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When conflict erupts or disaster strikes, the people affected often need protection - from violence; from exploitation and abuse; from the elements; and of their dignity and human rights. For humanitarian actors such as OCHA, protection is about advocating for, supporting or undertaking activities that aim to obtain full respect for the rights of all individuals in accordance with international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law (Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) endorsed definition).

States have the primary responsibility to protect persons under their control. In situations of natural disasters or civil unrest national authorities are responsible for the well-being of those affected.

In situations of armed conflict, all parties to armed conflict must respect and protect civilians and other persons who are hors de combat (or “out of the battle”), as well as civilian objects, in line with International Humanitarian Law.

Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world with close to 19 million people – two thirds of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. Credit: OCHA/C.Cans

The Security Council has, since 1999, considered the protection of civilians (or “PoC”) in armed conflict on its agenda. The protection of civilians is used to describe measures aimed at limiting the effects of hostilities on civilians and civilian objects in situations of armed conflict, notably through promoting respect for international humanitarian law, applicable human rights law, refugee law and UN Security Council resolutions.

At the normative level, significant progress has been achieved over the past decade with respect to the protection of civilians in armed conflict in the Security Council (see OCHA’s Policy Paper on the evolution of Security Council Norms and Practice on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, 2009-2013). However, this progress has not been matched with better respect of and protection for civilians on the ground.

To this end, Secretary-General Guterres identified three issues that have emerged as priorities across conflicts in his first 2016 Report to the Security Council on the Protection of Civilians, published in May 2017 (S/2017/414):

  1. Enhancing respect for international law and promoting good practice by parties to conflict
  2. Protecting the humanitarian and medical mission and according priority to the protection of civilians in United Nations peace operations, and
  3. Preventing forced displacement and pursuing durable solutions for refugees and internally displaced persons.

In his first briefing to the Security Council on the Protection of Civilians, the Secretary-General outlined his vision to enhance the protection of civilians on the ground around those three priorities, calling each protection actor to uphold its responsibilities: parties to conflict to take concrete steps to limit harm to civilians in their military operations; Member States to use their influence to promote respect for international law and ensure accountability for violations; those engaged in arm transfers to consider the potential consequences of those transfers for human lives and for our common security; and all actors to support the international accountability mechanisms that complement national efforts, including the International Criminal Court.

Centrality of Protection in Humanitarian Action

Protection is a key concern in most humanitarian crises and central to the humanitarian response. As stressed in the IASC’s Policy on Protection in Humanitarian Action, protection is a shared, humanitarian system-wide responsibility. Humanitarian response seeks to enhance protection by minimizing the risks people face and ensuring full respect of their rights, whether they are affected by disaster or armed conflict. Humanitarian actors must also ensure that humanitarian response does not lead to or perpetuate discrimination, abuse, neglect and violence.

The IASC Principals have stressed, in their statement on the Centrality of Protection (2013), that the protection of all persons affected and at risk must inform humanitarian decision-making and response, including engagement with States and non-State parties to conflict, and be central to humanitarian preparedness efforts, as part of immediate and life-saving activities, and throughout the duration of humanitarian response and beyond. This pertains to all humanitarian action, whether in situations of conflict, violence or natural disasters.

At headquarters level, OCHA works closely with and is an active member of the Global Protection Cluster, supports the development of inter-agency policy and guidance, contributes to building inter-agency capacity on protection, and advocates for the integration of protection into the work of other clusters. OCHA also works with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to promote effective and appropriate cooperation on protection where United Nations peacekeeping operations are deployed.

At the country level, OCHA supports the Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) to ensure an effective and coherent response to the protection and assistance needs of affected populations, particularly internally displaced persons (IDPs), including through advocacy and resource mobilization. OCHA supports the HC to ensure that cross-cutting protection concerns are reflected and addressed in the work of all clusters through inter-cluster coordination, that core protection priorities are identified and addressed through humanitarian assessment and strategic planning and that they inform humanitarian decision-making and response. OCHA does not implement specialized protection activities or programmes. OCHA also participates in and supports the Protection Cluster, which is the primary forum responsible for coordinating protection responses, under the leadership of UNHCR. More information on protection clusters is available at the Global Protection Cluster website.