Protection work during armed conflict and other situations of violence: professional standards

01-12-2009 Interview

The number of humanitarian and human rights organizations carrying out protection work during war and other situations of violence is on the increase. It is therefore necessary to agree upon common professional standards, for the sake of those whom these organizations are aiming to help. That is the objective of a document the ICRC has just published in conjunction with a number of other organizations. Explanations from Pierre Gentile, who is responsible both for ICRC activities aimed at protecting civilians and for this project.

What are these "Professional Standards for Protection Work" and for whom are they intended?

They are the fruit of consultations with a number of humanitarian and human rights organizations involved in promoting the protection and rights of people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence. The idea was to identify the minimum level of skills and professional ethics required to carry out protection work.

Protection involves highly sensitive areas – violations of the law, victims of abuse and the responsibility of authorities and armed groups. The main objective of these standards is to provide better protection for those who need it, and to make sure we do not put them in even greater danger.

These standards are not a manual. The idea is not to tell humanitarian workers how they should do their job. The aim is to make sure that we carry out our protection work professionally and that we do not harm the people we are trying to help.

Where did this initiative come from? How did you come up with these standards, and who else was involved?

In the 1990s, the ICRC held several workshops on how to enhance the protection of people affected by armed conflict and violence. A definition of protection was formulated (see box) and this is still shared by numerous organizations today. But we never really managed to draw up professional standards.

Since then, several organizations have expanded their protection work, and have acquired both experience and expertise. So two years ago, we decided it was time to continue our reflections on the subject and try to define common professional standards.

A number of NGOs and UN agencies were involved in throughout the process. We also consulted a wide range of other organizations active in the field. We then developed the standards, taking as our principal basis the interests of the communities and victims.

So how are these professional standards going to be implemented?

First, each organization has to check that its reference documents and working methods are compatible with the standards. The idea is not to replace directives and procedures by these standards, but to identify areas in which it is necessary to conform more closely to the spirit of the standards. The ICRC, for instance, could develop its evaluation methodology.

It is also necessary to train personnel responsible for protection work in the field, to ensure that they know these standards and have mastered them, so that they can apply them in their work.

What are today’s protection challenges? How can these standards meet those challenges?

The first challenge is to combine responses to the needs of a population as a whole with responses to the very specific needs of particular groups. Most organizations face that challenge today. The standards address this issue from the perspective of impartiality and non-discrimination. It is essential to remain impartial when identifying needs and to respond without discrimination.

Some organizations, such as the ICRC, have broad mandates. Others work with very specific groups. The standards emphasize the responsibility of each organization – but also the collective responsibility of all concerned – to ensure that no group in need is left out.

The second challenge is that of security and access to victims. Several standards address the security of affected communities, especially as regards the management of personal data. Organizations must also consider the risks that their staff may encounter and be open with their staff in managing those risks. Finally, the work of one organization must not endanger that of others.

What about complementarity between organizations working side by side?

Indeed, that is the third major challenge. How can we ensure that the work of one organization supports that of the others? How can we avoid needless duplication and build on the diverse capacities of each organization? In every context, one has to look at one’s own added value, in order to achieve the best possible result for the population concerned.

The standards do not stipulate the form that this complementarity should take. It may be partnership, coordination or simply the exchange of programme information. But in all cases, it is essential that each organization be familiar with the mandate, work and capacity of the others, in order to plan its own work, avoid duplication and inform the people it encounters, referring them to the organization best placed to help them if need be.

For instance, if a child-protection organization hears about disappearances in a particular area, it should inform the bodies best placed to act. This does not mean passing on confidential information or details of specific cases. But it does mean ensuring that the competent organizations can address the problem. In other words, ensuring that each organization can focus its efforts on the right place, in accordance with its skills and in a manner complementary to the work of other organizations.

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See also: 

Questions & Answers

ICRC workshop on protection standards, Geneva, 20 November 2009