The protection of crisis-affected populations is a key responsibility of the United Nations. From Tigray to Myanmar, Afghanistan and elsewhere, atrocity crimes continue to be committed with almost complete impunity. At the same time, U.N. Member State support for the human rights agenda is at a low ebb making it increasingly difficult to rally international action to address such situations. The U.N. Security Council is in a perpetual state of deadlock over many crises while human rights norms are under assault from populist governments and right-wing politicians that reject the international liberal order and multilateralism. The performance of the U.N. system has also been inadequate in cases where the U.N. has intervened, with the findings of previous independent inquiries into events in Sri Lanka and Myanmar – that catalogued “systemic and structural” failings in the U.N. response – just as relevant today. A report I published in June on the U.N’.s response to the Myanmar coup found that the same challenges persist with the U.N. seemingly destined to fail there yet again. Reports this month that the U.N. downplayed reports of sexual violence in Tigray are of particular concern.

Last year, faced with criticism about the inaction of the U.N., the Secretary-General launched a Call to Action on Human Rights to reaffirm the importance of human rights to the organization. The initiative outlines seven priority areas, including amongst these, “Rights in Times of Crisis” with the commitment to develop an Agenda for Protection, which the U.N. secretariat is currently working on and is expected to finalize later this year. Human rights are also a central theme of the Common Agenda launched last week by the U.N. Secretary General to reinvigorate multilateralism. To ensure that these latest efforts to put human rights at the forefront of the U.N.’s response to crises do not fail (as previous ones have) requires a comprehensive approach that unifies the current fragmented ways in which the U.N. protects people, whether it be through humanitarian action, peacekeeping, conflict prevention, development cooperation or human rights work more generally.

An Opportune Moment to Tackle a Longstanding Problem

Since the U.N.’s inaction during the Rwandan genocide, the Balkans conflict, and other debacles during 1990s, the organization has increasingly focused on protection as a core aspect of its work, with different entities of the U.N. developing their own approaches. Defining “protection” in the U.N. context is challenging: for example, humanitarian agencies have viewed the term broadly in terms of all actions aimed at obtaining full respect for rights under international humanitarian, human rights, and refugee law including the provision of services and advocacy, whereas U.N. peacekeepers have adopted a narrower definition in terms of physical threats of violence to civilians, emphasizing the potential use of force to protect civilians.

There are currently several reviews underway regarding these different institutional approaches that provide the opportunity to truly transform how the U.N. protects civilians. Within the humanitarian sector, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) has just begun a review of its first ever protection policy that was adopted in 2016. The U.N. Department of Peace Operations (DPO) is re-examining its approach to the protection of civilians in view of the transition and drawdown of several of its peacekeeping missions. There is increased attention to the protection role of the Special Political Missions of the U.N – civilian missions that support peace processes and democratic transitions – as these increase in number and take over from many peacekeeping operations, with the U.N. Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) considering its position on the topic. Human rights also remain central to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in which protection is an important dimension of the so-called triple nexus promoting greater collaboration between humanitarian, development and peace actors.

The forthcoming Agenda for Protection should be seized upon as the chance to bring together these disparate strands of the U.N.’s protection activities – and reforms thereof – to deliver a more predictable and effective response for those most affected by crises. Currently, each part of the U.N. has its separate definition, terminology, policies, strategies, and guidelines in this area. Endless time is spent discussing the finer details about the conceptual differences between “humanitarian protection,” “protection of civilians,” “human rights,” and the many other terms that describe broadly similar kinds of activities. All these terms share the overarching common goal of protecting civilians impacted by crisis. Yet institutional interests are often put ahead of developing a common, unified approach that ultimately could be more successful at providing protection, and that could address the failings identified in previous inquiries, studies, and reviews.

The distinctive protection roles of different U.N. entities should not be completely overlooked. Whereas international humanitarian and human rights law provides the common legal framework, there are important mandate, policy, and principled reasons why each relevant part of the U.N. plays a separate role and has developed their own approaches accordingly. It would be impossible (and unhelpful) to iron out these important differences. That being said, despite this diversity of approach, there are more similarities than there are differences among U.N. entities’ understanding of protection. Yet to outsiders and other parts of the U.N., what comes across is a conceptually confusing, fragmented, and disparate protection agenda, which causes frustration and potentially leads to disinterest – precisely what the protection agenda does not need, given its cross-cutting nature that requires mainstreaming, with even non-protection specialist U.N. entities required to play a role.

From the former U.N. Secretary-General’s Human Rights Up Front initiative to the IASC Principal’s Centrality of Protection statement, much has been said about the need for a “system-wide” approach to protection, but little progress has been made in actually bringing this about. The Agenda for Protection needs to learn the lessons why these previous initiatives did not bring about the systemic and structural changes required to improve the U.N.’s protection role.

Six Priorities for the Agenda on Protection

There are several critical issues that the Agenda for Protection will need to address to really make a difference:

First, the agenda needs to adopt a truly holistic approach. The greatest imperative for the U.N. is to halt atrocity crimes and the worst forms of violence towards civilians. Rather than merely responding to such incidents, though, efforts should be made to prevent them from occurring in the first place. The U.N. Secretary General has made prevention a priority and this should equally apply to protection which requires tackling not only the symptoms of violence but also their underlying causes. When conflicts do break out, protection should be prioritized throughout their duration, right through to recovery and peacebuilding to avoid a relapse, as so often occurs in many conflicts. The Agenda for Protection should address all types of threats to civilians during crisis and be applied throughout all phases of them, making the linkages between all complementary interventions.

