Negotiating Frontline Humanitarian Access in Ukraine | News

April 5, 2022 – In recent weeks, during the war in Ukraine, dangerous conditions have often prevented humanitarian organizations from delivering relief supplies and evacuating citizens. Claude Bruderlein, Adjunct Lecturer in Global Health at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and Senior Fellow at Harvard Humanitarian Initiativedescribes the challenges of humanitarian negotiations in conflict-affected regions.

Q: Can you describe your work on humanitarian negotiation?

A: I have been researching and teaching on humanitarian issues since 1998, and for several years I have studied how humanitarian organizations negotiate on the front line, for example, to bring vaccines against poliomyelitis to an area affected by a conflict, or providing therapeutic feeding to malnourished children. I interviewed over 250 humanitarian practitioners about how they negotiate their access in these difficult situations to glean insights into best practice.

Based on this research, I contributed to the establishment of the Center of Competence in Humanitarian Negotiation five years ago. Based in Geneva, the Center aims to systematize the way humanitarians negotiate – to turn research into tools and methods for training courses to support practitioners working around the world for humanitarian organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières, UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency), the World Food Program and many local organizations. This is really the first time that there has been a focused effort to understand how to improve the results of negotiations in the humanitarian sector.

I am the author of what is considered the standard frontline humanitarian negotiation handbook. At Harvard, we are working to develop courses for master’s students at Harvard Chan School and Harvard Kennedy School that offer a more theoretical and critical perspective on frontline negotiations.

Through these courses, we emphasize the importance of creating an environment conducive to discussion between the parties to a negotiation. Negotiators should try to understand the issues for all parties involved, be clear with their counterparts about their own objectives, listen carefully to their counterparts even if it may be difficult, be aware of how their body language can discourage dialogue and be straight on the options it won’t work.

Q: What have you done to support humanitarian organizations working in Ukraine, and what challenges do they face?

A: I worked with colleagues at the Competence Center to develop a specific set of techniques, tools and methods for establishing humanitarian corridors and pauses in hostilities. We provide guidance to humanitarian practitioners in Ukraine as well as those about to enter Ukraine – from Poland, Romania and Moldova – preparing them to negotiate in these very difficult situations. In recent days, we have also had discussions with colleagues from the International Committee of the Red Cross regarding their efforts to evacuate citizens from Mariupol, efforts so far unsuccessful due to the lack of adequate security guarantees. In such environments, approval can be obtained from senior military officers, but the problem is that often those in charge do not fully control the units operating on the front lines. Some of these forces may actually be part of autonomous militias or be mercenaries who do not necessarily take orders. Concerns are that if there is not a clear chain of command over ground troops, convoys may be attacked. Humanitarians are generally very careful in these circumstances, they seek to ensure that the information they obtain is truly trustworthy.

As we get closer to a negotiated settlement between the parties, the conflict situation tends to intensify. A negotiated settlement is not an end to the conflict – it is usually accompanied by an escalation of hostilities as the parties push for more concessions at the negotiating table. This is what we see now. I am very concerned that we may see an increase in violence over the next few weeks.

Q: What health impacts are you most concerned about as the conflict between Ukraine and Russia continues, and how do you see this conflict unfolding in the long term?

A: In Ukraine, the main problem is not necessarily the lack of food or medicine. Reserves and supply chains are still operating in the country. Rather, the main concerns are attacks on health infrastructure and warehouses. In some places it is not safe to go to the clinic or to get food.

Amid the ongoing violence, there are many challenges to sustaining global health goals. For example, cases of poliomyelitis have been reported in Ukraine months and a polio vaccination campaign targeting 140,000 children has been suspended due to the conflict. As millions of people leave Ukraine to escape the violence, there are likely also polio cases on the move, which could trigger a resurgence of polio in Western Europe. And how will Europe deal with a resurgence of COVID in this new refugee environment with over 4 million people on the move? That’s what worries people.

Unfortunately, we have a situation where diplomacy has failed to prevent conflict. And this failure did not happen just now, it has been going on for several years, due to our inability to maintain a dialogue on regional security and cooperation in Europe with the Russian Federation before things got out of hand. We denounced the Russian Federation as diplomacy became rooted in the values ​​of judgment on issues such as human rights and nation-building. The points raised by Western countries were certainly valid, but that is not what diplomacy is all about. Diplomacy is trying to manage your relationship for the long term despite the differences. It will become even more difficult now.

I think even if we disagree, we need to keep the dialogue going, not just condemn others over and over again. Tomorrow’s diplomats will face civilizational challenges such as climate change, mass migration and denuclearization. I believe it is essential to empower them to build consensus, understand differences and maintain dialogue despite mistrust and potential hostilities. We must prepare them for the difficult journey ahead.

Karen Feldscher

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