Enacting the 'civilian plus': International humanitarian actors and the conceptualization of distinction

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The civilian-combatant frame persists as the main legal lens through which lawyers organize the relationships of conflict zone actors. As a result, little attention has been paid in international legal scholarship to different gradations of ‘civilianness’ and the ways in which some civilians might compete to distinguish themselves from each other. Drawing attention to international humanitarian actors—particularly those working for NGOs—this article explores the micro-strategies these actors engage in to negotiate their relative status in war. Original qualitative empirical findings from South Sudan illuminate the way in which humanitarians struggle over distinction with individuals working for the UN peacekeeping mission, UNMISS. As is shown, humanitarian actors are doing away with a static civilian-combatant binary in their daily practice. A more fluid logic informs both their self-conceptualization and their interactions with others who share the operational space. Humanitarian actors envision civilianness as a contingent concept, and they operate according to a continuum along which everything is a matter of degree and subtle gradation. As civilianness is detached from the civilian, any given actor might acquire or shed civilian-like, or combatant-like, characteristics at any moment. The distinction practices that humanitarian actors enact can be understood as a bid for legibility, so that they might be rendered intelligible in international law and in the eyes of other actors as a special kind of civilian – the ‘civilian plus’.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)429-449
Number of pages21
JournalLeiden Journal of International Law
Issue number2
Early online date29 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2020


  • humanitarian actors
  • international humanitarian law
  • principle of distinction
  • South Sudan
  • UN peacekeeping

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