Author Archives: Andrea Silkoset

The Humanitarian Antaeus: Overcoming the Power Asymmetry between Humanitarians and Armed Groups in Frontline Negotiations

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Salla Turunen is a PhD Fellow with a research focus on humanitarian diplomacy and the United Nations. This blogpost stems from the combined in-person seminar and Zoom webinar “The Frontlines of Diplomacy: Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups”, held on 1 October 2020 at Bergen Global in Bergen, Norway. The event featured a presentation by Ashley Jonathan Clements and comments by Marte Nilsen (PRIO) and Salla Turunen (CMI). A recording of the event is available here.

Photo: Juan Arredondo, Getty Images/ICRC

In Greek mythology the giant Antaeus, a son of the gods, was known for his invincible skills in wrestling, which enabled him to collect the skulls of those he overthrew to build a temple for his father. His remarkable strength derived from his physical contact with the Earth. Antaeus remained undefeated until he encountered Hercules, who discovered the source of Antaeus’ power and vanquished him by disconnecting him from the Earth.

Such stories, in which wit and tactics overcome strength and supremacy, seem as old as the hills. However, in reality they reveal some of the qualities required by humanitarians operating on the frontlines of today’s armed conflicts. When faced with armed groups, humanitarians often negotiate from a position of weakness. What kinds of challenges do humanitarians face as they try to achieve operational aims such as the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians? What tactics and strategies are available to them in negotiating with the humanitarian Antaeus – non-state armed groups? This blogpost discusses these questions in the light of ‘humanitarian diplomacy’, a new term for an old practice.

Humanitarian diplomacy – the praxis between the apolitical and political

Diplomacy is traditionally understood from a state-centric perspective, regarded as a practice undertaken between bilateral states or occurring on multilateral platforms such as the United Nations. However, today’s diplomacy and its practices have expanded beyond the confines of a realm limited to states, thanks to developments such as globalization, multilateralism and technological advance. A number of new and descriptive terms have emerged to describe the diplomatic practices relevant to these new developments. Accordingly, humanitarian diplomacy has entered the stage to illustrate a form of diplomacy that is used to achieve and advance humanitarian interests.   

One characteristic of humanitarian diplomacy is its engagement with all stakeholders involved in the humanitarian context, whether official or non-official actors. Among the latter are non-state armed groups, which are increasingly central for humanitarian action on the ground. As the conflicts of today that lead to humanitarian needs are frequently localized and involve civilians, perhaps the most common counterparts that humanitarians operating on these frontlines encounter in negotiations are representatives of armed groups.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of such a humanitarian official: if you represent the traditional humanitarianism stance, your goal is to deliver aid where it is needed in a manner that is impartial, neutral, independent and serving humanity. In order to reach the people in humanitarian need, you have to deal with the armed group that is in charge of the territory where the needs are located. Upon your encounter with the group you might try to justify your request for access by calling on humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law. But such a strategy often proves useless since you are demanding respect for your stance where there is none. What can you do?

Such humanitarian negotiations are threatening the very existence of humanitarian identity. When humanitarian identity is built on the principles of full, independent, impartial and neutral respect for humanity, what leeway is there for compromise? Particularly with armed groups uninterested in the protection of civilians and with numerous human rights violations under their belts, the rationale of protecting human life is a weak bargaining chip. In order for humanitarians to reach their goals, engaging with the political seems inevitable in the politics of life in which humanitarians are inherently invested. Navigating this political humanitarian arena is where humanitarian diplomacy serves as instrument– to use diplomatic means and tools to achieve humanitarian aims.

Tactics for overcoming the power asymmetry

Humanitarians have very few negotiation tools to offer in terms of carrots and sticks. Yet they can negotiate access to and delivery of aid more efficiently than the odds against them would suggest. In overcoming the imbalances humanitarians face on the frontlines of today’s armed conflicts, humanitarians have a number of tactics and strategies available to them.

But before we explore these tactics we need to understand the challenges. At the humanitarian field level, the palette of humanitarian actors operating on the ground is more colourful than ever before. Multiparty agreements, various operational priorities and different understandings of the nature of humanitarianism, among other factors, place humanitarians in a complex framework, and that’s even before we bring other stakeholders into the equation. Moreover, the question of what and who constitutes an armed group is relevant for any context-specific interpretation, as, for example, the case of Myanmar and the country’s military forces showcases. Of course, negotiation counterparts, such as armed groups, recognize humanitarians’ complex dynamics and may use them for their own interests. Humanitarian actors may be played off against each other and set in competition within a given sector. And all this takes place in a race against time where humanitarian needs are dire and the obstacles for meeting them get harder and higher.

This complex humanitarian system is highly decentralized and, despite its tendency to morph, it tends to be consensus-driven. It is difficult for an individual to represent the entirety of a cause or system, and this inevitably fragmented approach can only be an impediment for an effective negotiator. Even if a green light is given, physical access difficulties or potential dangers to humanitarians themselves may torpedo the endeavour in the subsequent stage. Moreover not all armed groups are open for negotiation – and humanitarians cannot or will not negotiate with terrorist groups, in particular.

Despite these challenges, and sometimes because of them, humanitarians have a range of tactics available. Enhanced capacity at individual and institutional levels in dealing with armed groups have proven effective, as well as stronger policies and research related to them. As in any other diplomatic endeavour, building trust is a key component which humanitarians can engage in by demonstrating their impartiality and neutrality. Overall, humanitarians should not undermine their non-intimidating nature – sometimes that is precisely where the dialogue for trust and relationship-building begins. Another crucial tool is to demonstrate contextual awareness, and to try to foster the interests of the negotiation counterparts. Humanitarians should ask themselves what the armed group is aiming for. Often these include goals such as maintaining and increasing legitimacy and reputation and substituting the provision of a certain service that the armed group provides with something else.

Another humanitarian strength lies in the interconnectedness of our world. At times, the opportunity to be brought to the negotiation table with a prominent, international humanitarian actor gives an armed group a sense of legitimacy, and may even lead to the signing of a cease fire or peace agreement. Leveraging third party pressures such as lobbying the UN Security Council is another route. Alternative methodologies is also an avenue to explore – we should ask what can be done remotely (a particularly timely conversation at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic) or through local partners. Sometimes the question is what should not be done – withdrawal and conditionality can be viable tactics in certain conditions.

Politics of humanitarianism

Humanitarians help to set the international political agenda whether they agree with it or not. Humanitarian negotiations are of central importance to world affairs, not peripheral, as they might once have been perceived. These negotiations are inherently political: the frontlines of diplomacy are at the frontlines of ongoing conflicts. Humanitarians’ unprecedented level of engagement is shaping the political reality in which other sectors, such as traditional state diplomats with their respective foreign and security interests, operate.

