Hosted by the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN), participants will gather to discuss the most challenging present-day issues related to humanitarian negotiation. The summit features a panel discussion with humanitarian leaders, peer workshops and live simulations, as well as opportunities to meet and exchange with other participants in interactive rooms and a virtual exhibit hall.
As part of their contributions, Antonio and Salla will hold three presentations on the topic ‘Between right and wrong: Humanitarian morality and necessary politics of compromise’, in the context of humanitarian diplomacy and negotiation.
As part of the joint NCHS and CMI virtual exhibition booth, Antonio and Salla have recorded an introductory video discussing their research on humanitarian diplomacy and welcoming participants to the different elements of the permanent exhibition. There will also be a range of humanitarian diplomacy related publications on offer, including popular dissemination items, policy-related publications and academic publications.
To round out, Antonio and Salla also present a podcast discussing the topic of humanitarian diplomacy and the ethics of humanitarianism, available on Spotify here.
As well the physical event in Caux, the summit will also be livestreamed on an interactive platform, making participating from anywhere in the world not only possible but also highly engaging.
There is still time to register if you would like to be involved what promises to be a very informative and engaging event. You can download a copy of the program here. For more information and to register, click here. Registrations close 24 June 2021.
A new podcast exploring the emerging concept of humanitarian diplomacy has just launched.
Hosted by Doctoral Researcher Salla Turunen (Chr. Michelsen Institute), this first episode explores the topic of humanitarian ethics with philosopher and Senior Researcher, Kristoffer Lidén (Peace Research Institute Oslo).
This episode delves into questions such as can humanitarian principles be implemented in a non-ideal world? How do practitioners navigate humanitarian ideals and operational realities on the ground? And what kind of issues humanitarian diplomacy raises in terms of ethics? Tune in to find out more!
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.
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
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
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
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
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).
Clements, A., J. (2020). Humanitarian
Negotiations with Armed Groups: The Frontlines of Diplomacy (1 ed.). London
and New York: Routledge.