Flag and 'no guns' logo on an Oxfam vehicle in Kitgum town, Uganda. Photo: Oxfam

What is the ‘Protection of Civilians’ principle?

Oxfam’s definition of the ‘Protection of Civilians’ principle refers to the protection of civilians from widespread threats of violence, coercion, and the deliberate deprivation of aid.

‘Protection of Civilians’ is rooted in International Humanitarian Law which calls on belligerent actors to minimize harm to civilians and civilian property in the conduct of hostilities including from excessive and disproportionate attacks/force. It also calls for the protection of civilians from violence.

Following the atrocities against civilians in the 1990s especially in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda, and the failure of UN peacekeepers and international forces to prevent grave crimes, the UN Security Council started including within the mandates of peacekeeping missions the ‘’protection of civilians from imminent violence”.  

The last decade also saw the development of the norms associated with the “responsibility to protect” and “protection of civilians in armed conflict” which include, yet go beyond, International Humanitarian Law.

Who is responsible for protecting civilians

There are numerous actors involved in protecting civilians. National governments bear the primary responsibility for ensuring that their populations are effectively protected, and all parties to conflict – governments and armed groups – have an obligation to prevent harm to civilians in the conduct of hostilities.

Actors at local level also play an important role, particularly where rights activists, civil society organizations (CSOs), women’s groups, and communities speak out on abuses and work to prevent violence. International actors, such as individual national governments, regional and international organizations, and the UN system all have important roles to play in raising awareness about situations, acting to preventing violence before it occurs, and taking measures to respond to grave situations of abuse.

Principles for humanitarian actions

Humanitarian organizations also have a role in protecting civilians. Recently, the international humanitarian community agreed on four basic Protection Principles that should inform all humanitarian actions.

These principles are found in the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response:

  • 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.

Oxfam's work on the Protection of Civilians

In 2008, Oxfam published “For a Safer Tomorrow”, a thematic report on protection of civilians. Based on our experience working in conflicts and crises, the report recognized that effective protection of civilians can not only be about the use of force.

More recently, Oxfam released “Protection of Civilians in 2010: Facts, figures, and the UN Security Council’s response” (May 2011), a briefing paper calling on the UN Security Council to adopt a more fair and consistent approach to the plight of civilians in conflict and based on reliable information on threats to civilians informing options for response.

Oxfam will continue to be a strong voice in the humanitarian community speaking out on Protection of Civilians issues, and seeking to raise the voice of the communities we work with affected by conflict around the world.

Read more

Oxfam's report: ‘We are entirely exploitable’: The lack of protection for civilians in eastern DRC

Oxfam's Conflicts and Disasters campaign

International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

The Sphere Project

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