Author Archives: Eric Cezne

Tailoring Protection of Civilians to State Capacity: The Role of Regional Human Rights Protection Measures

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The 2016 UN Agenda for Humanity states that minimizing human suffering and protecting civilians requires strengthening compliance with international law. In response to this call, a new PRIO policy brief offers a complementary vision of protection of civilians (PoC) as a spectrum of possibilities that includes local self-protection efforts, legal strategies, and the practice of judicial and quasi-judicial bodies. The approach is illustrated by the life-cycle of the protection measures ordered for the Colombian Kankuamo by the Inter-American human rights system.

Today, many contemporary armed conflicts and threats to civilians coexist with existing state bureaucracies and civil societies, however fragile. Hence there is a more general need for a better understanding of legal protection measures in relation to the goal of protecting civilians in armed conflicts and the goal of strengthening state capacity to abide by the rule of law.

The PoC agenda arrived at the scene of international politics as a central normative ambition only at the end of the Cold War. When picked up in reaction to the civilian suffering in civil wars and genocide throughout the 1990s, PoC was transformed from a set of limited legal regulations and a doctrine pertaining to the conduct of the military into an organizing principle for international engagement in conflict-ridden countries.

Historically, PoC was understood as a legal principle, within the application of international humanitarian law, as promoted by the International Committee of the Red Cross. From the 1990s, PoC has evolved into a guideline for the intervention of humanitarian organizations. Despite a high international profile, the realization of the PoC agenda has been hampered by conceptual confusion, operational difficulties, and insufficient understanding of how normative developments and the self-protection efforts of civilians can best be aligned. Moreover, the ‘humanitarian imperative’ to protect has involved an increasing militarization of PoC, whereby PoC has become identified with increasingly robust UN peacekeeping activities.

In the 2016 Agenda for Humanity, the Secretary General calls for a concerted global effort to prevent the erosion of international humanitarian and human rights law, demand greater compliance with them and uncompromisingly pursue the protection of civilians.

Responding to this call for a recentring of law in the struggle to protect civilians, we argue that PoC should be imagined as a spectrum of possibilities, with an emphasis on subsidiarity and state capacity. When tailoring PoC to state capacity, international and national legal bodies are the means for holding states with the capacity to protect civilians accountable for their security. PoC is then operationalized through state action and civil society efforts to shape and monitor implementation. This requires an expansion of territorial control by the state, especially by a state bound by the rule of law, and not just the extension of control by state armed forces and paramilitary allies acting outside the rule of law.

Taking a bottom-up approach to this process makes visible how grassroots actors strategically use legal protection as part of their self-protection efforts, and how state response is entangled in its own interests. To that end, this brief makes reference to the successful experience of the Kankuamo people in Colombia, and the complex relation between protection measures and actions taken by both the state and Kankuamo authorities to curb violence against civilians.

Note: This entry is a preview of the authors’ policy brief ‘Tailoring Protection of Civilians to State Capacity’ (2016), published by PRIO and an output from the project Protection of Civilians: From Principle to Practice. You can read this policy brief here.

The GovLab Selected Readings on Data and Humanitarian Response

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As part of an ongoing effort to build a knowledge base for the field of opening governance by organizing and disseminating its learnings, the GovLab Selected Readings series provides an annotated and curated collection of recommended works on key opening governance topics. In this edition, we explore the literature on Data and Humanitarian Aid. To suggest additional readings on this or any other topic, please email All our Selected Readings can be found here.

