Protection of Civilians: From Principle to Practice

Led by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik
Aug 2012 - Oct 2016
The protection of civilians (PoC) became a central concern in the international community in the late 1990s, accompanying an upsurge in humanitarian action and peacekeeping. While considerable efforts have been made by the UN and the humanitarian community to integrate PoC in policies, it is less evident how the principle is operationalized and institutionalized in practices on the ground.

This project aimed to ascertain the role and impact of contemporary policies and practices of PoC by exploring the research question: What is the role and impact of contemporary policies and practices of PoC?

As part of the portfolio of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies, the PoC-project has contributed to the development of humanitarianism as a field of study in its own right, internationally and in Norway. The Centre has provided a platform to further critical debate on humanitarian issues and humanitarian policy in Norway, and received a highly positive review in the 2016 HUMPOL evaluation. Over the last three years, the Centre has hosted and co-hosted 77 popular and academic events on humanitarian issues. Together with PRIO, the Centre co-hosts the quarterly Humanitarian Studies Colloquium, which is an academic forum for scholarly discussion of methodological and thematic issues. The Centre has been successful is consolidating collaborations between CMI, NUPI and PRIO, and serves as the hub for NRC research projects on humanitarian issues.

“Policy relevance” has emerged as a major criteria for evaluating the utility and fundability of research. Yet, as researchers we also have a responsibility to think critically about which notion of policy relevance we should go after. As a research collective, we believe that our ambition should be to focus on ethical foreign policy relevance in research on protection of civilians, here understood as:

  • A way of adding to the library of knowledge underpinning a knowledge based humanitarian policy;
  • A mode of unpacking the type of power and resource distribution that flow from PoC initiatives – or do not flow.
  • A commitment to push back on PoC policies that purport to be humanitarian but are not about protecting vulnerable civilians.

The enormous humanitarian suffering resulting from the failed engagements with Syria and Libya and the continuing fallout for international politics has been the key backdrop of this project. In response, the project has studied protection of civilians as a form of global governance, where political actors are produced as protection actors. This includes both the Veto Powers of the Security Council as well as countries considered emerging humanitarian donors such as Turkey and Brazil.  The project has reflected on how humanitarian aid and protection discourses are used as foreign policy while simultaneously re-shaping the humanitarian field.

The Secretary Generals 2016 Agenda for Humanity calls for a concerted global effort to prevent the erosion of international humanitarian and human rights law, and uncompromisingly pursue the protection of civilians. The project has responded to this call by illuminating the complex social and political web which even progressive legal institution building and law reform to protect civilians find themselves in. Here, attention was given to ICC‘s indictment of president al-Bashir and the consequences for activism on reproductive rights and rape law in the Sudan. At the same time, the project has looked at the importance of tailoring PoC to state capacity and existing human rights protection mechanisms.  Specifically, the project has focused on how the Kankuamo indigenous people in Colombia used the Inter-American human rights system for protection and as part of their self-protection efforts.

The project has also begun to develop theories of violence to make sense of deliberate violence against civilians in very different situations of airpower used by state-actors possessing highly sophisticated military technology in Afghanistan, and irregular armies in the context of the Sudanese civil war. Our research on South Sudan suggests there must be a focus on the long-term development of local and regional military practices. Moreover that philosophies of war are of major importance in our understanding of why civilians are not adequately protected, and why they are often targets or legitimate collateral, in particular settings. The US military in Afghanistan did change procedures to reduce unintended civilian casualties from airstrikes.

Through a study of Northern Uganda, the project has laid the groundwork for revisiting the humanitarian-development nexus: at a time of “unprecedented crisis”, when and how to draw the line for what constitutes a humanitarian crisis, and how humanitarian actors relate and respond to changes in their operational environment is of key importance.

Studying return programming for Somali refugees, the project has examined how humanitarian aid provision and withdrawal are instruments for preventing displacement or encouraging return. Humanitarian aid to refugees and internally displaced is commonly understood as a temporary activity that ends when people will return home. Hence, the project finds that there is a risk that humanitarian aid – due both to its sedentary bias and practical (funding) realities – becomes implicated in government attempts to govern mobility.

Taken together, these findings yield a rich starting point for further research on the protection of civilians, a topic which has not lost any of its normative and ethical importance.


