Embed Protection of Civilians into UK National Security: Report

A new report published by RUSI and Save the Children calls for the UK to embed its commitment to the ‘Protection of Civilians’ into the strategies of the National Security Council and across Whitehall.

Former Foreign Secretary Lord Hague urges UK Government to ’help reverse the current momentum towards disregard and deliberate targeting of civilians, seen in so many of today’s armed conflicts’.

Drawing on insights from across the policy and practitioner communities, the report, entitled ‘The UK Strategy on Protection of Civilians’, argues that UK’s current revision of its strategy on the Protection of Civilians (PoC) provides an opportunity for Britain to take the lead in this agenda and to ensure its effective implementation.

To do this, the UK government should adopt a cross-Whitehall approach, including through ‘senior leadership buy-in, both in the political and operational space’. This would involve the appointment of a minister tasked with delivering and championing the Protection of Civilians. It should also embed PoC objectives into the UK National Security Council strategies.

The UK’s review of its strategy on the Protection of Civilians takes place on the 20th anniversary of the agenda at the UN Security Council, for which the UK is the lead State. It represents a key opportunity for the UK to set the global agenda.

The report observes how ‘civilians continue to bear the impact of today’s conflicts’, with longer wars that are more likely to be fought in urban areas and laying waste to essential infrastructure. For over 10 years, the protection of civilians’ strategy has been central to achieving the UK government’s goal to prevent, manage and resolve conflict, but the report argues that much more can be done. Interviews reveal that not everyone in key roles in the Ministry of Defence or Foreign Office are aware of the content or even the existence of the UK’s PoC strategy. The result is that protection of civilians is not fully understood or implemented across government.

In his foreword to the report, former Foreign Secretary and Chairman of RUSI, Lord Hague suggests that ‘the UK must always ensure that it remains, not just in line with humanitarian law, but leading on the front line of international norm-setting’. He commends the report as ‘innovative in its approach to the complexity of those issues it seeks to address and the breadth of parties engaged in the process.’

The authors of the report:

  • Recommend that the updated strategy focuses on ensuring a common understanding of protection and of the UK’s role in the ‘Protection of Civilians’ and provides clear guidance to the various actors across government of their roles in achieving this goal.
  • Identify the main factors critical to the success of the updated strategy. These include the need to raise awareness, to take into account specific protection needs of vulnerable groups and to respond to emerging challenges which have appeared in conflicts over the past decade. These include the increased complexity in the number and nature of the actors, the increased reliance on remote warfare and coalition operations, and the impact of new technologies and cyber warfare.
  • Say the new strategy should help the UK with a framework when it enters into alliances or makes judgements on issues such as military cooperation or arms control by ensuring that perpetrators of attacks on civilians are not supplied with arms, material or financial services by the UK. It should also stress the need to strengthen the protection training of UK armed forces and military partners.

Argue that the strategy should better translate protection into policy and practice within the diplomatic, defence and aid sector. To do so it should embed civilian casualty recording and civilian harm-tracking mechanisms, as well as the civilian–military cooperation – elements that are missing from the 2010 strategy.

Paper available at: https://RUSI.org/POC-2019

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