The Dialectics of Perception, Acceptance, and Meaningful Action
The global humanitarian community—the “humanitarian enterprise,” as the researchers of the Feinstein Center at NN University have put it—is facing an increasing perception crisis, that has at some points reached the level of outright rejection of humanitarians. Because of this, dialogue and interaction with civil society, authorities, armed groups and transnational networks are a cornerstone of the ICRC’s principled action in the second decade of the 2000s.
With these lines, I would like to present in broad lines the concept that the ICRC has put in place to meet the operational challenges and the general and specific perception issues the institution and its work for victims of armed conflict and organized violence is facing. I will situate in this framework the place and relevance of the ICRC’s dialogue with all those engaged in, or in a position to influence, armed conflicts and other situations of violence, as a part of the operational practice of ICRC delegations, and as a means to safeguard, implement, and develop meaningful humanitarian action. This work is centered on understanding how relevant stakeholders in each context perceive the ICRC’s action, approach, and identity, how these perceptions are evolving, how acceptance can be achieved by responding to the needs of the victims, and ongoing dialogue, with the necessary level of security assurances. This continuous work is being complemented by perception studies and a constant monitoring of debates and issues, be it in the highly volatile contexts of today’s armed conflicts, be it on the regional and global level.
The challenges for the ICRC, with its specific mandate to work for the protection and assistance to victims of armed conflict, are changes in the nature of armed conflict and other situations of armed violence, on the other consequences of transformations in international relations, technology, and mass communication—and in the humanitarian sector itself. These dynamics and challenges, and the way the ICRC, other humanitarian actors and local communities, states, non-state armed groups, and other stakeholders are dealing, have dealt with, or adapted to these changes, have shaped the perception of humanitarian action.
The situations of—predominantly non-international— armed conflict and other organized violence below the threshold of armed conflict are increasingly protracted, and the fragmentation and proliferation of armed groups and militias, at times trans-nationally connected, is an increasing challenge. This is the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the ICRC interacts today with 40 different armed groups, but also in Somalia and Iraq.
The duration of conflicts over decades, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has increased and multiplied the suffering of affected populations, and created a complex setting of direct and indirect consequences, which require a profound analysis, and sophisticated and multidisciplinary responses.
The integration of humanitarian or reconstruction components into military strategies, doctrines, and practice, particularly in counterinsurgency warfare, with the goal of “winning the hearts and minds” of the people, bear the risk that parties to conflicts and local communities associate all humanitarians with specific military and political objectives, be it in Afghanistan or in other contexts.
The emergence of a multi-polar world in which non-traditional regional and global powers exert a growing influence in international relations has considerable impact on the dynamics and constellations in a variety of conflicts, i.e., in South Asia, on constellations and alliances of the parties to these conflicts, on efforts to mediate and find solutions to these conflicts, and finally also on approaches to assist and protect the victims of these conflicts.
Issues of international politics and international relations that are beyond the realm of humanitarian work (or to which humanitarian work is just one among many other contributing factors), such as the crisis sparked by the publication of caricatures of the prophet Mohammed by a Danish newspaper in 2005, have a huge impact on the environment in which humanitarian action is taking place, and at times a direct impact on humanitarian action itself.
In addition to the aforementioned factors, the evolution of mass media and electronic means of communication, the emergence of new centers of power, have changed substantially the relations between beneficiaries, humanitarians (local, national, international) and donors.
Dialogue and Networking—A Centerpiece of Neutral and Independent Humanitarian Action in Contemporary Conflict
In response to the challenges the ICRC and other humanitarians have been facing the first decade of the 2000s with the September 11 attacks, the subsequent global “war on terror” and the polarization, security challenges, and outright attacks on humanitarians that came along with it, the ICRC focused on its core mandate and the essential humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence, to maintain and gain access to victims of these conflict situations.
