Talking to the other side: Humanitarian engagement with armed non-state actors

Briefing papers
June 2012

In conflicts, it is essential that humanitarian actors engage with all belligerents. Dialogue is required to facilitate access to affected populations for the provision of humanitarian assistance, as well as to promote protection.

As the majority of conflicts in which humanitarian actors operate are intra-state in nature, engaging with armed non-state actors (ANSAs) has become increasingly important. Yet the vast majority of humanitarian and multi-mandate agencies fail to engage strategically with ANSAs – with detrimental consequences for aid workers and those in need of their assistance.

This HPG Policy Brief explores the obstacles to and opportunities for humanitarian dialogue with ANSAs. It begins with the rationale for such engagement and the applicable legal frameworks. It then provides an overview of the challenges that humanitarian actors face when engaging in dialogue with ANSAs on issues of access, assistance and protection. This analysis is based on an extensive literature review and interviews undertaken as part of a two-year project on humanitarian engagement with ANSAs.

Key messages:

  • Engagement with armed non-state actors (ANSAs) on assistance and protection is integral to any effective humanitarian response to conflict-related needs. 
  • This engagement appears to have declined since the end of the Cold War, and the UN is no longer taking the lead. 
  • Counter-terror legislation and donor funding restrictions have discouraged, if not criminalised, dialogue, and there appears to be limited collaboration among humanitarian actors in engaging with ANSAs. 
  • Greater study and support is required in order to understand how humanitarian actors can successfully sustain productive humanitarian dialogue with ANSAs.