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Innovative Engagement: Engaging Non-State Armed Groups Diversely, Effectively, and Adaptively

October 20, 2020

Hyeran Jo is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University in U.S.A. She is the author of Compliant Rebels. She is also a recent recipient of the Humboldt research fellowship, which supported the idea of this article. 

Direct contacts with non-state armed groups (NSAG) with the purpose of advancing humanitarian goals have been gaining ground. The primary goals of these engagement efforts have been, inter alia, the reduction of  child soldiering, of the use of anti-personnel mines or the protection of civilians. International and local humanitarian actors working for international organizations, non-governmental organizations, state and local agencies have been at the center of these efforts to engage with non-state armed actors. The United Nations has engaged about a dozen NSAGs since 2000 to reduce child soldiering. Geneva Call has engaged about 60 non-state armed actors to sign the Deed of Commitment to reduce the use of anti-personnel mines. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has long engaged NSAGs in various ways at detention centers and via training and education. 

Engaging NSAGs for humanitarian purposes is HARD. There are many security and political constraints associated with the direct contacts. When conflict intensifies, humanitarians might simply lose access and means for engagement. Not all armed groups can be engaged. Some armed groups will not welcome outsiders unconditionally. Jihadist groups often reject access or engagement. To pile on the challenges, often national governments of states where armed groups are based will block, evade, or manipulate outside access to what effectively are their own enemies. Humanitarians are also well aware of the material support law which bans assisting prohibited groups. The classifications of who could be legitimately engaged and who should not can be murky given the proliferation of armed groups around the world. Given these challenges, assessing the current humanitarian engagement efforts and thinking ways forward is important especially in this day and age of retrenchment and receding international liberal order

In this blog post, I will develop the notion of innovative engagement in the context of engaging NSAGs for humanitarian purposes. Specifically, I put forward an argument about the diversity, effectiveness and adaptiveness as the triad requirements for innovative NSAGs humanitarian engagement. More often than not, innovation does not come out of a vacuum but the combinatorial of existing practices and contexts, often spurred by decentralized efforts (for a reflection on the concept see here). In the field of humanitarian engagement with NSAGs, this “changing into something new” might mean improving established practices and not necessarily involving totally new agendas. The change might come by way of shedding a novel light on the broad operational and political contexts, as well as evolving situations. Some humanitarian actors are already doing innovations in various contexts. My claims will be more of a synthesis at the level of analysis, based on the recent findings about humanitarian engagement practices and policies and overlaid with the observations about the patterns and trends in evolving situations of conflict zones around the world.

First, the innovative engagement can be diverse in two major ways, in the consideration of choice sets and alternatives among policy options, and in terms of structure/levels from below and from above among involved actors and stakeholders. In terms of the diversity in choice sets, the initial choice of engagement can be cast in the broader policymaking context. Such choice would be ideal if the humanitarian engagement is the right strategy among the menu of available policy options. If the purpose is to attain humanitarian goals, there might be other ways to achieve the goal without engagement – such as mediation or peacekeeping. Sometimes sanctions might be a better tool for the job of curbing violence – unless armed groups move like Hydra changing their resources reactively to sanctions regulations. Other times, decentralized non-direct punishment efforts might be more suitable. The operation of mobile gender courts in the Democratic Republic of Congo demonstrated sexual violence can be dealt with through civil society activism. Empowering civilians with information about escape routes might be more important in yielding immediate benefits than contacting and negotiating armed groups directly. When armed groups have local political networks where traditional leaders (local, tribal or religious leaders) have a lot of sway, engaging those leaders, rather than engaging armed groups directly, might yield more humanitarian benefits. All this assumes that we understand the armed groups’ patronage networks, their resource base, and their mode of operation. All this, also, assumes efficient coordination among humanitarian actors that are not necessarily uniform – with all options on the table and careful discussions about what might reduce human suffering. This will not be easy given the vastly diverse map of the humanitarian field with state, international and local agencies operating each with their own mandates. Such coordination also requires that host governments be on board. Yet, some governments have military goals that go against humanitarian goals, often co-opting NSAGs. As such, the capacity to act as an “international community” can be quite limited at times.

Second, the innovative engagement can entail effectiveness in terms of access, mode of operation and communication, and the utilization of the resource-base. Being effective often requires hard work on the part of humanitarian actors in terms of getting access. Just entering the conflict zone and opening communication channels with non-state armed actors is difficult, given all the constraints and boundary conditions outlined above. Having clear interlocutors might help through the understanding of who’s who and by navigating the command and control structure as well as the political wing of those armed groups, but of course these are no guarantees for access. In some situations, negotiation breakthroughs do occur when the timing and circumstances are right. It is near the peace negotiations stage that some armed groups open up, and when governments are willing to invite international engagement. Beyond access comes acceptance. Engaging persons in non-state armed ranks also entails building rapport and trust over time. This is more challenging when the NSAGs’ leadership changes all-too-frequently and where fractionalization is the norm. Humanitarian actors also harness existing resources. Here, the resources refer not only to monetary funds but also attending existing networks. For instance, the United Nations action plans have been more likely to occur when the Office of the Special Representative of Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG/CAAC) has the backing of the UNICEF regional headquarters and UN Peacekeeping, compared to the situations without such institutional collaborations. The effective engagement method may involve persuasion tools where engagement changes the tasks gradually, as the relative success of the MILF’s action plan case shows. All this could benefit from favorable and enabling background conditions. Identifying the set of armed groups ripe for engagement will be stemming from understanding their motivations, trajectories, goals, and ideologies. Timing will also play an important role as the peace negotiations provide a good window of opportunity for NSAG engagement.

Third, the innovative engagement can be adaptive, tailoring the move to local situations and the changing nature of warfare. For example, humanitarians have learned over time that speaking ‘law’ might not be the most effective humanitarian tool. Rather, speaking the local language and appealing to local norms that are consistent with global humanitarian norms might be the way forward. Looking into the bridges that can be built at local and international levels can be another way to tailor adaptive strategies . It is also useful to recognize that humanitarian engagement can be self-generative. It is quite possible that the legal commitment by non-state armed actors changes the behavior of government actors’ respect for the international humanitarian law. For instance, pursuant to Darfuri groups’ signing the Deed of the Commitment to reduce the anti-personnel mines use in 2013, the Sudanese government ratified the Ottawa Convention in 2014 and allowed international actors to conduct de-mining operations. Adapting ways and means to the changing nature of war demands our recalibration of how NSAG engagement is done. Urban warfare presents new challenges as new weapons develop and military actors’ proportionality calculations change. Urban and criminal gangs feature as prominent aspects of warfare, and learning from previous responses and examples can help addressing these. 

The three suggestions – re-visiting the diverse options available to humanitarians, re-thinking effective responses, and re-calibrating adaptive learning – are one of the many ways to achieve such innovation for better humanitarian outcomes. As they have done so in the past, humanitarians will in the future produce many other innovations that are diverse, effective, and adaptive. 

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