Humanitarian Action and the Search for Peace: Moving Beyond Protection?

Violence is prevalent in the lives and work of humanitarians. We witness grave violations, indignities, and abuses inflicted upon communities and individuals. With limited supplies, insufficient funding, and overstretched staff, we are limited in our ability to provide a comprehensive solution to violence, focusing instead on offering immediate relief and protection while leaving the work of finding peace to others. In short, our work is purportedly in providing relief and protection from, but not ending, violence. Some, furthermore, argue that in conflict settings, “an agency may be able to address the underlying causes of conflict or to address the humanitarian consequences of it, but it is more challenging to do both at the same time”;1 these critics thus caution against humanitarianism trying to take up such a role. They note, additionally, that in many conflicts, advocacy is required to address the causes of a conflict; at the same time, advocacy, including even-handed advocacy, may cost access to affected populations.


ATHA commissioned this paper from a humanitarian practitioner working in Southern Sudan in order to explore the interrelationships between humanitarian action and conflict resolution efforts. We hope that this paper inspires discussion and dialogue on this important issue. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ATHA or any of its partners.


Introduction Continued


This paper challenges the first assumption, that humanitarian agencies lack the resources and the capacity to address the root causes of conflicts, which are structural and political. This brief does not, however, challenge the second assumption, that a trade-off exists under certain circumstances between dealing with the causes and retaining access (and thus, providing relief). On the contrary, it provides an example of the risks that an agency may incur into when engaging with more political issues.

The brief proposes that in many instances, humanitarians in the field can engage the causes and resolution of conflict. It demonstrates how peacebuilding can be mainstreamed into existing programs without significant additional effort. It also discusses how humanitarians can expand the scope of current “Do No Harm” and protection strategies from mitigating to actually resolving conflict. Case studies provide examples from the field of peacebuilding programs implemented in situations of violence.

The thematic brief does not argue that peacebuilding must necessarily be incorporated into aid programs. In some instances, peacebuilding may not be possible; it could be too risky, or basic lifesaving needs may take precedence over longer-term peacebuilding goals. Rather, this brief suggests that agencies deployed in the field—linked to local communities and with a certain degree of expertise—should consider incorporating peacebuilding into their existing programs and potentially developing a more comprehensive aid and peacebuilding program.


Armed Conflict and Other Situations of Violence

Conflict has been generally defined as the perceived incompatibility of interests between parties.3 As such, conflict may arise where parties disagree over an issue, such as the distribution of resources, perceived economic inequality, social injustice, and political oppression.4 Conflict threatens peace, security, relief, and development in many places where humanitarian actors are deployed.

Armed Conflict

In humanitarian emergencies, an emphasis is often placed on whether the context amounts to an “armed conflict,” where international humanitarian law (IHL) would apply, or to a situation of violence not arising to armed conflict, where IHL would not apply. The definition of “armed conflict” has been the subject of much debate. IHL expressly states that armed conflict does not include “situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature...” Determining whether an armed conflict exists under IHL, therefore, may depend on an assessment of the facts pertaining to the level of violence, parties’ organization, and the nature of the violence.

Situations of Violence Short of Armed Conflict

Other situations of violence, which are not armed conflicts per se, are often rampant in areas where humanitarian actors operate. Such violence may manifest itself in the form of banditry, communal or inter-communal attacks, cattle rustling, gang violence, human trafficking, gender-based violence, terrorism, abduction, and other violent acts. Violence may result in killing, physical, sexual or psychological harm, deprivation of liberty, destruction or loss of property, and other human rights, humanitarian, and criminal violations of the individual and his or her community. Armed conflict and other forms of violence often occur simultaneously with mutually reinforcing effects.6 The many degrees of violence can lead to state failure, a collapse of peaceful means of dispute resolution, and acute social, political, and economic inequalities in society.

1 For a more detailed discussion of this critical position, see Walker, Peter and Daniel Maxwell, Shaping the Humanitarian World London, Routledge 2009, p. 141. 2 For a more detailed discussion of this critical position, see Walker, Peter and Daniel Maxwell, Shaping the Humanitarian World London, Routledge 2009, p. 70. 3 Causes of Conflict and Capacities for Peace (MSI 2008) p. 1. As discussed below, armed conflict is a legal term defined by specific criteria. In order to avoid confusion, the term situations of violence is used broadly throughout to denote periods where the level and intensity of violence may or may not arise to an “armed conflict” according to the legal definition. 4 Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to the statement adopted by the Summit Meeting of the Security Council on 31 January 1992, An Agenda for Peace Preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peace-keeping. U.N.G.A Res. A/47/277 - S/24111, para. 3 (June 17, 1992); Conflict-Sensitive Approaches to Development, Humanitarian Assistance and Peace Building: Tools for Peace and Conflict Impact Assessment, Introduction, p. 3 (FEWER, International Alert, and Saferworld, 2003) 5 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, 1125 U.N.T.S. 609, Art. 1, § 2 (June 8, 1977). 6Robin Geiss, Armed Violence in Fragile States: Low-intensity Conflicts, Spillover Conflicts, and Sporadic Law Enforcement Operations by Third Parties, 91 International Review of the Red Cross 873, p. 128 (March 2009).

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