UK Approach to Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict


This paper provides an update to March 2020 on the UK approach to the Protection of Civilians (PoC) in armed conflict situations. It builds on the UK’s PoC strategy paper published in 2010, and has been drafted following consultation with non-governmental organisations, civil society, academics and others. The update was written before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic but the key principles referred to in this document on adherence to International Humanitarian Law and international human rights laws are not affected.

What is ‘protection’?

In the context of armed conflict, the concept of protection encompasses all activities aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of law. In essence, the goal of protection is to improve the safety of civilians by limiting their exposure to violence, abuse, coercion, exploitation and deprivation and the threat thereof. Primary responsibility for the protection and assistance of civilians lies with states, who are obliged to protect, respect and fulfil the human rights of all persons within their jurisdiction, in accordance with the standards of national and international law.

What is the concept of PoC in armed conflict?

In armed conflict, civilians face a mixture of direct and indirect threats to their lives, safety and wellbeing. Nevertheless, international humanitarian law (IHL, also known as the law of armed conflict) outlines the limits and ‘rules’ of war, aiming to balance military considerations against humanitarian requirements.

When States and other parties to conflict fail to comply with IHL, refugee and human rights law and other protective law, the direct consequences for civilians include death, injury, sexual and gender-based violence, violence against children, torture, displacement, unlawful detention, family separation, loss of livelihoods, interrupted access to basic services, and psychological harm.

Disregard for international law and the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality exacerbates conflict and undermines global stability. The UK’s National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (2015) recognised that our long-term security and prosperity depend on the rules-based international order upholding our values.

How does the UK promote the PoC?

Improved PoC requires greater compliance with international laws by State and non-State actors, an improved response by the international community, and support to States to develop their capabilities to protect their own populations. The UK will always uphold international laws, use our influence to encourage others to do likewise, seek to condemn those that do not, and push for accountability. The UK works towards these commitments through:

  • political engagement
  • strengthening accountability
  • peace support operations
  • ensuring respect for IHL in UK military operations
  • strengthening State and non-State capacity
  • humanitarian action
  • offering refuge to those in need of protection.