Dialogue with all parties to a given conflict is the centerpiece of this concept and practice. Under the impact of polarization, and in face of the considerable security risks that have emerged for humanitarian workers, this has been a demanding endeavor. This confrontation on global scale that characterized the first decade of the 2000s was mainly taking place in the lands of Islam, and was essentially related to a complex setting of issues and grievances in the wider field of relations between the Muslim world and the West, and the rise of different forms of Islamism in parts of the Muslim world. Based on its specific mandate, and its long presence and experience in this part of the world, the ICRC took action to create the conditions for an intensified and systematic outreach to the almost inaccessible parties to the ongoing confrontation, and to a variety of other stakeholders. This has involved increasing the awareness of its delegates; actively involve delegation employees and those working for national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies; recruiting and developing career opportunities for people with the necessary background, language skills, and cultural sensitivity; and a proper analysis of the wider context and underlying causes of specific conflicts and wider schemes of confrontation.
Perception studies and opinion surveys carried out by the ICRC on different occasions in several countries plagued by armed conflict have provided an important contribution to deepen the ICRC’s understanding of the way people affected by armed conflict see and evaluate the action of the ICRC and other humanitarian actors, as well as on the effects and consequences of war and armed conflict on people. The most recent example has been an opinion survey and in-depth studies in several countries which the ICRC commissioned in the framework of the “Our World. Your Move” campaign for the 150th anniversary of the Solferino battle. This global research study captured the experience and opinions of civilians who are living with the everyday reality of armed conflicts—in Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Haiti, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, and the Philippines.
Other perception studies and field research by polling institutes and researchers, such as the field studies of the Feinstein Center at Tufts University have made essential contributions to a better insight on how populations affected by armed conflict, as well as man-made and natural disasters, perceive the motives, practice, and interaction of different humanitarian actors.
Perception and reputation studies are giving a relatively detailed and reliable picture on general attitudes and specific issues, and are thus the basis for operational decision making and the formulation of strategies, but they are specific to certain time periods. The operational dialogue and informed interaction with all relevant stakeholders in a given context is on the other hand a more continuous and immediate way to understand how we are seen and perceived by communities, local and national authorities, rebels and outlaws, but also transnational actors that are influencing constellations and the wider environment of conflict in a number of contexts. This goes hand in hand with a continuous monitoring of the debates and issues that are informing and shaping the attitudes and perceptions of different actors.
This dialogue and interaction between ICRC delegates and field workers on a daily basis exemplifies the complex interrelation and conditionality between the multiple needs of the victims, the intent and ambition to carry out meaningful humanitarian action, the security challenges and risks in the field, the growing degree of interrelation between conflicts, armed groups and networks, and other stakeholders having an impact on conflict situations. Dialogue and networking with all relevant stakeholders in a given context like Yemen, Afghanistan, or Iraq are intertwined with the security of its personnel and operations, access and proximity to victims, the meaningfulness and effectiveness of the protection and assistance activities, and the way the ICRC is designing its visibility and communication—in these highly volatile environments, dialogue and networking are indispensable to get assurances for safety and security from the different parties to the conflict and other relevant actors, while the most important means to acquire acceptance by these stakeholders is the difference the ICRC makes with its protection and assistance activities.
The dialogue is also a means to detect issues that might involve risks in highly volatile environments, at times related to the aforementioned crises and “mega-issues” beyond our impact and control, at others our own action or the action of other humanitarians that is misunderstood or goes de facto wrong, and to adapt mode of action, patterns of individual and collective conduct and self-representation.
This work requires respect and sensitivity for different cultures and values, but also critical distance and capacity for analysis. For the delegates, delegation employees, and staff members of the national Red Cross or Red Crescent societies working in these contexts, it consists of a constant learning process to develop the ability to see the world, ourselves, and our work through the eyes of those with who we are interacting, and to make serious efforts to integrate the perspective and cultural specifities of people and countries—on the principles of humanitarian action, on the rules of international law—in our discourse and presentation, while maintaining the essentials of these principles and rules.
