“We, like many actors in the field, are confronted with important dilemmas which all tie into protection work and which preoccupy us, not only concretely, but also conceptually,” said Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), at an IPI event on March 19th. The event, entitled “Distinct Approaches and Complementarity of Roles in Protecting Civilians,” was held as part of the commemoration of the ICRC’s 150 years of humanitarian action.
Mr. Maurer shared some of the lessons learned and experiences acquired in the course of ICRC’s 150 years in the field.
For ICRC, engaging in a neutral manner with arms bearers is important, he said, in order to maintain an impartial approach to assistance and to remain as close as possible to victims.
“We have developed our very specific security protocols, which are different from the UN’s system, in not relying on any military protection in our humanitarian work,” he said, explaining that over the years, ICRC has developed policy and legal frameworks supporting their work and flexibly adapting their programs to concrete situations.
Mr. Maurer also addressed a few challenges that the organization faces. “What we witness in many conflicts is the enormous fragmentation of armed groups, complicating negotiations of access, complicating protection work, [and] the development of new weapons, including robotics and distance weapons. We see new types of internal conflicts where crime and conflict, as we understood it in the past, are intertwining in a different way than we are used to,” he said. “We are confronted with new theaters of conflicts.”
“The issue of protection of civilians encapsulates many of these paradoxes of humanitarian action and as a policy issue, it has been high on the international agenda,” he said. Even though progress has been made on the protection of civilians, he argued that the words and good intentions of decision makers are rarely matched by the realities on the ground. He asserted that a reason for this is perhaps because those who create guiding documents are not really involved in interacting with perpetrators and actors on the ground.
Mr. Maurer said protection and assistance goes hand-in-hand for ICRC, explaining that their work in addressing victim’s needs on the ground takes place in hugely diversified situations of armed conflict.
In the political arena, he said ICRC sees confusion in distinguishing what is the neutral and impartial character of principled humanitarian action because it often comes with a political agenda.
“Too often, strategies for the protection of civilians developed in [the] multilateral humanitarian fora come with no concrete instruments or clear methods to apply,” Mr. Maurer argued, adding that a lot of policy statements have no clear operational definitions.
“I would say protection of civilians definitely needs greater clarity on the means and methods in particular to ensure plausible impact on the ground,” he said.
Mr. Maurer was joined in the discussion by Michael Keating, Senior Adviser to the UN Secretary-General’s Executive Office on the protection of civilians. Mr. Keating talked about his work in looking at how the UN can strengthen its capacity to protect civilians and human rights in crisis situations.
He explained the four ways in which he approaches his work, looking at: how the UN can reenergize its own vision regarding protection of civilians and human rights, better engage with member states, strengthen its crisis management, leadership, and coordination, and how it can support and strengthen colleagues in the field who are dealing with crisis and pre-crisis situations.
Mr. Keating argued that it is crucial to have protection strategies for specific situations, adding that the UN is not systematic in its approach. In situations with no UN missions, he said that clearer crisis management mechanisms are needed.
He asserted that the UN needs to engage with member states to reinforce their own responsibilities to protect civilians, and he highlighted the importance of personal leadership and courage. “You cannot manufacture courage, but what you can do is nurture it, recognize it, [and] reward it,” he remarked.
Elizabeth Ferris, co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and author of the book The Politics of Protection: The Limits of Humanitarian Action (Brookings Institution Press, 2011), also joined the discussion, talking about many of the issues in the humanitarian community regarding the notion of protection.
“I think the way in which the humanitarian community has defined protection leads to lots of problem,” she argued.
“Protection and assistance is clearly related, but is all assistance protection? Is every educational program, health program, income generation program protection? Are we perhaps fooling ourselves when we call that protection?” she asked.
“To me, when I think of protection, there is something qualitatively different about keeping people alive, physical security,” she said. By calling many programs protection work, she asserted that they’ve expanded the concept too much, bringing into question the issue of creating expectations among affected communities.
Ms. Ferris also brought attention to the issues humanitarian actors face with the emergence of new technologies.
“In a world of drones and robots and cyber wars, what does protection mean? Who does protection? Who’s monitoring it?” she asked. “The pace of technological change seems to be much faster than the pace of our international legal experts in figuring out what this is going to mean.”
The event was moderated by Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations.