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Supporting civilian protection as humanitarian action – a brokering experience from the DRC

Abstract: In the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the civilian population has been suffering repeated violations of human rights over the past 20 years. Interventions such as from the United Nations Peace Keeping Operation in the DRC have shown limited success in addressing violations of human rights and providing protection to the civilian population. Communities affected by violence are often located in isolated areas where there is little access to protection actors. Encounters with armed state and non-state groups are a daily routine, essentially leaving such communities to fend for themselves.

Given this background, a civilian protection model that allows the affected populations to better provide for their safety and improve their ability to protect themselves as well as to engage with the right protection actors is essential.

Taking on a facilitating/ intermediary role, Caritas Bukavu and Caritas Spain initiated such a civilian protection project in the DRC, facilitating the development of tools to help the communities in the Kivu regions to minimise incidents of human rights abuse and their impact and protect themselves against the endemic violence they were exposed to. In this paper, the authors outline a case study on Caritas’s approach and suggest how such facilitated intervention around civilian protection can be the basis for other activities by International NGO’s in the Eastern DRC.

Supporting civilian protection as humanitarian action – a brokering experience from the DRC

Throughout the 20th century’s different conflicts, civilian populations have been increasingly exposed to direct and indirect violence from armed state and non-state actors. Not surprisingly, civilian protection has become one of the pillars of humanitarian action.

Increasingly, international and national Humanitarian organisations have been developing interventions with the aim of reducing the exposure of vulnerable civilians to violence and its impact on them.

We have been reviewing interventions by International and local Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in the context of Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) between the years 2012-2014. Protection in the Eastern DRC has taken various forms, including military and non-military strategies. In this paper, we focus on non-military strategies of non-profits in reducing incidents / impact of violations of human rights by armed groups and protection forces. This strategy today translates into a number of activities, targeting both the armed actors and the populations in conflict-affected areas.

Through the case study of Caritas (an international confederation of Catholic relief, development and social service organisations) programming in the South Kivu, we suggest that protection can be considered as a stand-alone project rather than as one part of a holistic approach. Furthermore, we believe that protection programming should rely on existing leadership in the affected communities and that NGOs need to take into serious consideration issues involving duty of care and the impact of protection on the wellbeing of individuals involved in the protection activities.

Protection itself is a complex term that has many definitions. For this work, we will use the following SPHERE project definition: “Protection is concerned with the safety, dignity and rights of people affected by disasters or armed conflict. […] freedom from violence and from coercion of various kinds and freedom from deliberate deprivation of the means of survival with dignity…”.

The context

Eastern DRC has been the theatre of conflict for decades. The regional conflict increased in 1994 with the spill over from the Rwandan genocide and the influx of 1 million Hutu refugees following the fall of Kigali to the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The result was two wars known as the First and Second Congo Wars that involved up to 7 foreign armies and numerous local armed groups. This conflict devastated the region, causing the death of millions and eventually creating a state of anarchy and terror that persists at some level in the Eastern DRC.

Even today, in 2014, the government of DRC does not have effective control of large territories in the South and North Kivu regions of the DRC. There is a multitude of armed actors organised mostly but not exclusively along ethnic lines. The civilian population has been suffering repeated violations of human rights in varying  intensity over the past 20 years. Out of the registered violations of human rights in the region in the past few years, the Congolese army, the protection actor, was itself responsible for as much as 50% [1] of total incidences recorded in the region. The United Nations Peace Keeping Operation in the DRC – MONUC, has shown limited success in addressing violations of human rights and providing protection to civilian population.

All this essentially leaves the communities in the DRC in the line of fire to fend for themselves. The population affected by violence is often located in isolated areas where there is little access to protection actors. It is also in great proximity to the non-state armed actors. Encounters between armed actors and civilians are a daily routine. Where communities have formed their own protection actors, these tend to also contribute to the cycle of violence in the Kivus (as one group’s protection actor is seen as potential protagonist by another group).

Given this background, a civilian protection model that allows the affected populations to better provide for their safety and improve their ability to protect themselves as well as to engage the right protection actors when possible is particularly relevant to the Eastern DRC context. In particular, an intervention where communities are given better tools for communication and negotiation with the different stakeholders is incredibly relevant as a complimentary activity to other actions taken by national and international protection actors.

It is the object of this article’s case study and is one of the main tools used by International NGO’s in Eastern DRC.

‘Traditional’ Protection mechanisms

Civilian populations in the Kivu’s were exposed to violence long before the arrival of International NGOs active in protection. Not surprisingly, many   groups have adopted traditional protection methods to address threats from armed groups in the region. These methods have contributed to saving lives and have often been used by national and International NGOs as the basis to further develop protection mechanisms.

