Peacekeeper DRC

The Many Meanings of Protection of Civilians: a Truth Universally Acknowledged?

An Uruguayan peacekeeper part of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) patrolling in Goma. (MONUSCO, Sylvain Liechti)

The phrase “protection of civilians” (POC) is by now deeply entrenched in mission mandates, organizational policies, and planning mechanisms related to peacekeeping and international conflict resolution. It rolls lightly off the tongue in coordination meetings and easily fits in the steady stream of sitreps for headquarters. The rapid increase in the use of protection of civilians in the last twenty years has also stretched its implications while blurring its demarcations, rendering its meaning less and less clearly defined.

There are a multitude of descriptions of what POC means, with different actors having diverging perspectives. The use of the phrase “protection of civilians” is so confused in practice, that it tends to become a hollow notion. This has consequences for the delivery of effective response and inter-agency collaboration. After all, how can we plan together when we do not speak the same language when talking about the protection of civilians?

The most cited definition within the United Nations system is the one coined by the Interagency Standing Committee, while the humanitarian community frequently leans on the Sphere Handbook definition. In addition, there are academic interpretations of POC as a legal obligation by the state. Generally, definitions of POC feature one or both of two dominant interpretations of its meaning.

In the first place, there is an understanding that protection equals physical safety from violence. This is common in those quarters that include uniformed personnel, such as in UN Peacekeeping. For example, the Kigali Principles, which provide a set of commitments for troop contributing countries to the UN, use “protection” only in this sense. Also police forces generally see protection as referring to people’s safety. To policymakers, POC falls under the concept of “human security.”

The second interpretation is of protection as a human-rights-based notion, in which it translates into a combination of “do no harm” and of fostering a human rights friendly environment. This understanding is mostly found in the humanitarian domain and is highly community-focused. 


Which interpretation is the correct one? Let us examine the origins of the word “protection” to discover its semantic, or intrinsic, meaning. Etymologically, protection is derived from the Latin verb protego, a compound of the Latin preposition pro and the verb tego. Pro expresses proximity, direction, or time—in front of, forwards, beforehand—and can also be used to lend intensity to the action of the verb it is attached to. Further, it can carry the connotation of guarding or shielding. Tego is the verb form of the noun tectum, which means roof or ceiling, but in a wider interpretation may be read as house, shelter, or even shield. Tego itself means to cover, but also to fend off or to repel. To sustain, support, or shelter are also common meanings. The compound protego thus expresses something along the lines of intense shielding, fully sheltering, or defensive repelling. This literal meaning closely aligns with the above-mentioned understanding of POC as physical safety.

Protego is also employed in another context in Latin: in courts of law. Cicero used protego in his defense pleas, for example, in a transliteral interpretation of the word: providing shelter by legal means. This interpretation corresponds to the modern-day perspective of POC as a human rights mechanism.

Thus, when looking at the roots of the phrase, both modern interpretations of protection are semantically correct: physical safety and a rights-based meaning. The problem in practice is: which interpretation does the user of the word adhere to?


This is where the need for clear definitions comes into play. Definitions, by their very nature, provide distinctiveness and set boundaries to the substantive value of a word or phrase. A good definition denotes what something is, but also firmly indicates what it is not. And it is here that we find the core issue.

The wide usage of POC and its complex semantic background make it a challenge for authors and organizations to set out strong picket fences. It is not unheard of that organizations, in their struggle to define such a broad concept that requires a wide buy-in to render results, end up defining “protection” with “protection.” The otherwise excellent publication “Protection of Civilians” says: “Protection of Civilians is the act of protecting from violence” [emphasis added]. Also, for example, the website of the Global Protection Cluster falls short in this regard: “For UN peace operations, protection of civilians includes the use of force to protect civilians” [emphasis added].

Such definitions hardly provide the demarcation necessary to move to a clear, consensual interpretation that provides actionable insight. A consequence of this lack of demarcated definitions is that communications include “protection” as a blanket word to cover a range of different activities. Anything and everything can be called “protection of civilians” if the notion is not clear. UN mission reports, for example, typically include phrases like “the Force provided protection patrols” (referring to the physical safety interpretation of protection), “the human rights unit organized a protection of civilians workshop for magistrates” (protection as the promotion of human rights), and “the head of office held a protection meeting with the governor” (protection as a political point of agenda).

Action or Objective?

This is further exacerbated by mixing the use of protection to denote the conceptual definition of choice, and the activities implemented under this notion. To start with an example from the UN Department of Peacekeeping on POC mandates: “Protection of Civilians is a responsibility which includes all parts of a peacekeeping mission.” Here, the phrase refers to the desired end-state, to the situation when civilians are in a state of being protected. Another example is found on the website of the Global Protection Cluster: “protection is about people being safe from the harm others might cause them.” In this sentence, again, protection signifies the objective of the people living in a situation of safety and human rights.

In contrast, many instances when the word “protection” or phrase “protection of civilians” are used refer to the activities implemented under this concept: “the protection of civilians is a whole-of-mission activity.” Also the Inter-Agency Standing Committee defines protection as: “all activities aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights” [emphasis added]. Similarly, the NATO Protection of Civilians policy states: “Protection of Civilians…includes all efforts taken to avoid, minimize and mitigate.”

It would not be so bad if these uses weren’t often mixed into one single document. “In the present report I set out a path to protection,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his report on POC, referring to the ultimate objective of achieving a state of being safe. The next paragraph maintains that “we must make every effort to protect the lives and dignity of civilians,” using protection to refer to the actions needed to achieve the above state of protection. In a way, it is a self-definition of protection.

Creating Clarity

To formulate the challenge in another way: how could there not be confusion if the desired end-state is synonymous with the word describing the whole of the activities to get there? What impact does this have when attempting to plan and coordinate with other actors?

Some organizations and a few academic publications have found an elegant solution. The Sphere Handbook, for example, does not define protection, but lists protection principles, outlining in good detail what the concept entails. In the new version, they also no longer use the word “protection” in the description of the principles. Principles are a great tool, they are somewhere between action and theory, providing direction to an otherwise undefined train of thought. Oxfam also formulates it delicately, by avoiding strict definition and stating the sphere of influence instead: “Protection is about keeping people safe; whether from violence and coercion or from being deprived of the assistance they need.”

However, using principles to describe which of the two semantic versions one adheres to does not yet solve the problem of the confusion of the word in its daily use. For this, I can only make one simple recommendation: be specific. Use more words. Instead of writing “protection,” explicitly state physical protection, or rights-based protection, or whichever other interpretation the author means to convey. Similarly, when using the word to denote activities, simply state “protection activities.” Another option is to replace a blanket phrase like “protection of internally displaced persons (IDPs)” with “activities strengthening the legal position of IDPs.” This would undoubtedly provide more insight to the reader. In strategic or policy documents, adding the word “objective” or another synonym when speaking of protection would ensure a clear contrast with instances where POC is used in the context of activities.

While doing justice to the rich semantic background of the phrase “protection of civilians,” a drive for more clarity in formulation will enhance understanding with all involved partners and thereby ease coherence, facilitate coordination, and enable better joint planning of POC activities. This will ultimately help achieve the desired end-state of protected populations.

Welmoet Wels is currently an independent consultant and writing her PhD. She is a former Protection of Civilians Advisor in various UN Peacekeeping missions.