Humanitarian Diplomacy: A Conceptual Discussion

Humanitarian Diplomacy: A Conceptual Discussion

October 23, 2018

The concept of humanitarian diplomacy has been referred to the necessary negotiation to be carried out before intervening within the sovereignty of another nation-state unable to guarantee the dignity and safety of its citizens. Sadly, many of these interventions have been misguided by powerful nation’s political agendas rather than genuine altruism.

Whereas traditional diplomacy does usually prevail over humanitarian diplomacy due to its embedded official character, these share core tasks such as collecting and analyzing information, representing an actor’s positioning and interest, negotiating and eventually enjoying some sort of immunity within certain cases.

Within modern times, humanitarian diplomacy has been defined as a concept that encompasses the activities carried out by humanitarian organizations to obtain the space from political and military authorities within which to function with integrity. These activities comprise such efforts as arranging for the presence of humanitarian organizations in a given country, negotiating access to civilian populations in need of assistance and protection, monitoring assistance programs, promoting respect for international law and norms, supporting indigenous individuals and institutions, and engaging in advocacy at a variety of levels in support of humanitarian objectives. The role of humanitarian diplomacy is to generate an appropriate implementation framework for humanitarian programs while building the necessary partnerships for its objectives to be achieved. When naturally embedded within humanitarian action, it can be used as an instrument for raising awareness, negotiating, and mobilizing actors in humanitarian (emergency) aid provision, as well as playing an important role in both risk prevention and crisis management.

A glance at the current status of humanitarian action indicates its constant evolution both quantitative and qualitative. On the one hand, the past half-century has witnessed a significant increase in the response to both natural and manmade humanitarian crises and as a consequence the number of people targeted by international humanitarian assistance has almost doubled over the last decade. Whereas the absolute number of conflicts has not changed that much during the past two decades (oscillating between 30 and 40 a year), the impact of current armed conflicts on the humanitarian situation results being greater due to globalization trends facilitating spillover effects, or to higher access to information allowing greater precision to identify humanitarian crises. At the same time, the number of people on the move has exceeded to a level unseen since the Second World War, this being a dramatic phenomenon given that back then the world population was significantly lower.

Such a considerable increase of humanitarian crises due to natural catastrophes, increasing global economic inequality spiking extreme poverty, and the increase of asymmetric conflicts, confirms the interest of humanitarian diplomacy as a doctrine increasingly relevant for an efficient humanitarian action.

From a qualitative perspective, it is obvious that humanitarian action is being eroded together with globalization. On the one hand, it is witnessing a re-politicization. On the other hand, the humanitarian space, meaning the physical or symbolic space which humanitarian actors need to deliver their services according to the principles they uphold, is shrinking mainly due to insecurity or/and assertiveness of actors – both state and non-state – in control of affected territories. Thus, within a global context of increasing politicization of humanitarianism and shrinking humanitarian space, the understanding and efficient practice of humanitarian diplomacy is increasingly relevant.

It is clear today that humanitarian actors have to unveil the different understanding of Humanitarian Diplomacy according to their mandate and values. The Process of finding a definition requiares common denominator from where humanitarian actors should construct upon whilst converging in order to maximize a common conceptual and operational ground for an effective conduct of Humanitarian Diplomacy. By the beginning of the 21st century nonstate actors, such as humanitarian actors, are to play different roles in the resolution of conflicts. In this frame, the need for a clearer conceptualization of humanitarian aid and humanitarian diplomacy is required.

While the national and regional level classical diplomacy by state actors continue, humanitarian diplomacy comes into effect often for short-term or specific solutions in conflicts. These two diplomacies are different also with regards to their goals; humanitarian diplomacy consists of humanitarian objectives while states seek their own interests with often a nontransparent agenda through classical diplomacy. This is because humanitarian organizations are bind with international humanitarian law but states are bind only with interests which limits their scope of dialogue and creates red lines caused by their political constraints. Hence, humanitarian diplomacy potentially has capacity to engage with more actors. Humanitarian diplomacy having less rules than classical diplomacy and classical diplomacy having more professional diplomats than humanitarian diplomacy are some other differences they have.

Humanitarian diplomacy may as well be seen as political negotiations done by humanitarian actors with non-state actors on the rise, in order to deal with certain sensitive issues and processes that state actors are unable to, given their increasing incapacity vis-à-vis an increasingly complex world.

Humanitarian diplomacy is usually understood by humanitarian actors as a principled manner of negotiating access in order to deliver, as well as a tool to guarantee protection and to enhance dignity. Some go beyond and see it as a solution to conflicts – conflict mediation - rather than as a potential prevention tool or simply as a response to the misery and needs that these create.