Data and its uses for Governance


Data, when used well in a trusted manner , allows humanitarian organizations to innovate how to respond to emergency events, including better coordination of post-disaster relief efforts, the ability to harness local knowledge to create more targeted relief strategies, and tools to predict and monitor disasters in real time. Consequently, in recent years both multinational groups and community-based advocates have begun to integrate data collection and evaluation strategies into their humanitarian operations, to better and more quickly respond to emergencies. However, this movement poses a number of challenges. Compared to the private sector, humanitarian organizations are often less equipped to successfully analyze and manage big data, which pose a number of risks related to the security of victims’ data. Furthermore, complex power dynamics which exist within humanitarian spaces may be further exacerbated through the introduction of new technologies and big data collection mechanisms. In the below we share:

  • Selected Reading List (summaries and hyperlinks)
  • Annotated Selected Reading List
  • Additional Readings

Selected Reading List  (summaries in alphabetical order)

Data and Humanitarianism

Risks of Using Big Data in Humanitarian Aid

Annotated Selected Reading List (in alphabetical order)

Karlsrud, John. “Peacekeeping 4.0: Harnessing the Potential of Big Data, Social Media, and Cyber Technologies.” Cyberspace and International Relations, 2013.

  • This chapter from the book “Cyberspace and International Relations” suggests that advances in big data give humanitarian organizations unprecedented opportunities to prevent and mitigate natural disasters and humanitarian crises. However, the sheer amount of unstructured data necessitates effective “data mining” strategies for multinational organizations to make the most use of this data.
  • By profiling some civil-society organizations who use big data in their peacekeeping efforts, Karlsrud suggests that these community-focused initiatives are leading the movement toward analyzing and using big data in countries vulnerable to crisis.
  • The chapter concludes by offering ten recommendations to UN peacekeeping forces to best realize the potential of big data and new technology in supporting their operations.

Mancini, Fancesco. “New Technology and the prevention of Violence and Conflict.” International Peace Institute, 2013.

  • This report from the International Peace Institute looks at five case studies to assess how information and communications technologies (ICTs) can help prevent humanitarian conflicts and violence. Their findings suggest that context has a significant impact on the ability for these ICTs for conflict prevention, and any strategies must take into account the specific contingencies of the region to be successful.
  • The report suggests seven lessons gleaned from the five case studies:
    • New technologies are just one in a variety of tools to combat violence. Consequently, organizations must investigate a variety of complementary strategies to prevent conflicts, and not simply rely on ICTs.
    • Not every community or social group will have the same relationship to technology, and their ability to adopt new technologies are similarly influenced by their context. Therefore, a detailed needs assessment must take place before any new technologies are implemented.
    • New technologies may be co-opted by violent groups seeking to maintain conflict in the region. Consequently, humanitarian groups must be sensitive to existing political actors and be aware of possible negative consequences these new technologies may spark.
    • Local input is integral to support conflict prevention measures, and there exists need for collaboration and awareness-raising with communities to ensure new technologies are sustainable and effective.
    • Information shared between civil-society has more potential to develop early-warning systems. This horizontal distribution of information can also allow communities to maintain the accountability of local leaders.

Meier, Patrick. “Digital humanitarians: how big data is changing the face of humanitarian response.” Crc Press, 2015.

  • This book traces the emergence of “Digital Humanitarians”—people who harness new digital tools and technologies to support humanitarian action. Meier suggests that this has created a “nervous system” to connect people from disparate parts of the world, revolutionizing the way we respond to humanitarian crises.
  • Meier argues that such technology is reconfiguring the structure of the humanitarian space, where victims are not simply passive recipients of aid but can contribute with other global citizens. This in turn makes us more humane and engaged people.

Robertson, Andrew and Olson, Steve. “Using Data Sharing to Improve Coordination in Peacebuilding.” United States Institute for Peace, 2012.

  • This report functions as an overview of a roundtable workshop on Technology, Science and Peace Building held at the United States Institute of Peace. The workshop aimed to investigate how data-sharing techniques can be developed for use in peace building or conflict management.
  • Four main themes emerged from discussions during the workshop:
    • “Data sharing requires working across a technology-culture divide”—Data sharing needs the foundation of a strong relationship, which can depend on sociocultural, rather than technological, factors.
    • “Information sharing requires building and maintaining trust”—These relationships are often built on trust, which can include both technological and social perspectives.
    • “Information sharing requires linking civilian-military policy discussions to technology”—Even when sophisticated data-sharing technologies exist, continuous engagement between different stakeholders is necessary. Therefore, procedures used to maintain civil-military engagement should be broadened to include technology.
    • “Collaboration software needs to be aligned with user needs”—technology providers need to keep in mind the needs of its users, in this case peacebuilders, in order to ensure sustainability.

