Tag Archives: conflict

The World Food Program won the Nobel Peace Prize. Does food aid boost peace? (WFP Nobel Series, 5)

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This text first appeared in the Washington Post, and is re-posted here. Ida Rudolfsen is a Doctoral Researcher at PRIO, and Halvard Buhaug is a Senior Researcher at PRIOThe 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 fifth post in the series.

Photo: heb@Wikimedia Commons

The Norwegian Nobel Committee named this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, recognizing the World Food Program (WFP) for “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.”

With the World Health Organization under pressure and countries such as the United States emphasizing isolationism over international collaboration, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is a push for “international solidarity and multilateral cooperation,” the head of the Norwegian committee said. It is not surprising, therefore, that last week’s announcement was met with near-universal praise, with commentators describing the award as “highly deserved” and “badly needed.”

But is there a direct relationship between combating hunger and building peace? Our research helps explain why these linkages are so complicated.

Global hunger is on the rise

After a steady decline in the prevalence of global undernourishment, the trend has deteriorated in recent years. The covid-19 pandemic is making things worse. WFP estimates that without international assistance, the number of acutely food-insecure people in high-risk countries may nearly double (from 149 million to 270 million) before the end of the year.

Prevalence of undernourishment in 2018. Red dots indicate locations of armed conflicts from 2015 to 2019. Countries in gray lack reliable nourishment information. (Data from World Bank. Map courtesy of Andreas Foro Tollefsen/PRIO)

From conflict to food insecurity …

The Nobel committee’s announcement describes the link between hunger and armed conflict as a “vicious circle,” where conflict can cause food insecurity and food insecurity may trigger violence.

The first part of this link is clear — almost all of today’s major food crises are in countries experiencing endemic conflict and violence. The WFP spends over 80 percent of its operational budget on humanitarian operations in conflict zones. In September, WFP Executive Director David Beasley wrote, “we can’t end hunger unless we put an end to conflict.”

Experts sometimes describe war as development in reverse. Wars often trigger displacement of agricultural livelihoods, or can lead to armed groups looting or destroying crops. And wars can set back progress toward food security for decades.

Add in a global pandemic and extreme weather events and it’s easy to see why the United Nations is now warning of the potential for famines of “biblical proportions.”

… And food insecurity to conflict

But the link from hunger to conflict is less obvious. True, persistent or increasing levels of food insecurity can produce widespread grievances that can motivate people to form groups and engage in violent behavior. Likewise, there is a robust statistical relationship between increasing food prices and social unrest.

These insights reveal less about the role of food insecurity or hunger specifically, as opposed to economic hardships more generally. Widespread hunger and mass starvation are outcomes of political failures that simultaneously produce a host of social ills — underdevelopment, inequality, exclusion — that increase conflict risk. Assessing the independent role of hunger in causing such events is not easy.

People at the brink of starvation are rarely found fighting at the battle front and social movements protesting against high food prices usually originate among members of the relatively better-off urban middle class. “Food riots” usually concern broader and more complex societal challenges than the cost of bread, similarly to collective responses to peaks in the price of other basic commodities like electricity and fuel.

Food aid can have unwanted effects

Even if hunger rarely causes violent conflict, can humanitarian efforts to strengthen food security increase the likelihood of peace? Aid provided by WFP and other humanitarian efforts can be crucial in alleviating acute food crises. But aid delivery isn’t always effective, and food doesn’t always reach those for whom it is intended. Research shows that those trapped in high-intensity conflict areas receive less assistance than those less exposed to the violence.

Why? Often it’s because ongoing armed conflict makes areas of acute malnutrition inaccessible, which means that humanitarian organizations may have to rely on local armed groups for aid delivery. In Yemen, for example, WFP had to make agreements with local militias in an effort to get food to vulnerable populations, all while worrying that donations could be captured and distributed to the warring parties instead of those most in need.

A related concern is the potential effect of humanitarian assistance on conflict dynamics. An inflow of food and other lootable commodities can attract armed groups. These armed groups may want to secure access to valuable resources, to use food as a weapon in war or as tactical behavior to use as leverage in bargaining. Food relief organizations face a dilemma: They must assist those hardest hit by hunger, but must also be aware of the significant risk that corruption — or violent seizure of food aid — may inadvertently contribute to aggravating or prolonging the conflict.

An influx of food aid to vulnerable areas can also undermine local markets. When cheap or free food is brought in from outside, local farmers risk losing their income. For this reason, WFP has shifted toward a food assistance approach, giving recipients cash directly instead of food aid. This development is likely to stabilize communities’ food production capacity without disrupting local markets.

