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date: 23 February 2024

Civilian Self-Protection and Civilian Targeting in Armed Conflicts: Who Protects Civilians?free

Civilian Self-Protection and Civilian Targeting in Armed Conflicts: Who Protects Civilians?free

  • Betcy JoseBetcy JoseDepartment of Political Science, University of Colorado, Denver
  •  and Peace A. MediePeace A. MedieLegon Center for International Affairs and Diplomacy, University of Ghana


Studies have shown that civilians are often intentionally targeted in civil wars and that civilian protection efforts launched by the international community have not always been successful, if they occur at all. Civilians, therefore, have had to rely on themselves for protection in most conflicts. However, despite the pervasiveness of civilian self-protection (CSP) and its success at protecting civilians from violence in some cases, it is rarely discussed in the civilian protection literature, and its impact on civilian targeting is inadequately explored. Addressing this gap in the study and practice of civilian protection by carefully conceptualizing CSP and appreciating its role in civil war dynamics can further scholarly and practitioner discussions on civilian protection.

CSP is defined as (a) actions taken to protect against immediate, direct threats to physical integrity imposed by belligerents or traditional protection actors; (b) primarily selected and employed by civilians; and (c) employed during an armed conflict. CSP strategies can be organized into three categories. The first, non-engagement, describes strategies in which civilians do not interact with belligerents or traditional protection actors who pose a threat to them. The second, nonviolent engagement, entails some interaction with one or more actors who may harm civilians. The third, violent engagement, includes CSP strategies that incorporate physical violence.

These CSP strategies may actually render civilians more vulnerable to threats. First, some CSP strategies might lock civilians into unpredictable relationships with belligerents, which can become dangerous. Second, allying with one set of belligerents might lead to targeting by opposition forces, who view these CSP strategies as crucial support for their enemies. Third, civilians may overestimate how successful their CSP strategies can be, exposing them to harm. Fourth, civilian use of violence may cause belligerents to view them as threats, leading to intentional targeting.

Appreciation of the reasons why civilians engage in CSP and understanding when and how this may endanger them can inspire more effective protection policies, as well as advance our understanding of civil war dynamics. For instance, further study on these issues can provide some insights into the conditions under which CSP is effective in protecting civilians and how the international community can support CSP. This information could be particularly useful in the design and execution of peacekeeping strategies that are sensitive to the efforts and needs of conflict-affected communities. Additionally, studying CSP can advance the vast literature on civilian targeting by shedding additional light on why belligerents kill civilians.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence

An estimated 250,000 civilians had died in the Syrian conflict as of 2014, when the United Nations stopped collecting data. In all conflicts, civilians die at the hands of state forces and armed groups aiming to overthrow governments. They die because fighters target them and because they are collateral damage. If they are not killed, they are subjected to violence in its myriad cruel manifestations.

In response to these realities, the international community took on the issue of civilian protection. Recognizing that governments had repeatedly shirked the responsibility to protect their citizens, either intentionally or because of poor capacity, and motivated by a combination of humanitarian zeal and interest-based concerns, the United Nations and other global actors aimed to protect civilians from the horrors of war.

Yet, civilian protection as practiced by the international community has not always been successful. Sometimes, its efforts have failed to protect civilians, and sometimes, it has failed to act at all. What do civilians do when they face threats from which domestic and global actors cannot protect them? This article takes on this question. It explores the concept of civilian self-protection (CSP), activities undertaken during armed conflict (international or non-international) to preserve physical integrity in which the primary decision maker is a civilian or group of civilians (Jose & Medie, 2015). It does so by first briefly discussing civilian deaths in war. It then moves on to an exploration of the emergence of the civilian protection regime in the international community, with an emphasis on how the United Nations has embraced this regime. Following this discussion is a presentation of some of the ways in which this regime has failed to provide civilians with protection. This then leads to a discussion of how we conceptualize civilian self-protection. Specifically, we discuss the three elements that form the essence of CSP and our typology of CSP, which is comprised of three different categories of strategies. We then provide some empirical examples of CSP in operation in a variety of armed conflicts. In doing so, we illustrate the mutually influential relationship between conflict dynamics and CSP and explain that, while CSP can provide civilians some measure of protection, it can also make them more vulnerable to physical threats. We conclude with an examination of the policy implications of the mixed record of CSP presented here as well as some avenues for future research.