United Nations Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development. “A World That Counts, Mobilizing the Data Revolution.” 2014.

  • This report focuses on the potential benefits and risks data holds for sustainable development. Included in this is a strategic framework for using and managing data for humanitarian purposes. It describes a need for a multinational consensus to be developed to ensure data is shared effectively and efficiently.
  • It suggests that “people who are counted”—i.e., those who are included in data collection processes—have better development outcomes and a better chance for humanitarian response in emergency or conflict situations.

Katie Whipkey and Andrej Verity. “Guidance for Incorporating Big Data into Humanitarian Operations.” Digital Humanitarian Network, 2015.

  • This report produced by the Digital Humanitarian Network provides an overview of big data, and how humanitarian organizations can integrate this technology into their humanitarian response. It primarily functions as a guide for organizations, and provides concise, brief outlines of what big data is, and how it can benefit humanitarian groups.
  • The report puts forward four main benefits acquired through the use of big data by humanitarian organizations: 1) the ability to leverage real-time information; 2) the ability to make more informed decisions; 3) the ability to learn new insights; 4) the ability for organizations to be more prepared.
  • It goes on to assess seven challenges big data poses for humanitarian organizations: 1) geography, and the unequal access to technology across regions; 2) the potential for user error when processing data; 3) limited technology; 4) questionable validity of data; 5) underdeveloped policies and ethics relating to data management; 6) limitations relating to staff knowledge.

Risks of Using Big Data in Humanitarian Aid

Crawford, Kate, and Megan Finn. “The limits of crisis data: analytical and ethical challenges of using social and mobile data to understand disasters.” GeoJournal 80.4, 2015.

  • Crawford & Finn present a critical analysis of the use of big data in disaster management, taking a more skeptical tone to the data revolution facing humanitarian response.
  • They argue that though social and mobile data analysis can yield important insights and tools in crisis events, it also presents a number of limitations which can lead to oversights being made by researchers or humanitarian response teams.
  • Crawford & Finn explore the ethical concerns the use of big data in disaster events introduces, including issues of power, privacy, and consent.
  • The paper concludes by recommending that critical data studies, such as those presented in the paper, be integrated into crisis event research in order to analyze some of the assumptions which underlie mobile and social data.

Jacobsen, Katja Lindskov (2010) Making design safe for citizens: A hidden history of humanitarian experimentation. Citizenship Studies 14.1: 89-103.

  • This paper explores the phenomenon of “humanitarian experimentation,” where victims of disaster or conflict are the subjects of experiments to test the application of technologies before they are administered in greater civilian populations.
  • By analyzing the particular use of iris recognition technology during the repatriation of Afghan refugees to Pakistan in 2002 to 2007, Jacobsen suggests that this “humanitarian experimentation” compromises the security of already vulnerable refugees in order to better deliver biometric product to the rest of the world.

Responsible Data Forum. “Responsible Data Reflection Stories: An Overview.”

  • This piece from the Responsible Data forum is primarily a compilation of “war stories” which follow some of the challenges in using big data for social good. By drawing on these crowdsourced cases, the Forum also presents an overview which makes key recommendations to overcome some of the challenges associated with big data in humanitarian organizations.
  • It finds that most of these challenges occur when organizations are ill-equipped to manage data and new technologies, or are unaware about how different groups interact in digital spaces in different ways.

Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora. “The humanitarian cyberspace: shrinking space or an expanding frontier?” Third World Quarterly 37:1, 17-32, 2016.

