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ICRC’s conference on Humanitarian dialogue with Non-State Armed Groups: The impact of geopolitical challenges

25-02-2014 Feature

On 18 December 2013, the ICRC organized a conference at the Humanitarium in Geneva. The topic under discussion was humanitarian dialogue with non-state armed groups, focusing on the impact of geopolitical challenges in the contexts of the Middle East and South Asia. The event benefited from the presence of Dr Gérard Chaliand, a renowned expert on insurgency warfare and terrorism, along with three other specialists in humanitarian dialogue with non-state armed groups.

Opening the conference proceedings, Dr Chaliand, one of the world’s leading experts in armed conflict studies and international relations, and author of numerous books dealing with these subjects, opened proceedings with a detailed and lucid account of the contemporary geopolitical challenges facing the world, in particular in the two regions being spotlighted: the Middle East and South Asia.

His enlightening intervention was complemented by those of the three other expert panellists. Dr Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute and Head of the Regional Development Programme, Geneva Centre for Security Policy, emphasized the complexity of transformations and changes in the armed violence sphere. Ronald Ofteringer, the ICRC’s advisor for global affairs, elaborated on issues of perception of humanitarian actors from the standpoint of state and non-state armed groups. And Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, Research Director of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Foundation, gave an example of a recent case of humanitarian negotiation with an armed group, and the key lessons drawn from it.

The event was attended by some 200 Geneva-based diplomats, professors and students in the field of international humanitarian law, humanitarian practitioners from non-governmental organizations and Red Cross/Crescent Societies, as well as UN agencies based in Geneva and the wider world. A podcast of the conference can be downloaded here.

Summary of the key points

Middle East and South Asia: keys to understanding the geopolitical environment

Dr Gérard Chaliand, expert in insurgency warfare and terrorism 

Dr Gérard Chaliand, expert in insurgency warfare and terrorism
© ICRC / J. Schmidt-Whitley

Dr Chaliand introduced the milestones that have shaped today’s global geopolitical environment in the Middle East and South Asia. He pinpointed 1979 as a pivotal year. The Iranian Islamist revolution had had considerable knock-on effects. It constituted a great challenge to the Sunni Arab world and, at the same time, occasioned the ‘second oil-shock’, a premise of the 2008 global financial crisis that marked the end of Western economic domination. Also in 1979, China made the move toward market socialism which led, three decades later, to it becoming the world’s second-largest economic powerhouse. And lastly in 1979, Russia had invaded Afghanistan. This prompted Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, with the support of the United States, although unintentional, to mobilize a Sunni Jihad as a reaction to the blatant success of the Shia Islamist revolution in Iran; something which has gone largely unnoticed. Some groupings who received support had very different agendas, among them Al-Qaeda which grew rapidly during the 1990s. Following the USSR’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the US failed to realize what was really at stake: the Sunni re-Islamization of the Muslim world and a Jihad against the West. When Russian and European communism crumbled, the world’s major power became predominant; hence the tremendous shock that the 9/11 attacks generated in a country that had not been bombed or occupied, on its continental soil, since 1814. Dr Chaliand then analysed events and revealed the trends that are shaping today’s landscapes in the Middle East and South Asia. Among the most recent trends, he emphasized the increasing influence of non-state armed groups, at times excessively echoed by the media, and spoke about the complex Syrian crisis.

The importance of grasping the complexity of transformations and changes

Panelists (rigth to left): Dr Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou; Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol; Dr Gérard Chaliand; Ronald Ofteringer 

Panelists (rigth to left): Dr Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou; Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol; Dr Gérard Chaliand; Ronald Ofteringer

Focusing on trends that have characterized contemporary conflicts and non-state armed groups, Dr Mahmoud Mohamedou remarked that the novelty argument can be misleading as, looking back in history, nothing is really new. For instance, insurgency engagements, asymmetric warfare and protracted conflicts are familiar phenomena. Nevertheless, the steady accumulation and settling of patterns of transformation and change have reached such a level of complexity that reassessment analyses are inevitable. For example, entities such as Al-Qaeda are transforming by the day and morphing into decentralized re-emerging entities using the contexts of conflict or political transition to do so. At the same time there is a growing tendency for foreign military intervention into states’ internal affairs, and a certain normalization of this type of action. When both phenomena meet, as was the case in Libya and more recently in Mali, the situation becomes so complex that the real picture makes little sense now and will only become clearer over the next couple of decades.

The issues of perception by state and non-state armed groups

With regard to humanitarian dialogue with non-state armed groups, Ronald Ofteringer observed that some states do not want humanitarian actors to interact directly with their ‘internal enemy’. States see the risk of legitimizing non-state armed groups and of challenges to their sovereignty. Hence the need for humanitarian actors to be coherent in their actions and words, and to engage in a dialogue with states to overcome misperceptions and find common ground for the sole humanitarian objective of their interaction with armed groups – that of alleviating the suffering of people affected by armed conflict.

ICRC Humanitarium 

ICRC Humanitarium

Humanitarian organizations also face perception issues with Non-State Armed Groups. Armed Islamist and Jihadi groups have strong reservations about (Western) humanitarian organizations and tend to see them as an extension of a hostile Western agenda. Dealing with these perceptions requires a profound understanding of the context as well as the identity and doctrine of the respective groups, coherence between narrative and action to overcome misperceptions, and, based on that, building a relationship that allows the relevant humanitarian issues to be addressed in a contextualized way.

The necessity to understand the multiplicity of non-state armed groups

In the same spirit, Dr Jean Hervé Bradol reminded conference participants that it is also important to consider Jihadi armed groups in all their dimensions: military, social, charitable, religious and political. For instance, concrete humanitarian actions conducted under the principles of neutrality and independence are often deemed positive by Jihadi groups, mindful of how people perceive them. Dr Bradol described how, through humanitarian negotiations characterized by exchange, compromises and mutual respect, MSF could work in a place controlled by such a group. However, the timespan during which working under such authority is possible is conditioned by the interaction between the Jihadi group and the community affected. Often this is limited and remains a very delicate exercise.