Yet humanitarians are reluctant diplomats. The Dunantian school of thought, in particular, aims to steer clear from political labels of any kind, as they see these as hampering operational realities. However, more often than not humanitarians are faced with ethical dilemmas arising from their principle-driven system. In terms of impartiality, can aid be delivered to some but not all? In terms of neutrality, how feasible it is in practice not to address the root causes of a conflict if this leads to the risk that the conflict will last longer? In terms of independence, can humanitarians operate without the permission and collaboration of de facto rulers, be they governments or armed groups?

With its focus on negotiation, pragmatism and compromise, humanitarian diplomacy is an instrument for navigating these complexities. It is often understood as humanitarian action, and surrounds the seemingly ever-expanding field of humanitarian negotiation, and indeed there is a close symbiosis: humanitarian diplomacy cannot, in reality, be separated from humanitarian negotiations as otherwise it risks becoming nonmeaningful without close encounter with operational realities. Similarly, humanitarian negotiations without humanitarian diplomacy will have only a limited impact and the quality of the agreements achieved is likely to be poor.

The humanitarian Antaeus, armed groups, gain strength from their comfort zone – their territory, power over civilians and the upper hand in access negotiations. Humanitarian diplomacy is a magnifying glass for examining the comfort zone and an extended toolkit for operating around it. In humanitarian diplomacy, humanitarian principles are a route map but not the final destination, as Ashley Jonathan Clements states:

‘Failure to make some level of ethical compromise through negotiation risks fetishizing humanitarian principles at the expense of addressing humanitarian needs. These principles – fundamental and foundational though they are – are a means to an end and not an end in themselves’ (Clements, 2020, p. 183).

Source

Clements, A., J. (2020). Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups: The Frontlines of Diplomacy (1 ed.). London and New York: Routledge.

A humanitarian Nobel? A blog series on the WFP Prize in context

The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. How does food aid affect humanitarian situations where it is provided by international actors like WFP? How to avoid that food aid is instrumentalized in conflict settings? Further, WFP has in recent years been both praised and criticized for its approach to innovation, new technologies and digitization. While shifts from ‘food’ to ‘cash’ are recognized as important innovations, the use of digital technologies come with significant challenges in humanitarian and conflict settings.

In the WFP Nobel blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor.

You may read the first blog post in the series titled A Nobel for the WFP: A non-political Peace Prize for humanitarian multilateralism? by clicking the embedded link. More posts will follow in the time to come and be made available at the NCHS blog.

Are you interested in contributing to the series? Reach out to NCHS Director Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert at margab@prio.org or to NCHS Coordinator Andrea Silkoset at andsil@prio.org.

WFP wins the Nobel! Is this an opportunity to enhance protection? (WFP Nobel Series, 3)

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The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the third post in the series. Norah Niland is a long time aid worker and human rights defender. She is co-founder and member of the Executive Committee of United Against Inhumanity.

A Sea-king helicopter onboard of HMCS St John’s, takes off for Chardonniere, in Haiti, with her load of 1000 kilograms of corn soya blend, on September 15, 2008. Photo: Cplc Eduardo Mora Pineda via Flickr

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee signaled the critical importance of food when it announced that the world’s largest humanitarian agency, the World Food Programme (WFP), was this year’s winner for its role in combating hunger and, by extension, “bettering conditions for peace.”  This is encouraging news but is it the full story? 

Instrumentalization of food aid

The prize brings to the fore the relationship between food – or lack thereof – and military strategies in contemporary armed conflict.  The use of food as a weapon of war does not feature much in the discourse surrounding humanitarian action.  At a time of diminishing multilateralism, the 2020 Peace Prize provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the growing need for humanitarian action given, in no small part, the flagrant disregard of fundamental humanitarian norms.  Trucking in food tends to be the easy part. Helping ensure that hunger is not weaponized and that food aid is not used to advance political or military agendas is the real challenge.  WFP now has a unique responsibility to invest in efforts that demonstrate that it is a worthy Nobel Laureate.

The recognition and acclaim inherent in the Nobel Peace prize is of particular importance in a time of frayed and failing multilateralism. The crossed vetoes of the Permanent Five (P5) in the UN Security Council (UNSC) effectively ensure that those in favor of war and the arms trade that sustains it – the P5 are among the world’s biggest arms dealers – effectively green-light atrocities.  These include the deliberate starvation of civilians by blocking or bombing life-saving humanitarian food and other supplies, medieval-style sieges and embargoes that restrict or destroy the use of essential infrastructure such as ports and other means of transport.   Inaction in the UNSC is tantamount to complicity in a trend where the weapons of choice on to-day’s battlefields include not just aerial bombardments and other explosive weapons but intentional starvation that disproportionately affects children, women and those who are already vulnerable. A study on Yemen, for example, found that “civilian areas and food supplies are being intentionally targeted.”[i]

Few will dispute that WFP, and other agencies involved in tackling hunger in to-day’s war zones, other disaster settings and in situations of chronic malnutrition, poverty and deprivation, deserve the plaudits and the support needed to continue their vital work.  

While the rationale for the Nobel prize acknowledges the significance of the relationship between hunger, armed conflict and peace, it is important to acknowledge the extent to which food insecurity, and efforts to address it, are weaponized in contemporary war settings. Although WFP is often at the forefront in negotiating access for food convoys, experience from Afghanistan to Yemen, including settings such as Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan and Myanmar, shows that food assistance is routinely instrumentalized at great cost to those who are hungry.

A Prize with moral responsibility

Denying food to war-affected communities – deliberate starvation – as a method of warfare has, for this past century, been recognized as a war crime. The politics of such situations are, invariably, complex and complicated but it is incumbent on all stakeholders, including humanitarian entities such as the WFP that enjoys significant leverage, to challenge such practices and to do so in a meaningful and robust manner.

Similarly, WFP, in common with other relief actors, has a significant moral and institutional responsibility to address the deep-seated problem of transactional sex-for-food, an abomination that is routinely denounced but is a frequent reality in situations of humanitarian concern. WFP, like others, is committed to a zero-tolerance approach to the painful reality of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in the workplace, including in field operations, but this problem has persisted notwithstanding various reviews and the introduction of new policies and mechanisms.

The Nobel Peace prize should incentivize WFP to examine and strengthen its overall approach to the right to food including the protection dimension of humanitarian action. This necessitates going beyond the logistics of food convoys at which WFP excels. Otherwise, more instances of the “well fed dead” will occur. Priority attention must be given to the instrumentalization and weaponization  of food. WFP should strengthen its capacity to conduct conflict and contextual analysis that enables the development of strategies geared to avoiding harm to civilians and enhancing their protection.  It must work collaboratively with others to head-off or address dangerous policies and practices that are antagonistic to food security and the safety and dignity of people in need.   

