By Lara Kajs
International humanitarian law is a set of policies that work to limit the effects of armed conflict and exists to protect civilians who are not involved in the conflict or are victims of the conflict. These rules also limit the means and methods of carrying out warfare. 


Humanitarian groups and personnel face many challenges resulting from military operations having protection of civilians overtly included in their mandates. Although it may be desirable to keep humanitarian and military action separate, in many cases humanitarian personnel need the military for protection and logistical purposes. When there is armed conflict the military has an obligation under international humanitarian law to provide humanitarian protection and assistance to populations in need in territories under their control. 

Obligation to Protect

International humanitarian law mandates that occupying powers are obligated to assist and protect civilians. Peacekeeping forces are never considered occupying powers. A State that holds a certain degree of power or control over persons is obligated under international human rights laws to provide protection and aid for the civilians under their jurisdiction. According to Marco Sassòli, professor of international law and Director of the Department of International Law and International Organization at the University of Geneva, it is never as clear as black and white.
With regard to peacekeeping forces and their responsibility under international human rights law and international humanitarian law; there are many questions. One example Professor Sassòli illustrates is the situation in Srebrenica. At first, Dutch peacekeeper accepted Bosnians who were fleeing into their camps, but then left the Bosnian refugees to the brutality of the Bosnian Serbs. In this case, the peacekeeping forces failed in their duty for the protection of civilians.

Mandates for the protection of civilians exist for a reason and for the most part, the vast majority of humanitarian groups support the inclusion of humanitarian elements in mission mandates for example the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO).  However, Professor Sassòli posits that the position of neutrality taken by humanitarian groups can be compromised when military forces are used in protection activities.

The Divide

One of the problems in the divide between humanitarian groups and military forces in the protection of civilians is that there are many different understandings of how protection of civilians is interpreted and in most cases it depends on how it serves the particular purposes of the State. One way to avoid misperceptions and miscommunication is for all parties (humanitarian groups and military forces) to clearly state the working definition for protection of civilians and all parties agree to the working definition.
Different humanitarian groups rely on different methods for strengthening protection of civilians. For example the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) relies on confidential joint negotiation with military forces, unlike other humanitarian groups who rely on public advocacy. Still others use a combination of methods. 
Military actors often use force as their primary mean of implementing protection of civilians – such as in Colombia where military bases were established in villages. This act put villagers at risk of becoming victims of attacks by FARC. The government justified it by saying the villagers needed protection.  
In situations of armed conflict where international humanitarian law (and the protection of civilians) is not respected, many humanitarian groups may compromise their neutrality to ensure protection. Coordination is critical. Whereas in the past – when there were few humanitarian groups – it was not critically necessary to coordinate with all the actors involved.
Today, there is a higher need for coordination with regard to protection of civilians. Humanitarian groups may interact with military forces and peacekeeping forces as part of a protection solution; in which case the opposing side or armed opposition may look upon humanitarian groups as partial to a particular cause or side.
Featured Image: UN (French) troops are dispatched to the Central African Republic. Photo: Reuters