Peer-reviewed Journal Article

Kindersley, Nicki & Øystein H. Rolandsen (2019) Who are the civilians in the wars of South Sudan?, Security Dialogue 50(5): 383–397.
Horst, Cindy & Anab Nur (2016) Governing Mobility through Humanitarianism in Somalia: Compromising Protection for the Sake of Return, Development and Change 47(3): 542–562.
Lidén, Kristoffer; Nona Mikhelidze; Elena B. Stavrevska & Birte Vogel (2016) EU support to civil society organizations in conflict-ridden countries: A governance perspective from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus and Georgia, International Peacekeeping 23(2): 274–301.

Book Chapter

Lemaitre, Julieta & Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (2019) From IDPs to Victims in Colombia: Reflections on Durable Solutions in the Postconflict Setting, in Bradley, Megan; James Milner; & Blair Peruniak, eds, Refugees' Roles in Resolving Displacement and Building Peace: Beyond Beneficiaries. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press (187–210).
Lidén, Kristoffer & Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (2016) Poison Pill or Cure-All: Drones and the Protection of Civilians, in Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora; & Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert, eds, The Good Drone. London: Ashgate. London: Ashgate (65–88).
Lindskov Jacobsen, Katja & Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (2016) Introduction: The Quest for an Accountability Cure, in Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora; & Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, eds, UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability, Technology, law and results-based management. London: Routledge Humanitarian Studies (1–25).
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2013) The Multiple Tracks of Human Rights and Humanitarianism, in Derman, Bill; Anne Hellum; & Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, eds, Worlds of Human Rights. the Ambiguities of Rights Claiming in Africa. Leiden: Brill.

Popular Article

Lidén, Kristoffer (2016) Against the Merger of Humanitarianism with Development and Security, Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies Blog, 31 May.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2016) The Refugee Crisis as a Global Humanitarian Challenge, European Council of Foreign Relations, 3 February.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora & Kjersti Lohne (2015) What's wrong with the idea that 'robots don't rape'?, Open Democracy, 1 November.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora & Kjersti Lohne (2015) Lethal Autonomous Weapons: Killing the ‘Robots-don’t-Rape’ Argument, IntLawGrrls, 5 August.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2015) Evaluating Ebola: the politics of the military response narrative, EISF, 16 March.
Lidén, Kristoffer (2014) Do they really care? Protection of Civilians and the Veto Powers, Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies Blog, 18 November.

Conference Paper

Lidén, Kristoffer (2017) Power and Protection: Protection of Civilians and the Geopolitics of Norms at the UN Security Council, presented at BISA 42nd Annual Conference, Roundtable on R2P as a Norm, and its Implementation, Brighton, UK, 15 June.
Lidén, Kristoffer (2016) The Ethics of the Protection of Civilians: Beyond Intervention and Resilience, presented at The World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, Addis Ababa, 5 March.
Lidén, Kristoffer (2015) Luhmann goes to Juba: a systems theoretical perspective on the postliberal condition, presented at Worlds of Violence: 9th Pan-European Conference on International Relations, European International Studies Association, Giardini Naxos, Sicily, Italy , 26 September 2015.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2016) The refugee crisis: a common challenge?, presented at Europe, China and the UN in an Age of Crises, Peking University, 14.01.2016–15.01.2016.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2015) From IDPs to victims in Colombia: Reflections on durable solutions in the post-conflict setting, presented at From beneficiaries to actors: Exploring displaced persons’ roles in resolution processes, McGill University, 14.12.2015–15.12.2015.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2013) The War on Drugs as “Humanitarian Crisis": Examining the Latin American Experience, presented at Seventh Annual Conference of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy, Bogota.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2013) Relief and Disaster Drones: Commercial Logic as Humanitarian Logic?, presented at Spy in the Sky: Regulatory Issues of Drones and Unmanned Aerial Systems, Ljubliana, Slovenia, May 23, 2013.

PRIO Policy Brief

Lidén, Kristoffer & Simon Reid-Henry (2016) What’s in It for Them? Why the Veto Powers All Support Protection of Civilians (And Why They Often Fail to Agree on It), PRIO Policy Brief, 10. Oslo: PRIO.
Horst, Cindy & Tove Heggli Sagmo (2015) Humanitarianism and Return: Compromising Protection?, PRIO Policy Brief, 3. Oslo: PRIO.


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