  • This paper analyzes the shift toward more technology-driven humanitarian work, where humanitarian work increasingly takes place online in cyberspace, reshaping the definition and application of aid. This has occurred along with what many suggest is a shrinking of the humanitarian space.
  • Sandvik provides three interpretations of this phenomena:
    • First, traditional threats remain in the humanitarian space, which are both modified and reinforced by technology.
    • Second, new threats are introduced by the increasing use of technology in humanitarianism, and consequently the humanitarian space may be broadening, not shrinking.
    • Finally, if the shrinking humanitarian space theory holds, cyberspace offers one example of this, where the increasing use of digital technology to manage disasters leads to a contraction of space through the proliferation of remote services.

Additional Readings on Data and Humanitarian Aid

Note: This entry was originally posted on GovLab’s web portal.

NCHS represented at ISA 2016

This year’s Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA) was held in Atlanta, United States, and took place from 16-19 March 2016. ISA has been the premier organization for connecting scholars and practitioners in the fields of international studies since 1959. With well over six thousand members in North America and around the world, ISA is the most respected and widely known scholarly association in this field.

NCHS was represented at Atlanta and contributed to this year’s Annual Convention through the organization and chairing of panel debates, presentation of papers and participation in various events.

On Wednesday 16 March, and under the Brazil’s Rise to the Global Stage (BraGS)  project, NCHS organized the panel A New Multilateralism? Brazil, Humanitarian Action and  International Peace and Security. Chaired by NCHS Director Kristin B. Sandvik (PRIO) and featuring Benjamin De Carvalho (NUPI) and Maria G. Jumbert (PRIO) as conference paper presenters, the panel investigated, focusing on Brazil, how the rise of new powers is changing the international agenda and influencing the conduct of multilateralism. Looking at the role of status in international politics, particular attention was paid to the drivers of Brazil’s engagement in humanitarian action and peacekeeping.

On Thursday 17 March, as part of the research project Protection of Civilians: From Principle to Practice (PoC), NCHS arranged the panel Peace through Protection? Exploring protection in times of humanitarian change. NCHS researcher Maria G. Jumbert (PRIO) acted as chair while Kristin B. Sandvik (PRIO), Jon Harald Sande Lie (NUPI), Kristoffer Lidén (PRIO), Simon Reid-Henry (PRIO) and Ole J. Sending (NUPI) have presented conference papers . The panel, taking the protection of civilians discourse as a vantage point, offered empirically grounded as well as theoretical and conceptual contributions addressing the intersection between humanitarian challenges and the politics of peace in various contexts of protection: the humanitarian-development nexus in post-war Uganda; legal protection of civilians in Colombia, protection measures against sexual violence in Sudan; the protection mandate of the UN Secretariat; and, finally, the commitment of the veto power to the protection in the UN Security Council.

On Friday 18 March, NCHS researcher Kjersti Lohne (PRIO) co-organized the panel Cosmopolitan legalism and universal law: rhetorical promises and (un)intended consequences. Lohne presented two papers: one of which addressing the multiple claims to authority by human rights NGOs at the ICC and their implications to the legitimacy of the Court; and the other, co-authored with Anette B. Houge, investigated how the fight against sexual violence in war is narratively constructed as the fight against impunity.

Overview of conference papers presented by NCHS researchers:

isa 2

Photo: Kjersti Lohne

  • Brazil’s Humanitarian Engagement: Does Peacekeeping Pay Off?-Benjamin De Carvalho  (NUPI) – 16 March 2016
  • The “Brazilian Way” of Dealing with Force in Multilateral  Operations: Connecting Robust Peacekeeping and the  “Responsibility while Protecting”- Maria G. Jumbert  (PRIO) – 16 March 2016
  • The Humanitarian–Development Nexus in Northern Uganda- Jon Harald Sande Lie  (NUPI) – 17 March 2016
  • Kankuamo (Self) Protection: The Place of Legal Measures in the  Protection of Civilians – Kristin B. Sandvik (PRIO) – 17 March 2016
  • Do they really care? Protection of Civilians and the Veto Powers in  the UN Security Council-
    Kristofer Lidén  (PRIO) & Simon Reid-Henry  (PRIO) – 17 March 2016
  • Protection practices and the constitution of the International  Community –
    Ole J. Sending (NUPI) – 17 March 2016
  • Cosmopolitan legalism, criminal justice and human rights NGOs-
    Kjersti Lohne  (PRIO) – 18 March 2016
  • The fight against impunity: The construction of a panacea for sexual  violence in conflict?  Anette  B. Houge  ( University of Oslo) & Kjersti Lohne  (PRIO) – 18 March 2016

