In the wake of Islamic State’s activities in Syria and Iraq, the debate about humanitarian intervention has erupted again. But this debate, nowhere in the Netherlands more heated than in GroenLinks circles, has become bogged down in pointless repetition. What we need is a radical transformation of our intervention capacity, based not on the ‘salvation paradigm’ but on supporting people’s self-reliance.

Likewise the recent memorandum by Bureau de Helling, which reiterates the criteria set out by Thomas Aquinas as long ago as the thirteenth century and adopted more recently in the UN report on the Responsibility to Protect, has added few new insights.

The numbers of deaths in Syria and Iraq are deeply disturbing. But the numbers create the false impression that civilians are merely victims of violent conflict, passively waiting to be overwhelmed by violence or exhaustion. In this article I aim to make visible what civilians do to survive, and suggest that humanitarian intervention, whether armed or otherwise, should support that.

The debate in the Netherlands still takes as its starting point what Frédéric Mégret has termed the ‘salvation paradigm’1: we undertake missions to come and protect civilians under threat. There is a recent but fast-growing body of literature, fuelled by both academics and practitioners, that turns the salvation paradigm on its head, starting from the reality that the international community is simply, more often than not, unable to actually protect people.

Protection can fail for cynical reasons of realpolitik, or because protecting own personnel, including military personnel, takes priority over protecting others (see Christ Klep’s contribution to this debate), or simply because peace-keeping troops cannot always be present in every village, and violent acts can sometimes be committed faster than we can intervene to stop them.

What if we were to take as our starting point a mapping of what people do to protect themselves? And only afterwards consider how international initiatives, armed or otherwise, to protect civilians can dovetail with and support their efforts.

What civilians do to survive

  • Avoidance: Avoiding threats often takes the form of fleeing, sometimes locally, sometimes thousands of kilometres away. In 2011 more than 26 million people had been displaced within their own countries, sometimes fleeing in a planned and orderly way, but sometimes suddenly and in a panic. Others are prepared for flight, sleeping in their clothes and always with a bag or suitcase at the ready. They remain where they are but avoid certain locations, routes or times. They hide money, food and valuables. They avoid any contact or use of language that could be construed as political, or act stupid to avoid attracting suspicion.
  • Compliance: Second survival strategy is to comply with whatever armed parties are demanding. This can be the payment of a ‘tax’ in terms of money or goods, sometimes to multiple parties. It can take the form of forced labour, such as carrying loads, cooking or doing laundry. It can also be compliance with sexual demands, which may vary from not physically resisting rape to actively seeking contact with senior military officers as a protection from random sexual violence. Compliance can also consist in giving information to armed parties, even the betrayal of others. These forms of compliance as survival strategies are difficult to stomach from the viewpoint of concepts such as human dignity, but they nevertheless form part of the self-protection strategies that people use.
  • Collective action: The third strategy can be described as ‘collective action’. Sometimes this is unarmed resistance but not all forms of collective active involve direct confrontation. However, they do all draw on collective resilience. Collective action includes sharing information about danger, but also the maintenance of schools, churches, transport or medical facilities, or simply coming together for leisure and recreation. Collective action can also take the form of collective negotiation with, or resistance against, armed parties, for example relating to kidnappings or taxes, or coming together to protect each other.
  • Taking up arm: Finally, civilians sometimes decide to take up arms. Anthropological literature gives an idea of what motivates ordinary boys (and sometimes girls) to go and fight. It shows that imminent danger to their own lives and those of their families is often the main motivation, but that factors such as personal grievances and forced recruitment also play a role. There may be a step-by-step process of recruitment but armed groups can also form suddenly and chaotically in response to an offensive.

Beyond the salvation paradigm

We still know very little about which strategies dominate under which circumstances, and what makes them more or less successful. Recent research suggests that the presence of courageous, enterprising ‘natural leaders’ is of crucial importance to the chances of survival in local communities. This is not surprising in itself, but it raises the question to which extent the initiatives of such leaders can be passed on and disseminated more widely.

I will give an example of ‘assistance with self-protection’, partly in order to show how low-profile it can be. In 2011, a staff member of international NGO ‘Local to Global Protection’ was conducting research on previous civilian self-protection practices in the border area between Sudan and the new South Sudan when renewed hostilities broke out.2 He became involved in a spontaneous self-protection project. Thirty or so young people who had been involved in earlier NGO projects set out on foot in teams of two, with minimal financial support, to exchange ideas between villages. These ideas included the use of whistles and horns to warn of imminent attacks, hiding food caches in multiple places, and collecting empty bags that could quickly be filled with basic supplies if people needed to flee. In his reporting on this initiative, which cost less than 30,000 dollars, the staff member claimed that it had more impact on the safety of civilians than the UN force stationed in the province. While I cannot confirm this claim, it is clear that such initiatives deserve much more attention, especially from parties such as GroenLinks.

In some circumstances there is no substitute for armed international protection. However, it needs to be organised in radically different ways in order to support local survival strategies effectively: preferably non-violent collective action of course, but also, if necessary, the realities of avoidance, compliance and taking up arms.

What we need is not yet another endless debate about whether or not to intervene, but a radical transformation of our intervention capacity, based not on the salvation paradigm but on supporting people’s self-reliance. This has specific consequences for military action, humanitarian aid, intelligence services and reconstruction work. The idea of fighting against the enemy as soldiers should transform into ‘robust policing’ to protect people. Humanitarian emergency aid which takes a top-down approach to thinking through what people need (the ‘food-and-blankets’ approach) should transform into participatory, demand-oriented aid, even in crisis situations. Rather than gathering information using drones and satellites and supplying it only to their own military, peace-keeping troops should transform into ‘information workers’ who make mutual information exchange between local populations and international personnel their core task. Finally, the bureaucrat who builds up a state system on behalf of the international community from an air-conditioned office should transform into someone who is at the disposal of the local population in its own attempts to put together workable governance institutions.

My suggestions here are not ready-made solutions to the intervention dilemma, but an attempt to move the debate that GroenLinks is conducting again, in a completely different direction. A direction that may stand a better chance of actually contributing to the protection of civilians.


This article was originally published by De Helling.



  1. Frédéric Mégret, ‘Beyond the ‘Salvation’ Paradigm: Responsibility To Protect (Others) vs the Power of Protecting Oneself’, Security Dialogue, 40(6), 2009, 575-595.
  2. Justin Corbett, Protection in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains: Local achievements, international failures, Local to Global Protection, February 2012.

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