When a national government is unable or unwilling to protect its people, the international community has a responsibility to do so. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) concept affirmed by more than 170 heads of state and government at the 2005 World Summit. However, there haven’t been many references to R2P since the 2011 intervention in Libya and it certainly isn’t now being promoted by the US administration as a response to the carnage in Syria. Similarly, for the past decade, ‘protection of civilians’ has been high on the agenda of the UN Security Council, but also seems completely divorced from discussions of possible military intervention in Syria. It’s almost as though these three initiatives – R2P, protection of civilians and military intervention in Syria – are three parallel and unrelated tracks. But if protection of civilians is to mean anything, it should apply to Syria. After all, more than 100,000 Syrians have died, at least 6 million have been displaced and the civil war rages on with no end in sight.
In a recently-released report on self-protection strategies, the Stimson Center analyzed some of the ways that civilians protect themselves in a different part of the world, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The report details a wide range of strategies used (with varying degrees of success) ranging from taking up arms to prayer. While there is no systematic information on the self-protection strategies presently being used by Syrians, a few things seem obvious. We know that whenever conflict is widespread, people protect themselves by fleeing. Displacement is a survival strategy presently being used by perhaps a third of Syria’s population. The lucky ones are able to cross borders as refugees into neighboring countries; while they face many hardships, by and large they are safe, or at least safer than they were in Syria. Those who are displaced within the borders of the country are usually not as safe as refugees, but are often better off than those who aren’t able to escape. For those who can’t move out of harm’s way – perhaps because they are ill, elderly or taking care of a an immobile family member or because they simply do not have the money – they may try to survive by hiding, paying bribes, or simply keeping their heads down.
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