Further information on the ISA 2016 Annual Convention can be found here.

NCHS contributes to Brookings event on Emerging Powers and Conflict-Afflicted States

As part of the two-year Emerging Powers in Post-Conflict and Transitional Settings: the New Politics of Reconstruction project, supported by the United States Institute of Peace and directed by Agnieszka Paczynska (George Mason University), NCHS and PRIO senior-researcher Pinar Tank has participated in a two day meeting, on 14 and 15 March, on the theme “Emerging powers and conflict-afflicted states”. Tank spoke about Turkish approaches to humanitarian assistance and post-conflict reconstruction comparing the Somalia and Syria cases.

The first day, 14 March, consisted of a workshop for a planned edited volume to be finalized this fall with a group of scholars working on emerging powers – besides Pinar Tank (Turkey), it included Chris Alden (China), Sultan Barakat (Arab Gulf states), Paulo Esteves (Brazil), Gilbert Khadiagala (South Africa), Rani Mullen (India) and Christoph Zürcher (Russia).  The second day, 15 March, the group held a public presentation at Brookings of their preliminary research findings.

More information on the event at Brookings can be found here.

Futureproofing Humanitarianism for Permanent Emergencies: Unpacking the Promise of Cooperation

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Despite the strong growth of the humanitarian sector, there is an increasing operational and financial deficit in the capacity of governments and humanitarian organizations to respond. This has led to calls for changes in the way such crises are understood and managed. As humanitarians grapple with what is increasingly imagined as a future of permanent emergencies, the promise of cooperation has taken center stage as a way of dealing with an uncertain future. Humanitarianism has a long history of trying to improve itself incrementally through best practice examples, ever more fine-grained standards, and reforms. As humanitarian actors undertake periodic renewal projects to look and feel better and be seen as more credible and more legitimate, talk of the need for a paradigm shift has become an institutionalized feature of contemporary humanitarianism. Presently, the focus is on the ability of humanitarianism to shift into a modus operandi of continuous crisis management.

As scholars, we often don’t pay enough attention to corporate humanitarian interests. In this blog post, I try to do so by using the emergent concept of futureproofing as a prism to ask some questions about cooperation. The concept futureproofing is loosely borrowed from electronics, communications and industrial design theory. To futureproof is to try to  better anticipate the future and develop methods of minimizing effects of shocks and stresses of future events. Futureproofing is about increasing resilience: the objective is for a product or system to be of value into the distant future and not be obsolete in the fact of technological change.

I suggest that as humanitarians perceive that things get harder ─i.e. the response-gap continues to increase and the humanitarian space continues to shrink─ the focus is on futureproofing the humanitarian system by becoming stronger, faster and better. Here, I explore the notion that humanitarian actors must find new ways of cooperating with other actors, cooperate with new types of actors (including types of new humanitarian donors, host states, global philanthropy, the private sector and the volunteer and technical communities) and cooperatemore.  While cooperation is rhetorically framed as intrinsic to the future of humanitarian action, I argue that the quest for cooperation is filled with ambiguities. This concerns what humanitarians say they want to get out of it, what they really want to get out of it and what they can get out of it.

