Humanitarian Negotiation Series: The Role of Laws and Norms

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What role do humanitarian law and norms play in humanitarian negotiations? Practitioners have diverse array of views: some field workers perceive that the law holds a high level of practical utility in their negotiations, while others have found it to be irrelevant to their work. Indeed, although international humanitarian law (IHL) constitutes a legal basis for humanitarian action during armed conflict, practitioners often find that rooting negotiations in an IHL discourse—as well as in other sources of international law, such as human rights or refugee law—can actually be counterproductive.

Rather than using an explicit IHL framework, frontline humanitarian negotiations may choose to frame principles of international law in terms of national laws or other normative frameworks potentially more relevant to local interlocutors, such as Islamic law. However, this option may also yield challenges and dilemmas. For example, local norms might be congruent with principles of international law in one area, such as the conduct of hostilities, but not another, such as detainee treatment. In such scenarios, a humanitarian negotiator seeking to find common values with an interlocutor by appealing to local norms might become “caught” within the rubric of an ultimately problematic normative framework.

Through discussions with humanitarian practitioners about their experiences in the field, this podcast will explore the role that laws and norms play in humanitarian negotiations. In particular, this conversation will address the following questions:

  • In what contexts, and with what types of counterparts, can international law play a productive role in the discourse of humanitarian negotiations?
  • How can humanitarian negotiators think creatively about addressing the challenges and dilemmas inherent in efforts to appeal to common values when engaging with interlocutors?
  • When negotiating issues related to the implementation of the law, what dynamics are at play when employing an incremental approach?
  • What practical tools or methods could assist humanitarian negotiators in grappling with these issues?
Hichem Khadhraoui
Head of Operations, Geneva Call 
Twitter: @genevacall
Yahya Khalil
Operations Coordinator for Near and Middle East, International Committee of the Red Cross
Twitter: @Y_Khalil_ICRC
Jean-Christophe Sandoz
Deputy Director for Law and Policy, International Committee of the Red Cross
Twitter: @ICRC


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