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

I.b. Negotiating with Armed Groups

Three particular challenges exist regarding negotiating with armed groups. First, some armed groups are inclined to distrust, or even blatantly express hostility toward, humanitarian organizations. For example, in Afghanistan, negotiators engaged with the Taliban, many members of which perceived that humanitarian organizations, as stated by one Taliban member, “work under the universal powers who drink the blood of Muslims (…).”[16] Similarly, in Somalia, members of al-Shabaab have worried that humanitarians were operating as spies,[17] planning assassinations,[18] profiting in some way from humanitarian operations,[19] or engaging in proselytization.[20] The question is how negotiators can make any successful negotiating inroads with entities predisposed to view humanitarian organizations as enemies.

Second, negotiators engaging with armed groups often face resistance from governmental actors who perceive that this engagement will bestow legitimacy on these groups. The fact that engagement is not intended to confer legitimacy on armed groups is widely acknowledged by relevant policy literature.[21] However, governments carry this concern nonetheless, and in certain contexts, this concern has proved justified.[22] Indeed, one reason that some armed groups engage with humanitarian organizations is to derive this very form of legitimacy about which governments have expressed concern. Sierra Leone is one of the many contexts in which this issue has arisen. Indeed, as noted by one author, “RUF [Revolutionary United Front] leaders attached [importance] to presence of aid agencies for the purpose of their own credibility and legitimacy, according to one of the leaders of the RUF: ‘to prove to the world we are not the beast we are held to be.’”[23] As this passage suggests, humanitarian negotiators face a conundrum. On the one hand, negotiators must assure governments that engaging with anti-government non-state entities will not confer legitimacy upon these groups. On the other hand, the potential for legitimacy can be one of humanitarian negotiators’ strongest selling points for drawing armed groups into productive negotiations. As a consequence, humanitarian negotiators find themselves caught between the irreconcilable interests of governments and non-state actors.

Related Audio

On complexities of legal frameworks for dealing with non-state armed groups in comparison to states

Jonathan Somer
Founder, Persona Grata Consulting

Excerpted from:
Perspectives on Access: Engaging with Non-State Armed Groups
Click here for the full podcast.

Third, additional dilemmas arise when humanitarian organizations negotiate with entities listed on domestic and/or international terrorist lists. In such instances, engaging with these groups could have legal consequences.[24] Contexts where humanitarian organizations have grappled with this issue include the occupied Palestinian territories, where some humanitarian organizations adopted an official policy of cutting off ties with Hamas;[25] Somalia, where this issue has led to the need for “new layers of staffing to oversee administration and monitoring and significantly enlarged operational budgets;”[26] and Colombia, where “contact with guerrilla groups is prohibited by law.”[27]

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