Tag Archives: humanitarian negotiations

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1: Humanitarian negotiation space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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