For Humanitarians, Negotiating the Non-negotiable

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Sudan. An ICRC delegate with a member of the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army) © ICRC / HEGER, Boris / V-P-SD-E-01934

Humanity, neutrality, impartiality, independence. The fundamental principles of humanitarian action are non-negotiable. Or are they? While promoting respect for international norms, humanitarian actors must engage in frequent, frontline negotiations to ensure the success of their operations. They negotiate for access to vulnerable populations, the consent of governments and armed groups to operate and distribute relief, the protection of affected populations, the safety and security of their own personnel, the cooperation or mobilization of local actors and resources, and the promotion of respect for international law. However, a core tension exists around negotiations in the humanitarian sector: humanitarian actors need to promote respect for fundamental international norms while negotiating nearly every aspect of these norms’ implementation.

The Need for Compromise

To what extent can humanitarian actors “strike deals” in order to carry out their mission while maintaining respect for fundamental humanitarian norms? How “negotiable” are the humanitarian principles in practice? How do professionals determine whether to negotiate at all? As David Rieff writes in MSF’s publication Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed, “All effective humanitarian action is based on negotiating compromises with the relevant political actors, including of course insurgent groups, donors, and with other stakeholders (including beneficiaries… ), and trying to reconcile competing agendas, not only between NGOs but within NGOs as well. For a humanitarian organisation to believe and, far more importantly, to behave as if this were not the case is to court disaster.” As Benoît Leduc of MSF in Somalia further emphasizes, “everything is open to negotiation.”

Yet what is an acceptable compromise in humanitarian negotiation? What are unacceptable outcomes or red lines when it comes to the humanitarian principles? The principle of “humanity” is perhaps the most straightforward: the purpose of humanitarian action is to relief human suffering, protect life and health, and ensure respect for human beings. As such, writes Hugo Slim, “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.” Yet there remains in implementation of the humanitarian principles a great deal of leeway. For example, consider the principle of independence. Operational independence necessitates that humanitarian actors be autonomous from political, economic, or military objectives with regard to operational planning. Yet the reality is that humanitarian actors cannot operate without the support of donors and the consent of host governments or armed groups who control territory. Each of these stakeholders has their own priorities and objectives with which humanitarian actors must negotiate to reach an acceptable compromise.

The principle of impartiality is similarly fraught for humanitarian negotiators. Impartiality dictates that humanitarian action be carried out on the basis of need alone, without discrimination, and with priority given to the most urgent cases. However, many of the world’s neediest populations lack sufficient humanitarian assistance due to issues of access or security for humanitarian actors, while other, more easily accessed populations receive much greater levels of assistance. Syria is a case in point: rather than bring assistance to populations under extreme distress inside Syria due to restrictions on access, for instance, most humanitarian organizations are concentrating their efforts on assisting Syrian refugees across the border in countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Such contexts lead to the observation, as David Rieff notes, that “[i]mpartiality in humanitarian action is one of those concepts that, like objectivity in journalism, is a goal rather than a reality, rather like the horizon in ocean navigation before the advent of GPS.”

With regard to neutrality, the principle dictating that humanitarian actors not take sides in controversies or conflicts, negotiating with “both sides” often actually exacerbates the challenges that humanitarians face. Specifically, negotiating with non-state armed groups often provokes opposition from governments wary of legitimizing these actors. As a result, as Rob Grace notes in a recent ATHA paper, “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.” Furthermore, engaging in negotiations with groups listed as terrorist organizations may have criminal consequences for humanitarian actors.

Developing a Community of Knowledge and Practice

All of this points to the diverse and widespread nature of the challenges facing humanitarian actors in relation to negotiations. However, as Rob Grace’s ATHA paper highlights, “although negotiators in different settings have encountered similar dilemmas and obstacles, the field of humanitarian negotiation has been slow to develop a body of research analyzing common issues faced, produce policy guidance that grapples in an in depth manner with the practical difficulties of humanitarian negotiations, and build professional networks both within individual organizations and across the sector so that negotiators can share best practices with one another.”

For this reason, a number of unanswered questions remain. For instance: How can the growing body of literature related to negotiation in general inform the practice of frontline humanitarian negotiations? How do negotiating techniques used in other settings (political or commercial negotiations, for example) apply to humanitarian negotiations? And how do humanitarian negotiations differ from these other types of negotiations, especially in light of the role that principles play in humanitarian contexts? Much more work is needed to understand the answers to these questions, with the ultimate goal being to better equip humanitarian negotiators to undertake their work effectively.

For more discussion of the challenges and opportunities of humanitarian negotiation in practice, tune in to this month’s ATHA Podcast.

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