Historically, international humanitarian law (IHL) through the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977 has required the protection of civilian populations in armed conflict. The Geneva Conventions provide guidance with regard to the obligations of states and parties to a conflict to apply the principle of distinction and to ensure precaution in attack as they pursue their military objectives. This was the first international legal framework to provide for the protection of civilians and forms the foundation of the ‘Protection of Civilians’ concept.
Throughout the 1990s, devastating failures to protect civilians from violence and atrocities shaped thinking at the United Nations (UN) and gave rise to a more expansive concept of Protection of Civilians, incorporating international human rights law, international refugee law, and including best practices in peacekeeping operations and humanitarian response. This is reflected in the adoption of Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict as a thematic concern of the UN Security Council, and the development of policy and guidance relating to civilian protection since 1999, at the United Nations and elsewhere. The term ‘Protection of Civilians’ has expanded from a set of legal obligations in IHL to a conceptual and operational framework used by multiple ‘protection actors’ and practitioners—military and civilian, political and humanitarian.
The concept of Protection of Civilians has developed in response to conflicts and crises as they emerged and as a result has developed unevenly. Combined with the fact that there is no operational definition of Protection of Civilians, there is a perception among protection practitioners that different actors involved in providing protection to people caught up in crisis understand and implement the concept differently. This perception raised questions among the researchers as to whether different understandings actually exist, and if so what the implications for the implementation of civilian protection might be. This gave rise to a research project titled In Search of Common Ground – Understanding Civilian Protection Language and Practice for Civil and Military Practitioners.