Common protection mechanisms – ‘early warning’ and displacement

One traditional method involves the use of traditional trumpets and horns to inform the community as well as the surrounding villages of an eminent attack. Following such alarms, community members often, regroup in the “bush” areas close to their original community where they may spend hours or days and weeks until they feel it is safe to go back to their settlement. In some instances, communities cannot return to their households, and therefore join the many displaced persons in the Kivus. In many cases, people are displaced to surrounding places when the security is tolerable, or in the forest we call “Mangene”. They spend the night in the “Mangene” and go back to their home villages during the day to work in their fields. This is when the security is manageable. When the situation is critical, they can settle in different villages for weeks/months. The estimated time of displacement is about 3 months in the Kivus. There is a difference between south and north Kivu: in the former, people stay with host families as opposed to camps; in north Kivu, they settle themselves in camps.

Common protection methods – customary mediation

Interaction between the civilian population and armed actors is unpreventable, and so, community leaders have often taken it upon themselves to mediate with armed groups or local authorities in order to diminish the incidents of harassment, racketeering, forced labour and violence against members of their communities.

Despite their important role, the impact of such actions is often limited – as the community leadership often lacks leverage on the armed groups – and such action tends to be very localised and uncoordinated.

Overview of the Project

Caritas Bukavu and Caritas Spain made a strategic choice in 2012 to address the issue of civilian protection in South Kivu. As opposed to other NGOs which  integrate protection programming into other projects, Caritas’ protection project was a stand-alone project. It was based on existing leadership structures and brought together a network of churches and church personnel affiliated with Caritas. This considerably extended the outreach of the project and gained access to communities that were not accessed by other protection actors before.

The project’s objective was to reduce the number of incidences of violations of human rights specifically in communities where they suffered the most from  deliberate and non-deliberate actions of both state and non-state armed actors.

As an integral part of this project, Caritas set up a “monitoring” network, which allowed the NGO to map out cases of violence against civilians in order to coordinate its action and provide information to other governmental and non-governmental organisations.

Project structure

Following a request by the Bukavu UN security cluster to focus protection activities in selected areas of South Kivu, Caritas identified 18 villages where it would intervene using its network of churches and church personnel. Following a needs assessment, Caritas chose to focus its response in four specific areas through the creation of Local Committees of Communal Organisations (CLOC ). These committees focused their activities on four pillars:

  1. Education and training on human rights issues for community members;
  2. Mediation where there is no civil or military authority. In the absence of any authority where people have to ask for assistance from an armed group, the CLOC is an alternative means of resolving conflict through  non-military means;
  3. Monitoring of violence, threats and abuses against civilians in the chosen communities;
  4. Advocacy and attraction of resources, mapping needs for education, health and so on within the community and advocating with stakeholders to respond to these needs.


The CLOC acted as the local leadership group within each community. Its members were elected from within the community and are not remunerated by Caritas or the community. Typically, existing leaders within the community would become part of CLOC but they would have the representation of women, representatives of the internally displaced people who resided in the community and other minority groups within the community.

The CLOC were in charge of protection actions within the communities and as such received training from Caritas Spain and Caritas Bukavu. They were active in two particular areas: mediation and prevention.


Different types of negotiation apply to different types of actors. In South Kivu, the FARDC (Congolese armed forces) as well as national police are the causes of innumerable cases of human rights abuse, of pillaging, of illegal taxation, of abduction for labour and other types of abuse. The other half of the cases of abuse is by non-state armed groups. These actors are harder to deal with as they do not have the same code of conduct that an official organisation has and for their survival may resolve to gruesome tactics. The negotiation space is much smaller and attempts may result with violence.

However, the most frequent case of mediation were intercommunity conflicts where different groups within the community were opposing each other. Often ethnically based, these kinds of conflicts have been dealt with very efficiently by the CLOC as CARITAS places special emphasis on having every group of the community represented on the CLOC. As such, the community leaders could protect the interest of their different groups while convincing the more radical elements of their community to accept compromise.

In South Kivu, there are large numbers of displaced persons who integrate into the different communities. This is often an important factor of destabilisation of the existing leadership structures within the community. In such instances, the CLOC, which comprised both indigenous and displaced representatives takes on the important role of mediation within the community. In such cases, the association of the CLOC with a recognised organisation is a source of legitimacy.

However, when facing external actors, taking on the role of mediator on behalf of the community and of information sharing and gathering can bring additional risks and become the root cause for targeting the community or specific individuals within the community. This has occurred in the past – specifically, in cases when individuals are recognised to be opposing the actions of one armed party or another and pose a threat to the group or to the continuation of its actions.


The CLOC actively trained the most vulnerable groups of the community to face violence. This allowed them to have better tools to face violent acts that were present in their environment no matter what the protection actions were.