Of course, food aid doesn’t solve everything. Violent conflict and food insecurity are products of ineffective and discriminatory governments. Achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030 is impossible without ending armed conflict and strengthening political institutions conducive to peaceful political rule.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is important because it sheds light on one of humanity’s greatest challenges, one that cannot be tackled without the international community’s coordinated efforts. Nonetheless, it’s not an award free from controversies or politics; provision of food aid will not cure violence and instability, and won’t replace conventional peacebuilding efforts. In some cases, food aid may even unintentionally prolong the suffering for those most affected by armed conflict.

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.

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

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.

Peace in Afghanistan? Watch the militias

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This text first appeared on The New Humanitarian, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Astri Suhrke is a political scientist and Senior Researcher Emerita at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway. Antonio De Lauri is a Senior Researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway.

An Afghan National Directorate of Security police stands guard in Helmand province in southwestern Afghanistan on 6 November 2012. Photo: Erik De Castro/REUTERS

The prospects of direct talks between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban have raised cautious hopes after decades of conflict. But if there is to be a durable peace, then Afghanistan’s CIA-supported paramilitary forces must also be disbanded.

In February, the United States and the Taliban inked an agreement calling for US forces to withdraw, and for the Taliban not to support international terrorism. This treaty paves the way for the Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiate a comprehensive peace settlement, though this process has stalled for weeks.

Afghanistan has been cursed with foreign-financed militias, and the units supported and trained by the US Central Intelligence Agency are of special significance. The US-Taliban agreement does not include the activities of the CIA in Afghanistan. But the future of these militias – and their involvement in conflict, targeted killings, and political violence – cannot be left out of the conversation.

The agency has a long, torrid history in Afghanistan. As outlined in a recent report for the Costs of War Project, which researches and analyses the toll of post-9/11 wars, the CIA played a key role in the 1980s in American efforts to assist Afghan rebels known as mujahideen, who invoked the duty of holy warriors to fight Soviet forces and the Afghan communist government. Assistance included organising a mule-and-truck trade in arms and opium. 

The CIA took a lower profile in the country during the 1990s when the mujahideen and the Taliban fought for power, but a well-established local infrastructure enabled the agency to rapidly spring into action after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Operatives equipped with mobile phones and large bundles of dollar bills entered the country on a mission to mobilise Afghan militias. 

“Afghanistan has been cursed with foreign-financed militias, and the units supported and trained by the US Central Intelligence Agency are of special significance.”

Since then, the CIA has financed, trained, and worked closely with militias and special forces of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency – the National Directorate of Security, or NDS. These units function like death squads in secretive night raids often labelled simply as search operations.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, found at least 278 civilians were killed and dozens more injured in search operations last year – about three quarters of these were caused by NDS or other forces trained by the CIA.

This adds up to about six percent of recorded civilian deaths attributed to any side last year. But even these numbers are conservative; they include only cases the UN could document and do not include civilian casualties from airstrikes launched in support of search operations. 

Rights groups and journalists have also extensively documented targeted killings of civilians by CIA-supported units. For example, in October 2018, Human Rights Watch found evidence that an Afghan paramilitary unit raided a home in Rodat district of Nangarhar province, killing five members of one family, including an elderly woman and child. Similarly, at least four civilians were executed during a July 2019 raid on a medical clinic in Wardak province; HRW attributed the strike to an NDS unit.

The humanitarian toll is clear. But the very existence of these paramilitary squads has also contributed to Afghanistan’s continuing instability.

Since 2001, the fragmentation of military power has been a main reason for the country’s limited progress in rebuilding and strengthening the central state. Apart from the human rights issues, a peace agreement that allows CIA-supported paramilitary forces to continue operating outside the control of the state and the chain of command of its armed forces – as these units have been doing – would gravely undermine the prospects for a sustainable peace. Shielded from accountability by powerful foreign backers and protected by the country’s forbidding geography and complex social and political environment, the units could run a prolonged, under-the-radar dirty war, setting off a new spiral of violence. 

“The humanitarian toll is clear. But the very existence of these paramilitary squads has also contributed to Afghanistan’s continuing instability.”

Models for a good peace agreement that address this problem are readily available. Over the past three decades, almost all armed conflicts that ended in a compromise settlement have included agreements for the demobilisation and restructuring of armed forces – including paramilitary units and militias. The 1992 Chapultepec Agreement, which ended more than a decade of civil war in El Salvador, is one of the clearest examples: an entire section in the treaty’s first chapter deals with paramilitary bodies that were infamous for human rights violations. In unambiguous language, the treaty stipulates that paramilitary forces have no place in a state governed by the rule of law.

This was also the case in Afghanistan after 2001 when the UN launched an ambitious programme aimed at disarming armed groups or integrating them into regular armed forces. However, under pressure from renewed conflict, the programme folded soon after it began. 