Equally importantly, WFP should capitalize on its status as a Nobel Laureate to give meaningful effect to its declared zero-tolerance stance on sexual exploitation and abuse. This requires senior-level accountability and the establishment of an independent, external monitoring and investigative mechanism to put an end to a shameful history that is at odds with humanitarian values and the distinction of being a Nobel Peace prize holder.

Let the Nobel be an opportunity for everyone to re-affirm our faith in our collective humanity; this means challenging the inhumanity of armed conflict where deliberate starvation and other cruelties entail terrible human suffering, high death rates and growing numbers of people obliged to flee their homes to seek refuge and safety elsewhere.


[i] Is Intentional Starvation the Future of War?
by Jane Ferguson, The New Yorker, 11 Jul 2018

http://www.npwj.org/content/Intentional-Starvation-Future-War.html

TikTok and the War on Data: Great Power Rivalry and Digital Body Counts

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This post first appeared on Global Policy, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (SJD Harvard Law School) is a Professor of Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo and a Research Professor in humanitarian studies at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Katja Lindskov Jacobsen is a Senior Researcher at Copenhagen University, Department of Political Science, Centre for Military Studies. In this post, the authors explore how a tech-reliant humanitarian sector increasingly finds itself implicated in a global War on Data.

“Personal data” by Natana Elginting via Freepik

In 1971, the US declared a War on Drugs. In 2001, it began a still ongoing War on Terror. In 2020, the country has initiated a global War on Data to ‘combat’ the malicious collection of US citizens’ personal data. It is the first time that America is going to war for its population’s digital bodies. While this represents a further shift of the battlefield to the domains of cyberspace and trade, there is a likelihood that this war too will entail significant human suffering. This blog post thinks through the consequences for humanitarian aid, problematizing the notion of ‘digital body counts’.

In 1971, US President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs (WoD) to eradicate the sup­ply and demand for illegal narcotics. This global campaign consisted of drug prohibition, military aid and military interventions. The toll of this war – both human and financial – has been enormous, costing billions of dollars and taking thousands of lives annually.  

In 2001, US President Bush began a War on Terror (WoT) in response to the 9/11 attacks.  This global military campaign has led to between 480,000 and 507,000 deaths in major theatres of war (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq) alone. As the security and reliability of data links improved, the WoT evolved into an increasingly remote form of warfare, using armed drones. This also entailed an extension of the battlefield, illustrated by the rising number of US drone strikes in Somalia. Adding to the violence was the merger of the WoD and WoT, as illustrated by the Colombian example.

Almost 20 years on, in 2020, President Trump is now launching a ‘War on Data’ (WoDa). “At the president’s direction, we have taken significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data”, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stated in September 2020. The rationale he gave is familiar, namely that the US wants to promote “our national values, democratic rules-based norms, and aggressive enforcement of US laws and regulations.” While the other wars have depended on military tools from the outset, at present the WoDa ostensibly relies on a weaponization of trade policy, commerce and regulation – and the expansion of military logic to these domains.

While tensions around global technology hegemony has been budding for years, we suggest that the official ‘launch’ of this campaign was the US extradition request for and subsequent detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver December 2018 on the basis of fraud and conspiracy to circumvent US sanctions on Iran. In 2020, this campaign – also labelled a “Tech Cold War” or a new “World War over technology”  has been ramped up, focusing on restricting technology flows to China, revamping global technology supply chains, barring certain industry actors from infrastructure projects (such as Huawei’s 5G network) and attempting to curtail US users access to Chinese digital goods and platforms like TikTok and WeChat.

This is also the first time that America is going to war for its population’s digital bodies. ‘Digital bodies’ are images, information, biometrics, and other digitalized data that represent the physical bodies of populations, but over which they have little control or say. Issues of control and say are particularly pertinent where such data is stored in databases to which access may be granted (e.g. via more or less public data sharing agreements), forced (e.g. hacking), or occur as a byproduct of accidental leaks.

While WoDa at this point in time has a clearly designated enemy – China – its impact is likely to significantly impact civilian populations – and their digital bodies – globally, though likely with particular significance for populations already affected by WoD and WoT.  This is because of how digital data gathering has been particularly intense as a counterterror technology, collecting enormous amounts of digital footprints on terror suspects including where the grounds for suspicion may be weak at best (we get back to this). This requires us to think through the notion of digital body counts – not as a measure of disappeared US platform users and dead accounts, but as a critical human security issue. Crucially, we are concerned that the new WoDa is also likely to lead to bad humanitarian outcomes and real body counts. In the following, we identify three humanitarian aspects of the WoDa.

The first concerns sovereignty and data colonization of war-affected civilians. Protecting sovereignty is increasingly about protecting the sovereignty of digital bodies – though through this is a type of protection principle the US systematically ‘violates’ the to ‘digital bodies’ of other states’ populations. Arguably, a precursor to the emergent WoDa is the extent to which the US is collecting enormous amounts of biometric data on civilian populations in war zones, because the digital registration-net is cast as widely as possible, and how this data is kept by the US even after its ‘wars’ in foreign places officially ends (the case of Iraq). According to Spencer Ackerman, the US military compiled biometric data from “3 Million Iraqis,”, which the US holds onto even though troops have come home and the War in Iraq officially ended.  Similarly, UNHCR is an example of an important humanitarian actor that increasingly collects biometric data on subjects that it assists. In view of that, and related to the point about military biometrics moving beyond and maintained beyond the battlefield, it is for example noteworthy how UNHCR has an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security to provide biometric data on all candidates for resettlement – data which is kept even when no resettlement is taking place.

The second concerns Great power rivalry spilling over into humanitarian technology. Proxy wars are a staple of US global military campaigns. Humanitarians often deal with their consequences. In the WoDa, the risk is that humanitarian space itself becomes the site of a proxy war. The issue of control over data and digital bodies and the US’ aim of preventing China from collecting digital data on its citizens could have implications for humanitarian operations that increasingly rely on the collection of digital data. From a humanitarian perspective, biometric registration of beneficiaries helps agencies overcome ‘double registration’ challenges, as well as challenges related to providing donors with reliable numbers. Now, on the one hand, we have seen institutions like ICRC publish a Biometric Policy that limits data storing. Yet, on the other hand, other humanitarian actors keep adding to the list of challenges that biometrics can help overcome. Contactless biometrics as a response to “the risk of COVID-19” being but one example. The latter development calls for attention to questions about whose technology (US? Chinese? Other?) should be used for these data-gathering and storage purposes in an increasingly technology-reliant and data-enthusiastic humanitarian domain? What will be the consequences (credibility, funding, acceptance, neutrality) of the increasing tension with respect to the trustworthiness of the sectors digital infrastructure?

