Humanitarian space and peace negotiations in Syria

Can humanitarian principles be negotiated and be part of peace negotiations? Are humanitarians also  political actors? Debates on the nature of the relations between the political and humanitarian spaces have plagued the humanitarian community for decades and are still vivid today among by practitioners. While some humanitarian actors insist on the necessity to preserve the autonomy of humanitarian action, others defend the idea that humanitarian activities are inherently political. As analyzed by Milena Dieckhoff in a recent article, a dual process of politicization of humanitarian action and a “humanitarization” of political negotiations is at work in Syria, creating a complex interdependence between the humanitarian and political spaces.

In the Syrian conflict, the political and humanitarian spaces are under constant negotiation and renegotiation. First, humanitarian considerations have entered a politicized agenda of negotiations, as visible during the various rounds of Geneva negotiations, led by the Special Envoy of the United Nations (UN) or during the debates at the UN Security Council. For example, the issue of border-crossings, allowing for cross-border humanitarian operations inside Syria, was re-negotiated in December 2019, with discussions around two concurrent projects of resolution with variations in the number of border crossings to be allowed to operate and the length of their opening.

Second, Syria is charactezid by a fragmented and controversial humanitarian space, meaning that the parameters of aid delivery and humanitarian access are highly debated, leading to polarization and cleavages among actors. For example, some humanitarian organizations have been accused of being biased in a favor the Assad regime, contributing to the regime’s stability and legitimacy. Another delicate issue has been the extent to which inclusion of different actors into negotiations should be pursued. Questions on who represent the legitimate Syrian opposition or on the participation of Syrian Kurds have hindered the humanitarian and political negotiation process from the beginning. In addition, how to deal with terrorism and terrorist groups has certainly been one of the most controversial issue for humanitarian actors, for safety as well as political reasons. 

Third, a strategic politicization of humanitarian action is at work, as clearly highlighted during the Astana process, starting in 2017 and led by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Humanitarian arguments are mobilized during those negotiations and are used as a means to achieve political and even military goals, hence highlighting the interdependence between the humanitarian and political spaces. For example, the Memorandum on the creation of de-escalation areas in the Syrian Arab Republic in May 2017 officially aimed at “improving the humanitarian situation”, by guaranteeing humanitarian access and the rehabilitation of infrastructure. It also called for the cessation of hostilities between selected anti-government groups and governmental forces in de-escalation zones (DEZ) located in opposition-held areas of the country. However, while the Astana Memorandum uses the language of humanitarian access, it has subdued the proposed access to an overall military strategy aiming at a surrender of opposition forces who were not party to the ceasefire agreement. The DEZ have not led to less violence and more access for humanitarian assistance. Thus, as summed up by a humanitarian actor, Astana may have had a humanitarian agenda at the beginning but soon became “a political vehicle”. 

The complex interdependence between the humanitarian and political spaces shows that the necessity of a strict humanitarian/political separation, still defended by some humanitarian actors operating in Syria, is to be understood less as an objective need and reality than as a strategic positioning of humanitarian actors on the international stage. The willingness of some humanitarian actors to continue to present themselves as a-political can in fact be seen as a political act. Conversely, political actors can have an interest in officially putting to the fore humanitarian considerations, as they can be used as an asset during negotiations.

Opposing humanitarian negotiations, governed by universal principles, to unprincipled political negotiations can be strategically and usefully reaffirmed by humanitarian actors in some contexts, especially when the instrumentalization of aid is significant, as in Syria. However, reifying the humanitarian/political divide is not the best means to understand the diversity of negotiations taking place in violent conflicts nor does it encourage the development of fruitful relationships between all actors, yet necessary to encourage a more comprehensive understanding of the conflict and its possible resolution.

Milena Dieckhoff is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Clermont Auvergne University. She is the author of “Reconsidering the humanitarian space: Complex interdependence between humanitarian and peace negotiations in Syria”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

How Human Rights Watch Tried to Suppress a Targeted Killing Norm

14203284_10153734268660894_3046983579658798280_nThe United States has been persistently trying to build support for its case that its targeted killings should be considered legal. Human Rights Watch has been actively trying to resist this effort, with varying degrees of success. This clash offers us deeper insights into how the global rules of the game are determined.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently stated, “It’s long past time for the US to assess the legality of its targeted killings, as well as the broader impact of these strikes on civilians.” HRW has doggedly resisted U.S. efforts to normalize what has long been taboo: the killing of specific individuals outside conventionally understood battlefields.

International relations scholarship tells us a lot about how human rights groups try to introduce new ideas to improve the human experience and how states attempt to thwart these efforts.  But it tells us less about the inverse: Namely, how human rights groups aim to impede state-led campaigns to expand their ability to act in the global arena.

My recent article explores the ways in which HRW, a prominent member of the anti-targeted killing network, strove to do just that. My article demonstrates how HRW initially tried to entirely suppress the emergence of a targeted killing norm by demanding the United States halt its denials and admit to the practice. HRW also named and shamed the United States and its allies for violating human rights and sovereignty norms.

Then came bin Laden’s death, which was a watershed moment in changing global opinion about this practice, from one which largely opposed it to a tepid, and perhaps temporary, tolerance of it. This change in global opinion contributed to a change in how HRW resisted targeted killings. It switched strategies by focusing on suppressing the emergence of an unbridled norm, one that might clash with deeply entrenched protections afforded to state sovereignty and human rights.

For instance, it sought to limit the number of US actors engaged in targeted killing by pushing for the end of CIA participation in the program.  It also pressured the United States to be more transparent about civilian deaths in a bid to restrict the practice and hold it accountable for “collateral damage.”

By showcasing this contestation between norm champions and norm suppressors, the article also further refines Finnemore and Sikkink’s exemplary norm life cycle model, highlighting the dynamism in global normative debates. Normative content is not static, remaining unchanged once its advocates take it up. It is subject to modification as a result of the battles waged over its prescriptions and parameters throughout the norm life cycle. These conflicts have the potential to both strength and weaken norms.

In my article, I also emphasize that normative death and regress is a possibility at any stage in this model. Normative ideas can fail to emerge. Even well-established norms are vulnerable to attacks which may eventually lead to their demise. Furthermore, there is nothing inevitable about the normative journey. Just as entrepreneurs can help their ideas advance through the norm life cycle, norm suppressors can stall their progress and move them backwards.

Additionally, I illustrate how similar state and non-state actors act, both as advocates for new ideas and resistors to those ideas. Among other things, both sets of actors effectively deploy frames to attract supporters and weaken their opponents. They also comparably form alliances to further their objectives. Furthermore, I argue that norms scholars should study “bad” norms, norms that widely differ from their rights-protecting counterparts that dominate the scholarly landscape. Doing so is not only more faithful to a neutral understanding of norms (shared understandings of appropriate behavior in a given situation), but will also help us understand a wider range of political phenomena like the current global rise of right wing populism, regulatory moves to control cyberspace, or the growing push to limit or abolish gay rights.

Studying norm suppression not only fills noteworthy gaps in the scholarly corpus, but also helps us better unravel intriguing puzzles like why some norms fail to emerge and others find more success. These insights allow us to better understand how norms operate in the global arena, significantly contributing to theoretical and policy-making debates.

Betcy Jose is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Colorado Denver. She works on issues related to global norms, international humanitarian law, and civilian self-protection. She has published in Critical Studies on Terrorism, International Studies Review, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, Foreign Affairs, World Politics Review, and Duck of Minerva. She is currently working on a book manuscript exploring contestation in armed conflict norms to be published in 2018. Her Twitter handle is @betcyj.