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Five ways to protect civilians in contemporary armed conflict

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The findings of the United Nations Secretary-General’s latest annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict are not surprising given the news headlines of the past year. They are nonetheless alarming. The report, which was delivered in May, notes a 53 per cent increase in civilian deaths in conflict since 2021. It also emphasizes the broader human security impacts of conflict, particularly in driving up acute malnutrition and food insecurity, and the contribution of armed conflict to the displacement of 100 million people.

As a troubling reflection of humanity’s potential for cruelty and violence, the report should be a powerful source of motivation for states to work that much harder for peace. It also reinforces the urgency and importance of finding ways to better protect civilians when peace fails.

The challenges of civilian protection in 2023

Following each of the major conflicts and mass atrocities of the last century, states and civil society alike have made efforts to improve protection for civilians in conflict and accountability for those who harm them. Most notably, states have supported adaptation of the laws of war to better distinguish between combatants and non-combatant civilians and protect the latter from attack, along with the creation of new international, national and hybrid accountability mechanisms intended to deter war crimes and bring those who perpetrate them to justice. To claim that these measures could ever make war ‘humane’ would both be untrue and undermine the urgency and importance of peacemaking. But it is still fair to ask why protection remains such a challenge in 2023 in spite of them. Here are some of the reasons:

Law overlooked, law undermined

Ultimately, the protective effect of international law is only as strong as states and armed groups make it. In spite of the laws of war, some state armed forces (e.g. those of Myanmar, Russia and Sudan) and non-state armed groups (e.g. Islamic State) continue to directly perpetrate attacks on civilians. Conduct that falls within the parameters of what states view as ‘lawful’ in war too often results in devastating harm to civilians. Meanwhile, for a variety of reasons, both states and non-state armed groups remain largely unanswerable to civilians for the harm they cause in an era aptly described as ‘an age of impunity’ by International Rescue Committee President David Miliband.  

Growing role of private soldiers

Outsourcing military functions to private companies is not new, but the trend has become much more pervasive. Private contractors commonly augment a state’s capacity to project force or train foreign forces; in some of these same cases, they help the state to evade accountability for committing or complicity in abuses.

Limits on humanitarian access and civic space

In an increasing number of places, governments and non-state armed groups impede access to conflict-affected communities, limiting the ability of international organizations and even the UN to deter attacks on civilians and making it harder to pressure conflict parties to abide by their obligations under international law. In a related trend, the space available for local and international civil society organizations to fulfil the many critical roles they play in protecting civilians—from advocacy and litigation to community engagement and providing essential services—is shrinking as a result of visible and invisible constraints on civil society, often imposed by states on the pretext of counterterrorism.


Finally, civilians caught up in conflict have long been forced to make decisions based on confusing, contradictory and suspect information. The growing reliance on social media and mobile communications has in many ways exacerbated the problem. Both deliberate efforts to misinform communities and civilians (disinformation)—using highly deceptive means and a broad array of public and private channels and outlets—and government efforts to limit information flows can lead to disastrous outcomes for civilians who are making life-and-death decisions.

Applying the lessons of the past today and tomorrow

Given the current situations in Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, Ukraine and many other places, finding better ways to protect civilians from the effects of conflict has never been more urgent or relevant. Moreover, many experts predict more conflict in more places as climate change and other environmental challenges increasingly impact livelihoods, displacement, governance capacity, and food and water security. Meanwhile, the prospect of another large-scale, high-intensity conflict involving one or more great powers, with the potential to affect millions, looms large.

Yet for all the challenges, there is a wealth of experience and observation that offers both hope and practical lessons. From the many options available, here are five ways for states and civil society to get started:

Support non-violent community protection. When states fail to protect, communities and civilians everywhere find non-violent ways to protect themselves. The challenge is finding safe and ethical ways to support them. In Ukraine, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) is providing support to communities through small grants for everything from improving shelters to developing strategies for self-protection. While community-based approaches to early warning and unarmed protection do not relieve states of their obligations to protect, donors and international organizations should invest much more in safe, flexible and rapid forms of support to communities and local civil society organizations.

Link prevention with protection. Under the right circumstances, conflict prevention and peacebuilding in fragile states can be important for supporting community-based protection when conflict begins, intensifies or spreads. The central emphasis placed on trust and community in these approaches can be critical to ensuring that external sources of support have a local outlet for providing life-saving resources directly to communities and civilians when the need arises, using community strategies and needs as a starting point.

Support accurate information, early warning and documentation. Outside actors can add value to the work of local organizations by helping get accurate information to civilians in murky or restrictive information environments and supporting early warning mechanisms. For example, through their Cabo Ligado observatory, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), Zitamar News and MediaFax provide free access to accurate information, real-time monitoring and analysis concerning the conflict in Mozambique.

Regulate private military and security companies. According to the work and reporting of the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, and organizations like the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF) and its local partners, many countries lack basic regulatory and policy safeguards governing the activities of private military and security companies (PMSCs). Governments, the private sector and civil society should work together to strengthen controls on PMSCs while time allows, even as the near-term focus remains on the Wagner Group and the countries where it operates.

Strengthen national commitments. Examples in the Netherlands and the USA  show that governments can be motivated—by experience, civil society, internal champions and public pressure—to improve on their own records through policy and practice. Humanitarian, human rights and peacebuilding organizations should work together to push for a higher standard of protection with all governments and armed forces that express a desire to adopt one—and even those that do not.

Protecting civilians from the effects of war has never been easy—and in some ways it seems to be getting harder—which is why the ultimate goal should be to prevent war altogether. In the meantime, states, civil society and international organizations should not hesitate to take what they have learned in order to be more responsive, more effective and more unified in protecting civilians in the wars of today and tomorrow.


SIPRI is pleased to share a series of guest blog posts from partners of the 2023 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development.


Dan Mahanty <p><span><span><span><span lang="EN"><span>Dan&nbsp;Mahanty&nbsp;(Netherlands/United States) is the Director for Research, Learning and Innovation at Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and oversees CIVIC's technical advisory services, thematic research and special projects.</span></span></span></span></span></p>