The third concerns a broadening of the lawfare paradigm and its negative effects. The humanitarian sector is increasingly being embedded in a lawfare paradigm, where US counter-terrorism measures and ‘material support to terror’ provisions are being globalized through strategic litigation against humanitarian actors in domestic courts coupled with blacklisting of the same humanitarian actors in global banking systems. What we now see on the horizon is the possible extension of a type of lawfare to incorporate civil society digital procurement of Chinese-produced commercial off-the-shelf solutions of hardware, platforms and networks as a US national security issue. This would greatly up the stakes for humanitarian actors, and significantly impact their ability to provide aid.  

Our initial takeaway is as follows: For people in war zones, the onset of a WoDa has potentially serious security implications for communities and aid actors. This is not about abstract notions of digital bodies and virtual body counts, nor is it a question of risks to privacy and data protection only. This is about life and death. As a tech-reliant humanitarian sector inevitably finds itself implicated in WoDa, it risks becoming more than involuntarily entangled: for example the digital bodies that humanitarian practice produce may increasingly become targets in this war; because the concept and moral imperative of humanitarian aid is put into play, and finally because access to humanitarian assistance might be compromised as the sector gets further enmeshed in these great power rivalries.   

Nobel peace prize: hunger is a weapon of war but the World Food Programme can’t build peace on its own (WFP Nobel Series, 2)

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This text first appeared on the Conversation, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the second post in the series. Susanne Jaspars is Research Associate at LSE’s Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit, and Food Studies Centre, SOAS, University of London.

Launch of the UNICEF/WFP Joint Nutrition Response Plan for South Sudan in Aweil, Northern Bahr el Ghazal State. Photo: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine via Flickr

By awarding the 2020 Nobel peace prize to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), the Nobel committee said that it wanted to “turn the eyes of the world to the millions of people who suffer from or face the threat of hunger”. Among its reasons for awarding the prize were WFP’s “efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”.

These issues don’t apply just to people living in areas of acute conflict, but also to the many people around the world who have experienced high levels of malnutrition for decades – usually in countries affected by multiple and long-term political crises such as Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen.

The focus that the Nobel committee has brought to hunger and conflict is welcome and very much needed. It must be addressed as a matter of urgency – but not by WFP alone.

Hunger as a weapon

Hunger has been used as a weapon of war for many years, but the issue has recently risen to prominence because of the increased risk of mass starvation in today’s conflicts.

The political acts which cause hunger and starvation can be divided into acts of commission, omission and provision. Acts of commission are attacks on food production, markets and the restriction of people’s movement. Omission is the failure to act, such as when food relief is blocked, while provision is the selective provision of aid to one side of a conflict.

Similar tactics are used in protracted crises but with more subtle manipulation of markets, trade and aid than direct attacks. The war on terror, a rise in authoritarian governments, and geopolitical manoeuvring have magnified these issues and increased the risk of starvation.

The link between war and hunger was recognised explicitly with the passing of a UN security council resolution in 2018 which prohibited the use of hunger as a weapon of war. Since then, WFP has been working more actively to understand the link between food security and conflict and how it can contribute to building peace.

The power of food aid

Since its establishment in 1961, WFP has set up an expansive food logistics system and a wealth of tools to assess needs and vulnerability. In the past decade, it has also become involved in cash transfers.

It is now one of the world’s largest humanitarian organisations, but also a business which dominates all aspects of general food distribution and humanitarian assistance. It involves a whole range of people, institutions and practices which can have political and economic consequences well beyond meeting the needs of hungry people.

One of most intractable issues is the manipulation of food aid during conflict and its incorporation into the political economy of famine and war. Food aid has been stolen or taxed by warring parties or local authorities, providing not only a source of finance but boosting their political status.

In Somalia, food aid has been big business and its contractors key political actors. Elsewhere, governments increasingly deny access for food distribution in opposition-held areas, with Syria, and Sudan under its previous regime, being a case in point.

The denial of food aid can also benefit traders as it increases food prices and it benefits business because as people become displaced they are potential sources of cheap labour. The vulnerable are frequently excluded or marginalised, because they are the politically weaker members of society.

Spotlight on political inaction

As part of its role in improving conditions for peace, WFP can analyse these wider political and economic effects, and include them in the way it makes decisions. However, WFP cannot address the political causes of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition with food aid – or in fact with any technical intervention.

Conflicts need political solutions and crimes of mass starvation need to be prosecuted. Even one of WFP’s most successful operations, the massive food distribution in Darfur in 2005 which effectively reduced malnutrition and mortality, required diplomatic efforts to negotiate the necessary access.

There is a danger that WFP becomes a substitute for political action to address the causes of conflict or for prosecuting crimes of mass starvation. This would actually perpetuate the problem, as structural causes of hunger and malnutrition remain unaddressed.

In turn, this keeps vulnerable people in a state of protracted crisis or precarity and persistent malnutrition. An over-reliance on WFP can also absolve politicians of the blame for creating famine or, alternatively, the international community’s responsibility to protect.

With the spotlight of the Nobel peace prize, WFP can do much by making the political causes of hunger in conflict visible, helping to identify famine crimes, promoting effective assistance that is specific to particular contexts, and using its power to bring about political action.

A Nobel for the WFP: A non-political Peace Prize for humanitarian multilateralism? (WFP Nobel Series, 1)

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This text first appeared on the PRIO blog, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the first post in the series.

A World Food Programme ship with workers unloading pallets of high energy biscuits during the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. By 26th MEU(SOC) PAO (U.S. Marines) via Wikimedia Commons

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to the World Food Program for its “efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. The announcement emphasizes the importance of supporting – and funding – international solidarity and multilateralism in a world in crisis. The WFP is praised for its work in extremely difficult conditions and for gaining access to populations in war zones like Syria and closed dictatorships like North Korea.

Together with the struggle against slavery and the provision of medical assistance to wounded soldiers, the fight against famine is the original humanitarian cause. Images of starving victims in Biafra in the late 1960s and then again in Ethiopia in the 1980s mobilized TV audiences and humanitarian efforts to ensure food delivery. Today, as the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic devastate the livelihoods of communities globally, the WFP estimates that an unprecedented 138 million people are in need of food aid.

In her announcement, the chairman of the committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, described food as “the best vaccine against chaos”. Asked if she expected that this year’s prize would be uncontroversial, Reiss-Andersen hoped that giving the Nobel Peace Prize to an organization helping to end starvation would not be provocative, indicating that food-aid was non-political. Whatever the reception, we argue this is nevertheless a deeply political choice, due to the assumptions it makes about food as an instrument of peace, about the linkages between humanitarianism and peace and finally about the World Food Program as an international organization.

This contribution first puts the opening quote in context, showing how food is currently framed as an instrument of peace. It then focuses on the very political nature of the WFP as a multilateral humanitarian organization within the global environment, even as the emphasis of the Nobel Peace Prize is on its role in “saving lives”. Finally, it discusses one example of the WFP at the operational level: the politics of humanitarian technology.

