Humanitarian Negotiation: Key Challenges
and Lessons Learned in an Emerging Field

III. Conclusion

Despite the essential role that negotiations play in humanitarian operations, sector-wide professional engagement in this area still exists in a nascent phase. A vast number of professional experiences, lessons learned, and notions about best practices remain either undocumented or under-analyzed. Efforts to address this issue could assume two separate, though compatible and interrelated, forms. First, analysis on the conceptual level, drawing on the rich body of theoretical literature on negotiation, could yield a more in depth comprehension of the factors that drive humanitarian negotiations. Second, engagement with practitioners would allow for documentation and analysis of practitioners’ own perspectives on the state of this field. Such endeavors, by gathering information about different approaches taken to key challenges, analyzing best practices, and developing networks for professionals to share views and experiences with one another, could promote the emergence of a community of practice in this professional field.

Given the importance of negotiations to accessing beneficiaries, implementing humanitarian relief programs, and ensuring humanitarian protection, enhanced research and professional engagement on this issue would be of great value to the humanitarian sector. The key challenge will be to seek innovative ways of promoting professional exchange while also respecting the confidential nature of humanitarian negotiations. The literature that does exist on this issue suggests a desire on the part of negotiators to share their experiences and to engage in professional reflection. The next step will be for the humanitarian sector to harness this self-analytical energy and to direct further efforts toward conducting in depth research on this issue, building professional networks between negotiators across organizations and contexts, and crafting a body of policy literature that builds on the foundational guidance that already exists.

Related Audio

On different attitudes towards advocacy and negotiation in protection and relief

Claude Bruderlein
Strategic Advisor to the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross

Excerpted from:
Humanitarian Negotiation in Practice
Click here for the full podcast.

Case Study: John Rabe and the Nanking Safety Zone

John Rabe

As presented by Alain Lempereur, Director of the Graduate Program in Coexistence and Conflict at The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University; Executive Committee Member & Associated Faculty at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. Excerpted from: Humanitarian Negotiation in Practice - Click here for the full podcast.

In November 1937, as the Japanese army moved towards the Chinese capital of Nanking, a small number of Western businessmen, journalists, and missionaries banded together in an effort to protect the many civilians who were unwilling or unable to evacuate the city. They formed the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, and elected German businessman John Rabe as their leader.

Map of the Nanking Safety

Covering roughly three square miles in the western quarter of the city, the Safety Zone provided refuge to some 250,000 civilians for over two months, while the rest of the city was consumed by violence. The committee worked to provide food, shelter, and medical care to the civilians inside the zone. To this end, Rabe and other committee members repeatedly negotiated with civil and military leaders representing both Japan and China.

In this audio clip, scholar and negotiation expert Alain Lemperereur draws on the history of the Nanking Safety Zone to illustrate the difficult challenges faced by frontline humanitarian negotiators working in conflict situations to this very day. Looking particularly at Rabe’s role as the Committee’s leader, Lemperereur demonstrates the possibilities and limitations when applying negotiation theory to a complicated and evolving humanitarian situation.

About the Author

Rob Grace is a Senior Associate at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. He would like to thank Claude Bruderlein and Julia Brooks for helpful comments and edits offered during the process of drafting this paper.

Rob Grace

Rob Grace