Protection of Civilians

Civilians pay the heaviest price during armed conflict.

Protection from violence

Contemporary armed conflicts and other situations of violence have a devastating impact on civilians. The concept of Protection of Civilians has been developed by the United Nations, national governments and humanitarian actors to protect populations from the effects of violence in armed conflict and other situations of violence. Protection of Civilians includes all activities aimed at ensuring full respect for the rights of civilians in accordance with the law, including human rights law, international humanitarian law, international criminal law, and international refugee law, and encompasses the most immediate priority of providing physical protection to the more longer-term objectives of promoting the rule of law and security within a state.

Following the proliferation of conflicts in the 1990s, which saw civilians increasingly become the targets of deliberate attacks, gender and sexual based violence and crimes against humanity, for example in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the international community, led by the United Nations, developed an integrated concept for Protection of Civilians. The UN adopted the first Security Council Resolution on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (1270) in 1990. Since 1990, three additional Security Council Resolutions have been adopted (1296 in 2000; 1674 in 2006; 1894 in 2009). Protection of Civilians is integrated into the mandates for UN Peacekeeping Operations, there have been numerous Reports of the Secretary-General published, and there is an annual Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.

Protection of Civilians is a critical priority for Australia’s international diplomacy, advocacy and operations. The development of the Australian Guidelines for the Protection of Civilians, facilitated by the Australian Civil-Military Centre, and endorsed by the Chief of the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Federal Police Commissioner in 2015, provided a significant milestone in this ongoing commitment.

The Protection of Civilians Guidelines articulate an Australian whole-of-government perspective on protecting civilians across international operations and engagements in which Australia is involved. They outline agreed principles and focus areas identified by Australian government agencies for protecting civilians, and provide strategic guidance and key considerations to inform the development of Australian government policy and strategy.

The Protection of Civilians Guidelines state that Australia’s international operations and engagements will be guided by the following principles:

  • Protection of Civilians is integral to Australia’s contribution to international peace and security;
  • Protection of Civilians strategies reflect Australia’s international legal obligations including, where applicable, international humanitarian law, international human rights law, international criminal law and international refugee law;
  • Protection of Civilians strategies will support the host state’s protection efforts or inform actions to protect civilians when the host state is deemed unable or unwilling to protect its own civilians, or when government forces themselves pose a threat to civilians;
  • Protection of Civilians strategies will include planning and consultation with civil society organisations and local community members with a view to creating a sustainable impact;
  • Protection of Civilians strategies will recognise and address the different needs of vulnerable groups including women and girls, men and boys, the frail and wounded, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities, refugees and internally displaced persons, and professionals at risk such as medical personnel; and
  • Australian agencies will act in coordination with all protection actors including military, police and civilian components.