One such action dealt with the prevention of gender based violence. The CLOC and Caritas staff worked together with women to analyse incidents of sexual violence that occurred in the region, and thereafter to develop a strategy to reduce such incidents. This was done through organisation of the women themselves into a group when going out of their communities to work in order to limit sexual attacks against isolated woman which are frequent in South Kivu. Furthermore, the CLOC held numerous activities to raise women’s awareness of gender violence and to the importance of being medically and psychologically treated in the several centres of the area in case of attacks.

Moreover, several group meetings and activities were held with the entire communities to plan organised evacuation in case of attacks or set up simple mechanisms for merchants and peasants to face police and military harassment and forced labour.

While not always completely functional, these tools allowed the population to be aware of their rights and of their abilities to oppose treatments they often faced daily for years without opposition.

Contribution of external protection actors to the civilian protection model

The partnership of the communities with external actors such as civil society organisations and international NGOs enables them to access tools for data gathering and sharing; access to information about technical issues, their rights, as well bringing information of greater changes in the region. In some cases, the association with a powerful organisation can be a source of legitimacy and protection for the community leaders when communicating with armed actors or within the community itself.

Different protection actors have different levels of acceptance by the local community.  Specifically, MONUSCO, the UN peace keeping mission in DRC, is seen by numerous local non-state actors and International NGOs as ineffective and unwilling to tackle the real issues faced by the region. Their involvement has also very often been seen as politically oriented and favouring one party in the conflict over others. As such, both local leadership and humanitarian organisations are often unwilling to cooperate with them (sometimes in order to avoid being targeted by armed groups which consider MONUSCO as taking sides with other armed groups). They will not even share protection information that, in another context, could have been central in preventing armed violence against civilian populations.

Faith based organisations, such as Caritas, or other civil society actors who are less political and have deeper presence within the communities are viewed as a better avenue for interventions.

However this is not without some challenges. One of the project’s main issues was the risk taken by directly intervening in the most isolated areas where communities are exposed to violence. Indeed, as the project Director put it,

For the people in the field, there is real challenge to access the community. We  are having some meetings half way in accessible areas”.

This challenge prevented the NGO staff to effectively train the CLOC members in some of the most violent communities, as they had to hold the session in other communities less affected by violence. As such, as long as the organisation itself cannot effectively operate openly in the areas that fall under the constant threat of violation of human rights, the protection they can offer and the legitimacy they provide for leadership when dealing with armed non-state actors is limited.


Without the participation of local communities, there is no effective way of reducing and monitoring the instances of violations of human rights. In cases where local leadership is mandated, or encouraged by the protection forces to communicate with armed actors, although challenging, the organisations working on protection issues need to create more acceptance within the armed groups. Without such acceptance, the mandate given by the organisation to the individuals on the front of communication with the armed groups has very limited impact. As pointed out by Caritas’ Director for South Kivu:

“Collection of data has limited impact if there are no means of responding to the information gathered…” (Humanitarian practitioner, DRC, 09.09.2014)

It is essential to gather information to be able to support policies and to prosecute the leadership of armed groups that pose threat. However, this is rarely the case in contexts as volatile as the Eastern DRC, especially when there are no efficient actors within the military power to implement policy.

Furthermore, one of the most important questions to be asked is what is the cost of such policies for the population? Indeed, if there is no effective follow-up on data collected, do external actors have the right to put additional risk on the already vulnerable communities?

Even though most of the protection activities today are embedded into larger programmes, based on the Caritas case study, we would suggest that protection can be a core activity that can be the basis of other interventions. More systematic learning of protection intervention needs to be put in place. Today there is little effective information on which we can rely for systematic analysis.



Yuri Tsitrinbaum

Yuri Tsitrinbaum, Israeli-national of Russian heritage, has extensive experience in project management for profit and non-profit institutions in Africa and Israel. For the past seven years, Yuri served as a project manager for humanitarian relief and development organisations in the field, in countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Kenya, Uganda and the USA. Weaving onto this hands-on experience, he also worked for different private sector companies in Israel, Uganda, Nigeria and Belarus.

At present, Yuri is the Rollout manager for Nova-Lumos, an international company that brings solar energy to rural households in emerging markets. He is now based in Nigeria.

Yuri holds a B.A. in Economics and African Studies (Ben Gurion University) and a master’s degree in Humanitarian Crisis Management (University of Geneva).

Simon Clement

Simon Clement is a dual Israeli/French citizen with experience in the field of research and project management in the Developing world. After working in non-profit projects in Haiti, Chile and the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Simon worked as a research Assistant at the Central Africa Desk of “International Crisis Group” in Nairobi, Kenya. He also has previously worked in the private sector, more specifically on public-private partnership in the field of Agriculture in Western Africa.

Simon Holds a B.A of Government (Interdisciplinary Center, Herzlyia) and a M.A of International Relations (University of Cambridge).


[1] From the analysis of these violations, we can learn that much is actually a result of poorly equipped and poorly trained military personnel, which often find themselves without provisions and so extract resources for their activities from the same communities they need to provide protection to.

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