Civilian Deaths in Armed Conflict

Civilians have long been victims in wars. Yet, in analyzing civilian deaths in the civil wars that erupted in the aftermath of the Cold War, scholars have noticed new trends in civilian victimization. In these “new wars” civilians have died at higher rates and made up a greater proportion of deaths compared to belligerent deaths (Kaldor, 1999). However, there is some dispute over whether these post Cold War “new” wars are actually new with regards to the enormous number of civilian lives lost. S. Neil MacFarlane and Yuen Foong Khong (2006) remind us that, “In [the] litany of brutality [in the 20th century] …, the deliberate effort to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population stimulated subsequent efforts to embed fundamental human rights in international law” (2006. p. 7). Elizabeth Ferris offers some nuance to this complicated picture by positing that, while the number of major armed conflicts (and with them, large numbers of civilian deaths) have decreased in the post-Cold War era, the rate of one-sided violence—“the intentional use of armed force against civilians by the government or formally organized group that results in at least 25 deaths in a calendar year”—has increased (Ferris, 2011, pp. 246–247). What consensus exists in this debate centers around the idea that civilians are indeed being killed, and even targeted, at unacceptable rates. A large literature examining civilian deaths has generated important insights into civilians killed intentionally by state and non-state armed groups (Eck & Hultman, 2007) and unintentionally (i.e., collateral damage) by the various types of armed groups in war (Condra & Shapiro, 2012). According to a study by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) that interviewed 12,860 people in 12 countries experiencing armed conflict, one in four families lost an immediate family member (ICRC, 1999). The statistics for Afghanistan, Somalia, and Cambodia are particularly shocking: 53%, 65%, and 79% of the populations in those countries respectively have lost a close family member. According to the civilians who participated in this study, the top four reasons they felt belligerents attacked them include: the desire to win at any cost; belligerent disregard for the laws of war for protecting civilians; belligerent hatred for the opposition; and the following of orders to attack civilians.

Civilian Protection

The perception that civilians are increasingly the targets of physical violence greatly contributed to the emergence of civilian protection as a global issue in the late 1990s. Yet, just as long as the history of civilian victimization in armed conflict is the history of efforts to protect them. Many scholars have discussed the history of civilian protections in various traditions that predate the international community’s own efforts (Jose, 2015). Regarding global efforts on civilian protection, the ICRC was a leading actor in creating a global protection regime (ICRC, 2012). While its initial agenda focused on wounded soldiers, it soon began to address the needs of civilians in war. It spearheaded efforts to codify civilian protections in international humanitarian law (IHL), the body of law that regulates the conduct of hostilities. It built upon and synthesized local martial traditions offering civilians protections that predated the codification of IHL.

Yet, it was not until the late 1990s that the protection of civilians became an issue of practical and moral concern worthy of the global agenda (Carpenter, 2005). In the case of the United Nations, the actor of primary concern here, its failed efforts to protect civilians in Srebrenica and Rwanda, and its perception that armed groups increasingly targeted civilians, prompted deep soul-searching (Ferris, 2011; MacFarlane & Khong, 2006). What resulted from this self-reflection was the emergence of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the practice of authorizing peacekeepers to protect civilians from imminent physical violence when necessary and feasible (Nasu, 2012). According to the UN,

In situations of internal armed conflict, civilians account for the vast majority of casualties … As a result, most multi-dimensional United Nations peacekeeping operations are now mandated by the Security Council to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence. The protection of civilians requires concerted and coordinated action among the military, police and civilian components of a United Nations peacekeeping operation and must be mainstreamed into the planning and conduct of its core activities. United Nations humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organization (NGO) partners also undertake a broad range of activities in support of the protection of civilians. Close coordination with these actors is, therefore, essential.

(UN, 2008, p. 24)

Reflecting its adoption of this new imperative, the UN peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo contained explicit mandates to protect civilians (Nasu, 2012). Yet, as Hitoshi Nasu notes, not all UN member states fully embraced this method of protecting civilians (Nasu, 2012). This lukewarm reaction among the UN’s membership is one among several reasons for ineffective civilian protection, giving rise to civilian self-protection, as discussed in the next section.

