Written by Nicki Kindersley (University of Cambridge) & Øystein Rolandsen (PRIO)
This text first appeared on Security Dialogue and is re-posted here.Read the full article this blog post is based on here. The article is an outcome of a larger project supported by the Research Council of Norway: “Protection of Civilians: From Principle to Practice“. Nicki Kindersley and Øystein Rolandsen are featured in the Security Dialogue Podcast Series where they speak about their article, and the podcast can be accessed here.
Why are local communities so often targeted in South Sudan’s civil wars? How do their attackers justify violence against people defined as civilians in international law? In our article in the current issue of Security Dialogue, we answer these questions by placing recent brutalities within a longer history of conflict logics and practices in South Sudan’s modern history of violent governance. These evolving local norms inform how armed actors engage with residents in today’s conflicts.
State governance has always been violent towards South Sudan’s
populations. Since slave raiders and traders shaped the first colonial
incursions in the mid-1800s, ordinary people have been strategic assets to be
managed and exploited. As such populations are not just legitimate targets in
conflicts, but key resources to capture and control. State power was extended
over Sudan’s peripheries in the 1900-1920s through mass forced displacement and
depopulation of strategic areas (such as Kafia Kingi); through collective
‘punishment’ of defensive populations (for example, the aerial bombardment of
Nuer communities); and violent raiding by proxy fighters from other
communities, turning residents against each other. Sudan’s civil wars in the
South from the 1960s continued these practices. Communities were targeted
collectively based on ethnicity and imputed loyalty, displaced, and forced into
camps for ‘protection’ and control, by both government and rebel forces.
Today’s UN Protection of Civilians
camps, the first UN bases in the world to be turned into protection camps for
local populations, are a part of this long history of violent governance. These
armed groups continue to see the population in contested areas as part of the
war, where everyone is (potentially) part of the collective enemy, and where
controlling desperate poor populations is also a convenient way of gaining
access to external aid and cheap labour. It thus makes more sense that, since
2013, armed groups have targeted populations in forced displacements,
collective ‘punishments’, violent raids and armed control of refugee camps.
The article also shows how this
distinction between armed combatants and those defined as civilians in
international law is further blurred by violent governance tactics since the
colonial period. Successive governments have actively sought to incorporate the
population into their militarised security apparatus. During colonial rule, men
and women were pressed into service as enslaved or otherwise dependent
servants, soldiers, and workers in fortified and militarised garrison towns.
After Sudan’s independence in 1956, the government encouraged or coerced
residents into acting as spies, ‘national guards’, informers and ‘local
protection’ forces. This militarised security state continues, and continues to
blur the South Sudanese definition of civilian.
This analysis does not excuse the
massive and systematic violence against the general population of South Sudan.
But without due consideration of these deeply engraved historical systems and
logics of violent governance, today’s brutal conflicts become incomprehensible.
Any attempt to implement protection measures for populations affected by war
needs to be informed by a proper understanding of these local logics of
conflict. In this logic, the UN in South Sudan is already another
military-political authority managing local populations and controlling their
movements. With the NGOs servicing them and the UN peacekeepers guarding them,
these PoC camps are a strategic political asset to be managed and exploited.
On Wednesday 13 November 2019, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO/University of Oslo) spoke at a seminar hosted by The Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, titled “Humanitarian wearables and digital bodies: problems of gifts and labour”. A recording from the seminar is now available.
Four year after the Agenda for Humanity : humanitarianism challenged Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 25 March 2019 Call for papers
On May 23-24th 2016, close to 9000 representatives from humanitarian agencies, governments, academics and leaders of crisis-affected communities uniquely gathered in Istanbul to address the crisis of legitimacy and capacity of the so-called humanitarian system. This even – prompted by the unprecedented refugee flows in the Middle-East and Europe – followed a series of regional consultations supposed to overcome the Western-centric nature of humanitarian assistance. Although the event did not lead to the adoption of a clear plan for institutional reform and avoid discussing contentious issues, it led to the adoption of the Agenda for Humanity, a five-point programme aiming to “outline the changes that are needed to alleviate suffering, reduce risk and lessen vulnerability on a global scale”.