Second is the issue of leadership. With so many different U.N. entities involved in protection, it is frequently unclear who is responsible for making the required decisions and providing leadership. The most senior U.N. official in a country – whether it is a Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), Resident Coordinator (RC), or Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) – is usually the nominated focal point, but they frequently struggle to mobilize and direct other U.N. entities around a common approach to protection, as each entity has their own vested interests. Moreover, there is no consistent coordinating U.N. entity for protection, with this task varying from one context to the next. As the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is to humanitarian action and the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) is to development cooperation, there needs to be a clear lead entity regarding protection. This will most likely require significant investments in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to play a more active coordinating role that is separate from its myriad existing mandated tasks which it already struggles to implement due to lack of resources. The Agenda for Protection should clarify these leadership responsibilities and provide the resources to execute them.

Third, there needs to be a single protection plan. Currently, in each crisis situation, there are countless different protection strategies by – to name just a few – the humanitarian country team, protection cluster, peacekeeping missions, and other human rights-related teams. While these strategies are often complementary, they also overlap and duplicate each other and there is frequently a lack of clarity as to who is responsible for doing what. As a result, tasks tend to fall through the cracks and don’t get implemented because each U.N. entity thinks it is someone else’s responsibility to implement them. Ideally, there should be a single protection plan that all U.N. entities endorse or, if not, a rationalization of the increasing number of planning frameworks that are becoming unmanageable. The Agenda for Protection should clarify roles and responsibilities and provide the framework for an overall protection strategy while being mindful of the different roles that each entity needs to plays for them to be consistent with their own policies and principle.

Fourth is the importance of predictability. The U.N.’s operational field presence on protection is often determined by what the U.N. Security Council or other U.N. bodies mandate. These operations are also constrained by the resources that are provided from the U.N.’s assessed budget and the terms of the host country’s consent. Notwithstanding these constraints, there is still enormous variation in the protection footprint of the U.N. from one crisis context to the next. I was most recently based in Myanmar (a country with on-going crimes against humanity and a genocide committed only a few years ago) where the U.N. has only five human rights officers (based outside the country). This compares to, for instance, South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the U.N. has had up to one hundred human rights officers. Recent research by the Global Protection Cluster has confirmed (yet) again how humanitarian protection field operations remain not only perennially underfunded but also extremely uneven from one context to the next. U.N. peacekeeping missions with protection-of-civilians mandates are also facing increasing budgetary pressures. The Agenda for Protection should set out standardized protection responses to crises and the capabilities needed to deliver these – and help try to even out funding and resource disparities to provide more predictability.

Fifth is the need for scaled up crisis response mechanisms related to protection. When a crisis erupts, the U.N. has a poor track record at scaling up its protection response, with few tools available to respond rapidly and effectively. Within the humanitarian sector all aid agencies as part of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee operate according to common scale up protocols that calibrate their operational response to the severity of an emergency. Once a humanitarian emergency is declared “Level 3,” every organization is obliged to prioritize and dedicate global resources and capabilities to respond. A similar system should operate across the U.N. to ensure every relevant entity supports a truly system-wide response to each protection crisis that is commensurate with the scale of violations occurring. Currently, the mobilization of resources relies on the goodwill, capacity, and interest of different U.N. entities rather than agreed procedures. Instead of this capricious approach, a threshold of ongoing atrocity crimes should trigger U.N. entities to scale up their actions as part of a common U.N. response. The use of emergency rosters should also be used to deploy greater numbers of protection staff to crises. The Protection Stand-by Capacity Project (ProCap) exists within the humanitarian sector and the Justice Rapid Response for human rights investigations, but far greater use could be made of these roster arrangements. The Agenda for Protection should review and set out crisis response mechanisms to fill gaps.

Sixth is the importance of adopting a results-based approach and promoting accountability. Protection is a goal, an approach, but also an outcome that crisis-affected populations should expect to receive from the U.N. If the U.N. is to address the shortcomings identified in previous inquiries, then it must adopt a results-based approach to its protection actions. Too often protection is defined as an aspiration the U.N. hopes to achieve, rather than a measurable outcome that crisis-affected populations can count on. The Sustainable Development Goals set clear objectives for what development cooperation is meant to achieve. Standards have been set for humanitarian action as well. There are, in contrast, few benchmarks that guide the U.N.’s protection work. There has been increased scrutiny on the performance of U.N. peacekeeping operations including their efforts to protect civilians, with steps taken to integrate consideration of these within the results-based system of accountability.  Within the humanitarian sector, the NGO network InterAction has promoted a result-based approach to protection. But these are just two initiatives rather than a system-wide results-based approach to protection. The Agenda for Protection should propose a common system for measuring the protection outcomes of the U.N.’s efforts to protect crisis-affected populations.


The U.N. is facing an uphill struggle to protect civilians in crisis as respect for international law diminishes and support for multilateral action wanes. While these external challenges might be hard to control, there is much more that could be done internally within the U.N. to improve the organization’s performance in this area. The Agenda of Protection provides the possibility to address many of these concerns starting with a system-wide policy on protection that has been missing up until now and is sorely needed to bring better protection to crisis-affected populations.

Image: Members of the UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) Italian contingent gather in the village of Seddiqine in the southern Lebanese district of Tyre, from near where four rockets were fired towards Israel, on May 19, 2021. – The Israeli army confirmed the attack, saying it retaliated with artillery fire.