Where humanitarian diplomacy is feasible and highly necessary

Author: Ole Hengelbrock
Date: 10. August 2023

By establishing itself as the second largest humanitarian donor worldwide, the German Federal Foreign Office (GFFO) has noticeably strengthened its presence in humanitarian fora, and in international debates. The creation of the Federal Agency for Foreign Affairs (Bundesamt für Auswärtige Angelegenheiten BfAA) in 2020 as a “service unit” was certainly a reaction to criticism from the Federal Audit Office, but it also underlines the GFFO’s ambition to prioritise strategic and formative matters over trivial details. Even if this does not result in an increase in staffing, the new Humanitarian Strategy 2024 has placed itself in the “pole position”.

Humanitarian diplomacy has been set as a key focus. In terms of the “hands-on” work of humanitarian organisations, its most important function is ensuring the creation and maintenance of “humanitarian access” and “humanitarian space”. These are essential to the fulfilment of the foremost duty, namely the prevention and alleviation of human suffering wherever it occurs. In current conflicts, negotiations and talks with parties to the conflict, decision-makers, stakeholders – state as well as non-state actors – can encourage the greater consideration of the interests of the affected population, and closer adherence to humanitarian principles. In practical terms, this influences if and how unrestricted access, the assessment of needs, and exercise of control over one’s own project is even possible.

The vision, mission, and goals of a strategy are realised through actions – though these remain to be seen. In the past, and when addressing other topics, the GFFO has shown that it can deliver, illustrated by the expansion of multi-year and flexible funding to at least 30 %, and its increasingly non-earmarked funding. This increased quality of funding represents a major step towards the operationalisation of the ‘nexus’, as it allows for adaptations to be made to the dynamic realities on the ground without being restrictive or at the risk of ‘interlock’[1].

Humanitarian diplomacy must also be applied outside of global conflict zones. When considering its credibility, it should be noted that a key characteristic of the GFFO is that it can set itself apart from partisan political interests, whilst simultaneously forming its own opinions on critical topics, such as weapons, sanctions and migration.

Weapons: Against an uncontrolled use

At the heart of humanitarian diplomacy lies “ius in bello”, which governs the conduct of parties to a conflict, and seeks to limit the suffering caused.  

As the nature of war and conflict changes and develops, new risks and concerns arise; the means utilised may influence the threshold for military intervention, the acknowledgement of the particular weapons used, and their increasingly destructive nature – and potential to be used. The current revival of the use of cluster bombs and the German acceptance of their delivery to Ukraine is a failure on a diplomatic, political, and moral level. Even though the most prominent manufacturers and consumers were not among them, over a hundred states agreed in 2008 to renounce and outlaw this type of weapon, including Germany. The GFFO’s humanitarian diplomacy can urge the German government to criticise and warn of the long-lasting and serious consequences of their own future policies: in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, 20,000 people were killed or injured by unexploded ordnance in Laos. In 2020, 162.81 km² of Iraq was still contaminated by remnants of cluster bombs.

One problem that became evident during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, and is now gaining traction in Ukraine, is the increasing use of technology and weaponised drones. These are supposed to be limiting damage to civilians, yet in 2021, there was a 31% increase in recorded incidents. Moreover, this type of warfare drifts into the realm of privatisation, where companies and individuals who a priori had no connection to the war then become directly involved. The GFFO’s humanitarian diplomacy can contribute to the attempted prevention of a possible arms race, unregulated use of drones, artificial intelligence (AI) or autonomous weapons systems by advocating for preventative, legally binding international regulations of these weapons systems. This has been proposed by the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ in the “New Agenda for Peace“: “States undertake and conclude negotiations of a legally binding instrument to prohibit and regulate autonomous weapons systems by 2026”.

An encouraging example of Germany’s leading diplomatic role was at the 1999 Ottawa Convention, which explicitly outlawed anti-personnel mines, provided regulations regarding their disposal, and committed to the clearance of existing minefields and victim welfare. Germany’s early cessation of the use of landmines in 1996 has given the global ban an enormous boost. Humanitarian mine and ordnance clearance and victim assistance measures have now been funded for three decades.

