Creating Safer Space: Strengthening Civilian Protection Amidst Violent Conflict

Lead Research Organisation: Aberystwyth University
Department Name: International Politics


"Creating Safer Space" is a four-year international, interdisciplinary research network, which supports local civilian processes that build sustainable structures of protection from physical harm for and with communities affected by violent conflict. The Network brings together conflict-affected communities, protection practitioners, academics, policymakers and artists to jointly work on the vision of enhancing unarmed protection practices, which create safer space for communities and individuals amidst violent conflict, raise their levels of resilience and help prevent displacement.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are now a record high of 68.5 million people forcibly displaced by violent conflict (UNHCR 2019), and the majority of deaths in conflicts are among civilians. This makes the protection of civilians from physical harm in contexts of war a pressing issue of our time. While the international community has acknowledged the need for protection, the physical safety of civilians is still seen almost exclusively as a task of armed outside actors like UN blue helmets.

The originality of this Network is its focus on protection provided by unarmed actors and deployed at the local level of communities, be it by "outside" specialists or "insider/local" protection actors. Unarmed civilian protection (UCP) organisations accompany human rights defenders and deter armed actors from carrying out attacks against them through their presence and proactive engagement strategies. They use networks of relationships built with armed and unarmed parties to a conflict to negotiate safe passage of internally displaced persons to a safe camp or to bring forcefully recruited youth back to their families. They also monitor ceasefires & agreements. Moreover, some violence-affected communities self-protect by setting up peace communities and weapons-free zones, creating safer space for civilian life amidst violent conflict.

There are over 40 international NGOs and a growing number of national and local organisations currently undertaking protection work in 24 countries in conflict, in addition to local self-protection initiatives. They illustrate that the protection of civilians by civilians without the use or threat of force can work to create physical safety, and may even do more: by providing a role model, and by not fuelling further violence, UCP can help break cycles of violence and thus contribute to longer-term peacebuilding. Initial research has suggested that UCP may often be more effective than armed protection and indeed, latest UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions mention the potential of UCP, indicating some change in thinking.

"Creating Safer Space" aims to enhance and broaden the practice of UCP by engaging a wide range of stakeholders in networking, capacity-building, research and impact activities around three broad themes:
A. Understanding vulnerability to physical harm in violent conflict: Which different kinds of vulnerabilities interact in what ways in situations that require protection, and which different protection strategies do they require?
B. Building local protection infrastructures: How can outside protection strategies and self-protection mechanisms in communities work together for best protection results and without undermining each other?
C. Developing civilian protection capabilities: How can unarmed local protection be scaled up in size/scope and include new actors and collaborations with a view to protect more people from violence and displacement and develop stronger protection capacity?

To address these questions, our Network delivers activities for academic and non-academic partners from the Global North and South across three strands of work: networking and capacity enhancement; collaborative and innovative research; and knowledge sharing and advocacy. Taken together, these activities aim to increase the number of people benefiting from civilian protection worldwide.

Planned Impact

The "Creating Safer Space" impact agenda is informed by its underlying Theory of Change: Our vision is to contribute to the creation of safer space for an increased number of conflict-affected individuals worldwide. To this end, the Network functions as an inclusive platform to provide evidence for and share good practice in civilian protection, strengthen local protection infrastructures based on a deep understanding of dynamics of vulnerability, and broaden the community of practice using local civilian protection strategies. Taken together, this will contribute to creating safer space for communities to transform their own conflicts, break cycles of violence and displacement and create conditions for development.

Impact will arise directly from activities in Network Strands 1 (networking and capacity development) and 2 (commissioned research) and from targeted dissemination and impact activities under Strand 3. Five main beneficiary groups and respective pathways to impact have been identified:

1) Conflict- and displacement-affected communities:
The Network will enable better protection of (more) communities in conflict. Participatory research activities will ensure needs-based protection provision that builds new or supports existing local protection capacity. "Sowing Seeds" grants will expand civilian protection to communities thus far not or insufficiently protected. The dissemination of good UCP practice will be supported through reports, briefings & arts and media outputs (e.g., illustrations, film screenings, exhibitions, or performances).

2) The global UCP community of practice:
The Network activities will impact the global UCP community of practice in the form of strengthened capacity that ultimately benefits conflict-affected communities. Through networking, sharing experiences, increased research capacity, strengthened links to national and international researchers, and tailored monitoring & evaluation methods, the community of practice will be better able to evaluate what works and how, to enhance their existing work, to expand it to new communities, and to provide more convincing evidence of the effectiveness and sustainability of local civilian protection to funders. A UCP knowledge database, skills and methods online courses, a UCP E&M manual and any other outputs will be available online beyond the Network's lifetime and create a legacy for future UCP work.

3) Policymaker/donor communities:
To promote greater UCP awareness, support and use, the Network will organise events with policymakers/donors to disseminate project and synthesised findings. Events will take place nationally in the four core countries, regionally in Addis Ababa (African Union), Jakarta (ASEAN) and Chiapas (Network of Protection Organisations), and internationally in London (UK stakeholders), Geneva (humanitarian/human rights agencies) and New York (United Nations).

4) Societies in the countries of the Network's core activities:
The Network will encourage and fund creative forms of research and outcome dissemination that lend themselves to raising societal awareness of the need for and merits of civilian protection of conflict-affected communities (e.g., collaborations with artists and media specialists). The aimed impact is a positive change in attitudes of the public engaged through these activities towards non-forceful protection measures that help break cycles of violence.

5) The general global public:
The Network will create an interactive and engaging website to inform about its research and findings, provide practical information about UCP approaches, and engage with individuals or organisations interested in joining the Network as Associated Partners. The aim is to expand knowledge of UCP strategies to more people and organisations worldwide, and to highlight their potential uses, not least also in countries of the Global North (e.g., protection of refugees and migrants, prevention of urban/gang violence).


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Description Creating Safer Space CafĂ© - Unarmed Civilian Protection from violent conflict in the Philippines 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The Creating Safer Space Café is an online events series that brings together Co-Is, core partners, associated members and other individuals and organisations interested in this Network Plus to discuss questions around unarmed civilian protection and self-protection in the midst of violent conflict and displacement, and to acquire participatory, creative and digital research skills. This first Café session was attended by c.20 persons and sparked learning on conflict and nonviolent protection in one of the four core case countries of this N+.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021