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Humanitarian diplomacy and protection advocacy in an age of caution

Briefing/policy papers

Written by Mark Bowden, Victoria Metcalfe-Hough

Hero image description: The United Nations Security Council Image credit:UN Photo/Mark Garten Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Since the United Nations (UN) came into existence 75 years ago, its Charter has tasked it with promoting ‘international peace and security’, including through the ‘pacific settlement of disputes’. Mediation and coordinating diplomatic efforts to secure peace are therefore two of the organisation’s core functions.

UN leaders have a unique role and responsibility to enhance the protection of civilians affected by war and to promote greater compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law. However, there have been increasing concerns that, due to both internal and external factors, UN organisations and leaders have become more cautious in their engagement with conflict parties and third-party states on protection issues.

This briefing note seeks to understand to what extent senior UN leaders are fulfilling their responsibilities in this respect, to explore the extent of and reasons for a more cautious approach and to identify what factors inhibit the effectiveness of their engagement with conflict actors on protection issues.

Key messages

  • United Nations humanitarian and political leaders have a key role in promoting respect for international humanitarian and human rights law by all conflict parties and should be held accountable for delivering on this task.
  • Lack of clarity on the different roles and responsibilities of UN entities and leaders, and a failure to harness the organisation’s multidisciplinary capacities and authority, inhibit more robust engagement by UN leaders with conflict parties and third-party states on their responsibilities to protect civilians.
  • UN leaders that do undertake ‘protection advocacy’ are not given adequate political or technical support – they are challenged by a still-fragmented UN system, competing and incomplete analyses, an overly technocratic approach to protection and little political backing from headquarters.
  • More effective protection advocacy by UN leaders requires a more coherent culture of protection across the organisation, including clarification of roles and responsibilities and strengthened tools and capacities for engaging conflict parties.
  • Ultimately, UN leaders will only be effective in their advocacy with conflict parties if they are supported by member states. Member states have tasked UN leaders to speak up on behalf of victims of armed conflict – they must end this ‘age of caution’ and provide the diplomatic and other support UN leaders need to fulfil this critical task.