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A Red Cross vehicle with boxes of aid for Ukraine.
Neutral: organisations such as the Red Cross depend on being neutral to gain the trust of all sides in a war. EPA-EFE/Orestis Panagiotou

Ukraine war: lessons for mediators from the experience of humanitarian organisations

Despite the discovery of what appears to be grisly evidence of war crimes committed by Russian soldiers against the people of Bucha in the north-west of Ukraine, the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, still insists that negotiation is the only way to end the conflict.

Zelensky has already pledged that his country will commit to neutrality and no longer apply to join Nato, which goes some way to satisfying Russia’s demands. But every day the conflict continues, the death toll increases and such terrible discoveries continue.

It’s hard to imagine meaningful negotiations under these conditions. Trust is negligible on both sides and there is mounting international criticism of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

One thing is certain. Public condemnation of any party to such a conflict or crisis is one of the worst ways to engage with them. In an interview with Christiane Amanpour in 2009, the then Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, argued that the louder the calls for him to step down from power by “interfering imperialists”, the more he was determined to “never surrender”. This is not an uncommon response from leaders of countries engaged in conflict.

Discussions must be had, but finding effective ways of getting warring parties to engage meaningfully is not easy. A closer look at how international humanitarian organisations (IHOs) secure the cooperation of warring parties who disagree on just about everything can offer important lessons on tough negotiations.

IHOs have always needed to be able to negotiate with warring parties. This is how they get security guarantees for themselves from all armed groups in a conflict – which can sometimes be dozens of different parties. For example, there are now about 70 armed groups engaged in the armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while in Yemen there are more than four key armed group alliances and several little-known brigades.

Successful negotiations allow IHOs to work without armed protection even in the most dangerous countries like Afghanistan and South Sudan where aid worker attacks are disproportionately high.

So even though IHOs do not provide political solutions, governments trying to broker peace talks to end Russia’s assault on Ukraine can learn from how they negotiate with armed groups in conflict zones.

Quiet but firm

Quiet diplomacy” where mediation is discreet and confidential is always best – at least to begin with. Parties to the conflict are less likely to lose face with their followers if they control the narrative about any concessions they are making. It’s also a process that helps a humanitarian organisation gain the trust of both sides without external pressure.

This is essential. Trust is a very delicate thing – gained in drops but lost in buckets. Any misstep that compromises trust, however slight, could take years and a great deal of effort to earn back. From a humanitarian standpoint, too much damage will have been done by then. Too many lives will have been lost.

Read more: Ukraine: a peace deal will require mutual trust, which is very hard to imagine

IHOs have an advantage if they can assure warring parties that they are only interested in saving the lives of civilians caught up in the conflict. To secure safe passage for trapped civilians in areas like Mariupol in the south of Ukraine, for instance, they must always take a neutral position. Anything short of this may give the impression that they want to change the dynamics of the conflict. This can cause one or the other of the armed groups to consider them to be another party to the conflict and, therefore, justify attacking them or ignoring any agreements they have made.

Someone filming Ukraine peace talks in Turkey on a mobile phone.
It helps if peace talks are initially confidential. Berkcan Zengin/GocherImagery /MediaPunch

Neutrality also makes it easier to condemn all parties for any unacceptable behaviour. The International Committee of the Red Cross, for example, regularly reminds warring parties about their responsibilities under international humanitarian and human rights laws. This includes respect for public facilities such as schools and hospitals, which has been one of the biggest issues in current conflicts. Ukraine is no exception, with the targeting of dozens of healthcare facilities by Russia.

Read more: Ukraine: Russia boasts of its precision missiles – so why are hospitals being destroyed?

Combined with quiet diplomacy, firm criticism of inappropriate or unlawful behaviour can lead to positive changes – not always, but often enough. But it’s important to deliver such criticism via an appropriate platform, not via social media.

Nobody is beyond the pale

The most successful IHOs at working in conflict zones engage with anyone who can affect their security. From fighters belonging to groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaida, Islamic State, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram to community leaders, religious leaders and beyond – they talk to everyone.

It’s important also to remember that conflicts are sustained when there is support for the warring parties. So not everyone hates Putin and not everyone supports Zelensky. In addition, armed groups rise and fall and change alliances all the time. Ignoring hated or weaker groups today can cause insurmountable problems tomorrow. For example, the speed with which the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 2021 will have created serious problems for organisations that refused to engage with them during their years out of power.

So governments and negotiators must equally engage with parties they like and those they don’t. For Ukraine, it’s too late for most governments to claim neutrality, but it is not too late to reach out to Russia and its allies. Not with more threats of sanctions – which are already worsening humanitarian crises on a global scale – but with an earnest attempt to save what has not yet been lost.

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