Below the different ways to look at humanitarian diplomacy:

  • First, humanitarian diplomacy (HD) conducted by non-state humanitarian actors to provide humanitarian assistance. HD would not only be limited to negotiation for access and it would entail a wider scope; as much as traditional diplomacy is conducted through the representation and negotiation of a country´s interests, humanitarians do through humanitarian diplomacy represent and negotiate or advocate for humanitarian space, principles and action.
  • Second, humanitarian mediation or dialogue where humanitarian actors could practice humanitarian diplomacy to mediate between two parties in conflict for the sake of preventing further human suffering. Conducted by non-state or semi-state (meaning state funded or linked) humanitarian actors, humanitarian mediation or dialogue could entail a certain political purpose for two reasons; 1) due to the potential link that the humanitarian actor mediating could share with state actors´ political agenda, and 2) due to the simple act of mediating between two parties at conflict which may lead to misperceiving humanitarian actors doing politics as state actors do (it remains more difficult to understand a humanitarian actor mediating in a conflict than simply delivering).
  • Third, state humanitarian diplomacy conducted by state actors to find solutions to humanitarian problems. For instance the UN is a group of state actors trying to prevent human suffering. Recently it is being seen how precisely humanitarian purposes such as accessing the population in need may be used as a political asset exchangeable for political intentions rather than for simply humanitarian.

Many observers agree in the fact that the need for humanitarian diplomacy is simply a result of political disagreements (i.e. UNSC vetoes). These provoke human suffering and humanitarian diplomacy, by putting every individual at the center through the humanitarian actors & actions, state or non-state, to protect lives and dignity, as well as to defend their rights and freedoms, consists in a human response to such suffering.

Hence, even when political agreements with humanitarian purposes are agreed and implemented by state actors, humanitarian actors find room to somehow complete and deliver assistance. For that reason, humanitarians need to carry on with practicing humanitarian diplomacy to ensure the necessary space and integrity for humanitarian action. Whereas advocating for space falls within the practice of humanitarian diplomacy, it is very important that this has further activities than advocating, these being collecting info and analyzing, networking and representing, and finally negotiating and advocating.

Humanitarian diplomacy may as well be seen as political negotiations done by humanitarian actors with non-state actors on the rise, in order to deal with certain sensitive issues and processes that state actors are unable to, given their increasing incapacity vis-à-vis an increasingly complex world. Assuming that humanitarian actors carry out some sort of political negotiations – even if for humanitarian purposes – poses the challenge of protecting humanitarianism from mingling with politics since humanitarian aid shall be independent from any political agenda. On the top of that, the risk of politicizing humanitarian diplomacy was said to increase every time state actors use humanitarian diplomacy, or generally ‘aid’, as a political/policy tool.

While acknowledging such a risk, it should be reflected upon the once again risky similarity between diplomatic activities for humanitarian purposes carried out by state actors and mediation activities carried out by humanitarian actors, which could somehow be interrelated. As said, while the role of non-state actors is on the rise, the more there are conflicts where non-state actors are involved, the more difficult it will be for states to engage in classical diplomacy & mediation activities. However, while engaging with non-state actors remains a challenge for the states, organizations are more flexible to do so. Thus, there are non-state humanitarian actors doing mediation between state and non-state armed actors. While it was mentioned before that there is a risk when state actors use the name of humanitarian diplomacy for political purposes, is there a risk as well when humanitarian actors practice humanitarian diplomacy for the sole purpose of mediating between non-state armed groups? Mediation could be seen as simply a political action. In the end, this is again closely linked to the identification of the organization (how do they see themselves and how do others see them): humanitarian or mediation actor. The question is, is it possible to be both? It was agreed that despite acknowledging that political and humanitarian spheres are intertwined, these shall remain different. The challenges, once again, is to be perceived as such. For instance the failure of a humanitarian response can be blamed at humanitarian actors and not to state actors whereas the latest may carry the heavier political responsibility of such a failure. Considering the almost unavoidable risk of mingling with political agendas or at least being perceived so, what are the boundaries as well as the ability to engage when it comes the practice of humanitarian diplomacy?

In many conflict areas, humanitarian aspects are used as confidence building measure in the peace process and suddenly humanitarian issues such as access become hostage to the political process. Clearly, humanitarian sphere and political sphere are intertwined and difficult to separate. Engaging in whatsoever political process will potentially change humanitarian actors’ perception. Thus, the boundaries of humanitarian actors are important in terms of what they should do and what they should not do. The impact on their perception will also affect their ability to engage and eventually to deliver.

