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

I.a Negotiating the Non-Negotiable

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his section discusses four overarching challenges that humanitarian negotiators have faced in a wide array of contexts. First, professionals often must navigate tensions between, on the one hand, the interests of the relevant parties, and on the other hand, humanitarian principles. Second, negotiations with non-state armed groups pose particular challenges due to the hostility that some armed groups exhibit toward humanitarian organizations, concerns that governments have articulated that engaging with armed groups confers legitimacy on these entities, and potential legal ramifications facing humanitarian organizations that negotiate with armed groups listed on international and/or national terrorist lists. Third, the confidentiality and flexibility that negotiations require has inhibited coordination across different organizations pursuing negotiations simultaneously. Fourth, humanitarian organizations have often struggled to effectively assess interlocutors before and during negotiation efforts.

a. Negotiating the Non-negotiable

One key question facing the field of humanitarian negotiation is how negotiators can and should grapple with the interplay between interests and humanitarian principles: in particular, independence, impartiality, and neutrality. In some contexts, humanitarian principles have been perceived to be essential for success. For example, one author concludes that, for humanitarian organizations implementing the Emergency Relief Plan (ERP) in Angola in the 1990s, “Doggedly asserting the neutrality of the ERP was the best defense against manipulation by the warring parties.”[2]  However, in many contexts, governmental or non-state actors do not accept or abide by humanitarian principles, leading one author to conclude: “The question for the negotiator is thus, how to negotiate from this clear universally accepted ‘legal and moral high ground’ when it is blatantly rejected, ignored or simply misused.”[3]  Given this complexity, how should negotiators proceed with negotiations? Traditional negotiating tactics exist uneasily with humanitarian principles, despite the fact that humanitarian principles, according to existing policy literature, should be used to “frame” and “guide” humanitarian negotiations.[4]  This section examines compromises, threats to pull out of negotiations, and threats of public denunciation, all tactics that humanitarian negotiators have employed in different contexts.

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First, striking compromises during humanitarian negotiations can be necessary but can lead to questions about how humanitarian professionals can distinguish between what is and is not an acceptable outcome. For example, in Sudan, in order to retain access, aid agencies avoided activities that could have been viewed with suspicion by the government, even if this choice risked flying in the face of the need to abide by the humanitarian principle of impartiality. According to one author:

The reactions of aid agencies to this situation show some of the tendencies that it is hoped may be addressed through a greater use of historical analysis. Some agencies have agreed to provide aid to government areas even while access to areas under SPLM-N [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North] control remains blocked. Many avoid activities the government may see as suspicious or offensive: some have chosen not to provide aid in refugee camps for people from Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile in South Sudan for fear of being perceived by the government of Sudan as supporting the SPLM-N. While SPLM-N frustration with the international community grows and many within the SPLM-N believe that the UN [United Nations] has been infiltrated with government spies, some aid agencies hold out hope that the government can still be persuaded through private advocacy or ‘good behaviour’ on the part of aid agencies.[5]

Similarly, as another writer states, in Bosnia, the efforts of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to maintain the appearance of impartiality actually led to efforts that were not at all impartial:

UNHCR initially attempted to distribute humanitarian supplies on the basis of needs, rather than on the basis of relative population figures for the different areas. However, under pressure from the warring parties, and wanting to demonstrate its impartiality, UNHCR distribution plans came to represent a compromise solution. They were based mainly on population figures, although slightly larger quantities of food were sent to areas where conditions were worst. This led to genuine confusion. It was not enough to convince the Bosnian government that the UNHCR distribution plan was based on relative needs, but it was enough to convince to Bosnian Serb authorities that distributions were not equitable and that UNHCR was not an unbiased social welfare provider.[6]

Second, when an acceptable agreement seems either difficult to achieve or unlikely, when should humanitarian negotiators threaten to pull out of negotiations, and when should a humanitarian organization follow through with such a threat? In other words, when is it better to reject a bad deal (thus providing humanitarian aid to no one) than to accept a bad deal (thus providing aid subject to restrictions imposed by governing authorities or armed groups that counter humanitarian principles)?

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In terms of red lines that humanitarian negotiators should set regarding what types of compromises are acceptable, various practitioners have stated that this issue is context-specific, thus requiring a certain degree of flexibility.[7] However, as one practitioner has stated, a perception exists that there are limits to what can be negotiated away: “The fundamental legal norms of the humanitarian product are not negotiable — you could not tailor a humanitarian product so that you accept an armed group killing half rather than all of a village.”[8] No agreement exists across the humanitarian sector about how to make these determinations.

Third, another tool at the humanitarian negotiator’s disposal is the threat of public denunciation.[9] Regarding when to resort to public denunciation, the following guideline has been offered: “During the second world war, the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], agonizing over the dilemma between silent action and public denunciation, received the following advice: ‘when you can act, act and don’t protest. When you can’t act, protest. But don’t not act and not protest.’”[10] A risk, though, is that engaging with the media might backfire. As one practitioner writes, “Denunciation has the advantage of being faster and less costly than persuasion. However, it poses the risk of antagonizing the parties, burning bridges between parties, and prompting officials to close ranks and join forces to rebuff criticism.”[11] In other instances, remaining silent, even when witnessing incidents of grave concern, can be essential to maintain relations — and hence, access — with a host government or armed group. For example, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was cautious about publicly mentioning air strikes witnessed by MSF personnel in Yemen due to potential ramifications in terms of access.[12] Additionally, during negotiations for access to Shabaab-controlled territory in Somalia, al-Shabaab imposed the condition that humanitarian professionals refrain from publicly speaking out against the group.[13] As with compromises and threats to pull out of negotiations, although this issue has arisen in similar ways in different contexts, little examination has been conducted of how these past experiences can inform future approaches to determining when and how public denunciation — or merely threats to do so — can serve the ends of humanitarian access and protection.

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Overall, the realities of negotiation practice suggest that humanitarian principles actually play a less significant role than the existing policy literature recommends. For example, a handbook on negotiations published by the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) states:

Humanitarian negotiations differ from many other types of negotiations because the parties to the negotiations have different core interests: armed groups want to achieve certain political, economic or military objectives and humanitarian agencies want to protect and assist those in need. Some approaches to negotiation focus on solutions that maximize the interests of both parties. However, for humanitarian negotiators, the primary objective of the negotiations must be to arrive at the best humanitarian outcome, not necessarily to reach an outcome which best serves the interests of both parties. [14]

But negotiators have not always accepted this dichotomy between principles and interests. As one practitioner states, “You shouldn’t believe in yourself as the bearer of some absolute moral virtue. We have interests, the authorities have interests. And so we have to find common interests between those different parties and groups.”[15] Such statements suggest that a divide exists between negotiations as presented in existing policy literature and the experiences and practices of negotiators themselves, thus indicating the need for additional policy guidance that grapples in an a more in depth manner with this issue.

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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