Food as an instrument of peace

In 2015, hunger eradication became one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As Reiss-Andersen indicated in the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, the WFP is the “UN’s primary instrument for realizing this goal”. In 2018, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2417, recognizing the link between famine and conflict, and reasserting the importance of international humanitarian law in addressing hunger in armed conflict. Echoing this, the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize is presented first and foremost through the lens of the insecurity that is created when food supply is insufficient, or controlled by warring parties, and thereby praising the WFP’s contributions to making “food security an instrument of peace”.

This peace-humanitarian nexus, however, is problematic. The prize recognizes the existential threat that a lack of food causes for human life and the importance of preventing the use of food as a weapon of war. The struggles against the Irish and Russian famines were foundational moments in modern humanitarianism. Yet throughout history, mass starvation has been miscategorized as a natural phenomenon, or as an unfortunate side-effect of conflict and political oppression. Scholars have disputed this narrative, focusing instead on the infrastructures of food distribution and the political underpinnings of famine and mass starvation. The politics of famine are fierce, as exemplified by the heated discussion of whether the food shortages in Niger in 2005 amounted to a famine at all – and whether that mattered. While the focus on early warning systems and increasingly fine-grained measurements of access to nutrition in real time has provided the international community with increasingly accurate tools for predicting and addressing food-shortages, these mechanisms remain prone to interference. And as the Nobel committee notes, the WFP (and other humanitarian actors) can do little in the face of endemic funding shortages.

Thus, defining what constitutes a famine, and thereby who should respond to it, with which means and requirements, are deeply political questions. Just as hunger can be a weapon of war, so can food aid be instrumentalized in conflict settings. Improving the conditions for peace requires much more than providing food; it necessitates political commitment to promote and preserve peace.

WFP and the political nature of humanitarian multilateralism

The prize – given to an agency headed by David Beasley, a Trump nominee – is seen by some commentators as a criticism of the US for turning its back on multilateralism and withdrawing funding from the World Health Organization in the midst of a pandemic. Founded in 1963, the WFP has historically been criticized as a front for American agricultural interests. American executive directors have led the agency since 1992. The US has always been the largest donor of the WFP, which remains relatively popular in the US.

The WFP is no stranger to political controversy. Given the emergency focus of its work, with short time horizons and the potential costs to human life, the agency continually makes difficult tradeoffs. The WFP has historically struggled with corruption and food diversion, facing accusations of half of the food aid disappearing in Somalia in the 2000s. Operations in North Korea have, over time, proved challenging in relation to the quest for humanitarian accountability. Occasionally the agency has closed operation in response to donor concerns about local diversions of funding and food items, including staff corruption, such as in Yemen in 2010. Its partnerships with private companies likewise raise protection concerns, such as when its biometric ‘data lake’ (comprising sensitive data such as beneficiary biometrics) was potentially at risk of becoming accessible to Palantir and to security actors whose notions of protection refer foremost to national security rather than to the security of its humanitarian beneficiaries.

The organization has also been in the spotlight for its ongoing struggles with a problematic working environment, with reports cataloguing discrimination, abuse of authority, sexual harassment and retaliation; so far ineffectively dealt with by a poor management culture. As late as in September, there were reports of allegations of sexual misconduct in relation to a WFP compound in Northern Uganda.

The politics of the WFP at an operational level: the example of technology

In recent years, the WFP has won praise and criticism for its approach to innovation and digitization. From initial pilot projects to gauge the advantages of using biometrics to its use of blockchain, the WFP has now become a forerunner in using new technology to think differently about assistance, such as the move from ‘food’ to ‘cash’, a significant innovation in effectively meeting the needs of those affected by crisis. The use of new digital technology, however, has significant challenges.

Harnessing “data and tech to save lives” has indeed helped the WFP in various ways. Yet, acknowledging that “data and tech” can have advantages should not preclude debate about potential flipsides and critical dimensions of these developments. As mentioned above, the WFP announced last year that the agency had decided to enter into a “five-year partnership” between the WFP with Palantir, a “controversial US-based data analytics company with deep links to US intelligence agencies,” criticized for being a human rights violator.

As a more specific example of how this partnership spilled over into the WFP’s programmes the case of Yemen is worth mentioning as the issue of biometric data collection became the subject of “a pitched standoff” between the WFP and Yemen’s Houthi government. Referring to the controversial Palantir-partnership, Houthis accused the WFP of being “a front for intelligence operations,” i.e. not a politically neutral humanitarian actor. Commentators have observed that  this dispute was not just about data but essentially about “power, trust and the licence to operate”. Crucially, the tech-related confrontation has ‘real’ consequences, putting food aid to 850,000 people caught in a dire humanitarian crisis at a standstill.

Although debates about this partnership waned rather quickly, it is important to contemplate the broader relevance for the humanitarian community in a time where humanitarian governance increasingly revolves around data governance. Critical discussions – and more transparency –about the collection and sharing of digital data from people in extremely volatile contexts and about emergent humanitarian data-infrastructures are crucial for the integrity of humanitarian protection mandates. Here, the WFP, which remains a curiously under-studied international organization, could also do much more to facilitate academic engagement with the organization.

Concluding thoughts

The work of UN agencies like the WFP, are examples of multilateralism as an essentially deeply political endeavor. In the years to come, climate change may return famines to the core of humanitarian action. The kind of versatile World Food Programme we have seen emerge over the last decade will likely become an even more important actor on the multilateral scene. At the same time, as discussed in this blog, while this Nobel Peace Prize is undoubtedly a prize for humanitarian multilateralism it is not unproblematic to read this as being in praise of the humanitarian enterprise as such.

Watch recording of seminar on humanitarian negotiations with armed groups

If you missed the online seminar The Frontlines of Diplomacy: Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups, organized by NCHS, CMI and Bergen Global on 1 October, you may now access a video recording of the event.

Humanitarians operate on the frontlines of today’s armed conflicts, where they regularly negotiate to provide assistance and to protect vulnerable civilians. This can be understood as humanitarians actively engaging in humanitarian diplomacy. Compared to traditional forms of diplomacy by state-diplomats, particularly the frontline humanitarians typically negotiate from a position of weakness. What kind of challenges humanitarians face at the frontlines of diplomacy with armed groups? Then, what strategies and tactics are available for humanitarians to overcome the power asymmetric?

The seminar featured a presentation by Ashley Jonathan Clements, and comments by Marte Nilsen and Salla Turunen. A full video recording is available below.

Red Lines and Grey Zones: Ethical dilemmas in humanitarian negotiations and the need for a research agenda

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Kristoffer Lidén is Senior Researcher and coordinator of the humanitarianism research group at PRIO. Kristina Roepstorff is lecturer at the University of Magdeburg (OVGU) and Associated Researcher at Center for Humanitarian Action (CHA) and the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV) Ruhr University Bochum (RUB).

