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Humanitarians in the Age of Counter-Terrorism: Rejected by Rebels, Co-Opted by States

“We should be able to come to an agreement, after all, we are both representing an NGO,” said the chief negotiator for the “Taliban” to an MSF representative in 2009.

This is true, as in both instances we are defined by a negative: not a government organisation (NGO) and not a state armed group (NSAG).  And in both cases, the only international legal legitimacy is offered through the International Humanitarian Law (IHL).  Non-State Armed Groups are considered illegal under all other national and international legal frameworks but are granted the right to medical treatment and the right to receive humanitarian assistance for populations under their control through IHL.  Humanitarian non-government organisations can demand access to rebel held zones and establish a legitimate dialogue under IHL.  In a sense, “NGO” and “NSAG” are condemned to each other.

No wonder the humanitarian enterprise is currently obsessed with the concept of “negotiated access” and “dealing with non-state armed groups,” as operational space to operate in their areas appears to be shrinking.  This is however, contrary to popular consensus, not an existing historic deficit of rebel groups lack of compliance with IHL but a reversal of a traditionally better compliance by “NSAG” to IHL as compared to states.  NSAGs have more incentive to comply, as IHL is the only thing they have that gives them any legal protection – at least for receiving medical care – and the only thing that regulates a regular flow of resources into areas they control.  Conversely, States have mostly things to lose under IHL, practically by being forced to allow “the enemy” to maintain a flow of resources, and existentially as IHL puts limits on the sovereignty over their territory.  As a consequence humanitarians have found it easier to negotiate with rebel groups than with sovereign states.  This trend is in reverse since the end of the 90’s with more and more NSAGs joining the previously short list of “non-negotiables” such as Lords Resistance Army and Boko Haram.  The “war on terror,” which as a war on an abstract emotion is by nature a war for “hearts and minds,” has left many previously negotiable NSAG weary to continue engagement with (western) humanitarians.

As a result, humanitarian assistance is becoming increasingly co-opted in political and military agendas. For the United Nations, this trend has started early on following the war in Kosovo in 1998 where its donors insisted the aid effort was subordinate to the NATO military effort (including the infamous “humanitarian bombing” of Belgrade), consolidated in the paradigm of “integrated mission” since 2008.  Independent humanitarian agencies were able to maintain an equilibrium between state and non-state aid a bit longer, but as the number of non-negotiable NSAG, all but a few designated as “terrorists” by the main humanitarian donors, grows, humanitarians are now co-opted as force-multipliers.  First exceptionally in highly charged international conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, now almost as a matter of course in Somalia, Nigeria, Central Africa and Syria.  “Conflicts are more complex” is often offered as a justification, but anyone who has worked in places like Liberia, Bosnia or Chechnya in the early nineties cannot subscribe to that. But conflicts certainly are more polarised – the paradigm “you are with us or against us” now applies to humanitarian assistance as well.

Full article available in “Alternatives Humanitaires” in both English and French.

By Michiel Hofman. Photo by Victor J. Blue, © Victor J. Blue 2015.

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