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the protection of civilians in crisis situations. case study northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon

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Civilian suffering in war is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, civilians have been targeted by belligerents, who often have made no distinction between combatants and civilians when fighting their enemies.

Massacres, rape, torture, starvation, enslavement, forced conscription and displacement have all been common features of war at different times and in different places. Sometimes civilian suffering has been an unintended result of the fighting, and at other times it has been inflicted as a deliberate military strategy.

Civilians are affected in many ways by war, whether as the direct victims of death, injury, rape and forcible displacement or as indirect victims through conflict-induced increases in disease, hunger and malnutrition.

The impact and experience of war will not be the same for all civilians but can vary enormously among the members of different groups, e.g. depending on whether they are men or women, young or old, or living in an urban or a rural area. Not least, it will depend on the conduct of the combatants and the extent to which they endeavor to target or protect civilians during hostilities. 

While wars have invariably been accompanied by suffering for civilians and soldiers alike, there have almost always been certain limits on warfare – i.e. norms establishing the types of actions that are acceptable or unacceptable in the war including notions of who should and should not be targeted

Even if these norms have varied greatly, when certain groups have been spared from attack, they have often included those considered to be particularly “innocent”, “vulnerable” or “weak”, such as children, women and the elderly.

As the idea of “limited war” and non-combatant immunity developed, in particular in medieval Europe, notions of civilian protection gradually became more sophisticated.

However, it was only after the genocide and widespread atrocities against civilians committed during the Second World War and the armed conflicts in the 1950s to the 1970s that a specific legal framework was established for the protection of civilians.

Today, all parties to armed conflicts are bound by the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) – also known as the law of armed conflict – to take a broad range of measures to protect civilians from the effects f military operations.

The 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Additional Protocols constitute the core of the legal framework regulating behaviour in war, including for the protection of civilians and other persons that do not take part in hostilities (e.g. wounded, sick and captured combatants).

Although significantly less detailed than the rules applicable to international armed conflicts, Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II establish rules for non-international – i.e. internal – armed conflicts, imposing obligations on states and non-state armed groups alike.

Moreover, most of the fundamental rules pertaining to the protection of civilians are considered to be customary humanitarian law in both international and internal armed conflicts, and binding on all states, whether signatories or not to the relevant treaty, as well as non-state armed groups.

IHL has proven to be an adaptable legal framework with additional rules being adopted in response to new developments. A case in point is the adoption of the first two Additional Protocols in 1977, partly in response to the humanitarian concerns arising from internal armed conflicts and wars of national liberation. The treaties prohibiting anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions are more recent examples.

As the nature of warfare continues to evolve, new protection needs may arise. A recent International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) study identified several specific gaps or weaknesses in the existing legal framework, particularly as regards no international armed conflicts, which is the dominant form of conflict today.

Due to the current prevalence of internal armed conflicts, the interaction between IHL and international human rights law is also becoming a matter of increased importance and debate.

The latter protects the individual in all situations, although governments may derogate from some provisions in public emergencies, including during an armed conflict.


Protection of civilians under international law is vital in the outbreak of every armed conflict whether it is domestic or international.

This is because the Geneva Convention of 1949 requires that both parties to the conflict respect the rules of warfare in the course of the battle that erupt. Civilian protection becomes a more vital subject as there is a need to ensure the needs of certain members of certain groups of women, children, diplomatic agents, the injured etc.

It is based on the foregoing that this researcher has embarked on this research to discover the causes of the violation of the rights of civilians during war tines and to make policy recommendations that shall help in solving the problems highlighted.


  • Who is a civilian?
  • Are there any legal framework and Institutions for the protection of civilians under international humanitarian law?
  • How effective are laws and institutions in the protection of civilians in the face of armed conflicts and wars?
  • What policy recommendations can be made to address this problem?


This research has both general and specific objectives;

1.4.1 General objective

  • To critically examine the legal framework for the protection of civilians under international humanitarian law.

1.4.2 Specific objectives

  • To discuss the concept of Civilians.
  • To examine the legal framework for the protection of civilians under international humanitarian law.
  • To assess the effectiveness and challenges of the laws and the institutions in the protection of civilians under the international humanitarian law
  • To make policy recommendations that can address the issue.

Further reading: The protection of civilians in crisis situations. case study northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon


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