Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Where is the United Nations Policy on the Protection of Civilians?

Stuart Casey-Maslen

Given the primacy accorded to the protection of civilians by the United Nations (UN) Security Council and individual UN agencies and bodies, one would expect there to be a system-wide UN policy on the issue. But there is not. In the work International Law and Policy on the Protection of Civilians, which I co-authored with Tobias Vestner at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), we explore some of the reasons for this seemingly glaring lacuna.

The UN Department of Peace Operations (DPO) points to the absence of a definition of the notion across the UN as a key factor. But “It’s complicated!” is not a justification for the failure of the global organisation to clarify and coordinate policy on the protection of civilians, it is just an axiomatic description of the world we—and they—inhabit. After all, countering terrorism is also complicated, but the UN still has a plan of action to tackle it supported by regular reviews, while remaining incapable of agreeing upon a single, clear definition of what terrorism is (and isn’t).

Indeed, while differences about the underlying premise of forcible action to protect civilians divides opinion, every single Member State is a party to the 1949 Geneva Convention IV on the protection of civilians. They thus accept they have an international legal duty to respect and protect civilians. Most are also party to the 1977 Additional Protocols that offer protection also during the conduct of hostilities. Of the five permanent UN Security Council members, only the United States is not yet a State Party and it accepts that almost all the relevant provisions are of a customary law nature.

For sure, negotiating a plan of action would be a significant undertaking. But in our view it be worth the effort. Piecemeal work by the Security Council, DPO, the World Food Programme (WFP), and others is no substitute for clarity of purpose. UNICEF, which advocates for the protection of children in armed conflict, does not itself have an agency policy setting out its principles and priorities in this regard. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency that chairs the protection cluster in complex emergencies, is in the same situation.

There is an Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) definition on the protection of civilians, adopted in 1999 following work by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC): “all activities aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of law (i.e. International Human Rights Law (IHRL), International Humanitarian Law, International Refugee law (IRL))” But as observed by an independent 2015 review of protection in humanitarian action, which had been commissioned by the IASC, practitioners strongly question its utility. Moreover, the lack of a common understanding of the UN definition of protection contributes, it concluded, “to dysfunctional approaches that fail to identify, at the system level, the diverse range of actions required, including challenging imminent threats to life for at-risk populations”.

In May 2022, the UN Secretary-General issued his latest report on the protection of civilians. He duly urged States and non-State armed groups “to adopt and share policies and practices to strengthen the protection of civilians, and to develop national policy frameworks that build upon those policies and practices”. All well and good. He concluded that parties to conflict and States “must apply much greater political will and commitment to respect the rules and implement good policies and practices”. Without a shadow of a doubt. But where is the UN policy that would set the example for others to follow? As Albert Einstein famously said: “Setting an example is not the main means for influencing others, it is the only means.”

International Law and Policy on the Protection of Civilians by Stuart Casey-Maslen and Tobias Vestner
International Law and Policy on the Protection of Civilians by Stuart Casey-Maslen and Tobias Vestner

About The Author

Stuart Casey-Maslen

Stuart Casey-Maslen is the author of The Right to Life under International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2021), the first comprehensive treatment of this fundamental right. He h...

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