Adapting to new challenges to better protect people caught up in war or other violence

17-04-2013 Interview

To ensure that people receive the protection to which they are entitled, the work carried out in their behalf has to be constantly adapted to the rapidly changing environment. Guilhem Ravier, who is responsible for ICRC activities aimed at protecting civilians, explains.

What can be done to protect people in armed-conflict situations, and why do they need protection?

Millions of people throughout the world suffer the effects of war and violence. States and armed groups are responsible for protecting civilians from the effects, but they are frequently unable or unwilling to do so. Indeed, they may themselves be the instigators of violence against civilians and others requiring protection.

The work carried out to ensure that people entitled to protection under international law actually receive it takes various forms – for example, it involves visiting detainees to make sure that the conditions in which they are being held and the treatment they are receiving are in line with certain standards, reminding warring parties of their obligations, and seeing to it that people have access to health care.

What exactly is it that humanitarian organizations refer to as "protection work"?

Protection work consists in promoting compliance with the rules of international law, in particular international humanitarian law, preventing or putting an end to violations of the law, and easing the suffering that ensues when the rules are not obeyed. Another aim of protection work is to minimize the dangers to which people are exposed.

The people concerned are protected by international humanitarian law and other rules relating to the conduct of hostilities. The role of protection workers is to try to ensure that those responsible for implementing the law actually do so.

What has changed recently in protection work?

There have been many changes. Let me just mention two that have had a considerable impact. Firstly, there is the use of new technologies for protection work, which brings both new opportunities and new challenges. For instance, sensitive data collected remotely must be properly managed, so as not to endanger the people concerned. Secondly, UN peace-keeping forces and other internationally-mandated military and police forces are now regularly tasked with “protecting civilians.” Humanitarian and human rights agencies must therefore decide how to relate to these forces, in order to avoid confusion and to ensure complementarity.

I should perhaps also mention that more and more organizations are becoming involved in protection activities around the world. Those involved have complementary roles but perform different tasks and use different approaches. It is important that we understand who is carrying out protection work and what they are doing; only then can specific responsibilities be assigned to each in a way that optimizes resources and meets overall needs.

What are the basic principles guiding the activities of protection workers?

The main principles are to ensure respect for the human being and to do no harm. Protection work must be carried out in the best interests of, and be agreed to by, those it is intended to help. And of course it must not expose people to greater danger but instead make them more secure.

To be successful, protection activities require a number of skills combined with a highly developed sense of ethics. All of this is covered in a manual entitled "Professional Standards for Protection Work," which has just been reissued in a revised edition – the result of a broad, ICRC-led consultation process involving humanitarian and human rights organizations engaged in protection.

How do new technologies influence the way the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations work to protect people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence?

It's mainly a matter of collecting data and communicating with the people concerned. Information on abuses of human rights, violations of international humanitarian law, etc., can be collected and shared very quickly. The information can even be made available by the people directly affected, for whom it is urgent to raise awareness of their situation and needs. Social networking sites, micro-blogging and text messages have been used by people in Syria, Libya and elsewhere to ask the ICRC for help. Communication technologies can be used to identify trends of abuses, locate communities that need help, and plan appropriate action.

Crowdsourcing can be an extremely efficient way to collect and analyse information on violence or abuses taking place, and on the effect they are having on individuals and communities. New technologies do not only offer advantages, however. Their use also raises a host of issues relating to the protection of sources, the loss of control over personal data, data misuse, etc.

How do protection workers deal with the downside of using the new technologies?

Whenever information is collected, it must be with the aim of enhancing the safety and dignity of the people involved. Protection workers should always assess the risks and try to keep them to a minimum. It is important to uphold high standards of transparency and accuracy, and to obtain the informed consent of the people concerned.

At the ICRC, the protection of data is a permanent concern. For example, we run a website that helps members of dispersed families restore contact with one another. We have gone to great lengths to protect the data of people using the site to make enquiries, of the people they are looking for and indeed of everyone else. Only authorized Red Cross and Red Crescent personnel can modify data on the site. This is very different from other websites, where data can be seen, and even modified, by anyone.

What is the relationship between protection workers and the military and police forces whose responsibility it is to protect civilians?

The protection responsibilities of peacekeepers are very different from those of humanitarian and human rights agencies working in the field of protection. Peacekeepers must comply with IHL when they are drawn into hostilities. In some circumstances, they may have to take action to protect civilians against the parties to the conflict. Their role is therefore distinct from that of humanitarian and human rights organizations, and complementary to it.

Confusion between these roles may result in increased difficulties for humanitarian and human rights agencies: such confusion may prevent humanitarian workers from accessing people who require their help and may even put them in additional danger, as not everyone may view UN peace-keeping forces as neutral and impartial. Protection workers should therefore consider carefully the effect that this sort of cooperation could have on their image and acceptance.