Problematic Civilian Protection

While the increased rates of civilian targeting helped to coalesce global attention around the issue of civilian protection, it did not necessarily lead to effective protection efforts. These include actions taken by external actors like the United Nations, NGOs, and states, and internal actors like the warring parties, although the focus in this discussion is on the United Nations. This section discusses a selection of the myriad reasons why these efforts failed to achieve their objectives. That is not to say that peacekeeping is never effective, but it is also not without its problems.

One reason for the UN’s unsuccessful protection efforts is the different ways its agencies conceptually and operationally define civilian protection. For instance, Hugh Breakey has identified four distinct versions of the protection of civilian concept circulating in the humanitarian sector (2012, p. 40). While stating that these differences should not be over-emphasized, Breakey finds that, “in many ways these principles are dissimilar—requiring quite distinct actions from different sorts of actors, each of whom have diverging resources and objectives” (2012, p. 41). Yet these differences contribute to ineffective civilian protection because they can discourage consensus on when to act, impede coordination on the ground when protection actors do agree to act, cultivate disagreement on protection goals, and create confusion on how to provide protection, among others. Benjamin de Carvalho and Jon Harald Sand Lie (2011) found that “As it stands now, desk officers in DPKO do not share the understanding of [protection of civilians (PoC)] which UN OCHA are seeking to promote. Thus, when PoC issues are reported from the field, there are no institutional guarantees that this will be reported further up the line once it reaches the desk officer in DPKO” (de Carvalho & Lie, 2011, p. 353). The situation was so problematic that in 2009, the Security Council acknowledged the “need for comprehensive operational guidance on the tasks and responsibilities of peacekeepers in the implementation of civilian protection mandates,” yet has been unable to generate sufficient political will among its members to undertake this herculean task (Nasu, 2012).

Another reason for the failures of civilian protection stems from an under-appreciation of the gendered impact of civilian victimization. Gender affects the entire enterprise of war. Laura Sjoberg (2011) posits that war itself is gendered. One very general example involves the different types of physical violence that men and women experience during armed conflict. While exceptions abound profusely, women tend to be victims of sexual violence while men tend to be victims of lethal violence. The UN Security Council emphasizes the importance of protecting women and children in its Protection of Civilians doctrine (UN, 2000). According to Security Council Resolution 1296, the UN,

Reaffirms its grave concern at the harmful and widespread impact of armed conflict on civilians, including the particular impact that armed conflict has on women, children and other vulnerable groups, and further reaffirms in this regard the importance of fully addressing their special protection and assistance needs in the mandates of peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-building operations.1

(UN, 2000)

The resolution’s emphasis on women and children is surprising given that the Srebrenica massacre, in which over 7,000 men and boys died, helped propel this issue onto the Security Council’s agenda.

Another set of reasons involves inaction by the Security Council and inadequately prepared missions when it does decide to act. UN peacekeepers can only be deployed if the Security Council authorizes a peacekeeping mission. A variety of political and normative reasons keep Security Council members from sending in peacekeepers where civilians need protection. These include tensions between sovereignty and humanitarian norms (Seybolt, 2007) and concerns of the impact humanitarian action may have on individual state interests. Sovereignty norms, such as the norm of non-intervention, safeguard territorial integrity. Ideas like R2P prioritize human rights over more established criteria like territorial control for the enjoyment of sovereign rights. However, because R2P is not universally endorsed within the community of states, friction (and hence hesitation, inaction, or limited action) results when the international community faces a humanitarian crisis. Furthermore, when the Security Council manages to authorize a peacekeeping mission, it may be insufficiently resourced in terms of troops, supplies, and funding because of a lack of political will for a deeper commitment (Labonte, 2012; Williams, 2013).

Finally, UN peacekeepers themselves have engaged in predatory behavior toward civilians. Currently, the UN is embroiled in a scandal involving peacekeepers sexually abusing civilians, including children. A recent UN report found that 69 allegations of sex crimes have been made against peacekeepers in 10 UN missions (Shortell & Roth 2016). Peacekeepers have also been accused of killing civilians in the Central African Republic (Smith & Lewis 2015).

