Safeguarding ‘distinction’ inside the wire: Humanitarian-peacekeeper interactions in South Sudan’s Protection of Civilians sites

Following the outbreak of violence in December 2013, tens of thousands—and eventually hundreds of thousands—of internally displaced persons (IDPs) sought refuge at UN bases in South Sudan. These sites came to be referred to as Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites, guarded by forces from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) under a robust PoC mandate. In response, many international humanitarian actors, ranging from UN agencies to NGOs, sought to live and work ‘inside the wire’ of the PoC sites as well. They wanted to be close to the war-affected populations they serve, and were also seeking to protect their own staff from violent attacks. As a general rule, global civil-military guidance dissuades humanitarian actors from co-locating with military actors in conflict settings. In recognition of the exceptional circumstances, however, the UN Humanitarian Country Team in South Sudan approved the temporary use of military force protection by humanitarian actors; this has enabled them to reside in the sites.

South Sudan’s PoC sites have generated considerable interest from policymakers and scholars alike, some of whom have drawn attention (pp. 39-40) to the complex relationships of diverse international actors operating in the sites. What is missing at this juncture, from a legal perspective, is a robust account of the challenges that co-location in the sites poses for the civilian-combatant distinction in international humanitarian law (IHL). Drawing on field research[1] conducted in South Sudan in 2015, this article highlights one slice of the international community where interactions are shaped by struggles over ‘distinction’: the humanitarian-peacekeeper relationship.

As one UN civilian actor notes, the PoC sites in South Sudan are spaces where the UN mission ‘comes closest’ to humanitarian actors. Another civilian member of UNMISS surmises, ‘I’ve never seen another example where humanitarians and UNMISS work so closely’. This issue of physical proximity is also flagged by a humanitarian NGO actor living in one of the PoC sites. He is concerned that the mere fact of his presence in the site undermines any efforts his organization might make with regard to distinction from UNMISS. An individual working for a different humanitarian NGO picks up this thread. He explains that co-locating with UN military forces leads ‘fiercely independent’ humanitarian NGOs to fear that they are compromising the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, and impartiality. It is adhering to these principles, he explains, that helps humanitarian actors to demonstrate they are distinct.

It is apparent that the attempt to safeguard distinction from UN military actors is not always, or only, about compliance with international law. Much of the time, humanitarian NGOs are also hoping to influence local perceptions. One component of this perceptions work involves the attempt to secure the trust and acceptance of the war-affected populations they seek to serve. As one humanitarian actor explains, it is local beneficiaries who matter most; the ‘element of distinction is purely from their perspective’. Continue reading

‘It is a cold liaison!’ Military perceptions of humanitarian distinction


‘You are the company commander today. Your task is to negotiate access to land with the local mayor in order to secure a new space for our military hospital, which has flooded.’ After a brief strategy session, my team proceeds to the negotiation table. I am seated directly across from the local mayor and his businessman friend, and I have one hour to convince these civilians to help me.

This is not a story from a conflict zone, though it is a theatre of sorts. The scenario unfolds on a military base in Italy, where a training run by the NATO Multi-National CIMIC (civil-military cooperation) Group is underway. The ‘mayor’ and ‘businessman’ are members of the Italian armed forces performing the role of civilians, while I, in turn, am a civilian acting as a military commander. How did I come to be involved in such civil-military shape shifting?

Attacks against humanitarian aid workers have attracted considerable attention in recent years, especially the October 2015 bombing of the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Important legal and operational measures have been proposed to bolster aid worker protection and, crucially, attempts are being made to better understand the causes of violence against aid workers. The roles played by other actors, such as international militaries, are being examined and there is renewed interested in bolstering guidance on humanitarian-military interactions  (e.g.  IASCMCDA, and country-specific guidelines).

The public conversation about aid worker security has opened a window for reflecting on the humanitarian-military relationship more broadly. As a former aid worker myself, I am intimately acquainted with efforts humanitarians make to separate themselves from military actors—often by appealing to a protected civilian status in IHL. Less clear is how these attempts are perceived from the other side. And so I am attending this NATO training and others like it to investigate how military actors learn about, make sense of, and respond to the humanitarians they meet in armed conflict contexts.

As the civilian humanitarian trainers at NATO emphasize, perceptions are paramount. One trainer states: ‘Beyond following the humanitarian principles, I must be perceived as following them, by the population, by the army, by the government…’ Another adds, ‘it’s all about perceptions—that’s the pin that I dance on.’

Military trainees are taught that their direct engagement in humanitarian-type activities is problematic for humanitarians, who fear the ‘association, mobilization, and utilization of humanitarian assistance to achieve other objectives.’ One military trainer advises: ‘You have to watch for mission creep, you can’t send the wrong message to the public.’ Another touches on general issues of proximity: ‘If they share a room and coffee with us, they can be seen as taking sides by people outside.’

How do the military trainees receive these lessons?

Continue reading