Dissertation on Humanitarian Protection Wins 2015 Award

23.12.2015

arjun-claire.jpgIn October 2015 CERAH Master's graduate Arjun Claire (2014–2015) was granted the Swiss Humanitarian Award for his dissertation “Humanitarian Protection: Caught Between Definitions and Practical Challenges". Congratulations to Arjun, and thanks  to CERAH's longstanding partner and founder of this award, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, .

In this interview Arjun discusses his research findings, and his experience with the CERAH MAS programme.

What does this award mean for you?

I am very pleased that the jury has appreciated my dissertation. The comments I received from the jury were very encouraging, and it means a lot to me. Writing a dissertation can be an isolating experience and there are times you start to question your work. It was therefore reassuring to know that the effort I put in was not futile.

The news about the award has been extremely gratifying. It gives some visibility to your work. On a more personal note, the award has given me the confidence and motivation to continue working on the issue of protection of civilians, which was the subject of my dissertation.

Why did you choose this subject for your dissertation?

Ever since I started working in humanitarian assistance, the issue of protection of civilians in armed conflict has always been of interest to me. In armed conflict situations, humanitarians have usually concerned themselves with providing basic assistance. But humanitarian actors are increasingly confronted to situations where civilians face life-threatening violence. How should they react to such situations? What should they do to protect civilians? These are questions humanitarians have been grappling with.

In the late 1990’s many humanitarian and human rights organisations convened to discuss how they would define protection in the context of humanitarian action. A definition of protection based on human rights, refugee and international humanitarian law was agreed as the basis of protection work. But over the years that definition has been viewed as too broad, leading to ineffective protection responses. As a result, many humanitarian organisations have attempted to redefine protection, which in turn has created confusion about the scope of protection work – for example, do we speak of protection of all rights including human rights law, or protection from violence or both.

Given the limited academic research on this topic, I chose to examine how the main humanitarian protection actors understand the concept of protection and what elements could account for a varied interpretation of the concept of protection.

What are your key findings?

Interviews with practitioners and academics as well as analysis of institutional documents revealed that human rights law lead to an enlarged scope of protection activities. This meant that humanitarian actors could engage in protection work without actually addressing the most pressing protection concerns. For instance, they could argue that providing food is protection. While that is accurate when you look at it from the perspective of human rights law, but in practice in an armed conflict situation where threats are linked to violence, it does not provide the kind of protection people want. This inability to tackle the most urgent threats has been linked to the definition of protection.

 In my paper I conclude that in fact more than conceptual confusion, external factors account for ineffective protection responses such as policies of host governments, security and funding, to name a few. Finally, I highlight the tension between protection and assistance. Humanitarian actors will often have to consider the trade-off between addressing protection concerns and access, especially when confronted with intransigent governments. In other words, my paper concludes, there may be inherent limits to humanitarian protection activities.

Any qualities you would recommend to future Master students at the CERAH?

From my experience, the most important quality is to be interested in what you are working on. Interest in a topic stokes your desire to learn. You spend almost a year with the topic so it is important that you do not deplete your reserve of curiosity.

The dissertation, in my view, is also an opportunity to build your area of specialisation. Although I had been working in communications and advocacy before I started at the CERAH, I wanted to gain specialised expertise in a specific aspect of humanitarian action:  protection of civilians.

Finally since the master programme at CERAH is much more practice-oriented, the dissertation allows one to dig deeper into theoretical roots of humanitarian action.

What are your future projects?

I have been working at CERAH for a few months, on communications. This has allowed me to look at the humanitarian field through an academic perspective. It has made me realise the important role an institution like CERAH plays in improving the quality of humanitarian response by building competencies of humanitarian professionals.

In 2016 I will be starting a new job in South Sudan, working on advocacy in a humanitarian context. This will probably involve working with refugees and internally displaced people, and will give me a great opportunity to put all I have learned at the CERAH into practice. My goal has been to work at the intersection of advocacy and protection, using advocacy to improve the protection of civilians, and the CERAH MAS programme has been incredibly valuable in making this possible.