The policies that govern sanctions: factoring in humanitarian “sell-offs”

The GFFO’s humanitarian diplomacy strategy can influence national positions and policies in contexts where political stances towards a certain country should be reconsidered for humanitarian reasons. In Syria, the restoration of the health and water infrastructure is one of the most pressing issues. Infectious diseases such as cholera flare up time and time again due to a destitute, poverty-stricken population, a crumbling health system, destroyed sewage systems and disastrously hygienic conditions. It was known before the application of the sanctions that these would be the consequences. In addition, donors are reluctant to fund reconstruction due to political concerns. So as not to confer any legitimacy on the government, the Syrian population must not be allowed to get better. After having had to endure this for twelve winters, surely it must be possible to carry out simple repair measures, such as replacing windows in hospitals, schools and residential buildings as well as repairing broken water pipes.[2] In such internal negotiations, the GFFO’s humanitarian diplomacy can contribute by making way for various international commitments, such as addressing the long-term consequences of damage to and destruction of civilian infrastructure.

Many examples of the serious impact of sanction regimes on the provision of humanitarian action can be found in literature [3] and have been experienced bin practice. In the UN report “Protection of civilians in armed conflict” 2020 it was stated that: “Humanitarian operations were also constrained by counterterrorism and sanctions measures… have led some governments to impose conditions on humanitarian funding and humanitarian activities that jeopardize the ability of humanitarian organizations to operate in accordance with humanitarian principles.”

Liquidity crises, which also arise because of sanctions and so-called “bank de-risking”, are restricting the work of humanitarian organisations. Financial institutions and banks stop their operational activities or reduce them to a minimum to try eliminating the risk. This “chilling effect” had a majorly detrimental effect in both Iraq and Syria: from the difficulties of getting project funds transferred to the area of operation in the first place, to considerable exchange rate losses, additional fees for financial transactions, higher administrative costs, legal uncertainty and the resulting need for external legal advice, to regular payment (and the resulting project) delays, which in some cases led to the end of aid measures before they were completed.

Aid that is only delivered to places where it is ‘externally’ facilitated contributes to the undermining of its own independence and impartiality. The GFFO’s humanitarian diplomacy can keep existing sanctions regimes under constant review and propose targeted adjustments in terms of their humanitarian impact. In this role, the GFFO can facilitate a regular tripartite dialogue between ministries, banks and aid agencies on the issue of bank de-risking.

The integrity of the GFFO’s use of discretion is demonstrated by its position on “due diligence” procedures in terms of the so-called “beneficiary screening”. A clear distinction is made between “recipients of grants” and “aid beneficiaries”. In accordance with the principles of international law, non-discrimination, and neutrality, no “screening” or “vetting” of beneficiaries is required. [4] Framework conditions must not be reduced to feasibility and practicalities; these are the concrete “sell-offs” of humanitarian principles. It is the responsibility of the GFFO’s humanitarian diplomacy to advocate domestically what humanitarian action is and secondly, it has to stand up for how it must not be misappropriated. A person’s inalienable right to assistance must always be preserved, now more than ever in the face of increased policing and conditioning, such as the trend to make assistance conditional on the biometric registration of “beneficiaries”.

There is great concern about the growing number of lobbying (transatlantic) think-tanks that cloak security interests in humanitarian narratives submitting them to donors. In 2019, due to the state of emergency, a “regime collapse” was longed for in Venezuela. As it was formulated to a “regional humanitarian disaster“, it seemed automatically to destabilise neighbouring states. Images of burning aid convoys sparked an “ultima ratio” moment – all civil means had been exhausted. The subsequent truth was, a Molotov cocktail being thrown by an opposition demonstrator in the direction of government troops ignited the trucks on the border bridge with Colombia. Instead of playing a mediating role, the GFFO took the stance: “Humanitarian aid must get to Venezuela, this will only work with Juan Guaidó”. In 2022, the promise to “save” humanitarian action was even advertised in Syria with the euphemistic recommendation to „Informed Action“; in jargon, this means “beneficiary screening”. [5] For the provision of humanitarian action, as well as for the perception of Germany in international relations, the resigned acceptance of such narratives has fatal consequences. Instead, the GFFO’s humanitarian diplomacy can advocate for the “Humanitarian Call for Action” it co-initiated in 2019, to strengthen international humanitarian law and principled humanitarian action.

