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What is humanitarian negotiation?

Bringing humanitarian aid—which can include distributing food, implementing an education programme or providing medical services—to people trapped in war zones or areas affected by extreme violence means that humanitarian workers must face the challenging task of finding a compromise with different counterparts.

Humanitarians need, for instance, to cross checkpoints, reach an agreement with leaders of the opposing parties on the terms of entering their territory, find a compromise with local authorities on the terms of humanitarian intervention or make sure that humanitarian convoys are not attacked.

To achieve this, humanitarian workers must negotiate on different levels. Humanitarian professionals can negotiate on a higher level, with heads of a state, ministers, army generals, governors, but also at a lower level with soldiers at a checkpoint, leaders of local militias, town elders, religious leaders, heads of families or even the very people they are trying to support.

In such negotiations, humanitarian workers need to make sure that humanitarian principles are respected to the extent possible, that their actions do no harm, and that aid is not diverted. Sometimes, they also need to remind the parties to the conflict about their obligations to protect civilians during the fighting.

Most often, responsibility for a humanitarian negotiation doesn’t lie with a single person. Every humanitarian professional working in the field negotiates. Country representatives may negotiate the terms of an organisation operating in a certain context; technical staff may negotiate the modalities of setting up a field hospital; and drivers may need to negotiate if they are stopped at a check-point only allowed passage in exchange for aid supplies or other goods. Critical negotiations, on the other hand, are usually carried out by a lead negotiator with the support of a negotiation team, as well as higher levels of management who determine institutional policies and objectives.

What is humanitarian negotiation?

Humanitarian negotiation can be defined as the interaction between humanitarian organisations and their counterparts to:

  • establish and maintain the presence of humanitarian organisations in crisis environments (conflicts, disasters, migration flows, epidemics…)
  • ensure humanitarian access to people in need, and
  • deliver humanitarian aid and implement protection activities.

Humanitarian negotiations have a relational component, focused on building an ongoing relationship of trust with counterparts, and a transactional component, focused on establishing and agreeing on the specific terms and logistics of humanitarian operations.

Humanitarian negotiations are different from peace-making or political negotiations, which are usually carried out by mediators or diplomats. Their purpose is not to influence political or diplomatic positions but to ensure humanitarian agencies have access to people in need to provide humanitarian assistance and protection.

Humanitarian negotiations are also characterised by their relational nature. Nowadays, most humanitarian crises are protracted over a long period of time. For this reason, humanitarian organisations work to build a lasting relationship of trust with their counterparts in order to gain and maintain access to people in need.

Nonetheless, humanitarian negotiations, humanitarian diplomatic efforts and peacebuilding talks are closely linked and can influence each other (learn more by reading about the role of the humanitarian negotiator in the global chain of humanitarian diplomacy).

Another particularity of humanitarian negotiations is that they are carried out in light of fundamental humanitarian principles:

  • Humanity – the belief that human suffering must be addressed wherever found,
  • Impartiality – the belief that assistance must be provided based on need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases without distinction,
  • Neutrality – the belief that organisations must refrain from taking sides in hostilities, and
  • Independence – the belief that assistance must be autonomous from political, economic, military, or other objectives.

These fundamental principles were first established by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (RCRC) and later reaffirmed in UN General Assembly resolutions and enshrined in numerous humanitarian standards and guidelines.

A delicate balance between principles and practice

International humanitarian law, also know as the ‘rules of war’, imposes obligations to States and non-State actors during armed conflict—for instance, the imperative not to target civilians or attack hospitals and to ensure access for humanitarian organisations. In reality, the actors involved in conflict often disrespect these laws and disregard their obligations and civilians suffer the consequences.

To ensure humanitarian aid reaches those in need of assistance, humanitarian practitioners work to open a dialogue and create a relationship of trust with local authorities, armed groups, or local communities. In doing this, they must remain neutral and impartial and prioritise those who are most in need, without discrimination.

Ensuring that humanitarian principles are respected is not simple. As they work to reach a compromise with their counterparts, frontline negotiators are often running against time: a delayed or failed negotiation may mean more deaths and suffering for those affected by the conflict.

Negotiators face complex ethical dilemmas as they strike a balance between reaching those in need and staying true to humanitarian principles and their organisational mandate. They must set red lines and define clearly to what extent they’re willing to compromise; not doing so may erode trust in the organisation—not just among their counterparts, but also among partners, donors and communities. These difficult choices can be used to pressure on the negotiators, who are already operating in a complex and dangerous environment and are often affected by the conflict themselves.

These difficult choices can be used to pressure on the negotiators, who are already operating in a complex and dangerous environment and are often affected by the conflict themselves.

Because of the delicate nature of negotiations and the risks implied, humanitarian professionals often find themselves in need of support, learning opportunities to sharpen their skills and, sometimes, also counselling.

How does the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) support humanitarian negotiators?

The origins of the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) date back to November 2014, when 25 experienced humanitarian practitioners working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) gathered in Naivasha, Kenya, to discuss about their challenges negotiating on the ground.

During the meeting, they reflected on their shared experiences working at the frontlines and the best practices they found to navigate the challenges of humanitarian negotiations. By collecting their experiences, they created a negotiation model, called the ‘Naivasha grid’. This model—which constitutes the framework of all CCHN’s workshops—helps humanitarian negotiators systematically prepare negotiations and achieve better outcomes, but also to observe and evaluate past negotiation processes. The grid works as a map to plan the roles, tasks and responsibilities of the entire negotiation team.

Following this reflection, the CCHN was officially founded in 2016 as a joint initiative of five humanitarian agencies: the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Médecins Sans Frontières Switzerland (MSF), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

The CCHN’s mission is to foster a community of humanitarian practitioners engaged in frontline negotiations, to promote critical reflection and learning opportunities among humanitarian negotiators, and to develop a stronger analytical framework and capacities for better negotiation practices.

Learn more about the CCHN

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We are home to a community of thousands of humanitarian professionals from around the world who learn and share their negotiation experiences.

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