Protecting civilians: the gap between norms and practice

Ashley Jackson


How are civilians protected in armed conflict? A wide array of norms, laws, policies and mechanisms focused on improving the protection of civilians (PoC) in armed conflict have emerged since the early 1990s. These range from international conventions highlighting PoC and the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to PoC-mandated UN peacekeeping missions and the elaboration of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

However, as crises from Syria to the Central African Republic illustrate, these developments have not always translated into improved protection for civilians on the ground. This Policy Brief explores the rapid development of PoC laws and policies and critically examines attempts to translate them into concrete improvements for civilians in conflict situations.

Key findings:

  • The contemporary origins of PoC in International Humanitarian Law (IHL) lie in the aftermath of the Second World War. In response to the brutal treatment of civilians during the conflict, the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 firmly established legal protection for individuals who are not or are no longer participating in hostilities, and their property, as well as protection for those attempting to provide humanitarian assistance. A series of crises in the 1990s – including Somalia, Rwanda and Srebrenica – underscored the toll of conflict on civilians. In the years since, PoC-related norms and policies have dramatically expanded. However, there is a growing sense that this has not translated into improved protection for civilians on the ground. While the expansion of norms, law and policy has been important, poor prioritisation and monitoring of outcomes have hindered their operationalisation.
  • The challenges to effectively implementing a PoC mandate are myriad, from under-resourced or ill-trained forces to a lack of political will. There are also often unrealistic expectations of what missions can achieve. Another contentious issue is the increasing militarisation of peacekeeping missions, which has created tension between peacekeeping and humanitarian agencies over appropriate approaches. Military intervention is not always the most effective or appropriate approach in a given situation, nor is it the most common. There are generally numerous preferable diplomatic, political and economic tactics. The violation of state sovereignty in order to protect civilians has generated intense controversy and the circumstances under which it effectively serves protection objectives are fiercely debated.
  • Until the 1990s, protection in humanitarian action was the nearly exclusive remit of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), both of which are specifically mandated in International Humanitarian Law (IHL) (in the case of ICRC) and through the Convention on the Status of Refugees (in the case of UNHCR) with protection roles. This changed with the genocide in Rwanda and crises elsewhere, which led to new approaches, notably the principle of ‘do no harm’ and a growing focus on protection programming. Whilst there is little humanitarian actors can do to eliminate the protection threats faced by those they seek to help. They can respond to the needs of civilians arising from protection crises and reduce their vulnerability in a number of ways.


  • The rhetoric around protection has led to high expectations. Much more can and should be done. Understanding of civilian needs and the methods they use to protect themselves must be improved, and must play a greater role in influencing policy and programming.


Jackson, A. (2014). Protecting civilians: the gap between norms and practice. Policy Brief No. 56. London:ODI.