The strategic areas identified build on the framing of the Sustainable Development Goals and focus on ambitious targets such as ending conflicts, upholding norms to safeguard humanity, leaving no-one behind, ending needs and investing in humanity. Four years after its adoption, this rhetorical commitment to change has made its way into the discourses and practices of humanitarian organizations. Strategies to achieve “aid localisation”, the “triple nexus” – referring to the interlinkages between humanitarian, development and peace actors – or “vulnerable people empowerment and resilience” abound, reflecting the fractures of the humanitarian system.
Yet, as humanitarian agencies focus on technical ways of implementing changes, structural challenges to global solidarity are left out from the analysis. Since 2016, attacks on humanitarian values have never seemed so acute. The rise of nationalistic and far right parties and their coming to power in Brazil, Italy or Hungary daily challenge the capacity to maintain humanitarian commitments, in particular towards migrant populations. Humanitarian law and norms are under siege in contemporary patterns of violence. The goal of “leaving no one behind” has evacuated debates on the use of the concept of vulnerabilities as a political tool to build hierarchies within crisis-affected populations. Lastly, the localisation agenda has seen crisis-affected governments exercise a stronger grip on humanitarian activities, aligning aid with their priorities and closing civil society independent space.
In this context, the objective of this conference jointly organized by Globalisation Studies Groningen, the Network on Humanitarian Action (NOHA) and the Norwegian Network on Humanitarian Studies is to unpack the political nature of the humanitarian enterprise, using the core responsibilities of the Agenda for Humanity as a starting point for the analysis. The even brings together scholars and practitioners to address the following questions:
How do changes in international and domestic politics alter humanitarian commitments?
How is the Agenda for Humanity’s narrative used to further political agenda?
What are the implications of the Agenda’s core responsibilities on the power dynamics shaping the humanitarian field ?
We welcome paper proposals addressing these questions and fitting with four overarching key themes:
Humanitarian aid and/ in conflicts and urban violence: normative framing, political uses and impacts
Humanitarianism under siege: nationalism, illiberal humanitarianism and humanitarian commitments
Leaving no one behind and the political construction needs and vulnerability
Unpacking the localization move: actors, dynamics and impacts
Interested participants are welcome to submit a 500 word abstract proposal addressing one of the above-mentioned themes. Abstracts should address the theme of the conference through a theoretical or empirical approach. Participants are encouraged to be explicit about a) the research question or problem structuring their contribution b) the theoretical framework of their analysis and c) their methodology. Abstracts should be submitted by email to email@example.com.
The deadline for submitting paper is on January 6th. Decisions on acceptance will be made by January 10th. Draft papers are expected by March 15th.
After the conference the best papers / presentations will be selected by the organizing team for publication in a special issue of the Journal of International Humanitarian Action.
Esteves, P., et al.,
2020. Status and the Rise of Brazil: Global Ambitions, Humanitarian
Engagement and International Challenges. London: Palgrave Macmillan
The book is edited by
Paulo Esteves, Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert and Benjamin de Carvalho, and explores
the evolution of Brazilian foreign relations in the last fifteen years, with a
special emphasis on its engagements in international cooperation, broadly seen.
The edited volume has three thematic focus areas: diplomacy, international
peace and security, and international development cooperation. Drawing on a
wide range of methodologies, the book presents a combination of different
approaches that seek to address how Brazil’s international ambitions can be
understood in the light of shifting domestic contexts; explore Brazil’s
investment in different types of foreign aid, from development aid to
assistance in humanitarian emergencies; and consider Brazil’s view and
approaches to foreign aid, humanitarian assistance and international
About the editors:
Associate Professor in the Institute of International Relations at the
Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Gabrielsen Jumbert is Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO),
Norway, where she is Research Director of the Dimensions of Security
Department, and Director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies
de Carvalho is
Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International
Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo, Norway.
The edited volume is an
output of the BraGS
project, funded by the Research Council of Norway’s LATINAMERIKA program.
