The protection of civilians and health workers in conflict situations

Ensuring protection against violence, abuse and violations of fundamental human rights is a key part of the humanitarian response, both in situations of armed conflict and natural disasters. Protection has been identified as one of three main priorities in Norway’s Humanitarian Strategy for 2019-2023.

It is primarily the responsibility of the authorities in the country concerned to protect the population and safeguard their fundamental rights. In situations of armed conflict, this responsibility lies with the parties to the conflict. The international human rights instruments, refugee law and international humanitarian law form the legal framework in this area. However, in many conflict and disaster situations, there is a lack of willingness and/or ability to fulfil international legal obligations.    

Local and international humanitarian organisations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and the UN work in the field to protect the population and safeguard fundamental human rights. Many of these organisations also participate in international processes to enhance compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law. Norway contributes to humanitarian efforts on the ground and participates in international cooperation to improve protection of civilians and promote respect for fundamental rights.    

Norway is at the forefront of efforts to ensure that protection of those affected by conflicts or natural disasters is a key component of humanitarian action. Ensuring the protection of civilians during a crisis is essential not only for saving lives, but also for strengthening post-crisis efforts relating to reconstruction, reconciliation, the return of displaced people, the reunion of families and the rebuilding of communities.  

Despite the fact that civilians affected by armed conflict have a fundamental right to protection under international humanitarian law, in practice it is still civilians who suffer most in conflict situations. All too often in conflict situations, civilians are killed or subject to mutilation, rape and forced displacement.  

Today’s conflicts are often asymmetric conflicts. Rebel forces may hide among the civilian population and use the local population as human shields to prevent attacks against them. This significantly increases the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage. Many of the conflicts we are seeing today are complex and involve a wide range of armed groups. These groups often fail to comply with their obligation under international humanitarian law to distinguish between military targets and the civilian population.

Norway is working on many fronts to promote compliance with the rules set out in international humanitarian law on the protection of civilians. A number of sections and departments at the Ministry are involved in this work, as are the diplomatic and consular missions. We focus our efforts on issues that we consider to be particularly pressing.

This work is vital not only to protect civilians, but also to improve humanitarian access for organisations working to alleviate suffering among the civilian population.

These are some of the focus areas of our protection efforts, as identified in Norway’s Humanitarian Strategy:

Protection of children and of the right to education are top priorities both in our efforts to enhance protection of civilians and in our efforts to promote education in situations of crisis and conflict. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict is an important partner in this work, as are other key UN actors and civil society organisations such as UNICEF and Save the Children.

Norway is working to improve access to education and protection of schools in situations of armed conflict. Norway and Argentina are leading the work to promote the Safe Schools Declaration. States that endorse the Declaration undertake to avoid using schools and other educational institutions for military purposes in conflict situations. The aim is to prevent schools from becoming military targets.  

All people – women, men, boys and girls – are affected differently by crises and conflicts. The humanitarian response should be designed, as far as possible, to meet the needs of all civilians. The gender perspective is to be integrated into all Norway’s humanitarian efforts. Organisations that receive humanitarian support from Norway are required to report on how this is being done. Efforts to combat sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) are a key priority in Norway’s humanitarian efforts. Norway also works at the international level to promote and strengthen the response to SGBV in humanitarian situations. There is a need for other actors to come forward and take on a more prominent role in this work. Increasing women’s participation in humanitarian efforts is particularly important if we are to ensure progress in this area.

Protection of healthcare is another priority. Attacks on health facilities, ambulances, patients and health personnel prevent the sick and wounded from receiving medical treatment during armed conflicts and other crises. This has long-term consequences for global health. Re-establishing health services in the aftermath of conflicts and natural disasters is a difficult task, not least in situations where health workers have fled or been killed and facilities have been destroyed. Norway is actively engaged in efforts to ensure the protection of healthcare in situations of conflict and crisis.

We work along several different tracks and with a range of partners, such as the Norwegian Red Cross, the World Health Organization, professional health organisations, and other countries. Through the Health Care in Danger initiative, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have made the protection of healthcare a priority. Norway has worked with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to enhance the protection of health workers, patients, health facilities and vehicles. This work has involved practical measures, dialogue with parties to conflict, and international cooperation. Norway has also co-sponsored a resolution in the UN General Assembly condemning attacks on healthcare. Security Council resolution 2286 (2016) strongly condemns attacks on medical facilities and personnel and urges states to ensure respect for their relevant international legal obligations.  

Efforts to prevent disappearances, find missing people and reunite families are another of Norway’s priority areas. Norway will promote more effective cooperation in this area. These humanitarian efforts are of vital importance to families and survivors.