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.