The BraGS project was led by Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (PRIO), including the
participation of co-editors Benjamin de Carvalho (NUPI) and Paulo Esteves
(IRI PUC Rio). The book includes contributions from BraGS project
members Eduarda Hamann (Igarapé Institute) and Torkjell Leira (independent), as
well as several other contributors.
Written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO/University of Oslo) & Dennis Dijkzeul (Ruhr University Bochum)
This text first appeared on the TheGlobal and is re-posted here. The blog post draws on the introduction to a 2019 special issue on humanitarian governance by Dennis Dijkzeul and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, ‘A world in turmoil: governing risk, establishing order in humanitarian crises’ published by Disasters.
Synopsis: While localization is high on the agenda for humanitarian actors, at present, humanitarian governance does not support the localization agenda. To understand better why, we explore three issues underpinning humanitarian governance: the problem construction, consolidation and growth of the sector, and the sorting of civilians. We conclude that the localization agenda is important, but for it to succeed a fundamental change of the humanitarian system is needed.
Humanitarian crises conjure up a specific world of urgency and
emergency populated by a set of ‘doers’: international organisations and
Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), heroic humanitarian workers, the
military and the private sector, as well as donors. At the same time, it is
well known that affected populations primarily rescue themselves, with the
assistance of local civil society and host governments. Reflecting that reality,
since the World Humanitarian
2016, ‘localization’ of aid has become a mantra of the sector. Yet, things
appear not to be going so well. In this blog we try to provide conceptual
pointers for explaining why. In line
with Michael Barnett’s insightthat humanitarian
governance voluntarily or involuntarily produces or contributes to some kind of
societal order, we ask in this blog what kind of order is being imagined and
produced through humanitarian governance in relation to the localization
In general, there are two versions of humanitarian governance in
circulation: the narrow version is concerned with the provision of immediate
relief to human suffering. This traditional humanitarianism does not attempt to
politically change the world or take a position on conflicts, but instead uses
the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and
independence to gain access to people in need and alleviate their suffering. In
this sense, it operates as a stopgap measure: it only addresses needs and does
not judge openly the conflict that causes the suffering. The second and more
extensive interpretation signifies a broader concern for human welfare and
incorporates political change to address the root causes of suffering through
human rights, conflict resolution, emancipatory movements, and development
In everyday practice and discourse, both interpretations of
humanitarian governance are used in parallel, which leads to confusion or
disagreement about the goals and roles of humanitarian action. This also means
that what we mean by localization is essentially unclear. To illuminate the
implications of this discrepancy, we consider three critical issues for the
localization agenda, namely: humanitarian problem construction, the
consolidation and growth of the sector, and the sorting of civilians.
The paradoxes of top-down humanitarian problem constructions
Once a humanitarian emergency is declared, it thenshapes not only who is supposed to act but what is supposed to be done.
Humanitarian problem construction involves the conceptualization of social and
political needs, crises, and risks as ‘humanitarian problems’; it also entails
new and/or expanded conceptualizations of humanitarian suffering that call on
humanitarians to be present on the ground with their staff, values, and
toolkits; carrying with it the assumption that humanitarians and their toolkits
are relevant, useful, and welcome. Underpinning and reinforcing this emphasis
on emergency is the invention and promulgation of a technical vocabulary. For
example, while we have now become accustomed to the use of ‘L3’ as a way of
describing the worst emergencies, it is only from the introduction of ‘L’
levels in the UN humanitarian reform
of 2011 that
L3 has worked as a global symbol to designate the most serious level of crisis
and help humanitarians create a globally stratified map of emergencies.
So far, the localization agenda has not substantially altered the conceptualization of social and political needs, nor of crises and risk. To push
the localization agenda forward, humanitarian governance should pay more
attention to local definitions of crises, risks and ‘appropriate’ aid, so that
humanitarian problems are no longer just defined by professionals, who then
control the planning and distribution of resources.