Aid delivery in South Sudan. Photo: EU/ECHO/Malini Morzaria

When turning humanitarian principles into practice, humanitarian organisations are faced with a range of difficult ethical dilemmas. These dilemmas are rarely as tangible as when the organisations negotiate with local counterparts for access and programming in settings of armed conflict. This dimension of humanitarian negotiations remains to be systematically studied, and we hereby argue why this needs to be redressed as part of the ethics of humanitarian action.   

Providing humanitarian aid is easier said than done. When humanitarian organisations distribute food, treat the ill, or evacuate civilians during wars and disasters, they engage in recurrent negotiations with the actors controlling the territory and population, such as state ministries, armies or opposition groups (Grace, 2020a; Clements, 2020; du Pasquier, 2016; Acuto, 2012). These negotiations put the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence to the test (Grace, 2020b; Menkhaus, 2012; Magone et al., 2011). When their counterparts are violent militaries or partisan politicians, organisations may define red lines beyond which they can no longer justify their assistance. Forced to choose between uncomfortable compromises and inaction, this often leaves them operating in humanitarian grey zones on the fringes of ‘the humanitarian space’ (CCHN, 2019b: 279-309, 340-374; Hilhorst and Jansen, 2010).

The ethical dilemma can be illustrated by an example. Imagine a situation in which a humanitarian organisation seeks to provide food aid to desperately hungry people in an area controlled by a militia. The organisation’s ethical principles dictate that no food rations be used to support a war effort. But the militia insists that it will prevent any food distribution unless food aid is also provided to its healthy soldiers. If the organisation maintains its ‘red line,’ innocent people will die from starvation, a result at odds with the organisation’s humanitarian mission. To prevent this result, the relief organization may venture into a grey zone, where principles are bent in an effort to negotiate a compromise. The compromise could be that food will be distributed to the starving as well as to soldiers’ families, under the pretence that they are also poor, if not starving (cf. CCHN, 2019b: 290). Those negotiating the compromise rarely have just one option but instead, must choose among several non-ideal ones. In this example, other solutions could be to allow the militia itself to distribute the food, or to involve a third party, like a UN peacekeeping force, in the negotiation. Figure 1 from the CCHN Field Manual on Frontline Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN, 2019b: 287) offers a diagram that depicts the negotiation space between the humanitarian organisation (P) and its counterpart (P’).

Figure 1: Humanitarian negotiation space

Thus, defining red lines and negotiating within grey zones involves making hard choices that have ethical repercussions. Concerned to adhere to the principle of humanity – that action must be taken to prevent and alleviate suffering wherever it may be found – humanitarian organisations set the bar for withdrawal exceptionally high and allow the grey zones to be accordingly wide in comparison to others engaging in benevolent international work. Quoting a humanitarian negotiator par excellence, Jan Egeland: ‘If you are there to help the victims from the depths of hell, you have to speak to the devil’ (Hoge, 2004). As such, humanitarian negotiations exemplify what has elsewhere been discussed as moral dilemmas, tragic choices, ‘dirty hands’ problems, emergency ethics and non-ideal theory (Slim, 2015: 163-167).

No one acknowledges these dilemmas more than the practitioners themselves. A survey conducted by the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) in 2017, identified recurrent dilemmas faced by humanitarian negotiators. These include balancing security rules with proximity to beneficiaries, denunciation/advocacy with silence, and impartial assistance with conditional assistance, as well as determining how much to compromise on sensitive issues of international humanitarian law and human rights, and whether to even engage with ‘controversial’ counterparts (CCHN, 2019a: 11). These dilemmas, which reflect the familiar ethical quandary of how to do good without directly or indirectly doing harm (Slim, 2015: 183-230; Lepora and Goodin, 2013; Ahmad and Smith, 2018; Anderson, 1999), are at their most intense during negotiations, which amplify controversial conundrums of power, culture and complicity. Engaging with these actors may not only be interpreted as a recognition of their legitimacy and play in the hands of local power holders, but also exhibit clashes in cultural norms while advancing international hierarchies of power and privilege.

Although several distinct literatures address the ethical dilemmas faced by humanitarian organisations, these ethical dilemmas are so far receiving too little attention in the context of negotiations. This is however much needed in order to provide guidance for humanitarian practitioners for navigating this difficult terrain and make hard choices. The disciplines of international relations (IR), political science, law, anthropology, sociology, gender studies, human geography, history and medicine have all contributed descriptive accounts of humanitarian engagement and its social and political ramifications. Collectively, they offer a patchwork of empirical and theoretical perspectives that touch on humanitarian negotiation. In particular, recent investigations of the rise of humanitarian action as a mode of global governance since the end of the Cold War and during the global War on Terror are essential for grasping the contemporary political character of humanitarian negotiations (Barnett, 2011; 2008; Donini, 2012; Acuto, 2012; Duffield, 2019; de Lauri, 2016; Hoffman and Weiss, 2018). None of these directly tackle the issue of ethics and humanitarian negotiation though.

The multi-faceted field of global ethics (which includes international ethics, global justice, and international political theory), on the other hand, has examined at length the specific issue of armed humanitarian intervention and the ‘responsibility to protect’ (Wheeler, 2000; Holzgrefe and Keohane, 2003; Bellamy, 2009). These studies explore issues of relevance to humanitarian negotiation, such as the tensions between global humanitarian norms, on the one hand, and the principles of state sovereignty and self-determination, on the other (Brown, 2002; Roepstorff, 2013; Lidén, 2014). But humanitarian intervention, and the military or political coercion it implies, is not what is at stake in most humanitarian access negotiations, which relies on pragmatic political support from local and international stakeholders (Barnett, 2013; Koddenbrock, 2016; Dijkzeul and Sandvik, 2019; Lidén, 2019; Roepstorff, 2020). Moreover, the need for better accounts of international engagement in ‘non-Western’ contexts remains within the study of global ethics (Sen, 2010; 2017; Erskine, 2012; Gaskarth, 2015; Lizée, 2011; Hutchings, 2018), and the ethics of humanitarian negotiations puts such accounts to the test.

More recently, several books and articles have begun to address the ethical problems that humanitarian actors are confronted with in their daily work, including those related to gender, class, ethnicity and religion (see also Zack, 2009; ICRC, 2015; Löfquist, 2017; Givoni, 2011; Rubenstein, 2015; Schneiker, 2017). These significant contributions do not specifically discuss the matter of negotiation, however, and they generally take humanitarian norms and principles as their frame of reference, reinforcing the ‘humanitarian reason’ (Fassin, 2011). As of yet, there are no analyses of the ethics of humanitarian negotiation. Such understandings of a neglected aspect of world politics are of immediate practical relevance, but they would also inform general scholarship on humanitarian action and the ethics of international engagement across cultural and political borders.