Civilian Self-Protection

As a result of the very real physical threats civilians face in war and the occasions when UN civilian protection is ineffective or absent, civilians engage in self-protection (CSP). Rather than exclusively relying on others for protection, civilians utilize their agency to protect themselves when they can. This is not a recent phenomenon. World War II, the Rwandan genocide, the Iran-Iraq War, and countless other conflicts have witnessed civilian self-protection. It seems as long as civilians have suffered during war, they have also engaged in self-protection.

As noted above, we conceptualize CSP in the following way: activities undertaken during armed conflict (international or non-international) to preserve physical integrity in which the primary decision maker is a civilian or group of civilians (Jose & Medie, 2015). This conceptualization of CSP involves three elements: (a) actions taken to protect against immediate, direct threats to physical integrity imposed by belligerents or traditional protection actors; (b) primarily selected and employed by civilians; and (c) employed during an armed conflict (Jose & Medie, 2015).

When considering CSP, we identify three categories of strategies: (a) non-engagement, (b) nonviolent engagement, and (c) violent engagement. Non-engagement describes strategies in which civilians do not interact with belligerents or traditional protection actors who pose a threat to them. In this scenario, civilians’ attempts at survival, though necessitated by the actions of warring factions and/or other harmful actors, do not directly involve these actors. Examples of non-engagement strategies include fleeing from threats, taking shelter, and silence. Nonviolent engagement entails some interaction with one or more actors who may harm them but does not involve the use of violence. Pleading, girlfriending, and providing resources like food, shelter, or intelligence would fall into this category. Last, use of violence describes the category of violent engagement. Here, the use of violence includes both organized and spontaneous acts of violence by civilians or by actors who seek to protect these civilians from physical threats. Forming self-protection militia or joining armed groups for self-protection purposes would fall into this category (Jose & Medie, 2015).

These CSP strategies can be used non-collectively or collectively where “non-collective” describes an individual or a family unit, while “collective” refers to a group that includes two or more family units or individuals. Additionally, civilians do not limit themselves to the employment of just one type of CSP strategy. In a given conflict, they may adopt strategies from one of the above three categories or from all three, simultaneously or one at a time (Jose & Medie, 2015).

Civilian Self-Protection in Practice

Scholars have recorded civilians’ use of self-protection strategies for decades in wars in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America, to mixed outcomes. They have recorded the use of non-engagement strategies, which are those in which civilians do not interact with factions who pose a threat to their physical integrity. For example, between 1986 and 2005, the Nuba in South Kordofan, Sudan, fled into the Nuba mountains to escape attacks from government-backed forces during the country’s civil war (Corbett, 2011). At the height of the war between government forces and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda, thousands of children and youth fled daily to town centers and cities to avoid attacks and abduction by rebels (Baines & Paddon, 2012).

However, civilians do not always have the option of not engaging with combatants or do not always perceive non-engagement strategies as the most effective. These contribute to the adoption of strategies that involve some level of interaction, nonviolent or violent, with combatants. Nonviolent engagement strategies require civilians to interact with members of armed groups who pose a threat to their physical integrity but do not involve the use of violence on the part of the civilians. They include negotiating with armed groups, paying taxes to them, providing labor, and engaging in sexual relationships with group members. Girls and women entered sexual relationships with men from all factions during Liberia’s civil war in exchange for protection from violence (Birch, 2008; Utas, 2005). These relationships were the only means of protection available to many women, including those who had been abducted and forced to join rebel groups. Civilians have formed peace communities across Colombia to create a buffer between themselves and armed groups (Kaplan, 2013a). These communities are often supported by local and international nongovernmental organizations and their members refuse to carry arms and to support armed groups by withholding necessities such as food, information, and transportation (Alther, 2006). Furthermore, civilian communities, namely indigenous communities, have managed to reduce their experience of violence by effectively addressing disputes with neighbors and managing relations with macro-armed actors (Kaplan, 2013c). Civilians can also diffuse norms of protection to belligerents who may target them (Kaplan, 2013b). Due to their proximity and familiarity to armed groups, they may be better positioned than external organizations to “nudge” these groups to comply with these norms (Kaplan, 2013b).