Migration: counteracting tunnel vision in security policy

Regarding the planned cuts in the new federal budget, it is not only important to calculate how much money will be missing, but also on what it will be spent. Strengthening border security has become one of the strongest forms of assistance from the Global North to countries in the Global South. Increasingly, as in NATO’s Strategic Concept, migration is defined as a ‘hybrid threat’. Indeed, border-crossings can be used as leverage, most recently by Turkey in 2020 or on the Belarus-Poland border in 2021. What is far more ominous, however, is the military’s tunnel vision conflating border security, irregular migration, and terrorism, often referring to them in the same breath. The reform of EU asylum law in the form of the “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” is in keeping with this picture. The GFFO is not an “enforcement agency”; humanitarian diplomacy can be used to stand up for protection standards in Europe when they are undermined and, in violation of international law, the individual right to seek asylum is taken away.

We ourselves will cross a “border” by exceeding the boundary limit of a global temperature rise more than 1,5 degrees. In a world that is two or three degrees hotter, a third of humanity falls out of the ‘climate niche‘. Preventative and mitigating measures only work to a certain extent. In such contexts, choosing to migrate may be an appropriate response to deteriorating living conditions. However, without adequate policy frameworks and support from state and civil society actors, extreme climate and environmental conditions are more likely to lead to forced displacement, rather than proactive, adaptive migration or planned resettlement. The GFFO’S humanitarian diplomacy strategy can help shape this; acknowledging migration, lobbying other governments, and acquiring the necessary resources and knowledge to implement organised migrations schemes. Such comprehensive measures have a much greater impact than projects alone.

While in 2018 it was said that “Germany is recognised worldwide as a large, professional, credible, humanitarian donor”, there are currently a great deal of bitter feelings amongst southern countries regarding the general prioritisation of issues. The experience of the COVID 19 pandemic has not been forgotten, when there was no compromise on “vaccine exemption”. New resentments are fuelled by delaying tactics and the cancellation of “loss and damage”. The recommendation of the recently published Peace Report should therefore be taken into account when drafting the new humanitarian strategy: “The German government must counteract a loss of credibility in the global South”. On the issue of credibility, humanitarian diplomacy has a key role to play, both in crisis hot spots and within Germany.

[1] The need for such practical action on the ground has never been greater. More and more countries are affected by humanitarian crises – as of 2022, 83% of people live in countries in protracted crises. The GFFO can excel by maintaining the political pressure of the Grand Bargain and inspiring other donors.

[2] For the first time, the GFFO has listed “early recovery activities” as eligible for funding in the “Cornerstone Paper for Humanitarian Aid – Syria” (December 2022).

[3] The study by the International Peace Institute was funded by the GFFO as part of the “Solutions for Safeguarding Humanitarian Action in UN Security Council Sanctions Regimes” project.

[4] See GFFO’s “Handreichung Prüfung Restriktive Maßnahmen/Sanktionen (Antrag auf Bewilligung einer Zuwendung für Humanitäre Hilfe aus Mitteln des Auswärtigen Amtes, Kapitel 3.12)” from 14.01.2022

[5] The report “Rescuing Aid in Syria” is funded by GIZ.

Ole Hengelbrock is a Policy Officer in the Disaster Relief Coordination Unit at Caritas Germany. His main areas of focus include humanitarian advocacy, lobbying and policy work.

This blog is part of the “Strategy Snacks” with which CHA is accompanying the German Federal Foreign Office’s renewal of its humanitarian strategy.
The “Strategy Snacks” are on the one hand a series of articles on this blog and on the other hand an online event series in the “Out of the box” format at lunchtime.

One Comment

  1. Norman 2. September 2023 at 10:25 - Reply

    A widely overseen factor regarding sustainable peace seems to be the legal protection of children from violence in the families: Two thirds of the countries worldwide basically still allow the beating of children. Peace researcher Franz Jedlicka assumes that without this psychological foundation of nonviolence countries might not become sustainably peaceful.And child protection (SDG 16.2.) ist contained in the peace SDG 16.


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