We thus propose a research agenda that seeks to close this gap in scholarship on humanitarian action and that provides a framework for ethical decision taking for humanitarian practitioners confronted with moral dilemmas. Such a research agenda should be based on theory and methods for empirical research on the subject (descriptive ethics) as well as philosophical analysis for the evaluation of the ethical problems (applied ethics) and include, among other things, studies that

  • Investigate the ethics of humanitarian action from the epistemic perspectives of the individuals and institutions engaged in humanitarian negotiations, including local actors from the Global South.
  • Map and systematically analyse ethical dilemmas faced by humanitarian negotiators.
  • Identify different approaches to negotiations and responses to ethical dilemmas by humanitarian practitioners and organisations.
  • Examine the process of establishing red lines by humanitarian organisations and the handling of grey zones by humanitarian negotiators.
  • Uncover the cultural norms informing humanitarian negotiations and discuss their potential clashes.
  • Micro-studies and in-depth case studies of humanitarian negotiations in different contexts and with different actor constellations.

References

Acuto M (2012) Negotiating Relief: The Dialectics of Humanitarian Space. Hurst and Co.

Ahmad A and Smith J (2018) Humanitarian Action and Ethics. 1st ed. London: ZED Books.

Anderson MB (1999) Do no harm: how aid can support peace – or war. Boulder Co: Lynne Rienner.

Barnett M (2011) Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Barnett M (2013) Humanitarian governance. Annual Review of Political Science 16: 379-398.

Barnett MN and Weiss TG (2008) Humanitarianism in question : politics, power, ethics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Bellamy AJ (2009) Responsibility to Protect: The Global Effort to End Mass Atrocities. London: Polity.

Brown C (2002) Sovereignty, Rights and Justice: International Political Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.

CCHN (2019a) CCHN Facilitator Handbook. Center of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation.

CCHN (2019b) CCHN field manual on frontline humanitarian negotiation. V2.0. Geneva: Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN).

Clements AJ (2020) Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups : The Frontlines of Diplomacy. Abingdon: Routledge.

de Lauri A (2016) The Politics of Humanitarianism: Power, Ideology and Aid. London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Dijkzeul D and Sandvik KB (2019) A world in turmoil: governing risk, establishing order in humanitarian crises. Disasters 43(2): 85-108.

Donini A (2012) The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action. Kumarian Press.

du Pasquier F (2016) Gender Diversity Dynamics in Humanitarian Negotiations: The International Committee of the Red Cross as a Case Study on the Frontlines of Armed Conflicts SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2869378.

Duffield M (2019) Post-humanitarianism : governing precarity in the digital world. Medford, MA: Polity.

Erskine T (2012) Whose progress, which morals? Constructivism, normative IR theory and the limits and possibilities of studying ethics in world politics. International Theory 4(3): 449-468.

Fassin D (2011) Humanitarian Reason. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gaskarth J (2015) Rising Powers, Global Governance and Global Ethics. London: Routledge.

Givoni M (2011) Beyond the Humanitarian/Political Divide: Witnessing and the Making of Humanitarian Ethics. Journal of Human Rights 10(1): 55-75.

Grace R (2020a) The Humanitarian as Negotiator: Developing Capacity Across the Aid Sector. Negotiation Journal 36(1): 13-41.

Grace R (2020b) Humanitarian Negotiation with Parties to Armed Conflict. Journal of International Humanitarian Legal Studies. 1-29.

Hilhorst D and Jansen BJ (2010) Humanitarian Space as Arena: A Perspective on the Everyday Politics of Aid. Development and Change 41(6): 1117–1139.

Hoffman PJ and Weiss TG (2018) Humanitarianism, war, and politics : Solferino to Syria and beyond. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Hoge W (2004) The Saturday profile; Rescuing Victims Worldwide ‘From the Depths of Hell’. The New York Times, 10 April.

Holzgrefe JL and Keohane RO (2003) Humanitarian intervention : ethical, legal and political dilemmas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hutchings K (2018) Global Ethics: An Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press.

ICRC (2015) The Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement: Ethics and Tools for Humanitarian Action. International Committee of the Red Cross.

Koddenbrock K (2016) The practice of humanitarian intervention : aid workers, agencies and institutions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lepora C and Goodin RE (2013) Complicity and Compromise. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lidén K (2014) Between Intervention and Sovereignty: Ethics of Liberal Peacebuilding and the Philosophy of Global Governance. University of Oslo Oslo.

Lidén K (2019) The Protection of Civilians and ethics of humanitarian governance: beyond intervention and resilience. Disasters 43(S2): S210-S229.

Lizée PP (2011) A Whole New World: Reinventing International Studies for the Post-Western World. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Löfquist L (2017) Virtues and humanitarian ethics. Disasters 41(1): 41-54.

Magone C, Neuman M and Weissman F (2011) Humanitarian negotiations revealed : the MSF experience. London: Hurst.

Menkhaus K (2012) Leap of faith: Negotiating humanitarian access in Somalia’s 2011 famine. In: Acuto M (ed) Negotiating Relief: The Dialectics of Humanitarian Space. Hurst and Co.

Roepstorff K (2013) The politics of self-determination : beyond the decolonisation process. London: Routledge.

Roepstorff K (2020) A call for critical reflection on the localisation agenda in humanitarian action. Third World Quarterly 41(2): 284-301.

Rubenstein J (2015) Between samaritans and states : the political ethics of humanitarian INGOs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schneiker A (2017) NGOs as Norm Takers: Insider–Outsider Networks as Translators of Norms. International Studies Review 19(3): 381-406.

Sen A (2010) The idea of justice. London: Penguin.

Sen A (2017) Ethics and the Foundation of Global Justice. Ethics & International Affairs 31(3): 261-270.

Slim H (2015) Humanitarian ethics: a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wheeler NJ (2000) Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zack N (2009) Ethics for Disaster. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield.

From Moria to the UN Security Council: Norwegian Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy Ambitions

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This post first appeared in Norwegian in Dagbladet. You can read it here.

Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ine Eriksen Søreide and Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi at an event in Jordan. Photo: Indigo Trigg-Hauger / PRIO

The fire at the Moria camp underlines the depth of the crisis in the international system intended to protect people fleeing their home countries. Under the Refugee Convention, people in need of asylum must be given the opportunity to apply for it. The fundamental flaws in this system weighs heavily on the international community and will dominate the political agenda for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we are now seeing a deeply irreconcilable conflict between the domestic policy considerations shaping Norway’s immigration policy and the foreign policy ambitions that the country is pursuing. While Norway prepares itself for a term on the most prestigious and respected international forum, the UN Security Council, where its opportunities to exert influence will be significant, “on the home front” its approach to one of the great challenges of our time is to wait for other countries to take the initiative.

