Humanitarian Negotiation Series: Protection of Medical Personnel and Operations at the Frontlines

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Recent high-profile attacks on humanitarian professionals and operations in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, among others, call attention to the growing vulnerabilities of humanitarian staff and medical operations at the frontlines. These attacks endanger lives, violate international humanitarian law, and jeopardize the effective delivery of emergency relief to populations in need. In such contexts, humanitarian organizations face difficult legal and operational challenges in reaching populations, while ensuring protection of their own staff and local partners from targeted violence. National staff members are particularly vulnerable; yet tend to receive significantly less protection. In such volatile environments, humanitarian professionals must negotiate with a variety of stakeholders to secure space and protection for humanitarian operations and infrastructure. Despite efforts build acceptance or to take protective and deterrent measures, significant gaps remain in their protection from targeted violence.

This panel discussion, organized in collaboration with the Harvard Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative, will explore the opportunities and challenges of negotiating protections for medical missions at the frontline, focusing particularly on tools and methods to strengthen humanitarian operations and negotiation capacity in complex environments. The featured practitioners and experts will explore the following questions:

  • What are the main security challenges and threats facing humanitarian workers, and how do these threats affect the delivery of humanitarian assistance and protection?
  • What dilemmas arise for principled humanitarian action in difficult security environments? How can humanitarians maintain their neutrality, impartiality and independence in the face of these security challenges?
  • How does the law currently protect humanitarian professionals in insecure settings, and what gaps exist with regard to these legal protections?
  • How can humanitarian agencies ensure the protection of medical infrastructure in negotiations with counterparts, and what are the means and methods to ensure that these agreements are implemented and maintained?
  • What tools and methods are required to enhance the capacity of humanitarian professionals in negotiating medical operations, particularly in terms of mitigating risks, and ensuring implementation of programming?
  • How does the environment in which humanitarian operations take place influence the capacity and approach of humanitarian negotiations at the frontline? 
Claude Bruderlein
Strategic Advisor to the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross
Twitter: @HumanTrends
Adrienne L. Fricke 
Senior Fellow, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative
Twitter: @adriennefricke
Hilary A. Rantisi
Director, Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Twitter: @BelferCenter
Francois Stamm
Head of Regional Delegation for the United States and Canada, International Committee of the Red Cross
Twitter: @ICRC
Dr. Michael VanRooyen
Director, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative
Twitter: @mvanrooyen_md



Basheer Rahmoun's picture

I would like to ask the panel, Is it ethical/legal to use bribery as a negotiating tool with one party to grand safe access to the other party under siege ?
i.e. giving some of the aid (that is supposed to reach part B) to check points on part A to get safe access to part B

Michael Martin's picture

1. What organization is responsible for collecting data about specific violations of medical neutrality?
2. What is their reporting format?
3. How is the data used? Reports only or to deal with the violations with the offending party, especially the state in interstate conflicts?

How does one differientate between a "regular" human rights violation and that of a violation of medical neutrality when the offending party is unaware the the victim is a health worker, i.e., they carry no ID showing that they are a health worker but are carrying medical supplies and medicine? This would be in instances where the health worker is either a neutral party of that country or part of the health branch of a parallel government opposing the state.

Emily Bekker's picture

Is it possible for medical personnel to be escorted by a protection force when they go out in the field?

Is it possible for the civilians to take who ever need medical care to a place which is save for both themselves and the medical personnel?

Do medical personnel wear any protective gear like ballistic helmets and bullet proof vests? If not, why? Should the wearing of protective gear not be compulsory for medical worker in volatile areas?

Mohamed Abdirahman Khalif's picture

The main security challenges and threats facing humanitarian worker may come from local authorities them selves and as well as from terrorist and gangs. I have experienced these challenges from government supported militias and terrorist which some times endangered my life.

I think the best to solve or mitigate these challenges is the involvement of local authorities and the target beneficiary communities in the planning and implementation of the humanitarian activities so that they feel ownership.

there is no solution for terrorist groups in the near future

Mamman Mohammed Yamta's picture

I follow and listen the podcast, Humanitarian worker need to engaged the services of security agencies in rendering their services.This process need to be enhanced like what some humanitarian organization are doing in my country Nigeria, especially in conflicts prone Areas and front lines.

MA Bihi's picture

Thank for the prominent panelists. we have noted that in the conflict areas were the local armed militia and unregistered soldiers have presence, the customary elders and religious figures those have high credibility inside community are more effective and efficient tool in negotiating and cooperating with humanitarian bodies, particularly in terms of mitigating risks, and ensuring smooth implementation of humanitarian activities. Do the panel agree that? if yes, how extend humanitarian law allow such cooperation with local groups? in terms of legality and confidentiality.


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