Some experts say that engaging in political dialogue shall not necessarily change what the organization aims through humanitarian diplomacy, which is establishing an environment for humanitarian action. However, it was still acknowledge that since it may change the identity of the organization, this could once again impact its perception. At the end, since it is not possible for the organizations to disengage themselves from the politics, the terms of engagement becomes important. Professional ethics must remain and humanitarian actors willing or having to engage in any political dialogue shall define clear boundaries and have it clear what the humanitarian input and outcome of such engagement is.

Another important factor is the fact that the states themselves started using humanitarian diplomacy in a way that the delivery of humanitarian aid becomes a tool within wider diplomacy. State’s humanitarian assistance started enabling them to facilitate political, economic and even military interests. This poses – or rather increases - a perception risk for humanitarians; because as a consequence humanitarian actions are being commonly perceived to have a secondary agenda. It is also evident that there are and will always be different parties that associate humanitarian actors with particular political agendas because it is related to the norms of the societal and political form. The question here is how much an organization is able to shield itself from the political context and manage to operate.

It is very important principle that, humanitarian diplomacy has to be practiced through humanitarian actors since these are the ones holding the legitimacy and credibility. While delivering, they uphold the power of aid to do it efficiently as well as the power to influence and create the necessary space, and thus, they must remain independent.

On the other hand, there are doubts about the given apolitical (independent & neutral) character of humanitarians. Given that humanitarian action was born from a political stand, humanitarian diplomacy can be seen as an activity potentially political. In the end, it is difficult to pretend humanitarians are not political since politics will always catch humanitarians somewhere at one point. Medical assistance is one of the most emblematic examples. Despite to what many believe, medical assistance may be at the heart of all political sensitiveness within the humanitarian world, given that the medical act & ethics obliges humanitarian actors to treat any person regardless their profile. Treating fighters, or alleged terrorists, becomes a dilemma. Choosing to offer health remains then a political stand. The key nuance remains on doing it neutrally, independently from any State politics and impartially.

Regardless of the thoughts of human actors, the discussions on this issue continue on many different platforms. For exemple, according to the UN terminology, humanitarian diplomacy is used when member states come together to debate and find solutions for humanitarian issues. Therefore, using “humanitarian negotiations” instead of diplomacy is preferred by the UN.

Some actors reject the term diplomacy since it is politically charged and is usually associated with State´s practice. Others are convinced that humanitarians are all right to use the Humanitarian Diplomacy term; for he fact that on the ground humanitarian actors have the power of aid especially in areas out of state control enabling them to have very important point. Humanitarian Diplomacy is very legitimate to be used by humanitarian actors’. In the end, diplomacy shall not be a political noun but a practice related noun. Diplomacy is the art of negotiation, and humanitarians must negotiate.

Beyond the terms of diplomacy or negotiation, one of the topics regarding the HD concept is “mediation”. It was described as a political negotiation carried out by humanitarian actors given their flexibility, reach and supposed neutrality. But humanitarian political negotiation could per se be an oxymoron since it contradicts the neutral or/and independent nature of humanitarian action. Nevertheless, there seemed to be an acceptance of the practice of humanitarian mediation for the sake of access to population in need although not entirely for the sake of conflict prevention. Mediation, notably when it comes to the second example is seen as a slippery slope for humanitarians since international humanitarian law (IHL) does not regulate nor offers legal space for humanitarian actors to engage with non-state armed groups (NSAG).

Another question in this regard is about the bases of humanitarian diplomacy; legal, religious, or humanitarian?

It is agreed that humanitarian diplomacy shall be based on humanitarian aid and its principles. But Humanitarian universal values though, have a ‘Western’ background and thus, ‘non-Western´ actors may see them differently; for example Neutrality does not really exist because as individuals and organizations, all are coming from a certain background that shapes our perception. Multiplicity of actors (private, state, faith, etc.) have their own understanding of humanitarian principles and varies according to the operating humanitarian actor or NGO. There may not be a universal humanitarian diplomacy term and framework. Yet, this being said, a greater good for all and do no harm ethical framework seems to commonly prevail. Humanitarian diplomacy shall have limits or at least contemplate its ethical dilemmas when engaging with certain actors.

Beyond ethical basis, most of the humanitarian actors will rely on IHL as the reference for its action. Having said that, regardless of who controls the humanitarian imperative, participants concluded that governments should provide access according to international humanitarian law even if it was understood that at times complex constraints oblige state and non state actors to be driven by pragmatic agreements beyond IHL.