My argument is that the focus is heavily on futureproofing the humanitarian enterprise to ensure its continued relevance and growth. Crisis-affected communities, their agency and accountability to affected populations occupy surprisingly vague roles in these future-oriented scenarios. These ambiguities and paradoxes become more visible when cooperation is analyzed through the prism of the three logics of humanitarian futureproofing, whereby the sector aims to become stronger by reconfiguring the humanitarianism-development nexus, faster through private sector cooperation and better through the turn to humanitarian innovation.

The first logic of humanitarian futureproofing concerns the expansionist impetus of humanitarianism. I have become puzzled by apparent contradictions in how humanitarian actors perceive and discuss the appropriate boundaries for their own activities and professional roles, and the activities and roles of other actors operating in crises and emergencies. The oddness becomes evident when considering what happens when humanitarians begin to talk about preparedness, early recovery or “protracted crisis”. Humanitarians appear to argue that while the sanctity of humanitarian space is a precondition for a strong humanitarian response, to ensure the long-term effectiveness of humanitarian action, humanitarians must also be able and willing to radically extend their activities well into the terrain of what is usually called “development”. Yet, it is not clear how humanitarians will manage this transition into development work in practice. If humanitarian actors are to do more “development work”, it seems reasonable that they get better at articulating how they will engage the state, the democratic process, local political actors and agendas for transformative social justice.

The second logic of humanitarian futureproofing is the notion that private-public partnerships in themselves will make humanitarian response more effective and thus faster, by entrenching market oriented rationalities. The idea is that private companies can contribute needed expertise and resources, and because they are profit driven, they are incentivized to comply with the specific deliverables and time frames. However, this perspective overlooks persistent tensions inherent in the humanitarian market and in the actors’ rationalities.  While the turn to business cooperation is informed by the notion that the humanitarian market is inherently efficient and effective because it is a regular market, the consumer (i.e. the aid recipient) neither purchases nor pays for the delivered service. Aid agencies are the customers, donors the buyers and aid recipients the consumers.  There is also often a rather thin shared understanding of the nature of humanitarian work. Private sector actors express frustration about unprofessional and undecided humanitarian customers while humanitarians complain about being offered inadequate or unfeasible solutions and about private sector partners that “think money” instead of “activity on the ground”.

The third logic of humanitarian futureproofing is the assumption of progress inherent in the humanitarian turn to technological innovation. In previous attempts to renew humanitarian action, such as the turn to rights based-approaches or humanitarian reform, accountability was a means to have a better humanitarianism. In the humanitarian innovation agenda, the accountability issue is being invisibilized in favor of strongly held assumptions about progress and inevitability.  Thinking on problems and difficulties is often framed in terms of finding technical solutions, obtaining sufficient funding to move from pilot phases to scale or placing oneself in a functional regulatory context. The innovation discourse is focused on empowerment but pays little attention to how power operates. The turn to technological innovation is being seen as the end of accountability efforts: it is not something we use to get closer to a better humanitarianism, but something which once developed and deployed is a better, more accountable humanitarianism.

Emerging from this broad-brushed effort to unpack efforts to use cooperation instrumentally to make humanitarian response stronger, faster and better is a lingering unease about where this leaves crisis affected populations, who seem to have all but disappeared from view in this care-for-the-institutional-self model of humanitarian action. Going full circle back to the conceptualization of futureproofing, an important critique is that it may make us feel better in the moment – more comfortable, more secure and more protected – but it is unlikely to be the safe option in the long run; it is an “ongoing task of vigilance that will never completed”. However, this type of future-gazing both predict and shape desirable futures and organize resources towards them. Hence, I would argue that the starting as well as end point for effective cooperation –what would make humanitarian action stronger, faster and better in the long run – should be the commitment to accountability we can draw out of the humanitarian imperatives to do no harm, and to assist according to need in the most humane, impartial and neutral manner possible.

Note: This entry, originally posted on the humanitarian-quest blog, is adapted from Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, “Stronger, Faster, Better: Three Logics of Humanitarian Futureproofing”, in Heins, Volker; Kai Koddenbrock; & Christine Unrau, eds., Humanitarianism and Challenges of Cooperation. London: Routledge 2016. 

