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 aims 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?


We will answer this question by:

(1) Examining how the principle of PoC is operationalized on the ground by humanitarian, security, and other actors;

(2) Situating these practices through field-based analyses of the security situation of intended beneficiaries, including displaced persons and vulnerable groups (women, children and indigenous peoples);

(3) Ascertaining how the implementation of PoC programs affects and is experienced by these groups and the wider host communities; and

(4) Drawing lessons for how the efficiency and legitimacy of the studied PoC efforts might be improved in light of organizational, political and ethical preconditions.


​The project features an international multi-disciplinary team (anthropology, history, law, geography, philosophy and political science) whose work will be organized into three work packages:

  • The work package on Local Practices includes case studies of Afghanistan, Colombia, the Sudans, Uganda, Liberia, and the Horn of Africa.
  • The work package on International Policies includes case studies of PoC in light of institutionalization processes, the veto powers, and emerging powers.
  • The work package on Comparison, Ethics and Policy Implications incorporates the analysis of the political, organizational and ethical conditions for various policy options.

Fieldwork has now been carried out in Afghanistan, Colombia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey, Uganda and at the UN. The case study on Liberia has been cancelled, due to the outbreak of Ebola. We now have several interesting preliminary findings on how protection of civilians plays out on the ground.

The study of the conflict in the Blue Nile in Sudan indicates that there is considerable spatial variation in the kind of threats civilians are facing and a fragmentation of responsibility among a bewildering array of potential protection providers. This situation results in conflicting definitions of the civilians and in overlap and fragmentation of responsibility. Thus informal actors within the refugee and host populations become more important. For protection interventions to be effective it is necessary for external protection providers to acknowledge the agency and institutions of the people that are to be protected and to include them in UN and NGO programming.

The study on the Somali refugee  and IDP population  in Nairobi (Kenya), Hargeisa (Somaliland) and Mogadishu (Somalia) argues that humanitarian protection policies and practices suffer from a  sedentary bias, built on assumptions of the natural rootedness of displaced populations. This impacts protection frameworks and realities. The protection needs and strategies of the displaced themselves are to a large extent related to their mobility. Yet, humanitarian approaches to displaced populations are commonly understood as a temporary activity that ends when people will return 'home'. In analyzing the increasing programming directed at the return of displaced Somalis, the study argues that there is an acute tension between refugee protection and states' interest in refugee return.

The case study from Uganda explores the transition from humanitarian action to development activities in Northern Uganda. It demonstrates how the transition. and indeed growing nexus of  humanitarianism and development are not only due to a donor driven «humanitarian mission creep» but also the result of pragmatic choices made by actors in the field in response to a rigid understanding of the humanitarian principles as well as the host government's assessment of and politics in the area.

The study on Colombia aims to fill a knowledge gap about the possibility of having internationally mandated legal protection measures work. In 2003 and 2004, the Kankuamo of the Sierra Nevada received protection measures from the Inter American Commission of human rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Human Rights Court to counter an ongoing ethnocide. In 2011, these measures were lifted. The study finds that to understand the relevance and impact of such measures, it is necessary to explore how beneficiaries understand the measures, and how the measures interact with self-protection measures employed by participants.

Finally, the study on PoC practices in Afghanistan finds that during its engagement in Afghanistan, the U.S. military seriously tried to mitigate the risk of civilian casualties from airstrikes only when called for by changes in military doctrine emphasizing the need to gain the support of the population. Consistent efforts by external political and humanitarian actors to reduce casualties by demanding more transparency and clearer lines of accountability for 'collateral damage' had little immediate, observable effect. The study underlines the contingent nature of progress towards protecting civilians in armed conflict even when a military institution formally accepts the principles of customary international humanitarian law, but concludes that, faute de mieux, strategies to enhance protection through greater accountability and attention to the kind of military ordinance used remain central.

This project is placed under the umbrella of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS).


Peer-reviewed Journal Article

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

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 .
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2016) Introduction: The Quest for an Accountability Cure , in Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, ed., UNHCR and the Struggle For Accountability, Technology, Law and Results-Based Management. London: Routledge Humanitarian Studies .
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2013) The Multiple Tracks of Human Rights and Humanitarianism , in Derman, Bill;Hellum, Anne; & Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora, eds, Worlds of Human Rights. the Ambiguities of Rights Claiming In Africa. Brill.

Popular Article

Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2016) The Refugee Crisis as a Global Humanitarian Challenge, European Council of Foreign Relations.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora & Kjersti Lohne (2015) What's wrong with the idea that 'robots don't rape'?, Open Democracy.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora & Kjersti Lohne (2015) Lethal Autonomous Weapons: Killing the ‘Robots-don’t-Rape’ Argument, Intlawgrrls.
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2015) Evaluating Ebola: the politics of the military response narrative, EISF.
Lidén, Kristoffer (2014) Do they really care? Protection of Civilians and the Veto Powers, Norwegian Centre For Humanitarian Studies Blog.

Conference Paper

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) Relief and Disaster Drones: Commercial Logic as Humanitarian Logic?Ljubliana, Slovenia.
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.

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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