Weakened UN structures

UNWRA, which works with Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, is in serious financial difficulty after its main funder, the United States, withdrew its support for the organization in 2018. The agency is also struggling politically, because the Trump administration has taken the issue of Palestinian refugees off the negotiating table. The Palestinian refugee problem is particularly important because it illustrates, more than any other situation, how long a refugee crisis can continue if it is not solved.

Even so, UNRWA’s responsibilities are minor compared with the burden carried by UNHCR. UNHCR, which is responsible for all other refugees worldwide, is struggling because of the enormous and ever-growing number of refugees globally, and the shortage of political and economic will to take the measures necessary to resolve the problems. Solutions involve providing housing for people in need, and also finding enduring solutions to the situations that caused them to flee in the first place. In both cases, the central role of the UN in addressing these key questions, both as an international forum and through its specialized organizations, should be obvious. At the start of 2019, there were 79.5 million refugees worldwide. At that time, UNHCR had only half the funding it required for 2020-2021.

The burden-sharing principle is central to ideas about how the international community should assist refugees, but it is not legally binding. There are no mechanisms for establishing a reasonable and just method for making countries share the burden. As a result, the system depends on some countries taking the lead, setting the standard, and then bringing others on board. It is at the same time difficult to argue against the fact that countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Italy, Greece and Turkey are in practice bearing far more than their share of the global challenge of providing protection for refugees.

Norway on the UN Security Council

Although refugees are not directly the concern of the UN Security Council, the UN’s reputation, credibility and effectiveness are weakened if its agencies and member states fail to resolve the various longstanding refugee crises. Accordingly, some connections should be made visible here: from the burned down Moria camp via Oslo and to the UN Security Council in New York. As the Norwegian government celebrated its successful campaign for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, the institutional difficulties concerning the protection of refugees follows it into the assembly rooms in New York.

Until Moria burned down, the Norwegian position was that Norway should contribute by accepting children from the camp, once another 10 or so countries had already gone ahead and provided assistance. It was clear that this policy was formulated with an eye on the domestic policy agenda, but if Norway is to take up one of the most important positions in international politics, then surely we should not be waiting for other countries to take the lead, so that we can follow in their footsteps. In this regard, Norway’s reputation as a major humanitarian power comes into play. Norway’s foreign-policy capital rests very much on this reputation.

Successful management of this legacy could both strengthen Norway’s position on the Security Council and encourage other countries to take their share of responsibility. This is needed.

Moria’s male refugees need help just as much as anyone else

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This text first appeared on the ISS blog on Global Development and Social Justice (BLISS), and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdamand a PRIO Global Fellow.

Leave No One Behind. Photo: Caratelllo via Flickr

Camp Moria, housing 13,000 refugees mainly from Afghanistan, burnt down on 8 September. The tragedy has been long in the making—Europe has failed the migrants in Moria for years, forsaking them to a sub-human non-life in overcrowded refugee camps. Those of us who hoped that the dramatic fire would act as a wake-up call have seen little progress this past week in the wake of the fire. Europe, except for Germany, has so far responded in a cold and calculating way.

The little response we have seen has mainly focused on unaccompanied children and to a lesser extent on families. The Netherlands, for example, has offered to receive a few hundred families from Moria. The ‘offer’ is even less generous than it appears, as their number will be deducted from the total number of vulnerable refugees to be received by the Netherlands on the basis of a standing agreement with UN refugee agency UNHCR, much to the dismay of the agency.

The focus on unaccompanied children plays into the primary feelings of sympathy of many Europeans. A Dutch woman who started a campaign to collect sleeping bags for Lesbos told a reporter from the national news agency in the Netherlands: “I am a mother. When I see children sleep on the streets, I must do something, no matter what”. It may be natural for people to respond more to suffering children than to adolescents and adults, but surely politics should not only be dictated by motherly instincts alone?

It remains important to unpack the thin policy response to the fire in Moria. The focus on children and families makes a false distinction among refugees that makes it seem as if only children are vulnerable. It is a cheap, yet effective trick that puts 400 child refugees in the spotlight to distract the attention from the almost 13,000 others that live in similar squalid conditions.

Unfortunately, we have landed ourselves in a time where official politics are not guided by cherished and shared institutions like the refugee convention, which stipulates that people fleeing from war are entitled to be heard in an asylum procedure and, while the procedure is pending, received in dignified circumstances. Instead, policies seem cynically oriented towards one goal only: deterrence. The underlying idea of policy comes across as something along the lines of “[l]et 13,000 people suffer in front of as many cameras as possible so that desperate people will refrain from crossing the Mediterranean to seek shelter and asylum in the affluent countries of Europe”.

While 13,000 people suffer, the gaze of Europe singles out several hundred children for our solidarity. The distinction between these children and the other refugees rests on two equally weak arguments.

Firstly, it is implied that children are more vulnerable than other refugees. Whereas this is true in some respects, the level of despair and hopelessness experienced by all people in Moria is shocking. During my visit to Lesbos last year, aid workers told me that many refugees in Moria—children, adolescents and adults—suffer from a triple trauma. The first one was caused by the violence that triggered their escape, the second by the long passage to Europe and the crossing of the sea, and, finally, new trauma arising from the dismal conditions in the camp, the permanent state of insecurity, and the lack of future prospects. A vast majority of the people in Moria qualify to be seriously considered in asylum procedures because they fled from the violence of war and are extremely vulnerable.

Secondly, the focus on children leans on an idea of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ refugees. Children cannot be blamed for their situation and are presumed innocent. The same applies to women in the eyes of most people. Adult men, and especially single (young) men, on the other hand, are looked at with a multitude of suspicions. Men are associated with violence and often suspected to be culprits rather than victims of war. They are also distrusted as they may be associated with sexual violence against women that is indeed widespread, but certainly does not hold true for all men. Finally, they don’t solicit feelings of sympathy because they are considered strong and capable of managing their own survival. Or worse, they are considered fortune seekers instead of bare survivors of war.

However, it is a myth that men should not deserve our sympathy! In situations of war, men are more likely than women to be exposed to violence – killing, torture, arbitrary arrest, or forced subscription in a regular or rebel army. Traumatized and destitute, they find themselves in a situation where they do not qualify for many of the aid programmes that are based on the same gender biases and reserve their resources for women and children. Quite a lot of young men see no other option than to prostitute themselves in order to survive.

Singling out unaccompanied children therefore is delusional. It seems to be designed to placate the large numbers of Europeans who want to act in solidarity with refugees. Our politicians keep telling us that social support for refugees has dried up, but while they listen in fear to right-wing populists, they are blind to the wish of equally large constituencies that want to welcome refugees.

As we are left in anger and shame, let us not step into the false dichotomy of deserving/undeserving refugees. Policy should be guided by legislation, not by false distinctions that are based on and reinforce popular sentiments. All refugees in Moria, irrespective of their gender or age, should be able to tell their story while being sheltered in dignity. All these stories need to be heard in proper asylum procedures—without prejudice.