In a similar vein, we are witnessing the persistence of a classic
problem of humanitarian action, namely that the humanitarian sector legitimizes
its interventions by producing higher numbers of both individuals in need and
concomitant funding needs to legitimate humanitarian requests and
interventions. This includes, for example, the mortality
surveys in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Iraq; contestations over maternal deaths; the 2005non-faminein Niger;
exaggerated population counts in refugee camps and more recently talk about ‘unprecedented numbers of refugees’. This has a paradoxical effect on the humanitarian sector.
On the one hand, the very limited funding for local NGOs is also
increasingly recognized as a structural impediment to localization. Data
released in the 2017
Global Humanitarian Assistance report showed that funding for local NGOs stayed very low, at 0.3 per
cent of tracked funding. Even when all local stakeholders are added together,
including governments, they still only accounted for two per cent of funding.
On the other hand, the identification of unmet needs led to continuous
expansion among international NGOs, a kind of ongoing mission creep, which is
an inadvertent consequence in line with the expansive nature of risk. These
categories and numbers leave the humanitarian sector in the double bind that it
is not doing enough while simultaneously being too expansive. In both cases, it
is falling short of its own and external normative expectations. The mortality
surveys in the DRC, for instance, showeda degree of suffering that
was unprecedented, but also led to debates about their validity and impact as a
justification for the expansion of humanitarian aid.
Consolidation and growth: where is the local?
In general, multi-mandate organizations follow the broader
interpretation of humanitarian governance and thus address a broader array of
problems, including the prevention of crises and linking relief and
development. The presence of different interpretations of governance has not
stopped and has probably facilitated the humanitarian sector’s growth and rapid
consolidation over the last three decades. Overall, the humanitarian ‘industry’ handled $27.3 billion in 2016, a six per
cent increase on 2015. The largest humanitarian NGOs now have thousands of
employees and annual turnover of many millions of dollars. While the
consolidation and growth of the humanitarian enterprise can be seen as a
success story for the humanitarian industry as such, the gap between available
resources and perceived humanitarian needs is portrayed as growing continually wider. Several scholars have pointed out
that this endemic and multi-faceted response ‘gap’—with respect to funding,
technical capacity, material goods, humanitarian access, or political will—is
the product of efforts to construct (and not discover) meaning. For example, it
takes analytical labor to define and construct humanitarians as ‘becoming’ unprepared or ‘unfit
Humanitarian actors are apt at describing and presenting ‘gaps’ as fundamental
threats to addressing needs and/or constructing a more humane world order. Once
again, local perspectives on this issue require more attention.
The sorting of civilians
A final issue which affects the meaning of localization concerns the sorting of civilians, which is currently in large
part shaped by considerations of risk and security as emanating from the global
war on terror and extremism. In qualitative terms, not only the language used
to describe the intended recipients of aid (victims, beneficiaries, communities
in crisis, clients, target groups, people in need, survivors, or customers) but
also the categories of protected civilians and the calculus of suffering
deployed to sort and select protectable civilians are in continuous flux.
Generally, the 1990s and 2000s saw a continuous expansion of legal and
political victim categories, such as internally displaced person (IDPs), and
this expansion continues with a discursive broadening of sexual violence as
mode of categorizing
‘humanitarian victims’, as it happened in Bosnia and the DRC, for example.
Importantly, a countertrend that is enabled both by the risk politics
of humanitarianism and the turn to technology is the parallel turn to
resilience thinking and the sorting of ‘protectable’ civilians, which
increasingly represents a shrinking of the categories of civilians that receive protection. In particular, resilience thinking puts the onus of
responsibility for being prepared for, or able to cope with, crises more on
local actors than on international ones, which can lead to a shrinking of the
categories of people that receive protection or other forms of aid. Yet, when
the capacities of these local actors need to be strengthened, this nevertheless
leads to an expansion of capacity-building activities by international
organizations involved in humanitarian work.
In sum, the way that humanitarian governance orders the humanitarian
field in terms of problem construction, consolidation and expansion, as well as
with sorting of civilians, does not yet support the localization agenda. The
localization agenda is important but if it is to be taken seriously, it needs
to go hand in hand with a far more fundamental change of the humanitarian
system than has happened so far.
