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The UN’s New Agenda for Protection: Can It Make a Difference?

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Medics tend to a Palestinian child injured during Israeli air strikes in a hospital in Khan Yunis in the southern of Gaza Strip, on October 16, 2023. The relentless Israeli bombings since October 8, have flattened neighbourhoods and left at least 35,000 people dead in the Gaza Strip, the majority ordinary Palestinians, and mainly children and women. – Picture: Mahmud HAMS / AFP

By Damian Lilly and Jennifer Welsh

In March, the United Nations (UN) published its long-awaited Agenda for Protection, aimed at making protection a central and collective responsibility of the UN system. It is the first UN policy guidance document to set out in one place the different protection roles of the humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and human rights components of the organisation.

The agenda was a specific commitment of the Secretary-General’s 2020 Call to Action for Human Rights, as well as a response to the “systemic and structural” failings highlighted in an independent inquiry of the UN human rights response in Myanmar, published in 2019. A previous assessment of the UN’s protection shortcomings in Sri Lanka in 2009 drew similar conclusions.

This is not the first time the UN has tried to reinvigorate its commitment to improve its performance in preventing and responding to protection crises. The last Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, launched the Human Rights Up Front (HRuF) initiative in 2013 with the same broad objectives as the Agenda for Protection, albeit with mixed results. The question today is whether the current agenda can learn lessons from HRuF and make a tangible difference where previous efforts have fallen short.

Greater Challenge; Diminished Multilateral Support

The task at hand this time around is arguably even greater. Tragic scenes in Gaza, Sudan, Ukraine, Myanmar, and other conflict settings underline the scale of contemporary protection challenges and the complete disregard of warring parties for established norms and legal frameworks. At the same time, the UN Security Council is in a permanent state of deadlock on many crises and is authorising fewer concrete actions to protect civilians. Current global geopolitical dynamics have seriously eroded effective multilateral action and curtailed the protection role of different UN entities in a range of contexts.

In the three years it has taken to develop the Agenda for Protection, UN peacekeeping missions with protection of civilians mandates have drawn down in Sudan in 2021 only for conflict to flare up again last year, been ordered to leave Mali by the host government in 2023 amid security concerns, and started their exit this year from the Democratic Republic of Congo despite renewed conflict.

While there has been increased interest in UN Special Political Missions‘ contribution to protection, it’s still unclear how they will prioritise and fulfil protection objectives in practice. With the UN sidelined from the few peace processes that are ongoing around the world, the scope for injecting actions to address human rights remains narrow. Take the example of Sudan, where the UN political mission was asked to leave the country last year by the local authorities.

Protection remains a key concern for humanitarian agencies. However, an independent review published in 2022 on the implementation of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Protection Policy concluded that “humanitarian actors have failed populations at risk”, with key challenges remaining for prioritising protection in humanitarian work.

These have been exacerbated by the increased funding gap faced by humanitarian agencies since last year. Notwithstanding the difficult political context in which it works, the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which has led the development of the Agenda for Protection, has similarly faced a serious financial situation, affecting its ability to fulfil its mandate.

More of a Guide than a Plan

Given these many challenges, the Agenda for Protection takes a calibrated approach to the UN’s protection role. But it also takes a clear stand on the aim and substance of protection, grounding it in human rights and linking those rights to concrete protection outcomes.

The agenda begins with a “Protection Pledge” that underlines the UN system’s collective commitment to do all it can to protect people in the midst of crises but also states clearly that member states have the primary responsibility for this protection.

It says nothing about this responsibility, however, mindful of the political challenges HRuF faced; instead, its focus is internal, on elaborating the contribution of different UN agencies, funds, and programmes. This approach contrasts with the recent Agenda for Peace, which is geared toward member states and outlines the much-needed reforms to UN intergovernmental institutions.

The agenda doesn’t provide a full diagnosis of the protection challenges the UN is likely to confront in the coming years or how they will be addressed, as one might have expected from an agenda. Instead, it provides guidance as to the kinds of actions that can be taken in protection crises and for which UN entities should be held to account.

While the Agenda for Protection aims to be a chapeau of existing UN protection structures to overcome historic silos in the organisation, it dodges the vexed question of how to align the different approaches of protection across the UN. Instead, each entity is permitted to retain its individual definitions, policies, and frameworks. Despite the refrain that protection is a collective responsibility of the UN, there are few new measures to address the fragmented nature of the organisation’s protection response.

The added value of the Agenda for Protection is debatable when it lacks methods to overcome the institutional barriers to a coherent protection response that previous inquiries identified. One move in this direction is the call for a shared and dynamic analysis of protection risks that can guide both the field and headquarters in their policy deliberations — a recommendation also featured in HRuF. If the agenda can catalyse and deliver this common analytical framework, it would be a significant contribution to realising the UN’s collective responsibility for protection, but the agenda is still prescriptive rather than operational on this point.

The most novel element of the Agenda for Protection is the creation of a standing support capacity for the UN’s protection activities through a new Protection Support Hub. The hub will be responsible for supporting the implementation of the agenda and for providing guidance on protection challenges to both UN leadership and field presences in countries before, during, and after crisis.

Implementation Challenges

Perhaps the most significant unanswered question is how the agenda will be practically implemented. Its framing of protection through a human rights lens is unlikely to sit easily with humanitarian and peacekeeping protection actors, who may not view protection in exactly the same way and frequently draw on other legal frameworks.

The agenda positions OHCHR as the central actor for coordinating its implementation, but without indications of how an already resource-challenged part of the UN can play this leadership role in addition to its existing mandated tasks. One of the criticisms of HRuF was that it is was overly headquarters focused. The agenda risks making the same mistake: it does not outline specific actions for UN field presences that are different from what they would likely argue they are already doing.

Although it includes some bold and welcome statements about the need for the UN to be held accountable for its actions, the agenda does not elaborate on how this will happen, apart from some limited reporting requirements. And though there is promise with the new Protection Hub, its added contribution vis-à-vis existing entities with similar roles, like the Global Protection Cluster, is still to be seen. It is also unclear how the hub will be resourced with new or seconded staff from already overstretched UN entities.

A Realistic Assessment or Missed Opportunity?

The fact that it took three years to develop is perhaps an indication of the standing of the Agenda for Protection within today’s UN. Human rights receive only brief mention in the draft pact that will be tabled at the Summit of the Future at the General Assembly in September, and they have not been made one of the five policy priorities up for discussion.

This is a far cry from the World Summit in 2005, which led to the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect, or previous reforms such as the creation of the Human Rights Council. While this might be a realistic assessment of the geopolitical context in which the agenda has been developed — one that is far less hospitable to a human rights agenda — it does not detract from the scale of atrocity crimes and human rights violations occurring in so many parts of the world.

On this measure, the Agenda for Protection is a missed opportunity to remind the international community, not just the UN, of its responsibility to protect populations. But even where the agenda focuses on the contribution of the UN system of agencies, funds, and programmes, it does not confront the deeper structural, institutional, and political challenges facing the organisation as a whole.

To make a difference for vulnerable populations, the agenda must be more than rhetorical; it must also be accompanied by comprehensive reforms that truly transform the way the UN prevents and responds to protection crises. The focus now needs to be on the agenda’s implementation and ensuring it receives not only the necessary political support from senior UN leadership but also adequate resources to deliver the kind of protection that at-risk populations ultimately expect from the United Nations.

Damian Lilly is an independent consultant and author of a 2022 report on the Agenda for Protection. Jennifer Welsh is the Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security at McGill University.

This article was first published at Global Observatory