In a new paper released today, Article 36 examines the ‘protection of civilians’ as a global policy agenda, using an analysis of states’ contributions to the 2019 UN Security Council ‘open debate’ to look at the current state of discussion.

The purpose of this is to look at where the entry points might be for future policymaking initiatives – particularly around weapons – that can contribute effectively to the wider goal of protecting civilians.

Protecting civilians is a broad moral imperative. It rests on the idea that armed conflict should remain between political entities – and so violence against people should be constrained. Weapons, how they function and how and where they are used, are centrally implicated in civilian protection, and already feature in global policy discussion on the protection of civilians.

The global policy agenda on the protection of civilians, represented by state discussion at the UN Security Council, is however generally weighted towards narrow, physical ideas of protection and discussions of legal compliance – rather than broader themes of prevention, or longer-term harms.

Protecting civilians should include attention to the health and wellbeing of people, social structures that ensure justice and dignity, and the environment. Its goal should be a wide one of conflict prevention and sustainable development, characterised by the highest standards of public health, evidence and transparency in analysis for policymaking, accountability in governance, and environmental protection.

Initiatives to make policy on weapons for the goal of protecting civilians should be based on analysing data about the harms caused by particular technologies and where they are used. This should include analysing harm to key ‘social nodes’ of particular significance to communities (like healthcare and education), and considering the long-term and downstream effects of violence.

Policy frameworks that set specific standards for conduct in conflict, with the goal of preventing wider or longer term harms, should be developed on this basis. Initiatives such as the Safe Schools Declaration provide examples of such an approach. This could support more effective, productive and holistic initiatives to protect civilians than a narrower focus on legal compliance alone – particularly given that international humanitarian law entails a balance of military and protection imperatives, and so does not unambiguously reflect the interests of civilians.

Preventing civilian harm necessarily implies, in part, constraining the actions of those engaged in armed conflict. Many states discussing international policy on the protection of civilians are engaged in armed conflicts, or perceive an interest in maintaining maximum freedom of action for their militaries that initiatives to protect civilians may be seen as challenging, creating an inevitable tension for law- and policymaking that has protecting civilians as its goal.

Despite this, and though much of the international discussion on the protection of civilians is narrowly framed, states nevertheless do engage with a wide range of policymaking initiatives to protect civilians. These occur within and outside the UN Security Council, and include making political, standard-setting and legal advances to support the civilian protection on the normative and practical levels. Policymaking is often organised around particular ‘social nodes’ (e.g. education/schools or healthcare/hospitals) or the protection of particular ‘vulnerable groups’ (e.g. children). These initiatives show that many countries recognise the potential and value of setting standards that can enhance civilian protection conceived of more broadly – and also suggest where opportunities for future action might lie.

Download this paper

Protecting civilians as an international policy agenda – A snapshot from 2019

Discussion paper

May 2020



Image: Sahala looks at the part of her family’s house that was destroyed when their village was occupied by ISIS. Returning to Tulaband, Iraq, after explosives were cleared and schools were restored, the family now faces challenges to rebuilding their home and livelihood. © Emily Garthwaite/Article 36