Protection in Humanitarian Emergencies

Protection is “all activities aimed at ensuring full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of law” (ICRC 2009).

Role of Humanitarian Organizations

Protection activities should be carried out regardless of age, gender, social, ethnic, national, religious, or other background. In the context of humanitarian emergencies, protection refers to either of the following:

- Protection of civilians in times of armed conflict, whereby parties to conflict are responsible for ensuring that civilian populations are protected

- Protection in times of natural disasters or civil unrest, whereby national governments have the primary responsibility for the well-being of affected populations

In humanitarian disasters or situations of civil unrest, national authorities have primary responsibility for the wellbeing of affected populations. In times of armed conflict, all parties to conflict have an obligation to respect and protect civilians enhance humanitarian access to civilian populations under international law. Where national authorities fail to protect civilian populations in this regard, humanitarian organizations may intervene to help protect the rights of those affected. This may be done by directly assisting populations or through advocacy to encourage those who hold primary responsibility to meet their obligations. Some humanitarian organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have a specific protection mandate, as do all member agencies of the Humanitarian Coalition.

When people are subject to violence and coercion, humanitarian organizations play responsive, remedial and environment-building roles to help protect civilians. Such activities include protection of children, for example, will often include providing for them safe spaces in which to learn and play. The protection of women from sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) will often include engaging healthcare providers, police forces and legal actors to assist women, punish perpetrators and deter future acts of SGBV. The protection of internally displaced people (IDPs) will often include helping arrange temporary shelter for them where they are safe from violence and the elements. The specific protection activities will depend on the nature of the emergency, the humanitarian needs that arise, and particular sub-groups of beneficiaries.

Among other specific areas of humanitarian relief, protection is one of the 11 Humanitarian Clusters that operate on a global and local level. Humanitarian actors are but a single set of actors who contribute to the protection of civilians. Enhancing the protection of affected populations often also requires action by peacekeeping, human rights, political, and development actors.

The Sphere Humanitarian Charter

The following protection-related principles are found in the Sphere Humanitarian Charter. The Sphere Project is a network of humanitarian agencies looking to improve the quality of humanitarian assistance and accountability of humanitarian actors.

- Avoid exposing people to further harm as a result of your actions;

- Ensure people’s access to impartial assistance – in proportion to need and without discrimination;

- Protect people from physical and psychological harm arising from violence and coercion;

- Assist people to claim their rights, access available remedies and recover from the effects of abuse.