Negotiation bulletin -

Humanitarian Negotiator

Crucial relationship stakes

Humanitarian crisis have continued to intensify and spread in this world which is teetering on the brink of political, security and climatic upheaval. These crisis situations, in Yemen, Syria and now in Ethiopia and Afghanistan, have only become more complex and unpredictable, causing ideological divisions conducive to the abuse of minority populations, and creating the need for urgent humanitarian interventions on a large scale. The main obstacle to international response is the authorities’ inability to establish a framework that will facilitate humanitarian emergencies. In this context, the capacity to negotiate efficiently with leading political and security figures on the field, needs to become an essential asset of emergency aid organisations. This will help them gain access to the affected populations and carry out their operations in hostile territory.   

Paradoxically, negotiation is still a controversial subject for many aid organisations and workers and is deemed to pertain to the office of political and government authorities. Many people think they are retaining superior humanitarian order by refusing the operational transactions related to negotiation and the freedom of the parties to consent to the demands of agents on the field. According to many organisations, humanitarian rights and principles create essential obligations and rules that need to remain “non-negotiable”. 

In fact, humanitarian action has become tributary to the parties, who have control over the affected populations and territories, consent. Faced with ideological divergencies between parties and the growing precariousness for operations on the field, humanitarian action requires not only an increased capacity for negotiation, but also new tools to mitigate and restore the difficult relations with these parties. Problems related to pressure, corruption and misappropriated assistance used for political ends have become major challenges to confidence and trust.  Crisis negotiators must often act under pressure, not only in response to the most urgent needs (ex. negotiating the passage of aid convoys) but also to build lasting trust relationships with all parties involved, to ensure safety and make sure the humanitarian agencies are accepted.   

As they often operate in hostile environments, humanitarian negotiators will play a growing role in crisis management, developing strategies and relational processes with parties involved. The humanitarian negotiator’s main role is to establish confidence between hostile parties. If Western countries want to contain the influence of transnational terrorist groups and prevent the resurgence of the migration flow, considering the withdrawal of international forces from conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, and more recently in Afghanistan, the listing and ostracization of the armed groups need to be replaced by pragmatic humanitarian diplomacy that aims to promote collaboration on the front lines. 

Claude Bruderlein is strategic advisor to the CEO of the International Committee of the Red Cross (Comité international de la Croix-Rouge, CICR) and a research worker on negotiation practices within the CICR. In October 2016, he was appointed head of the Centre of Humanitarian Negotiation Skills. 

He has been involved in international humanitarian action since 1985, and then worked with humanitarian aid and protection within the International Committee of the Red Cross (CICR) in Iran, Israel and occupied territories, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen as well as in Geneva where he was legal advisor for the CICR’s operations. In 1996 he joined the United Nations in New York as special counselor for humanitarian affairs. 

He also held a research and teaching position at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the School of Public Health.