NCHS researcher Kristoffer Lidén (PRIO) participates in a professional roundtable on the development of competencies of humanitarian organizations for negotiations at the frontlines organized by the Center for Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) in Berlin 26-27 November. For a detailed program, with introductions to the different topics addressed, see here.
Speakers included H.E. Dr. Bärbel Kofler, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Assistance, Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Grainne Ohara, Director of International Protection, UNHCR, Rehan Asad, Chief of Staff, World Food Programme (WFP) and Claude Bruderlein, Director of CCHN. The event also featured a launch of the 2019 version of the CCHN Field Manual on Humanitarian Negotiations, which can be read here.
On Wednesday 13 November 2019, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO/University of Oslo) spoke at a seminar hosted by The Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, titled “Humanitarian wearables and digital bodies: problems of gifts and labour”.
Sandvik is a professor of legal sociology at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo and a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at PRIO, and the coordinator for the Humanitarianism research group. She has previously been the Director for the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies. Her research agenda focuses on the development of a political and legal sociology of humanitarianism.
Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (S.J.D Harvard Law School 2008) is a professor of legal sociology at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo and a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at PRIO. Her work focuses on refugee resettlement, legal mobilization, humanitarian technology, innovation and accountability. She currently writes on the 22 July Norwegian terror attacks, humanitarianism and lawfare, and digital bodies in aid.
On October 23, 2019, 39 bodies were found inside a refrigerator lorry on an industrial estate in Essex. The vehicle was registered in Varna, Bulgaria, had entered the UK four days before and was driven by a man from Northern-Ireland. The victims – 38 adults and a teenager – were identified as Vietnamese. This incident is just the latest example of vehicle-induced migrant mass fatalities.
Are these deaths accidental, or a result of lethal
intentionality and if so, who is to blame? To reflect on the violence and
structured immobility practices that lead to these deaths, I take the
colloquial term ‘killer trucks’ as my point of departure. I juxtapose the
concept’s ordinary use –the deployment of trucks for vehicular ramming attacks
– with the regular occurrence of large numbers of individuals being found dead
inside trailers, trucks, lorries and vans. I contrast the concept of ‘vehicular
terror’ with ‘vehicular crypts’, whereby the cargo areas of lorries and trucks
become vaults facilitating stacked burials. I link the notion of a
widespread weaponization– the process through which an object that wasn’t
a weapon becomes one – of trucks to questions of how we estimate and explain
harm and danger. In this post I argue that we must link weaponization, and the
type of lethal intentionality embedded in the weaponization process, to broader
legal and political structures.
In recent years, commercial transport vehicles
have become securitized and reconceived as existential threats through their
use in urban terror attacks. Their presence is perceived
with suspicion and fear, as urban landscapes are remodeled through bollards and
security fencing. In accounts of vehicle ramming attacks in Berlin, London, Nice,
Stockholm and New York, the exterior of vehicles—cars, vans, trucks,
motorbikes—are construed as having innate qualities of mass and speed that make
them inherently dangerous and their presence potentially dangerous. While the
use of trucks as conduits for explosives and driving into crowds with lethal
intent are not new tactics, the lethality of recent attacks has engendered a
narrative focused on the ‘the terrifying
simplicity’ of these
attacks: we ‘now live in an era of
the weaponized truck’ whereby ‘Western audiences are
witnessing a transformation of the objects of everyday life into tools of
I suggest that this narrative of unpredictable
danger is ‘good to think with’ when it comes to critically reflecting on
vehicle-induced deaths and the ethics of the classification of the dead. When
looking at how trucks—by design intended to serve logistical purposes—become
lethal objects, or ‘killer trucks’—attention to context is crucial. When
accounting for the rise of the ‘killer truck’ as a weapon of terror and
destruction, we must do so with a careful view to positionality, materiality
and political context. We must ask: what is a weapon? What is weaponization of
everyday objects such as trucks; and who is harmed through this weaponization?
