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Crossing boundaries in protecting civilians: mapping actors, insights and conceptual spaces


Written by Larissa Fast

Protecting civilians in the midst of violent conflict and war is a core element of humanitarian action. Beyond displacement and threats to life, threats to civilians include deprivation of liberty, sexual and gender-based violence, and preventing access to life-saving assistance.

For humanitarians, protection is about ensuring safety from harm, coercion, violence or deprivation, whether by minimising or reducing the exposure to threat or by creating a safe environment. In practice, however, confusion reigns. Numerous reports about protection cite the lack of clarity regarding what constitutes protection, and who will carry it out and how. Moreover, understandings of protection differ among various actors engaged in protecting civilians in conflict, including peacekeepers, peacebuilders and human rights actors.

This paper aims to cross the invisible boundaries that characterise protection discourse and practice, particularly regarding ‘local’ protection. It explores the strengths and challenges of local protection, and identifies the intersections between different protection actors and protection approaches, particularly in terms of how they work in or with local populations. The product of a desk-based review of ‘grey’ and academic literature about protection, it is guided by four key questions:

  • How do local actors understand and implement protection?
  • How do boundaries and borders change protection, particularly local protection?
  • How do cognate fields incorporate or build upon local protection?
  • How might we more effectively operationalise local understandings of protection to achieve better outcomes? 
Larissa Fast