Yet the nations who signed the key texts of the Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Additional Protocols of 1977 committed themselves to this “responsibility to protect” (Article 1 common to the 4 Geneva Conventions: “The High Contracting Parties undertake to respect and to ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances”).

This question has recently been on the agenda of the international community with the UN Secretary-General’s report, “The Responsibility to Protect” and the reform of the UN Human Rights Commission.

What can and should be done concretely in the field to protect civilian populations remains a burning question, and particularly with regard to the Darfur crisis – qualified as a protection crisis – just ten years after the Rwanda genocide. More specifically, clarification is needed about the role of humanitarian NGOs and how much (other than rhetoric) is devoted to ’protection’ in their programmes. It is also important to consider the effect of the International Criminal Court on NGOs’ ‘witnessing’ role.

Meanwhile, humanitarian actors are increasingly being targeted. The more civilians are targeted, the more those who are trying to bring them aid become targets. For some time now, field observers have noted with alarm how the situation is getting worse.

For almost a decade, a certain number of field workers and researchers have been trying to identify a way in which to meet the double challenge of protecting populations and ensuring the safety of humanitarian field workers.

These issues are discussed in several forums in France, notably the French High Council for International Cooperation (HCCI) and the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH). Groupe URD has been working on them for more than ten years and has followed the work of related international projects, notably the ICRC and Harvard University.

These issues were the focus of the 5th Autumn School on Humanitarian Aid which brought together specialists from a variety of international organisations, researchers and field workers.