A Window on Private Diplomacy

By Christopher Thornton | 2010-04-01 01:00:00

You may never have heard of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre). Much of its work is done in the shadows, behind the scenes or confidentially. Discretion is a distinct advantage in its line of work: belligerents may be negotiating without the knowledge of those they claim to represent, never mind the general public. In a context where disclosure could jeopardize the lives of participants, let alone the success of a peace process, the HD Centre often has to remain silent rather than publicize its activities.

The work that is made public is often impressive: the 2008 negotiations in Kenya, where the HD Centre provided support and advice to the former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan; the Helsinki Peace Agreement, which built on the HD Centre’s first mediation efforts between the Government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement, efforts then brought to a conclusion by Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland; and numerous successes in facilitating agreements on the protection of civilians and the free movement of humanitarian aid, in Mindanao and Darfur for example.

The HD Centre has been involved in Darfur since April 2003. In 2008, realising that the deadlock in the political process would not soon be broken, its activities shifted from supporting the African Union/United Nations-led process to addressing humanitarian issues with the belligerents. The leaders of two of the main opposition movements from Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-Unity), participated in a series of workshops with representatives of the humanitarian community. Due to the trust which had developed between the HD Centre and these movements’ leaders over the preceding years, the HD Centre was able to encourage candid discussion on issues of vital humanitarian concern, ranging from safe humanitarian access to the situation of IDPs. And it certainly wasn’t a one-sided conversation, with the UN agencies making demands on the opposition movements. In the September 2009 workshop held in Nairobi, Kenya, UNHCR responded to JEM’s questions and concerns over the situation in Chad’s refugee camps and OCHA agreed to strengthen contacts with JEM. On their side, JEM outlined their plans to respond to the hijacking of humanitarian convoys.

Filling the gap

Traditional conflict mediators such as the UN, regional organizations, and third-party states are increasingly unwilling and ill-equipped to deal with non-state actors labeled as guerrillas, rebels, or terrorists. Contemporary warfare waged by such groups will not be decided by military victories but by negotiation. Consequently, this reluctance needs to be compensated for by others. Concerns abound in diplomatic circles about “negotiating with terrorists” or “lending legitimacy to armed groups.”

Dennis McNamara, Senior Humanitarian Adviser at the HD Centre, previously headed the Human Rights component of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. He highlights his negotiations with the Khmer Rouge during his time at UNTAC: “The hang-up with legitimacy is a major stumbling block in peacemaking today. When we negotiated with the Khmer Rouge, we did not confer legitimacy. It was a pragmatic decision. Now, they are on trial.” It is this pragmatic approach and single-minded determination to reduce the consequences of violent conflict which sets the HD Centre apart from others engaged in the business of peacemaking.

A Name-Check in Aceh

During the nationalist struggle in the Indonesian province of Aceh, the government favored mediation by the US. However, US impartiality was called into doubt. The Free Aceh Movement preferred mediation by the United Nations but, in light of East Timor’s UN-supervised transition to independence, there was no way the government was going to tolerate UN involvement in another territory under Indonesian control.

The HD Centre was available as a compromise choice, untainted by political interest or bias.

Why did President Wahid entrust the newly-formed Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, as it was then known, with such an important and politically-sensitive mission?

Martin Griffiths, the HD Centre’s Director, says that it was as arbitrary as a name: “I asked him once, when we were alone together in the back of his car, why he chose us. He said he had two heroes in his life: one was Florence Nightingale and the other was Henry Dunant.”

The gamble paid off and in late 1999, the HD Centre was able to initiate the first ever dialogue process between the Government of the Republic of Indonesia and the leadership of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). This paved the way to the peaceful settlement of the Acehnese conflict which had brought devastation to northern Sumatra since 1976.

Humanitarian negotiation

Humanitarian negotiations are both a useful end in themselves and an entry point into the political process. As Julian Hottinger recently suggested in a conference report for Geneva Call, during the pre-negotiation phase, mediation on humanitarian issues can help shift interlocutors from a confrontational logic to an argumentative logic: “getting them used to discussing issues instead of fighting them.”1 When conducted during a break in the political dialogue, humanitarian mediation stops the negotiations from going cold and the hard-won bonds of trust from withering during political stalemate.

The humanitarian mediation project in Darfur is conducted transparently, with the endorsement of the Government of Sudan, and with a readiness to back off when the political process again takes root, as the HD Centre did in Burundi in 2000 to ensure the parties were not distracted from the Arusha peace negotiations.

The successes of the humanitarian mediation process in Darfur, with the development of a long-term, structured humanitarian mechanism between UN agencies, the Government of Sudan and the opposition movements, has led the HD Centre to examine possibilities to expand the project into new territory.

The Central African Republic is one case where the HD centre became involved when others wouldn’t. President François Bozizé requested their help in organising the All-Inclusive Political Dialogue (AIPD) process, which was intended to put an end to decades of politico-military struggle.

Staff at the HD Centre are allowed to take initiative and act, when others have their hands tied. This has not, however, made them reluctant to engage with others. Regional organizations such as ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) are playing an ever-increasing role in peacemaking within their respective regions. They assume this role due to demand, necessity and their expert knowledge of regional politics and dynamics, but often they suffer from a lack of institutional knowledge and experience in peacemaking and mediation. The HD Centre helps to bridge this gap and enable regional organizations to improve their internal capacity.

If you were to walk along the lakeside in Geneva, you would be forgiven for missing the gentle-looking villa which houses the HD Centre. Inside that building, however, negotiations could be taking place between seemingly irreconcilable parties: states and rebels, despots and freedom fighters, democratic leaders and terrorists. It is in this setting, far from the battlefield, and in this way, without guns or bombs, that more and more conflicts are being ended in the 21^st^ Century.

Christopher Thornton studies at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. The HD Centre’s website is at hdcentre.org.


1 Hottinger, Julian. ‘The Engagement to Respect Humanitarian Law and Human Rights: A Prerequisite for Peace Negotiations, or a “Future” Component Within Peace Negotiations?’ in Exploring Criteria & Conditions for Engaging Armed Non-State Actors to Respect Humanitarian Law & Human Rights Law www.genevacall.org/resources/conference-reports/f-conference-reports/2001-2010/gc-2007-04-05jun-geneva.pdf, p29.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2010

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