IASC Policy on Protection in Humanitarian Action

In a statement issued in December 2013, the Principals of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) affirmed that all humanitarian actors have a responsibility to place protection at the center of humanitarian action. As part of preparedness efforts, immediate and life-saving activities, and throughout the duration of a crisis and beyond, it is thus incumbent on Humanitarian Coordinators, Humanitarian Country Teams and clusters to ensure that “protection of all persons affected and at-risk [informs] humanitarian decision-making and response, including engagement with States and non-State parties to conflict.” The IASC has committed to a system-wide and comprehensive response to conflict and disasters. This response is driven by the needs and perspectives of affected persons, with protection at its core.

Civilians are often subjected to violence, abuse, coercion and deprivation during armed conflict. Experience shows that parties to conflict often violate the principles of distinction, proportion and precaution in the conduct of hostilities. The IASC’s approach to protection emphasizes that under international law authorities at all levels of government hold the primary obligation and responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of persons on their territory or under their jurisdiction. In armed conflict, non-State armed groups (NSAGs), although not party to international humanitarian law (IHL) treaties, are bound to respect IHL – including the fundamental obligation to distinguish between civilians and fighters in the conduct of hostilities and the obligation to take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population and civilian objects under their control against the effects of attacks. (See Annex I of this policy for more on the normative framework for protection.) In addition, de facto authorities or non-state armed groups that exercise government-like functions and control over territory are increasingly expected to respect international human rights norms and standards when their conduct affects the human rights of individuals under their control.

In armed conflict, other situations of violence and disasters, international and national humanitarian organizations have a crucial role to play in offering their services to help prevent and to alleviate human suffering. A strategic, comprehensive and collective approach to protection in humanitarian response can enhance the overall ability of humanitarian actors to analyze, prioritize and respond effectively to violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law (hereinafter collectively referred to as “violations”), including the risks and consequences of violence, abuse, coercion and deprivation occurring in humanitarian crises. 

This policy defines the centrality of protection in humanitarian action, as per the December 2013 statement of the IASC Principals, as well as the process for its implementation at country level. In doing so, it seeks to reinforce complementary roles, mandates and expertise of all relevant actors. Specifically, this policy emphasizes an IASC commitment to prioritize protection and contribute to collective protection outcomes, including through the development of an HCT protection strategy to address the most critical and urgent risks and violations. It also underlines the need to implement this commitment in all aspects of humanitarian action and across the Humanitarian Programme Cycle (HPC). As such, the collective IASC roles and responsibilities in placing protection at the center of humanitarian action are explained, with due consideration for mandates and expertise and in line with humanitarian principles.

This policy is intended to support and build on the IASC’s Policy on the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons (1999). It also seeks to complement other initiatives in support of protection, particularly the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Up Front Initiative (HRUF). Humanitarian actors must also strictly adhere to the IASC commitments related to Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA): this means working proactively to prevent and protect affected persons from any abuse by humanitarian actors themselves.