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Overcoming Power Asymmetries in Humanitarian Negotiations: New Research on Yemen and Myanmar

By 05/02/2020 No Comments

(Photo Credit: Antonia Torices Paradela/ICRC)

Dr. Ashley Clements has been researching humanitarian negotiations for the past four years. His new book on ‘Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups: The Frontline of Diplomacy’ unpacks complex negotiation dynamics in Myanmar and in Yemen.

Ashley’s new book is an important contribution to the academic literature on humanitarian negotiation. In this interview, we asked him to elaborate on his findings and lessons learned.

Can you describe how humanitarians operate with armed groups in current armed conflicts?

Given the predominance of non-international armed conflict, armed groups are central within most of today’s humanitarian contexts. Individual agencies and NGOs have consequently had to grow their ability to engage safely and effectively with these groups, and to operate alongside them in a principled manner. Many agencies also pursue bilateral negotiations with armed groups for logistical and security reasons. Yet some have very limited negotiation experience, lack clear policies, or have insufficient capacity to do so successfully. These bilateral engagements also expose humanitarian agencies to the risk of being played off against one another by their armed counterparts. And despite the role played by the United Nations in coordinating humanitarian operations, the world body faces a number of operational and existential challenges that undermine its engagements with armed groups. These dynamics often weaken the ability of humanitarians to negotiate favourable deals during contemporary armed conflict. Nevertheless, dozens of humanitarian agencies are able to assist millions of people facing humanitarian needs in some of the world’s fiercest and most intractable conflicts each year. Investigating how they are able to do so is the focus of my work.

In your book, you focus on Yemen and Myanmar as case studies. How did the two cases compare in terms of challenges and dilemmas that humanitarian negotiators face, despite different geographical areas and cultures?

I wanted the findings of my research to apply widely to different contexts. To ensure this I chose to compare two cases with very different conflict dynamics in which the two primary armed groups differed from one another in fundamental ways. The groups I selected were the Houthi Movement in Yemen and Myanmar’s Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). Despite the marked differences between these two groups, a key finding of my research was how many of the challenges and dilemmas facing humanitarian negotiators were consistent between the two conflicts. For example, multilateral UN-led negotiations were insufficient to ensure access and civilian protection in both Yemen and Myanmar, forcing agencies to negotiate bilaterally, and exposing them to the risk of being played off against one another. The political interests of the international community also undermined the negotiating position of humanitarians with both groups. And humanitarians in both countries had to balance their relationships with national authorities and the relevant armed groups, with the risk that improving their relationship with one would come at the expense of the other. Staff turnover, time pressures, and constantly evolving conflict dynamics were other challenges with which negotiators had to regularly contend. And in both contexts, humanitarian negotiators had particularly poor alternatives to negotiation, placing them in a decidedly weak negotiating position.

Of course, there were also significant differences. In Yemen, for example, international attention to the crisis offered frontline negotiators a set of tactics that were not available to those navigating the dynamics of the Kachin conflict – which continues to unfold with minimal international attention. And in Myanmar, negotiations with the KIO were largely contingent on successful negotiations with national authorities who controlled access to the north of the country, in contrast to Yemen where the Houthis were the de facto rulers of much of the country.

You also argued in your book that humanitarians typically negotiate from a position of weakness. What are some of the strategies and tactics you explored to overcome this power asymmetry?

The weak negotiating position of humanitarians relative to armed groups appears to be a key feature of many of today’s operating contexts. Humanitarians depend on armed groups for their safety and security, and often have to make heavy concessions if they are to gain access to areas under the control of these groups. Concessions might range from paying “taxes” to a particular armed actor, accepting a significant degree of diversion, or they may forgo access to one community in exchange for access to another.

I argue in my book that humanitarians can reduce the impact of some of these challenges through a range of strategies and tactics. For a start, agencies must invest more in their negotiation capacity by building the skills of key staff through to research and policy development – areas that CCHN supports. Agencies should also coordinate their negotiations more closely with each other in-country, ensuring bottom lines, messaging, and objectives are consistent where possible, but do not undermine other negotiations, at a minimum. And they should negotiate at multiple levels within their counterparts – from soldiers at checkpoints through to senior leaders. Humanitarians should also become far more adept at managing their relationships and reputations with armed groups, which tend to view them with profound distrust that undermine negotiations. Opportunities also exist to draw on third parties that may be better placed to pressure armed groups to respect humanitarian norms – what some agencies describe as “humanitarian diplomacy.” But for a fuller discussion of the strategies and tactics that are available to humanitarian negotiators, you will have to check out my book.

What do your research findings entail for traditional approaches to diplomacy?

Humanitarians have traditionally been sceptical of the impact of politics and diplomacy on humanitarian interests. Agencies have consequently taken precautions to differentiate the humanitarian and political domains. My research, however, suggests that political interests can be leveraged to deliver better negotiated outcomes for humanitarians and the communities they serve. Once we accept that negotiation necessarily entails compromise, the set of options available to humanitarian negotiators becomes much broader. Instead of being wedded to a fundamentalist commitment to humanitarian principles – as many negotiation policies suggest – my research demonstrates that negotiators will at times have to compromise certain principles if they are to effectively address human suffering (the principle of humanity). Peace agreements, Security Council resolutions, political envoys, and broader diplomatic engagement all become viable avenues through which humanitarian negotiators can pursue more favourable agreements when negotiating with armed groups. These can be described as humanitarian diplomacy.

This book is available in hardback and e-book version: Clements, Ashley, Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups: The Frontlines of Diplomacy (November 26, 2019). Available at London: Routledge.

Purchase The Book