Humanitarian negotiations: Developments and resources

6 November 2013

Humanitarian actors frequently find themselves having to negotiate with state and non-state armed groups, be it to enhance the protection of civilians, to gain access for relief to vulnerable communities, and/ or to ensure the safety and security of their staff in the field. Recognizing the need for further professionalization in this arena, several organizations have been developing resources to support effective humanitarian negotiations.  

The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and Conflict Dynamics International are in the process of updating their handbook and manual on structuring negotiations to improve humanitarian access in situations of armed conflict, which should be ready in early 2014. ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Network recently published a series of articles and public panel events with practitioners discussing their experiences in conducting humanitarian negotiations with state and non-state armed actors (ANSA), including several PHAP governing members.

Geneva Call also has a number of resources reflecting on their experiences engaging with ANSA that provide important lessons learned working towards gaining compliance with IHL and IHRL norms. Similarly, the Geneva Academy has developed a number of principles when negotiating protection issues with ANSA in their 2011 report, Rules of Engagement: Protecting Civilians through Dialogue with Armed Non-State Actors. The Academy is currently conducting a complimentary study on the reaction of ANSAs to certain international norms, the findings of which should be available in early 2014.

There have also been several developments in the field of information management to assist in planning evidence-based humanitarian negotiations. States often have access to more detailed information on issues being negotiated, and will use this to their advantage. In order to strengthen monitoring, reporting, and advocacy as tools for effective negotiations, OCHA has developed an Access Monitoring and Reporting Framework (AMRF) for categorizing different access constraints, and is currently piloting an access database in several countries to collect and analyze access-related information.

While information management is important, with a multiplicity of independent humanitarian actors active in any given context, information-sharing and coordination are equally important, yet these tools are often overlooked or underdeveloped. Power dynamics inevitably influence any mediation process, often leaving humanitarians at a disadvantage and allowing external interlocutors to conclude limited agreements with some organizations rather than expanding humanitarian space for the entire community. In some contexts, such as Pakistan and the occupied Palestinian territory, OCHA has helped create specific working groups to facilitate common policies and negotiation strategies, although their relative strengths still need to be evaluated.

Humanitarian negotiations could also be improved through building the capacity of humanitarian actors to conduct mediation processes. A catalogue of resources is available regarding mediation of peace processes, yet unfortunately, there has been little attention given to the skills and approaches needed for effective negotiations in a humanitarian context. While former UN Emergency Relief Coordinators Jan Egeland and John Holmes have written books that provide some useful insights, this is one area of humanitarian negotiations that PHAP could be well positioned to develop and focus on in their ongoing trainings on humanitarian law and policy.


About the author

Antonio Galli has extensive experience working in the field on issues of humanitarian policy and practice, with a focus on humanitarian access, protection, negotiations with non-state armed groups and civil-military coordination. He is currently working as a consultant for PHAP and UNDP.