The Frontlines of Diplomacy: Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups




Clements, Ashley

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Humanitarian organisations are regularly compelled to negotiate with armed groups over access to and protection for civilians affected by conflict. Yet, they are widely perceived to engage in these negotiations from a position of weakness, leading to poor deals and heavy compromises that undermine the humanitarian principles that underpin their work. This thesis investigates whether humanitarian negotiators can overcome their purportedly weak bargaining position to reach more balanced agreements with armed groups. My empirical research focuses on Yemen's Houthi movement and the Kachin Independence Army in Myanmar, drawing also on a number of case illustrations from across the literature on the field. It argues that although humanitarian negotiators face an initial disadvantage, under certain conditions they can exert more influence over the position of their armed counterparts than their counterparts exert over them. Humanitarian negotiators thus have a range of tactical options or 'humanitarian levers' available to redress the power imbalance and improve negotiated outcomes. These tactics can be deployed both within and beyond the formal negotiation process and operate on power relations in three main ways. They improve the alternatives available to the weaker party and worsen those of their counterparts, they strengthen the commitment of humanitarian negotiators while undermining that of their opponent, and they foster interdependence that induces armed groups to seek agreement. Growing recognition and use of such tactics add support to a relatively small body of literature on an under-theorised form of diplomacy: humanitarian diplomacy. This thesis reconceptualises the phenomenon of humanitarian negotiation as a central practice of the emerging field of humanitarian diplomacy. It presents insights that enable humanitarian negotiators to reach more balanced agreements when negotiating with armed groups and identifies lessons from this distinctive field that contribute to other areas of negotiation and diplomacy scholarship.






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