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Protracted Conflict and Humanitarian Action: Some Recent ICRC Experiences

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This report draws on some recent operational experiences of the ICRC to describe the theory and practice of the ICRC’s approach to humanitarian assistance in protracted conflict. The ICRC spends about two thirds of its budget on protracted conflicts. The average length of time the ICRC has been present in the countries hosting its ten largest operations is more than 36 years. Protracted conflicts are a major source of human suffering and a cause of protracted displacement, migration and development reversals.

The report contributes to important humanitarian policy discussions on the reliefdevelopment relationship, the urbanization of humanitarian response, multi-year planning and humanitarian financing. Chapter 1 starts with theoretical and legal analysis of protracted conflict. Chapter 2 examines the damaging effects of protracted conflict on State and society. Chapter 3 describes the ICRC’s “combined approach” to short and long-term needs.Chapter 4 looks at key areas where the ICRC is determined to improve its performance and some important international policy changes that will help it do so.


Protracted conflicts are not new but there are key features that are specific to our times. Many wars in history have been long. The ICRC has routinely operated in protracted conflicts in the last 70 years but particular trends can be observed in protracted conflicts today. Many long conflicts are largely urban in nature and involve new forms of technology that influence tactics and communications differently. Today’s conflicts affect middleincome countries as much as poorer countries. They attract a large humanitarian sector and a more diverse, 24/7 global media sector. Today’s conflicts are also viewed by States and civil society in a much more conscious way through the lens of international law – notably, international humanitarian law (IHL), international human rights law and refugee law.

Protracted conflicts are characterized by their longevity, intractability and mutability. Some are based on a single conflict. Others are a series of multiple conflicts. The parties to long conflicts typically fragment and mutate over time. Conflict often ebbs and flows unevenly across a country, with varying moments of intensity. A conflict may also be reframed with different goals over time and be internationalized in a variety of ways. Lack of respect for IHL is a major source of human suffering in protracted conflicts. Even when IHL is not violated in the conduct of hostilities the humanitarian consequences of these conflicts can be great because of widespread displacement, the cumulative impact on basic services and livelihoods over time, and the sharp increase in “war poor” populations.

The humanitarian consequences of protracted conflict are severe and can be immediate and cumulative. People’s experience of a protracted conflict typically involves immediate direct suffering as a result of attacks, deprivation and displacement, and more indirect suffering due to the cumulative deterioration of basic services, life chances and livelihoods. People’s needs cut across many different sectors and extend over many years.Humanitarian action may respond to urgent need and long-term need, as long as it is humanitarian in purpose and impartial in nature. Protracted conflict is not a legal term in IHL. Nor does IHL differentiate between the concepts, in international policy, of relief, early recovery and development. Humanitarian action according to IHL transcends these categories and may include a range of activities to aid people’s survival, their means of survival and their dignity. The ICRC engages across this spectrum of activities in accordance with its fundamental principles and IHL.

Today’s protracted conflicts create some new challenges for humanitarian action.
This is especially the case in cities, where urban infrastructure and systems pose largescale technological and staffing problems for the maintenance of vital inter-connected services. The intensity and longevity of protracted conflicts also create greater expectations of sustainable and individualized services across a wide range of vulnerable groups. The absence of development investment makes it difficult to build strong local partnerships to ensure humanitarian continuity during and after conflict.

The ICRC responds to needs in protracted conflict by implementing a “combined approach” that operates in the short and long terms to meet immediate needs and mitigate cumulative impact. This involves working with two timelines simultaneously – one that plans week to week, and another that thinks two to five years ahead. The ICRC works quickly to address immediate needs and also works deeply with regard to the various health, water, livelihood and protection systems that ensure people’s survival and dignity. Agility and proximity remain critical to the ICRC’s operational approach, which must be able to adapt to the fluidity of armed conflict. Staying close to affected people as their locations and situations change is essential. So, too, is a diverse “palette of activities” that enables the ICRC to remain relevant to people’s changing needs.

The ICRC aims to improve its general approach in protracted conflicts in five ways.
It will develop its multi-year approach to focus more on outcome goals in protection and assistance. It will increase its ability to absorb multi-year financing. It will concentrate on securing development holds against the development reversals of protracted conflict. It will seek partnerships that can ensure humanitarian continuity during and after conflict, and it will deepen its engagement with affected populations.