My proposition is that these questions enable the
deaths of a different set of victims to come into view: During terror attacks,
it is the exterior capabilities of trucks and lorries that produce deadly
impact. The weaponization of trucks can also be considered through the lens of
interior materiality. Here it’s not a presence of lethal
factors such as mass and speed but a lack –of human
consideration and air but also of legality and mobility rights – that produce
lethality. It also makes visible how it is not only instances of individual
criminality but also legal regimes governing mobility which produce harm and
The Essex case is not exceptional, but part of a
global pattern whereby trucks have become deadly crypts for migrants’ bodies.
Examples abound: In 2003, 17 ‘illegal migrants’ from Mexico, Central
America and the Dominican Republic died through dehydration, hyperthermia and
suffocation inside an airtight container of an eighteen wheeler. In 2008, 54 Burmese migrants suffocated inside a truck in
Thailand. The surviving migrants were charged with illegal entry. In 2015, in an event known as ‘the
Parndorf tragedy’, 71 people were found suffocated at the back of a
Slovenian meat lorry outside the village of Parndorf in Austria. The lorry was
used by a Budapest-based trafficking ring which smuggled thousands of people from Hungary into
Austria and Germany in 2015.
We must pay attention to how the ‘killer’
capabilities of material objects are configured through the regulatory sorting
regimes aimed at people and mobilities. Crypts are ‘an extreme class of the artifacts that form the material culture
of clandestine migration’, they are containers forming units with migrant
bodies, representing ‘frequently nothing more than a transitional space within
a load of cargo.’ Structural factors such as ever stricter and more punitive migration regimes and aggressive
counter-terrorism measures force people into cattle trucks, meat trucks,
refrigerator trucks, moving vans – and produce the dangers these individuals
face inside these crypts.
An important source of danger is time: speed and risk are inherently interlinked and there are
different levels of risk involved in distinct modes of transport. The fastest
modes of transport – airplanes – tend to be the safest, while the slowest are
generally the most dangerous. Trucks and lorries – relatively slow modes of
transport –are part of what Ruben Andersson (2014) calls the ‘illegality industry’. The slowness entails migrants being helplessly
stuck inside trucks following unpredictable itineraries and being parked or
abandoned at remote locations along the routes.
In the Parndorf case, the driver had by
accident sealed the doors, so no air could come in. Police
telephone intercepts –recorded but not analyzed in time – showed that the
Afghan ringleader had later ordered the driver not to open the doors while the
migrants could be heard screaming in the back. The charges in the
Parndorf case included charges of human trafficking, torture and ‘homicide with
particular cruelty’. According to prosecutors, refugees were ‘often carried in closed, dark and
airless van unsuitable for passenger transport, in crowded, inhuman,
excruciating conditions’. In June 2018, four human smugglers from Afghanistan
and Bulgaria were jailed for 25 years in the Kescemet city court in Hungary.
While Parndorf, and other smuggling cases
resulting in mass deaths, relate to intentional killings carried out by
organized crime, the lethal intentionality in these cases is not only that
of not opening doors, checking that there is enough
ventilation and maintaining a temperature adequate for human survival. When we
think about killer trucks, the processes through which they are weaponized and
notions of unprecedented danger, we must also consider that lethal
intentionality is also what creates migrant crypts in the first place, and that it emerges at
the interface of legal regimes governing offenses related to smuggling,
trafficking, crime, terror – and mobility.
This year’s NCHS Annual Lecture was given by Professor Morten Rostrup, senior physician at the Department of Acute Medicine, Oslo University Hospital, University of Oslo. In addition to being a specialist in Emergency Medicine and Internal Medicine, Rostrup has 23 years of experience in medical humanitarian action, and has been working with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in numerous war zones, epidemics and natural disasters.
For the Annual Lecture, Morten Rostrup asked: Is independent medical humanitarian assistance possible in today’s conflicts? The lecture features comments by discussant Dorothea Hilhorst (ISS, Erasmus University in the Hague), and introduction by Andrea Silkoset (PRIO). Watch the recording here.