Dangerous liaisons? A historical review of UNHCR’s engagement with non-state armed actors
The actions of non-state armed actors (NSAAs) have received significant attention in recent years, especially with regard to how their presence in the field impacts humanitarian space. Groups such as the Taliban and al-Shabaab are believed to restrict access to populations of concern and contribute to an increasingly insecure operating environment.
While violent attacks on humanitarian workers have indeed generated considerable anxiety in recent years, NSAAs are not a new phenomenon, nor are they the only parties responsible for such violence. Rather, they have been a feature to one degree or another in almost all UNHCR operations in recent years.
What has certainly evolved is the environment in which UNHCR engages with such groups, both with regard to geo-political factors and in relation to modes of humanitarian coordination. In the context of a more integrated humanitarian and peacebuilding architecture, the degree of autonomy that UNHCR can exercise in its engagement has changed, if not declined. Moreover, the types of NSAAs that pervade the operating environment, as well as how they function, has transformed considerably.
Whereas liberation movements and guerrilla outfits motivated by Cold War ideologies dominated the landscape in the 1980s, the NSAAs which have characterized the past two decades have not been associated with the same ideological struggle, and instead vary from fundamentalist insurgents to quasi-sovereign separatists to amateurish rebel groups. The immediate post-Cold War period in particular was plagued by armed conflicts that destabilized entire regions and blurred the lines between state, quasi-state and non-state actors.
This report reviews UNHCR’s history of engagement with NSAAs over the past 30 years, examining not only how and why such engagement has occurred, but also the ways in which it has been transformed. A secondary objective is to identify and anticipate the factors that explain why NSAAs are frequently identified as the pre-eminent challenge to contemporary humanitarianism.
The focus is also deliberately on the operational aspects of engagement with NSAAs. In other words, the topic is explored as an aspect of the broader discussion on shrinking humanitarian space (rather than as a question of asylum or protection space), as well as the challenge of operating in complex environments, both of which are topics which UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Service (PDES) has examined in recent years.
The report employs the point of view that as a matter of principle UNHCR should engage all NSAAs where necessary and if possible, with the caveat that individual armed groups in the field may, for different reasons, force UNHCR to make exceptions to that rule. Not only is this consistent with humanitarian doctrine, but also reflective of the realities associated with providing assistance and protection in complex environments where populations of concern are often located in areas outside state control. Several core observations emerged throughout the review, and are enumerated below, with the chapters of the report more extensively exploring these five themes.
First, the overall context of engagement has been altered in various ways, in part because of broad geopolitical factors, but also the mutation of the nature of conflict and the orientation of NSAAs themselves. Whereas there were “rules to the game” in the 1980s, and rebel groups and liberation movements in a bipolar world were perceived to be more predictable and coherent, contemporary NSAAs are nearly impossible to discretely categorize. As a result, in the absence of clear battle lines in fluid conflicts and complex emergencies, engagement is extremely context-specific.
Second, the purpose and substance of engagement does not fluctuate as dramatically as the context of the conflict itself, because certain recurring issues are generally at the core of why UNHCR works with NSAAs. Negotiating access and security are typically the first step, although in more hostile environments, the line between these two questions is primarily semantic. Specific protection issues are rarely addressed up front when beginning engagement with NSAAs, however once the fundamental operational parameters are established, and a relationship is developed, it is frequently possible to broach such concerns.
Third, NSAAs for their part will sit at the negotiating table for a variety of reasons. Sometimes NSAAs are motivated by their own political objectives or strategic priorities, but also possibly because of how they view UNHCR, particularly if the organization’s presence is seen to impact the conflict. The acquisition of legitimacy is almost invariably a key objective for cooperative NSAAs.
Fourth, there is no universal policy on how to engage NSAAs, nor has there historically been a standard method for connecting with rebels, guerrillas or insurgents, however, an increased emphasis on UN coordination and integration has likely made official engagement more consistent. Nonetheless, in almost all cases engagement between UNHCR and NSAAs does occur if not directly then indirectly. Moreover, the development of formalized engagement through UN political or military actors has brought into focus the distinction between official and unofficial communication with NSAAs.
Fifth, relationships with NSAAs are invariably delicate, balancing questions of perception and trust, with the fluidity and volatility of complex operating environments. While the host government and individual NSAAs may both hold the power to sever or obstruct UNHCR engagement, the organization itself is also constantly forced to re-evaluate the cost-benefit analysis of operating in areas outside state control. UNHCR’s relationships with NSAAs are challenged not only by issues of insecurity, but questions of diversion of assistance or the compromising of principles. In the cases surveyed for this review, when engagement has collapsed, it was more often a UNHCR decision rather than an outright ban from host states or NSAAs, although those actors do force UNHCR’s hand at times.
These themes emerged throughout the course of desk and archival research, as well as interviews with senior UNHCR staff that currently or previously worked in selected environments. Thirteen operations were covered.