But engagement with armed groups can also be violent. Violent engagement describes strategies in which civilians employ violence to protect their physical integrity. It includes civilians providing material support and information to armed groups in exchange for protection, creating self-protection militias, or joining existing armed groups. During the Sudanese civil war, Nuba women supplied the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) with food (Corbett, 2011). The SPLA was at war with the Sudanese government and its militias. Still in Sudan, men from communities affected by the war in Darfur created militias to protect themselves and their communities, while Kosovo Albanians joined the Kosovo Liberation Army to protect themselves and their properties during the Kosovo conflict (Bellamy & Williams, 2009). In Myanmar, Karen villagers caught in the war among the Myanmar government and two pro-independence groups, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DPKA) and the Karen National Union, offered their sons as conscripts to all factions in exchange for protection (South, 2012).

Studies show a gendered trend in the adoption of all forms of CSPs as a result of the gendered targeting of civilians as well as the assignment of gender roles to men and women. According to Jose and Medie (2015), refugees from several conflicts residing in the Dukwi refugee camp in Botswana described men’s flight from their villages to towns upon hearing of the advancement of an armed group. According to the authors, “The reason given was that armed groups often assumed male villagers were belligerents, and if these men were not already members of that armed group, they must be fighting for its opponent. Thus, the men would flee to nearby towns where they could more easily blend in and be safe” (p. 12). Similarly, Baines and Paddon (2012) describe how, due to the Lord’s Resistance Army’s targeting of men and boys for capture in the initial stages of the civil war in northern Uganda, men hid while women went out in search of food. On the other hand, the notion that boys and men are those who can and should defend their communities has ensured that the members of self-defense groups in civil wars in Sierra Leone, Sudan, and elsewhere have predominantly been male.

Civilians, both men and women, and acting individually or in groups, often rely on multiple self-protection strategies in the course of a conflict. For example, civilians who are fleeing might stop to hide when flight is no longer a safe option and might also shift from negotiating with combatants to taking up arms against them. This decision to select or switch strategies often depends on several factors. Scholars have begun to probe these factors that determine the selection of various forms of CSP, but this research has focused overwhelmingly on explaining the decision to flee violence. This is likely because flight or displacement is one of the most visible and widely used CSPs. It is also the most recognized form of CSP as evidenced by the extensive academic literature on internal and external refugees. Studies show that an increase in threats to people’s physical security from both government and rebel forces lead to a rise in displacement (Adhikari, 2013; Davenport, Moore, & Poe, 2003). Adhikari (2013) also finds that economic factors and geography affected the decision to flee violence in Nepal. He argues that displacement is less likely when there are employment opportunities and more likely when civilians lose personal property and when there is a motorable road that facilitates flight (Adhikari, 2013). Research also shows that having money to flee (Jose & Medie, 2015) and having relatives or other contacts in places of refuge affects the decision to flee (South, 2012). Also important in the decision to flee or adopt other forms of CSPs is access to information. Civilians need information on imminent threats, possible survival strategies, how to access basic needs, as well as news on the dynamics of the civil war. This access to information matters not only for the selection of CSPs but also for their successful execution. While civilians have historically relied on word-of-mouth, technological innovations such as the widespread use of mobile phones and the development of Internet platforms such as Twitter and Ushahidi have provided more avenues for attaining vital information during civil wars. Their use is, however, dependent on Internet connectivity and access to the necessary technology.

These findings shed light on how civilians select CSPs during civil wars. They demonstrate that CSPs are usually not random actions taken by civilians under threat but involve extensive planning and consideration of multiple factors. Nonetheless, due to the dearth of studies on the selection of CSPs, and the focus on flight by scholars who have examined the issue, there is much that we do not understand about how civilians adopt strategies to protect themselves and the conditions under which these strategies succeed in providing protection from violence.

Civil War Dynamics and Civilian Self-Protection

Despite the gap in the literature, it is clear that the dynamics of a civil war affect the selection of every form of CSP. The dynamics describe the characteristics of the war: its ethno-religious divides; the political ideologies, including nationalism, that motivate warring factions; the actors who are participating in the conflict in varied roles; and the warfare strategy, including the targeting of civilians. These dynamics, which change in the course of wars, are often known and understood by civilians because they directly impact their ability to survive. Civil war dynamics are, therefore, at the core of the decisions that civilians make to safeguard their physical integrity. For example, the decision to flee or hide from an armed group is often guided by civilians’ knowledge of the group’s policy on attacking civilians. Steele (2009) argues that armed groups’ modes of targeting civilians determine displacement. She asserts that, when groups are targeted based on a shared characteristic “their best options for avoiding violence differ from those targeted selectively or indiscriminately” (p. 421). With Colombia as a case study, she explains that a civilian who is targeted because of a shared characteristic could relocate to a rival group’s stronghold for protection or to another town or city to seek anonymity, or could cluster with others who are similarly targeted. Schon (2015) also shows that civil war dynamics matter for the type of CSP adopted. He argues that structural factors such as changes in the geographic scope of a conflict and in the balance of power, as opposed to fluctuation in the level of violence, propel variation in displacement. The actions of humanitarian agencies, which also constitute civil war dynamics, can also affect the selection and success of CSPs. These actions have the potential to support self-protection efforts, but they can also circumscribe the options available to civilians in the course of a war or undermine them. Baines and Paddon (2012) argue that, when civilians affected by the conflict in northern Uganda moved into camps created by the UN, flight became a challenge, as did accessing information, leading to an increase in violence perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

And just as civil war dynamics underlie the selection of CSPs, they also lead civilians to adapt or change the strategies previously adopted. Baines and Paddon (2012) provide an illustration of how civilians adapt their self-protection strategies to the changing dynamics of a civil war:

As shelters proved to be a relatively effective protection strategy, the LRA began to spend more and more time in the bush looking for hiding civilians. As a result, civilians took steps to ensure that their hiding places were carefully concealed, including collectively agreeing not to share information about the location of each other’s shelters. To prevent the LRA from finding their shelters, people would erect several structures and sleep in different places each night. Civilians would take care not to use the same path too frequently, adopting new routes to the shelters to avoid creating an obvious trail.

(Baines & Paddon, 2012, p. 239)

Paul (1999) correctly points out that, when protection strategies are in place, armed groups find ways to circumvent them, necessitating an adaption of CSPs to the new dynamic. But the relationship between CSPs and civil war dynamics is not unidirectional. Just as these civil war dynamics can influence the selection of CSPs, the CSPs selected can contribute to changes in the dynamics of the war.

According to Bellamy and Williams (2009), one of the reasons for the fragmentation of the rebel movement in Darfur was the creation by communities of small armed groups for the purpose of self-protection. In Kosovo, the violent resistance by the Kosovo Liberation Army “prompted the Serbian authorities to escalate from a strategy of political and civil rights violations to a campaign of ethnic cleansing” (Bellamy & Willaims, 2009, p. 22). And there are many examples of armed groups preying on the very populations they were formed to protect, thus, increasing the number of actors in a war who pose a threat to civilians’ security (Jose & Medie, 2015). CSP can even change how groups of civilians perceive each other in a conflict and can lead to increased grievances and hostilities. In a study of the conflict between Thai Buddhists and Malay Muslims in Southern Thailand’s predominantly Malay Muslim provinces, Sarosi and Sombatpoonsiri (2011) find that the state has supplied firearms to Thai Buddhists. This combined with the creation of armed civilian militias by both ethnic groups has led to increased insecurity. According to the authors,

… firearms proliferation and the creation of civilian militias in Southern Thailand are contributing negatively to the conflict dynamics as they exacerbate ethno-religious polarization and communal violence. The deteriorating social ties tend to fuel insecurity and human rights abuses and also exacerbate the culture of violence already dominant in the region. A flourishing gun economy further undermines tolerant co-existence in society as it emphasizes violent conflict resolution.

(Sarosi & Sombatpoonsiri, 2011, p. 389)

What has emerged in Southern Thailand and in other conflicts is CSP changing the dynamics of a conflict and heightening the threats to civilians’ safety. These examples not only illustrate how CSP can change the dynamics of civil wars but also highlight its weaknesses.

Limitations of Civilian Self-Protection

While it is true that civilians attempt to self-protect when other actors are unwilling or incapable of protecting them, it is not true that their efforts are always successful. At times, self-protection strategies may actually expose civilians to more physical harm. One way this happens is when civilians engage in, or threaten to engage in, violent self-protection. For instance, civilians may use weapons to protect themselves and/or others when they encounter armed groups. In doing so, they may appear threatening to the fighters, provoking a lethal exchange. Additionally, they may also appear as civilians participating directly in hostilities and thus, as permissible targets under international humanitarian law (IHL). IHL generally provides civilians immunity from being the targets of intentional lethal force. However, if civilians directly engage in hostilities on behalf of one of the parties to a conflict, they lose these protections under IHL. When civilians use force to self-protect, it may not be clear to belligerents whether they are using force to protect themselves or on behalf of their opponent. Thus, when civilians engage in self-protection in such cases, it can inadvertently cause belligerents, familiar with international law, to think they can permissibly kill them.

Civilian self-protection can also lock civilians into dangerous dependencies with armed groups. Civilians utilizing non-violent engagement strategies, such as sheltering, feeding, or having sex with belligerents, in exchange for protection enter into unpredictable and unbalanced relationships. It is not always clear how strong belligerent loyalties are to their civilian partners. Furthermore, belligerents may not always be in control of the nature of these relationships. Changes in conflict dynamics, needs of the armed group, and leadership temperament can all affect whether the relationship of protection continues. Furthermore, self-protection strategies may clash, endangering some or all of the civilians involved. For instance, a civilian may taint the reputation of another in order to curry favors with belligerents as a means of self-protection. For example, in an interview Jose conducted with a former belligerent, he describes the danger for a civilian of being accused of spying:

People are called spies, sell outs. Sell out is a very common name, a very common word. Once they call you a sell out, you are in trouble. Once you are labeled a sell out, then the guerrilla will say we can’t take chances. Because if the enemy gets information, they will just come and kill us. We are dead. They will say that we would rather kill those we suspect.

(Interview, Dukwi, Jose, 2009)

Finally, civilians may not be able to continue the relationship because they no longer can or no longer desire to provide the resource upon which the protection was based. Civilians may run out of food or may want to terminate a sexual relationship. These decisions can render a civilian vulnerable to physical threats by the fighters who once protected them.

Even if civilians are able to maintain these self-protection strategies, the strategies might invite threats from opponents. Anecdotal evidence suggests that civilians have been killed or beaten because they provided food, shelter, and intelligence for the opposing side. For instance, in an interview Jose conducted with former belligerents, one respondent claimed, “[the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola] will just beat you and take your food and they will even force you to tell them the truth if you are the one providing food … to their enemies, meaning UNITA [National Union for the Total Independence of Angola]” (Interview, Dukwi, Jose, 2009). Civilians are targeted for engaging in these activities because they are seen as instrumental in sustaining an opponent’s ability to fight. Depriving an opponent of such vital resources may hasten its capitulation.

Implications for Policy and Practice

The discussion above demonstrates that there is a variety of CSPs. They also show that CSPs are often planned and adapted to the dynamics of the civil war. This section provides suggestions for how the international community could plan and execute civilian protection missions during civil wars: (a) protection actors should recognize that CSP is a form of civilian protection; (b) protection actors should also recognize that CSP cannot be a substitute for civilian protection as implemented by traditional protection actors; (c) humanitarian interventions should be informed by CSP; and (d) where appropriate, these missions should seek to support and enhance CSP.

The international community needs to recognize the widespread use of CSP strategies and their crucial role in protecting civilians in the absence of peacekeepers or in the presence of peacekeepers who are unable to provide protection, or who themselves pose a threat to civilians’ safety. Without this recognition, there will be no move to learn from existing CSP efforts or to enhance them. Furthermore, without this recognition, the risk of international actors intervening and taking actions that disrupt CSP efforts without providing an alternative form of protection is high. Therefore, to ensure that civilians are adequately protected, all humanitarian actors need to recognize that civilians predominantly rely on CSP to protect themselves from violence in conflicts across the globe. However, with a few exceptions, humanitarian agencies have not officially recognized CSP.

As much as it is important to recognize the significance of CSP, it cannot be seen as a replacement for traditional protection efforts undertaken by the United Nations and regional bodies such as the African Union (AU). This is because, although civilians mostly rely on themselves in conflict, CSP is not guaranteed to protect civilians from violence and, as we have explained above, comes with many risks. For these reasons, the international community should aim to protect civilians with peacekeeping forces who are adequately trained, equipped, and knowledgeable about the situation on the ground and have been given a mandate to protect civilians. Furthermore, these troops should not pose a threat to the physical integrity of the civilians they are tasked with protecting.

However, while recognizing that CSP is not an alternative to peacekeeping efforts, it is still crucial that humanitarian missions are informed by CSP. This is because CSP is widely used and sometimes succeeds in preventing violence, and its disruption, without being replaced by humanitarian actors who are adequately mandated, trained, resourced, disciplined, and knowledgeable of the local dynamics, could imperil lives further. Consequently, CSP should be factored into the planning and deployment stages of peacekeeping missions. Peacekeeping missions should know what conflict-affected civilians are doing to survive and should seek to understand if and how intervention could harm and boost these efforts. Furthermore, where missions deem it appropriate, they should seek to support CSP. This support can be in the form of information on imminent attacks, safe escape routes, and resources needed to self-protect. The provision of this support does not obviate the need for traditional civilian protection.

It is necessary, therefore, that peacekeeping missions understand CSP and how its use is shaped by civil war dynamics. They must critically analyze how they can contribute to render CSP more effective. Currently, CSP is not on the agenda of the major peacekeeping bodies. The 2015 Report of the High-Level Panel on Peacebuilding did not recognize the ubiquity of CSP and how important it has been to saving lives in civil wars. Indeed, the UN has yet to recognize the agency of civilians in their own protection. Consequently, there is no official requirement for CSP to be considered in mission planning and execution. While this does not mean that UN peacekeeping missions universally disregard what civilians do to survive, it suggests that these efforts do not always inform their plans and actions. The AU has come closer to recognizing civilian agency in conflicts. According to the organization’s 2012 Draft Guidelines for the Protection of Civilians in African Union Peace Support Operation:

The Chairperson of the Commission will task HoMs [Heads of Missions] to develop, in consultation with a mission’s senior leadership, affected civilian populations, external protection actors, and, as appropriate, host State authorities, a mission-wide strategy for the protection of civilians, which specifies the mission’s protection activities (the protection strategy). The protection strategy should link political, military, police, and civilian efforts within the mission, and should take into account, and be coordinated with, the activities of host State authorities, the civilian population and external protection actors.2 (2012, p. 7)

The draft guidelines also state that “The protection strategy must also emphasize the importance of liaison with host State authorities, civilian populations, external protection actors and parties to the conflict” (2012, p. 8).3 The organization emphasizes that peacekeeping strategies should be coordinated with civilian communities, but does not explicitly name or discuss CSP. There is, therefore a need for the international community to place CSP on its agenda and to begin to factor it into the planning and execution of humanitarian missions.


This article has provided an overview of civilian protection and an introduction to civilian self-protection. We have shown that civilians have historically relied on CSP and that the dynamics of civil wars affect how CSP is employed by civilians. We have also argued that, to more effectively protect civilians, their efforts at self-protection need to be understood by humanitarian actors who intervene in civil wars. Although our discussion has focused on peacekeepers, an understanding of CSP is important for all humanitarian actors who work in conflict zones. This is because their actions can impact civilians’ ability to self-protect. We have written elsewhere that peacekeeping missions can contribute to CSP by providing information, providing and distributing the resources need to self-protect, and helping civilians prepare for imminent threats (Jose & Medie, 2015). Other international organizations and nongovernmental organization can also contribute to these efforts. However, this can only be achieved when the international community comes to recognize the agency of people who are affected by conflict and the steps that they take daily to survive violence.


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  • 1. Emphasis by authors.

  • 2. Emphasis by authors.

  • 3. Emphasis by authors.