4th World Conference on Humanitarian Studies: NCHS hosts roundtable on cyberinsecurity and presents on humanitarian innovation and protection of civilians

The 4th bi-annual IHSA  World Conference on Humanitarian Studies took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 5 to 8 March 2016.  NCHS/PRIO hosted a well-attended roundtable on humanitarian security in cyberspace. The roundtable addressed how cyberspace can become a threat to the security of humanitarian workers, aid delivery and recipients, including making humanitarian actors into threat actors. NCHS researchers Kristin B. Sandvik (PRIO) and Kristoffer Lidén (PRIO) also presented papers on humanitarian innovation and the protection of civilians.

NCHS researchers publish in Brazil

NCHS and PRIO researchers Eric Cezne, Maria G. Jumbert and Kristin B. Sandvik have recently co-authored the article entitled Drones comVeículos para a Ação Humanitária: Perspectivas, Oportunidades e Desafios  [Drones as vehicles for humanitarian action: perspectives, opportunities and challenges] in the Brazilian journal Conjuntura Austral.

Published in Portuguese and an output of the research project Brazil’s Rise to the Global Stage (BraGS), the article addresses the deployment of drones for humanitarian action. By analyzing the deployment and functions acquired by these vehicles at the global level, the article critically discusses and scrutinizes the increasingly frequent narratives linking drones as vehicles for humanitarian action and seeks to contribute and offer some inputs to the ongoing emerging drone debate in Brazil.

The article can be read in full here (available only in Portuguese).

Is The War on Drugs a Humanitarian Crisis?

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In Latin America, the four-decade long War on Drugs has had devastating impacts on the health, safety and wellbeing of rural communities, and imposed de facto states of siege in heavily militarized urban areas where government forces engage narco-trafficking groups. In reflecting on the legacies of disappearances, murders and displacement, the Drug Policy Alliance calls the Drug War ‘a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions’. In October 2015, the Colombian Ombudsman’s Office declared that fighting between paramilitaries over drug trade routes was causing a humanitarian crisis. Such instances reflect how the War on Drugs in Latin America has encouraged a highly militarized yet unsuccessful approach to drug control, leading to violence, displacement and human suffering throughout the region.

Yet contrary to past decades, the War on Drugs is increasingly seen as unwinnable. Seeking a set of plausible post-prohibition frameworks, governments and stakeholders increasingly look to reframe the issue of narcotics trafficking around a human rights and public health centred approach that emphasizes decriminalization, legalization and harm reduction. In May 2013 a pathbreaking report was launched by the Organization of American States (OAS) calling for the legalization of the drug trade, and considerable expectations surround the April 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs.

The War on Drugs and the Humanitarian Frame

Despite their remits and imperatives to offer assistance in times of crisis, humanitarian agencies are businesses that need to economically justify their existence. Here Gilles Carbonnier speaks of ‘the Transformative Power of Humanitarian Crises (2016), and such sentiments are increasingly relevant to how humanitarian organizations are reframing their relevance in the Americas. Facing the decline of civil conflicts and the need for humanitarian intervention in the region, agencies are facing an existential crisis on the continent. In response agencies have increasingly begun to frame the War on Drugs in the language of “humanitarian crises”. The phrase “humanitarian crisis” most often appears in relation to the War on Drugs in Colombia, referencing violent actions by drug producers and traffickers, and the human cost of government prohibition. Yet other contexts are also being labelled as crises. Mexican cartel violence and the State’s war against it is seen to have contributed to a humanitarian emergency; Central American transshipment corridors are viewed as experiencing crises of forced migration and displacement; and flows of unaccompanied child migrants at the US border was described as a humanitarian crisis resulting from the War on Drugs.

