offer possible ways forward.