Another crucial element in the relation and interaction with communities, authorities, armed groups, and other relevant stakeholders is to be consistent in the way we are presenting ourselves and are communicating with others, and the way we are doing our work.
In Iraq, the second largest operation of the ICRC in 2011, the ICRC has maintained and developed its visits to detainees, family visit programs for the families of detained persons, and carefully designed assistance programs for female-led households and rural communities, in an environment of ongoing violence, with scores of civilian victims. Based on the visits of ICRC delegates to tens of thousands of detainees held by the US–led international forces over the years since the 2003 war, fall of the previous regime and occupation of Iraq, the ICRC delegates and field workers have built a network of regular contacts with a wide range of interlocutors which reaches from the current authorities, political parties and movements, religious leaders and institutions, tribal figures, to the armed groups and jihadi networks that are part of the insurgency today. Quite some of those who are leading the insurgency groups of today are former detainees. Continuous contacts and relations of trust and confidence with detainees and their families, the effectiveness of its protection and assistance activities, and the confidence and trust built in this dialogue, have made the ICRC known and accepted in diverging degrees by the movements, armed groups and jihadi networks that are part to the confrontation in Iraq today. In the highly volatile situation in Iraq—as well as in other comparable contexts— this relative acceptance can’t be taken for granted, it has to be checked and maintained in daily contact and interaction, and beyond that depends on not always predictable changes and dynamics in the context and conflict.
Beyond this context-specific operational dialogue and networking, the ICRC has, based on its specific mandate ad role as guardian of international humanitarian law, engaged in dialogue with intellectuals, academics, and scholars in various parts of the Muslim world, with the aim of laying the foundations for greater mutual understanding, dispelling existing misconceptions and find common ground for protecting human dignity in armed conflict. This endeavour started in the late 1990s in Pakistan, and has been taken up since the early 2000s in other parts of the Muslim world. In cooperation with well-established Islamic institutions, such as the International Islamic University in Islamabad, the central Hawza and other religious institutions in Qom/Iran, the Qarawiyyin University in Fès/Morocco, and the Higher Islamic Council in the Republic of Mali, a series of workshops, seminars, and international conferences were organised. Ulema, scholars, and Islamic activists have participated to this dialogue alongside with ICRC lawyers and delegates as well as representatives of national Red Crescent and Red Cross societies, to explore and discuss the commonalities between IHL and corresponding rules of Islamic law, misperceptions, and obstacles in the way of impartial humanitarian action, but also means and measures to improve the protection and assistance for victims of armed conflict, and the respect for the universal rules protecting those who are not or no longer actively taking part in hostilities, from an Islamic perspective.
As part of its operational dialogue and coordination in the field, but also in the framework of discussions and coordination between humanitarian organizations on the global level, the ICRC has engaged in a dialogue with Islamic charitable and humanitarian organizations, knowing that in numerous countries in the West and the Muslim world, Islamic charities were affected by the measures that were taken by main Western countries, the respective UN mechanisms as well as member countries of the Arab League and the OIC against personalities and entities accused of being involved in the support of terrorism. These measures have not only deprived beneficiaries and needy people in different parts of the world from receiving assistance, they have also contributed to the suspicions and mistrust against Western and international humanitarian actors in parts of the Muslim world.
This experience has lead to an increased diversity in the teams of the ICRC, which in itself has prove to be an important factor for the ability of these teams to connect differently with local communities and stakeholders, and has also affected the way the ICRC is perceived by these communities and other stakeholders.
In the face of the ongoing and new challenges for humanitarian action in a rapidly changing world, these efforts to maintain and develop relations and networks with actors of influence will have to be increased and systematized. The experience gained in this field will nurture and enrich efforts such as the ones to further diversify and broaden the ICRC’s relations with the authorities and civil society of states with regional or global reach and influence.