The UN recognizes the international community’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) civilians during conflict, and this philosophy has quickly become embedded in peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions, but a new report questions some basic humanitarian assumptions.
R2P evolved in the 1990s in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in realization that states could no longer be relied on to protect civilians, so the onus was placed on the international community to prevent gross human rights abuses, a belief that has since been cited as a reason to intervene in places like Libya and Syria.
Yet the reality - reinforced by a new study from the UK’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI) entitled Local to Global Protection in Myanmar (Burma), Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe - is that in conflicts and crisis people almost always have to provide their own protection, for themselves, their families and their villages.
ODI’s Humanitarian Practice Network set out to see what protection there was for communities facing real and serious crises in two areas of Myanmar, in the Sudanese province of South Kordofan, in Jonglei State in South Sudan, and in Zimbabwe. Their researchers asked people what they saw as the most serious threats they faced, what they themselves could do about the threats, and what they thought of any outside help which might have been available.
Nils Carstensen, who coordinated the project (known as Local to Global Protection) said at the London launch of the report on 8 February: “We had an annoying sense of disconnect on several levels; a sense of disconnect between much of the talking and writing about humanitarian protection, and the impression that this... was not being mirrored by any actual improvement for those in need of protection. Also there was a disconnect between our own international efforts at protection, and then a multitude of local, or community based local activities aimed at protection which seemed to be running in a different stream.”
The threats faced were many and various: aerial bombardment in Kordofan, cattle raiding in Jonglei, being trapped in the middle of a long insurgency in Karen regions of Myanmar, hunger and destitution in areas hit by Cyclone Nargis, political harassment and impoverishment in Zimbabwe. But they also cited threats that did not fall into the normal humanitarian categories of rights abuse - threats to their cattle, for instance, or other aspects of their livelihoods, or threats to their solidarity and life as a community.
They also all considered their own actions to protect themselves as more important than anything done by outsiders. “They saw official efforts,” said Carstensen, “as rather modest, in fact non-existent, or even counter-productive.”
Get out of the way
The most widespread protection strategy was also the simplest - people got out of the way. Karen villagers took refuge in the jungle, people in South Kordofan fled into the Nuba Mountains. There they survived using their knowledge of wild foods and medicines, and crops and livestock which would tolerate difficult conditions. Elsewhere people moved to towns, to refugee camps on even to neighbouring countries to look for work.
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Being prepared for the worst was important, staying alert to threats and having enough savings or cattle or stocks of food. And people relied on each other, on sharing and solidarity and mutual help.
The weak also sought protection by trying to ally themselves with the strong. Community leaders and religious leaders with good connections could negotiate concessions or protection for their people. Individuals might rely on family connections or pay bribes to officials. Zimbabweans bought ruling party cards regardless of their actual political affiliations.
In the conflict areas of Myanmar, having a son join an armed group might help. “My nephew became a Peace Council (PC) soldier in order to protect the family,” one Karen villager told the researcher. “As someone connected to the PC we can travel freely and get no trouble at checkpoints.”
Some of these strategies had significant and negative consequences, Carstensen said.
Others could be actively supported by outside agencies, but might lead to places where they would be reluctant to go. Promoting alliances with armed actors would be anathema to many humanitarian actors. And how should they respond to victims who want to arm themselves for their own protection? Some villages in Myanmar have even taken to laying their own landmines to keep intruders out, which the country researcher Ashley South said was a “dilemma” of risk for protection.
Give us guns
Protection issues have been particularly fraught in South Sudan where government disarmament programmes have left villages feeling vulnerable to those without guns. Drum warnings and unarmed patrols can only do so much. Dinka interviewed by the author of the Jonglei study, Simon Harrigin, were baffled by being offered capacity building workshops to discuss protection issues. “If you want to help us,” they responded, “provide us with guns.”
Harrigan argued conventional systems rely on a law structure which is currently non-existent in this part of South Sudan, and that disarmament might not be the best solution in the present security vacuum. “Everyone is saying disarmament, disarmament, disarmament, but who is providing security?”
Asked by IRIN what the consequences of compulsory disarmament might be where voluntary disarmament had failed, Harrigan said: “People have been fleeing to the marshes since 1991, and know exactly where to hide weapons when forced disarmament comes along. So they will be off like a shot to the `toich’ [low lying lands suffering seasonal flooding] to hide their guns [with any forced disarmament programme].”
What the report highlighted was that full-scale peacekeeping missions were seldom the answer to protection at village level.
Nuba representatives at the launch event were particularly critical of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), comparing it unfavourably with the much more modest Joint Military Commission which preceded it. Salaam Tutu, of Nuba Mountains Solidarity Abroad, told IRIN: “UNMIS don't have direct connection with local people. We look on them as foreigners, not as people who have come to give us protection. The JMC, if there was any problem in a village they would try to solve it, but UNMIS don't do the same.”
Hair extensions and conflict
The report recognized effective protection as understanding what local people see as priorities, and being flexible enough to respond even to unconventional requests, like demands, in South Kordofan, for guitar strings, beads and hair extensions so that, even in the middle of protracted war and hunger, the community could still celebrate weddings and other occasions with music and dancing.
Justin Corbett, author of the South Kordofan/Nuba section of the report, said at the launch: “Psychological needs came up again and again… What I mean is the needs that go beyond food and water.”
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“The reason why NGOs were worried about this [hair extensions] was donor compliance and how this might look publicly. How strange - isn’t it - that the very people who are protecting themselves and identify what they think might help them, we [then] find the mainstream humanitarian mechanism can’t actually deliver that, because it doesn’t fit into our [humanitarian] box. You don’t give hair extensions when people are dying in a war, say we [the humanitarian community].”
The head of ODI's Humanitarian Policy Group, Sara Pantuliano, said the report’s findings were a “very damning account of the ineffectiveness of international effort…
“The structures we have set up,” she said, “have moved us, as international aid actors, more and more away from the people... They have made the response not nimble enough, more risk averse, more constrained and less able to engage with the specificity of the local situation, where there may be initiatives which we could strengthen.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions