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The Centrality of Protection in Humanitarian Action - A review of field and global clusters in 2016

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Protection is now recognized as the purpose and intended outcome of humanitarian action. This was the point made in the 2013 Inter-Agency Standing Committee Statement on the centrality of protection in humanitarian action: as part of preparedness efforts, immediate and life-saving activities, and throughout the duration of a crisis and beyond, Humanitarian Coordinators, Humanitarian Country Teams and all clusters and sectors must ensure that “protection of all persons affected and at-risk informs humanitarian decision-making and response, including engagement with States and non-State parties to conflict.”

The centrality of protection means more than protection mainstreaming. It includes ensuring that leadership, coordination, and engagement in protection and all sectors is more strategic, aligned and directed toward a stronger response. While protection of the rights of people is primarily the duty of member states and, in conflict, the parties to a conflict, Humanitarian Coordinators (HCs) and Humanitarian Country Teams (HCTs) are responsible for ensuring that protection is the purpose and intended outcome of humanitarian response. This responsibility cannot be delegated solely to the Protection cluster or taken up by a single agency.

Collectively, HCs and HCTs are responsible for ensuring good programming of billions of dollars in humanitarian aid. The protection sector alone programmed $1.2bn through Humanitarian Response Plans in 2016. It is important to make sure that we are all programming effectively and towards a common goal. In general, we can see that protection is integrated well into Humanitarian Response Plans and some, like the 2016 Iraq plan, have protection as the thread binding sector objectives together. In some, however, we see the Humanitarian Needs Overview describe a protection crisis, but the Response Plan focuses on a single sector. This report looks more closely into work in several countries.

Aside from programming, HCs and HCTs have a collective responsibility in a number of areas:

Addressing protection challenges which have system-wide implications. For example, in Iraq, humanitarians have to decide how to engage in centres set up to screen civilians fleeing areas of armed conflict even though human rights violations may be occurring in these centres. In this case, humanitarians need to affirm their distinct role and the purpose of their work in order to uphold humanitarian principles and not compromise on fundamental human rights norms. In Central African Republic, humanitarians had to decide whether to support the relocation of ethnic groups being threatened with attacks or be accused of sharing in divisive politics or worst, be accused of potentially being complicit in atrocities. Again, this is an example of a case where humanitarians had to clearly articulate the urgent need of physically removing populations from harm, and advocate for a coordinated response. Both situations involve a deep understanding of the threats to and needs of people, and both require clear direction from the humanitarian leadership on what positions should be taken across the response. The position of the Humanitarian Coordinator and HCT should be informed by the analysis and expertise of the Protection Cluster, and agency Representatives in the HCT need to appreciate the potential of protection for breaking through seemingly intractable situations.

Ensuring that the most critical protection concerns are addressed in a given context. In order to address these concerns in a systematic, collective and strategic manner, the HCT needs to identify the two or three most critical threats or risks faced by the population, prioritize these, and articulate them in a short strategy and ensure that they are reflected as priorities through the work of each cluster, and taken forward in the advocacy of all HCT members. The Global Protection Cluster has issued guidance to HCTs on the development of protection strategies, based on the experience of Palestine.