This time around, disarming the CIA’s forces may be more difficult, even if the issue is covered in an eventual peace agreement. The CIA paramilitaries constitute a formidable set of actors in their own right. Given their highly paid and somewhat privileged status, they are unlikely to welcome a drastic reduction in pay that would accompany demobilisation or integration. If violence continues, which seems likely, the militias will be in high demand in the political marketplace. Well trained and well equipped, they may be reborn as private armies or “security guards” in the service of powerful individuals, or operate autonomously to prey on civilians and commercial sources by taxing local businesses and trade. Either possibility is in line with patterns of political violence in modern Afghan history.

The path forward is not simple. But the lessons from history – in Afghanistan and beyond – are clear. To attain a sustainable peace, externally supported paramilitary forces must be dealt with. The proper instruments are iron-clad formal obligations that are vigorously implemented.

Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies: 2019 in review

Thanks to fresh new funding from the Norwegian Research Council’s NORGLOBAL program in early 2019 to establish a Research Network on Humanitarian Efforts, it has truly been an exciting year for NCHS. Through connecting and engaging with academics, students and practitioners of humanitarianism in Norway and beyond, NCHS has been able to serve its purpose as a platform for debate and exchange.

Top 3 most read NCHS blog posts 2019

1. Sørbø, Gunnar. “Europe’s new border guards”.
2. Reid-Henry, Simon. “Do you speak humanitarian?”.
3. Sandvik, Kristin. “Safeguarding: good intentions, difficult process”.

Looking back at 2019, three thematic areas stand out as having shaped the work of the Centre, as well as humanitarian agendas more broadly speaking. The themes migration, humanitarianism in conflict, and technologization of aid are likely to continue creating debate in humanitarian forums in the new year.

Displacement and migration

The UN OCHA Global Humanitarian Overview 2020 lays out how a record number of people are currently displaced, and displacement typically lasts for longer periods of time. In early 2019, 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced, and twenty-eight of the 50 countries with the highest numbers of new displacements faced both conflict and disaster-induced displacement.

Migration policies in Europe and its neighboring regions has continued to be a hot topic of discussion in 2019, and NCHS associates have contributed to the debate by scrutinizing the securitization of migration and relatedly humanitarian aid, and the concept of humanitarian containment. The latter reflects on humanitarian actors restricting the movement of refugees and other migrants through provision of certain services in a geographically restricted area, as explored by the CMI-led project SuperCamp. In Norway, the Norwegian-registered rescue vessel Ocean Viking operated by Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée  reignited the migration debate, as explored in this blog post by NCHS Director Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert on whether search-and-rescue (SAR) operations encourage people to attempt crossing the Mediterranean. A public event co-organized by NCHS, with PRIO and the University of Oslo, at Litteraturhuset, gathered academics, humanitarians and Norwegian politicians from various political parties to discuss whether there is any validity to the claim that SAR in the Mediterranean act as a pull factor. The topic clearly engages, being amongst our most highly attended events in 2019.Taking a step back from air-conditioned conference rooms in a sobering reflection on migrant deaths at sea after attending a funeral ceremony at Lampedusa, NCHS co-Director Antonio De Lauri reminded us all of the immense human tragedy which lays the foundation for this politicized debate. In his words, “A sense of loss pervaded today’s ceremony. Not only for the persons who didn’t make it, but also for the idea of Europe, itself drowned with those who believed in it”.

It is not only European migration policies and refugee protection means that have been put under and analytical lens this past year. In 2019, NCHS associates have debated Turkey’s Syria policy in light of the refugee question, historical perspectives from South America in light of Venezuelan displacement, outsourcing of border control to militia groups in the Sahel, and the Cartagena Declaration and refugee protection in Latin America.

As large movements of people are likely to continue shaping policies, humanitarian response and academic debates also in 2020, we remain committed to gather different types of interlocutors to learn from each other’s experiences.

The triple nexus and humanitarianism in conflict.

Initiated at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), the triple nexus refers to the need to coordinate humanitarian, development and (at times appropriate) peacebuilding efforts to more effectively reach those most in need. While the concept is by no means without criticism (e.g. Louise Redver’s report on what implementing the nexus looks like from the field, or Kristoffer Lidén’s argument against merging humanitarianism with development and security post the 2016 WHS), the years following the World Humanitarian Summit has seen a push for policies attempting to enhance synergies between emergency and longer-term relief efforts, as an effort to bridge the gap between humanitarianism, development and security. Yet, we are very much still in the implementation phase in terms of nexus-programming. From an analytical point of view, the concept opens interesting trajectories in terms of where ‘the humanitarian’ ends and where other disciplines and fields of practice begin. Further, when placed in highly politicized contexts of insecurity and peacebuilding efforts, how does the upholding of the fundamental humanitarian principles fare?