Therefore, while humanitarian ‘crises’ often traditionally invoke rural violence and displacement in drug producing and transshipment areas, humanitarian organizations are increasingly linked to a War on Drugs narrative to justify engaging in contexts of urban violence under the moniker of “non-conventional violence”. Moreover, the relabeling of narco-related violence particularly in Latin American cities as complex urban emergencies represents a reimagining of the humanitarian project and the “remaking” of humanitarian institutional relevance in Latin-America. In doing so, agencies are facilitating new spaces of humanitarian entry into contexts in which they may be ill-suited to operate.

Consequences of a Humanitarian Frame

Interpreting the War on Drugs through a humanitarian frame is therefore not a neutral description but a political position with an attendant set of consequences. While it presents certain advantages by involving organizations with experience in negotiating with local armed actors and in humanitarian or disaster relief, the approach also presents significant costs and challenges:

  • The perceived neutrality of humanitarian framing may enable governments to avoid political responsibility encourage an abdication of state responsibility for policy choices that may exacerbate the consequences of the War on Drugs.
  • A humanitarian frame may also minimize or invisibilize the range of available policy choices, and rather than encourage multi-sectorial, integrated violence reduction policies, the frame may restrict responses to some narrow combination of military and humanitarian approaches.
  • The humanitarian frame also depoliticizes international responsibility for the problems of narcotics related violence in Latin America, and rather than driving post-prohibition framework discussions forward, a humanitarian framing of the War on Drugs risks contributing to the postponement of these debates.
  • The ‘apolitical neutrality’ of humanitarian engagement can also overlook the critical importance of local or grassroots governance structures. Humanitarian actors can risk unwittingly upending or deeply misreading local logics of power and may fracture civil societies or undermine forms of social mobilization, resistance or mediation.

Implications and Considerations

We remain unconvinced that humanitarianism is the adequate frame to understand the War on Drugs in Latin America. Beyond discussions of legalization at UNGASS 2016 and subsequent fora, policy makers should consider the implications of a humanitarian framing of the War on Drugs. Governments in the Americas should recognize that militarized approaches to drug prohibition and interdiction are failing, and should actively consider the attendant human suffering as a structural health and welfare issue. Moreover, parties at UNGASS and beyond should continue serious discussions about developing a post-prohibition framework, with the War on Drugs emphasized as a collective challenge demanding international responsibility.

We also observe that a humanitarian frame is increasingly used to justify and facilitate entry of humanitarian agencies into urban areas. With a series of negative consequences possible, humanitarian organizations and concerned stakeholders must acknowledge and address the costs brought about by framing of the War on Drugs as a humanitarian concern; and carefully consider the capacity of agencies to responsibly engage in contexts of urban violence. If choosing to engage, humanitarian actors should prepare for greater complexity of operations; be highly sensitive of, and responsive to, local political economies; devise longer-term programming approaches; and support existing civil society efforts to address violence. Failing to do so will only exacerbate the already tragic human costs the War on Drugs has burdened on the region.

Note: This entry, written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and , was originally posted on the ATHA blog and is derived from the authors’ policy brief Is the War on Drugs a “Humanitarian Crisis”?. The brief was published by PRIO and is an output of the the research project Brazil’s Rise to the Global Stage.

NCHS contributes to discussion of the Refugee Crisis as a Global Humanitarian Challenge and the role of China

In a piece for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) the Director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies Kristin Bergtora Sandvik discusses the Refugee Crisis as a Global Humanitarian Challenge, and the role for China in addressing this challenge. 

At a recent ECFR workshop in Beijing, some expressed the view that Europe “deserves” this refugee influx due to its largely uncritical support of US policy in the Middle East, or that the refugee crisis can be reductively understood as an automatic consequence of the same US policy.  Sandvik argues that this view should be challenged. Here China should be seen for what it is: as an indispensable partner for the European Union and an increasingly central player in global humanitarianism. Having the financial and intellectual resources of humanitarian donors like China squarely onboard in this work is also crucial for making the humanitarian sector fit for purpose in the future.

The full post can be read here.