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.
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.
Written by Kristoffer Lidén (PRIO) & Kristina Roepstorff (University of Magdeburg)
Kristoffer Lidénis Senior Researcher and coordinator of the humanitarianism research group at PRIO. Kristina Roepstorffislecturer 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).
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’).
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:
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
Examine the process of establishing
red lines by humanitarian organisations and the handling of grey zones by
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
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