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Protecting Civilians in War: the ICRC, UNHCR and their Limitations in Contemporary Armed Conflicts

Friday December 12, 2014, from 14:00 to 16:00
Room Fred Halliday 24.S16 - Mercè Rodoreda Building (Floor -1)
Research seminar

Since the end of the Cold War, the protection of civilians during armed conflict has received increasing attention from humanitarian agencies and the international community more broadly. However, there is a broad consensus among humanitarians that outcomes are falling short of intentions, and that the increased emphasis on protection by humanitarian actors has failed to yield a corresponding improvement in the security of civilian populations. Against this background, and focusing in particular on the protection efforts of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), this paper has two main aims. First, drawing on interviews with staff at headquarters and in field offices across Colombia, the DRC and Myanmar, it seeks to explain how these two organizations understand protection, and how they go about putting that understanding into practice.  Second, it seeks to identify some of the key limitations of their protection approaches. It argues that both the ICRC and UNHCR have adopted state-centric approaches which are inherently limited in contemporary conflicts.

Internal conflicts by definition include armed non-state actors, and this book emphasises their significance in determining civilian safety and security, and their relative neglect in existing humanitarian approaches to protection. While the ICRC seeks to reduce the threat posed by all armed actors (state and non-state) in its work at the field level, it relies heavily on an international legal framework which prioritises states and this partially undermines its attention to non-state actors at the field level. UNHCR retains a state-centric focus across the different levels of its work.

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