From LA to Misrata: Protecting Civilians Goes Beyond the Barrel of a Gun

As the United Nations' Security Council is set to discuss the principle of protection of civilians on Monday (May 10) and in light of the attention recently paid to it on Libya, my colleague Surendrini and I wanted to clarify what is meant by 'protection of civilians.'

In a nutshell, it means more than just military action....


By Surendrini Wijeyaratne and Louis Belanger from Oxfam International in New York

The badge of the Los Angeles Police Department famously says its officers are there to "protect and serve." And, like all police forces, the LAPD reserves the right to use force, including deadly force when required. When a citizens' life is in danger, or an individual threatens the life of an officer, the police officer is justified in drawing and using his pistol.

However, to uphold the law, to protect citizens is more than that. To protect communities, police officers talk to people to understand their anxieties and needs, they negotiate disputes, mount highly visible patrols, arrest drunks, and they intervene to stop violence. It can also mean tracking down criminals and ensuring they are held to account.

The same principles apply globally. International law calls for the protection of civilians and respect for fundamental human rights whether in times of war or peace. How the law is applied and sometimes enforced is as important to the LAPD as it is to the international community. There was an international outcry when news spread of mass crimes in Libya and clamor for an appropriate response. In the aftermath of the failures to prevent atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s this willingness to respond -- quickly -- to protection crises is welcome. The United Nation Security Council then authorized the use of "any necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya, the first time this UN body has used this language so explicitly.

A key part of Oxfam's work is to advocate for the protection of civilians caught in conflict. Our long experience has taught us that protecting civilians ultimately requires building state and civil society capacity, providing impartial humanitarian assistance, empowering local communities and ensuring accountability for human rights abuses. Sometimes force can be used, including, for example, by UN blue helmets to protect communities in countries such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. However it should always be used as a last resort, as the best option is to take action to prevent dangers in the first place. When force is used, it must limit direct threats against civilians and be used with maximum restraint to avoid civilian casualties.

In Libya we need this measured approach. Like with police departments, force must be never be used as a first resort or viewed as the only option. Failure to consistently uphold the principle of protection, or misuse of it, could be very damaging for the long term to the international community.

More worrying than the reputation of western powers, however, is that civilians in Libya still stand in harm's way. Fighting continues over a month after the Security Council resolution was passed. Over half a million have fled the country, others continue to be caught in the cross fire or deliberately killed. While public discourse remains focused on military action -- from the deployment of military advisors to the use of unmanned drones -- we must remember that the basic measure of success must be whether civilians are safer than before.

By this standard, the international community needs to use all the tools at its disposal -- humanitarian assistance, diplomacy and negotiation, implementation of the arms embargo, economic sanctions and investigation of grave rights violations -- to offer the people of Libya protection from violence and access to their full rights. Nothing less.

Put bluntly "by any means necessary" does not have to mean by any military means necessary. Ultimately the civilians of Libya will be best protected if there is a united and intensified diplomatic effort to end hostilities, ensure accountability for crimes, and reach a political outcome to the conflict which respects the rights of the Libyan people.