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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 17, special issue: The World Humanitarian Summit

The Evolution of Humanitarian Protection: A Critical Perspective
Arjun Claire

Over the last two decades, protection has gained increasing prominence in humanitarian action. What factors account for it beyond the obvious concerns about civilian safety? This article attempts to critically examine the evolution of protection in the context of humanitarian action, and suggests three factors that may account for its expanded scope: changes to the concept of sovereignty after the cold war, the focus on the needs of internally displaced people and the emergence of global liberal governance. The article also critically reflects on the concept of protection, arguing that a disproportionate focus on external action risks undermining people’s agency.


The transformation of humanitarian action in the 1990s resulted in a radical expansion of humanitarian activities. Having been palliative in nature, humanitarian action refashioned itself into a more preventive endeavour [1], and thus entered new political territory. The consequent ascendancy of human rights, coupled with a permissive environment after the cold war, led to a greater focus on protecting civilians caught up in conflicts. Humanitarian protection–understood here as activities undertaken by humanitarian actors aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of people in accordance with human rights law, international humanitarian law and refugee law–was not new, however. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had been mandated to get involved in protection activities since the Second World War under international humanitarian law (IHL) and refugee law, respectively. Nevertheless, several developments in the 1990s compelled numerous other humanitarian agencies to consider ways of enhancing civilian protection during wars. What were these developments and what factors account for such renewed emphasis on protection among humanitarian actors? This paper attempts to explain the evolution of protection in the context of humanitarian action during the 1990s. It also tries to place protection in the wider context, and understand similar concepts and norms conceived at the international level, with the objective of clearly distinguishing between these different strands.

 The origins of humanitarian protection

Legal protection frameworks have been in place since the Second World War. In fact, the drive to institutionalise civilian immunity was already underway before the war broke out. It was led by the ICRC, which was concerned about the safety of civilians after the horrific loss of life during the First World War and the Spanish Civil War. A draft convention on civilian protection was prepared by 1934, but came into effect only after the Second World War. The Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in time of War was a watershed. It obliged warring parties to ensure the safety of persons not directly participating in hostilities, to allow free passage of food and medicines intended for civilians, and to uphold the rights of all people to receive news from families, among other things. A specific category of civilians – refugees – has also benefitted from legal protection for decades. Following on the heels of the Fourth Geneva Convention was the refugee protection framework, codified as the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1951. A new protocol in 1967 extended the scope of the definition of refugees to include people fleeing persecution outside Europe.

The second thrust to strengthen humanitarian protection came in the 1990s. This was linked to wider geopolitical events. After the end of the cold war, when a spate of civil wars erupted, western states were forced to intervene militarily to protect people in the global South. These interventions, however, proved largely ineffective. Furthermore, the idea of external involvement in a country’s internal affairs met fierce resistance from advocates of sovereignty. Consequently, the interventionist logic of protection a-posteriori gradually gave way to an emphasis on prevention (Chandler, 2012). This emerging paradigm was captured in the concept of human security. Two major reports were instrumental in the elaboration of the concept: Agenda for Peace (1992) and the UNDP’s Human Development Report (1994). The release of these reports reoriented the security focus from states to individuals.

Human security however looked beyond physical violence. It also considered threats to livelihoods, health and environment (Tigerstrom, 2007:28). Canada, a vigorous promoter of the concept, opposed this broader focus. Instead, it chose to emphasise that human security consisted of “promoting safety for people by protecting them from threats of violence”. It incorporated this idea in its foreign policy, and included protection of civilians (PoC) in armed conflicts as one of its five priority themes. It also outlined the concept of PoC at the UN General Assembly in 1996. Although the legal conception of protection of civilians had already been enshrined in the Geneva Conventions since 1949, Canada advocated for a comprehensive approach, including not only respect for international human rights law and humanitarian law, but also support for peace operations, control of small arms proliferation and the accountability of war criminals and non-state actors. In 1999, Canada was instrumental in introducing the first resolution on protection of civilians in armed conflict at the Security Council [2].

[1] Not all humanitarian agencies embraced rights-based humanitarian action. In fact some such as Médecins Sans Frontières “gravitated towards a ‘pure’ humanitarianism” determined to keep politics out of humanitarian action (Barnett, 2009).

[2] For Stensland and Sending (2008), the Canadian government’s PoC activism aimed to buttress its moral capital at a time when the country was vying for a seat at the Security Council. The analysis of such underlying motives, however, is beyond the scope, of this study.

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References, Protection, Arjun Claire, May 2016