The political role of humanitarian aid and the relationship between security, peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts was the main thematic focus of the NCHS Research Network mid-year meeting at NUPI in August 2019. Gathering researchers from various disciplines with different entry-points to what ‘humanitarianism’ means, in particular when applied in a situation of conflict, we were able to engage in a rich debate about concepts, definitions, and their interpretations by various actors. Amongst these, an important point of view is how policies developed by actors external to the country where the conflict takes place are interpreted by local populations, as highlighted by the seminar on the EU’s engagement in external conflicts in the Sahel led by Morten Bøås.

The politics of humanitarian action was also the topic of a special issue of Disasters on humanitarian governance, edited by Dennis Dijkzeul and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik. Sandvik and Dijkzeul have later written two blog posts based on the introduction to the special issue, titled “Humanitarian governance and localization: What kind of world is being imagined and produced”, and “New Directors in Humanitarian Governance: Technology, Juridification and Criminalization”. Amongst the authors contributing to the special issue were several NCHS associates, analyzing humanitarian policy making as a form of governance from different entry points. Kristoffer Lidén’s article titled “The Protection of Civilians and ethics of humanitarian governance: beyond intervention and resilience” explores how the principle of Protection of Civilians in conflict has ethnical repercussions in actions undertaken by states and international organizations related to humanitarian, development and security practices. Jacob Høigilt’s article titled “The futility of rights-based humanitarian aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories” argues that the Occupied Palestinian territories provides an example suggesting that rights-based approaches in humanitarianism might be futile if not backed by political power.

Humanitarian assistance has traditionally been delivered in situations characterized by instability and insecurity. In order to reach vulnerable populations, humanitarians have thus had to establish lines of communication with local, regional and national actors. Importantly, how these relationships are formed and maintained risk affecting the way the humanitarians are perceived in terms of upholding the principles of neutrality and impartiality. This balance, including the concept of ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ and whether independent humanitarian assistance is possible in today’s conflict, were discussed at length during the NCHS annual meeting at CMI in November 2019. NCHS co-Director Antonio De Lauri brought up some of the same themes when he gave the NMBU Annual Lecture in Global Development in December 2019, titled “The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention: Militarization, Diplomacy, Compromise”.

As violent conflicts continue to cause an immense need for humanitarian assistance, and reforms on reducing silos and enhancing cooperation between humanitarian, development and security efforts continue to play an important role in humanitarian policy, so too will we continue to focus on analysis on what the implications of the interlinkages may mean theoretically and in practice.

Data and ‘the digital’.

Technological developments have shaped all corners of society over the past decades, including humanitarianism and the delivery and governance of humanitarian aid. Yet, uncritical application of new technologies in the humanitarian field risk unintended negative consequences that may be harmful to local populations and aid workers alike. In 2019, NCHS associates have continued examining the effects of emerging technologies in the humanitarian field. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik’s paper on technologizing the fight against sexual violence is a good example, where Sandvik asks critical questions about the turn towards technology in humanitarian aid, and the rise of ‘digital bodies’. In 2019, Sandvik has contributed to developing the concept of ‘digital bodies’ further, including related to children’s rights, and ‘humanitarian wearables’ at a lecture at Oxford University.

However, the relationship between the humanitarian sector and technology does not have to be one sided. In a blog post, Sean McDonald argues that the humanitarian sector has much to offer the technology industry in terms of data governance, with the caveat of the latter being willing to learn from the former’s century of experience in building organizational structures. As technological developments continue to make its way into humanitarian operations, our main encouragement to academics and practitioners alike is to make thorough ethical considerations to help avoid misuse and potential negative implications.

Top 3 highly attended events co-organized by NCHS in 2019 (click on link to access seminar recording)

1. “Assisting and protecting refugees in Europe and the Middle East – politics, law, and humanitarian practices”. 19 September 2019, at PRIO, Oslo.
2. Humanitarian lunch seminar: SYRIA”. 7 October 2019, at the Norwegian Red Cross, Oslo.
3. “Redningsoperasjoner i Middelhavet: en pull-faktor?”. 25 November 2019, at Litteraturhuset, Oslo.

Looking towards the new year.

Although 2019 has without doubt been a successful first year for the NCHS Research Network on Humanitarian Efforts, we see no reason to rest on our laurels. In late 2019, The Research Council of Norway awarded several projects related to humanitarianism with funding starting from 2020, four of which are led by colleagues associated with NCHS. This year, we vow to continue engaging with academics, practitioners, policy makers and the broader public on questions related to humanitarianism. As stated above, we believe migration, the triple nexus and technological developments will continue to shape the humanitarian agenda in 2020, but these are by no means the only topics on which we will focus our efforts. As the year progress, we hope to engage with actors involved in the field of humanitarian studies on all topics of interest that may arise, and bridge practical and analytical knowledge by connecting research conducted on specific crises with practitioners’ own experience. Stay tuned and follow our web page and social media channels on Facebook and Twitter for more news.

Wishing you all the best for 2020.

Andrea Silkoset

Coordinator Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies