A critical view of humanitarian protection

To reiterate, the question this research seeks to address is how protection works in contemporary conflicts. This book challenges the assumption that the official frameworks drive humanitarian protection in today’s conflicts in the normative sense. That conceptualisation sees protection as the direct result of international norms, or standards of behaviour defined in terms of specific rights and obligations, for which violation carries a price. These norms are underpinned by a series of rules, the specific application of norms in particular situations (see Boas, 2012). Instead, this book builds an alternative vision of how protection works in a line of argument that consists of four steps. First, humanitarian protection is driven by the relationships that develop among the complex network of actors who occupy the humanitarian arena, including states, their militaries, insurgent organisations, aid organisations and the affected communities themselves, among others. Protection occurs when these actors are able to reach a mutually beneficial consensus on an appropriate behaviour towards civilians. Sustaining this relationship and its benefits, which outweigh other needs and goals, is what drives protection, rather than the legal frameworks in their traditional sense.

This is not to say the frameworks do not matter. Rather, it is not the role that we have long assumed they held, a set of international rules to be followed, or prosecuted if obligations are not met. Instead, the frameworks act as the foundation of this mutually beneficial consensus, presenting a broad agreement on what is appropriate behaviour and thus establishing and sustaining the relationships that drive protection. With this in mind, I reconceptualise these humanitarian frameworks and principles as a unifying narrative that enrols different actors into the protection network, linking their agendas to that of humanitarian protection.

These actors are tied into the network for different reasons. As critical analysts of policy discourse have argued, a simple, coherent narrative on its own can be a powerful force in creating a level of consensus among disparate actors (see, e.g., Mosse, 2005; Roe, 1994). Like the policy narratives outlined by Mosse and Roe, the protection narrative’s strength lies in a simplicity and vagueness that can be accepted by diverse actors, as well as tied in with a dissemination (or advocacy) strategy that recruits and retains new actors. In this we can reflect on the Geneva Conventions and the universal humanitarian principles, which, for all the legal arguments, are relatively easy to explain. With this in mind, in a second step, I argue that humanitarians have long acted as the official disseminators of this official narrative, reifying its norms and principles through constant repetition and performance. Historically, these dissemination efforts, a role recognised in the frameworks themselves, tied state actors to the established narrative. These official dissemination efforts have extended over recent decades in an effort to recruit non-state actors into the narrative.

Yet, this is not the only response to the increasingly complicated mix of actors who are asserting their authority in the so-called “new wars” (Kaldor, 2006). In a third step, I go on to argue that humanitarians have helped to extend the protection network beyond its state-based actors through unofficial practices. Some humanitarian disseminators take up another role, acting as unofficial brokers, who travel throughout the humanitarian network, translating the official frameworks in order for them to align with the often-competing agenda of non-state armed actors. In other words, they take the legal concepts that form the foundation of the protection narrative and translate them to make them more relevant to the diverse actors they encounter in the humanitarian arena. This process seeks to overcome dissent among actors with political and cultural beliefs that are at odds with the state-based protection frameworks, without undermining the frameworks themselves.

Finally, I argue that these unofficial practices have allowed the established humanitarian protection frameworks to be sufficiently successful in contemporary wars to ensure that they remain the focus for state and humanitarian actors. They are in essence an unofficial humanitarian fix to the challenges of transferring these official frameworks to contemporary wars where the traditional institutions of power these frameworks rely on are weak. This notion of a humanitarian fix has both literal and metaphorical significance. In the literal sense, the humanitarian fix resolves the challenges of applying the humanitarian principles in contemporary contexts. In doing so, the unofficial fix does not replace the official frameworks. Rather it resolves these inevitable contextual challenges without undermining the “universal” frameworks and their power in more traditional contexts. Furthermore, like the metaphorical meaning of Harvey’s (1982) trademark “spatial fix”, from where the terminology has been borrowed, the resolution achieved by the humanitarian fix is temporary and needs to be reapplied in each successive context. “

To initially understand the nature of these translations that are part of this fix we can reflect on the thoughts of Faisal, the Shia driver, who sees the militia acting according to an agenda that benefits their community, rather than any legal norms that were at the front of my mind, fresh from Geneva. The militia at the checkpoint are making a reasoned decision, rather than responding to any legal dissemination effort or the universal norms. The immediate results, however, are the same: after a brief conversation about who we are, where we are going and what we are doing, the Shia gunman waves us through the checkpoint and on to Sinjar.

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