Risk of Politicization of Humanitarian Diplomacy

The activities of humanitarian actors are potentially considered to be political in many conflict contexts. The politicization of humanitarian activities appears to be the baseline of the main challenges faced while conducting humanitarian diplomacy. In consideration of the reality of today’s world, it is true to say that states are politically involved in conflicts and social dynamics. This perception is intrinsic within the fabric of the global political culture humanitarian organizations are operating in and challenging this perception is extremely difficult. Despite all obstacles, having continuous engagement with all relevant parties and aiming to build sustainable relations with them based on consideration of their specific sensitivities seem to be key to overcome political filters.

Concepts of war on terror and counter terrorism are some of the important components of this politicization process. Globally, counter-terrorism legislation is having a direct impact on humanitarian action. Areas under the control of non-state armed groups which are designated as terrorist face limited or no access to humanitarian assistance. This might has serious consequences on how humanitarian organizations are perceived and adversely effects the channels of humanitarian diplomacy. Medical humanitarian assistance in particular has long become a target of the states with terrorism listings mainly because medical humanitarian organizations are fighting to treat also the combatants. When the enemy is addressed as terrorist, depriving them of many things including emergency assistance is legitimized.

The activities of humanitarian actors are considered to be political also because some governments are practicing humanitarian activities as part of their political agenda. Depending on their internal dynamics and adopted role in the international arena, governments tend to act as a humanitarian organization, which blurs the lines of humanitarian space.

Considering the challenges there appears an interesting dilemma: rather than the non-state armed actors, humanitarian organizations are challenged more by the states who are mostly funding the activities. This brings about the need to invest in how to use the states to increase the leverage capacity of the NGOs. It is clear that without the permission of states humanitarian assistance cannot be possible, whether it is because of funds, or access related assertiveness.

Another important consequence of this perceptional politicization is the confusion between classical and humanitarian diplomacy. Most of the time, non-state armed actors and some states are not differentiating the diplomacy done for humanitarian purposes. The humanitarian negotiation is regarded as part of the political negotiation the conflicting parties are carrying out. Also, when the peace process between conflicting parties is not showing results, humanitarian access and assistance issues turn into a bargaining chip, which stands as one of the biggest challenges of achieving humanitarian goals.

Negotiating humanitarian access becomes problematic when there are conditions put by the states or non-state actors for humanitarian assistance. If one organization reaches an agreement with the state or non-state actor in such context, it becomes somehow binding for other humanitarian actors. This potentially jeopardizes the optimal coordination and delivery of assistance by the larger humanitarian community. In some cases, same situation may have positive repercussions on other actors as well, ending up with an opportunity.

Considering the impact of an agreement done by one organization, should humanitarian actors do the negotiations collectively or as individual organizations? The answer of this question needs to be elaborated on to increase the leverage capacity of the humanitarians. Linked also to this issue, another challenge within the humanitarian space to mention is the competition in between humanitarian actors, states and non-state actors.

It is also important to remember the fact that military and political spheres are governmental spaces while humanitarian sphere is the responsibility of the ones who call themselves humanitarians. Hence, if humanitarian space is shrinking, that is the responsibility of the humanitarian organizations and it should not be outsourced to other actors, such as the UN.

By taking into account the achievements so far, it can be said that having organizations specialized in humanitarian diplomacy is an opportunity. They are able to facilitate more for larger humanitarian community.

The legal framework for the practice of humanitarian diplomacy for NGOs is not clear, while it is clearly framed as a mandate for the organizations like ICRC. It is challenging to understand the scope of legitimacy humanitarian NGOs have to carry out humanitarian diplomacy. On the one hand, doing modifications in the IHL might help clarify relevant points and on the other, the IHL already reduces the sovereignty of the states as a generic framework and an attempt to change IHL may have negative repercussions.

The subjects and the objectives of the humanitarian diplomacy are extremely sensitive. In order to maximize the achievements more skilled people are needed in this field for humanitarian dialogues and negotiations.

Considering the challenges there appears an interesting dilemma: rather than the non-state armed actors, humanitarian organizations are challenged more by the states who are mostly funding the activities. This brings about the need to invest in how to use the states to increase the leverage capacity of the NGOs. It is clear that without the permission of states humanitarian assistance cannot be possible, whether it is because of funds, or access related assertiveness. To overcome the challenges, it seems that the INGO’s need to work together.



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