A new humanitarian diplomacy is needed for a world of disorder

Geopolitical shifts require new forms of problem-solving to tackle growing human suffering

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What is diplomacy? British prime minister Winston Churchill called it “the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions”. That was in his age of great power politics, in which US president Theodore Roosevelt counselled diplomats to speak softly while wielding a big stick. Not to be outdone, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai saw diplomacy as “a continuation of war by other means”.

It was cynical, perhaps, but an acknowledgement that diplomacy is the art of using power to advance national interests. Nevertheless, states realised that inter-state competition can get dangerously messy. So emerged multilateral diplomacy dressed in the language of a rules-based international order covering all dimensions from trade and development to war and peace. Underpinned by a plethora of international treaties, laws, norms and institutions.

This made the world better and safer. But only until decolonising nations realised that the new order was dictated by the same powerful interests that relegated them to an undignified, unequal status.

The disgruntlement is reflected in endless UN Security Council reform debates. Also in tit-for-tat squabbles at the World Trade Organisation, battles over a new pandemic treaty through the World Health Organisation, ill-tempered arguments at the UN Human Rights Council, heated climate negotiations at the UNFCC and record numbers of vicious conflicts without end.

Diplomatic influence flows from power. But even when this is accompanied by coercive measures such as sanctions or military interventions, it is only effective if the target is susceptible. This is increasingly not the case, with countries feeling disrespected and marginalised. Resistance through hyper-nationalism follows and globalism is threatened by regional blocs and ad hoc coalitions, such as Brics. Longstanding China-US rivalry and the Russia-Ukraine war sharpen global discord.

The consequences are evident in the Gaza-Israel war and associated Hezbollah and Houthi belligerence, where the diplomacy of the world’s biggest powers is struggling. The resulting world disorder is the setting for a new form of diplomacy: humanitarian.

Humanitarian diplomacy originally emerged when aid was weaponised in the ideological struggle of the Cold War. It became more important after the misjudged western responses to 9/11, including the so-called War on Terror. Global outrage grew over the abuse of civilians caught in numerous crossfires and inflamed by alienating rhetoric from protagonists.

Humanitarian diplomacy originally emerged when aid was weaponised in the Cold War

Humanitarian diplomacy has, therefore, been mobilised in the battle for hearts and minds. That has occupied my own career. This took me, as head of an EU mission, to famine-affected North Korea to seek access for the World Food Programme and, as UN co-ordinator in Sudan, to mediate between Khartoum and the rebellious south to allow aid down the Nile. Or push the Kosovo/North Macedonia border to allow refugees escape Serbian bombing. And accompany West African peacekeepers to get aid convoys past murderous militia checkpoints in Liberia.

A variant of humanitarian diplomacy is dubbed “health diplomacy”. Thus, I called on the legitimacy conferred by my medical qualifications to argue with the Taliban to allow male doctors to treat women at Kabul’s iconic Rabia Balkhi maternity hospital. The excuse of a Balkans surgical training programme under WHO auspices allowed the Bosnian-Serb divide to be bridged by crossline referrals of the war-wounded. This led to a wider “health as a bridge for peace” initiative that found expression in other conflicts.

But we saw no need to assign a grand label like humanitarian diplomacy to the everyday struggle to assist the millions caught amidst unforgiving crises. It was a given that all humanitarians must be diplomats to get anything done.

Our principal learning was that effectiveness depended on the legitimacy of the platform from which humanitarian persuasion was conducted. The consistent stance of the lead agency or individual was essential to win trust. Good mediators were humble, and heard, not seen. The sticks deployed by humanitarian diplomats required sensitivity, not finger-wagging, name-shaming or arm-twisting, which is so much the mode nowadays.

I understood that while soft humanitarian and hard-nosed political diplomacy fed each other, explicit linkage was undesirable because face-saving cover must be provided for the losing side making the most concessions. Otherwise, the brokered deal broke down before the ink had dried on the paper. Persistence was also vital as humanitarian ceasefires and access agreements often failed.

However, remarkable was not how much we failed, but how often we succeeded to inject a degree of humanity into a context of brutality. Unfortunately, world disorder makes today’s humanitarian diplomacy much more difficult.

To start, the UN is no longer undisputed as a global good, thereby side-lining its good offices function. So we see crucial Gaza negotiations contracted out to interested states parties such Qatar and US. Elsewhere, with considerable outside meddling in the Sudan civil war, there is little unity towards ending this horror. Other crises, as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are also handicapped by conflict-fuelling interference.

When unconventional characters such as the Taliban emerge in Afghanistan, our diplomatic frameworks cannot deal with them. Humanitarian diplomacy also makes heavy weather where conflict and criminality intersect, as in Haiti.

Why is humanitarian diplomacy losing leverage? Perhaps this is because the western-driven humanitarian model based on humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence has ruptured for several reasons.

First, by nations operating double standards in selective responses to different contexts whether Ukraine or Sudan. If all lives are not seen as equally sacred, the sanctity of humanitarianism itself is challenged.

Second, the posture of humanitarians has evolved. Once accused of silence in the face of atrocities as in the Rwanda genocide or the bloody Sri Lankan strife, their excuse was that neutrality allowed access to all sides. But as humanitarian space shrinks, humanitarians are pressured to speak up. That is evident in trenchant condemnation by UN agencies of those who cause Gazan suffering, and Israel’s counter against the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA). The Red Cross/Red Crescent struggles with similar dilemmas.

Third, new concepts raise impossible expectations. Suffering has been re-cast as human rights violations and humanitarians urged to go beyond palliatives to solve underlying problems. Worthy as that is, conflating the divergent perspectives of rights activists, humanitarians and sustainable development creates confrontation. The acute relief of suffering is no longer the undisputed over-riding imperative.

Fourth, humanitarian independence has corroded. Most large aid agencies are funded by governments, and those who pay the piper call the tune. Rich emerging powers copy western role models to instrumentalise humanitarian action for foreign policy objectives.

Fifth, humanitarian agencies worry about their public image even as more tales of misconduct emerge from within their ranks. A lively social media sets tone and trend and is quick to censure. With demands for accountability, transparency and openness, behind-the-scenes diplomacy is less trusted.

The increasing discontent with conventional humanitarianism cannot be ignored, and equally pointless would be propping-up a failing status quo. Humanitarians would be better occupied preparing new models for the new dispensation that will emerge from current disorder, even if this takes time.

Accompanying the change must be a new humanitarian diplomacy with laser-like focus on helping those who suffer – anywhere and everywhere. Quietly but consistently. Not on yet more shrill demonisation of those causing the suffering. That may be cathartic for a justifiably-outraged world but renders us deaf without shifting the hearts and minds that matter.

To salvage our humanity, the new humanitarian diplomats will need, therefore, something of the horse-whisperer or forgiving saint in them, even as we live through the most mistrustful of times.

Published: April 19, 2024, 6:00 PM