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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Human Rights

Interview with Hichem Khadhraoui: Can we save civilians from war?

War seems an inescapable fact of human life. But in past decades it has been civilians, not soldiers, that have borne a disproportionate brunt of warfare across the planet.

Historians often reference that, in the last major battle of the 19th century in Solferino, 40,000 combatants were either wounded or killed but only one civilian died in the fighting. In today’s conflicts that proportion has been completely reversed. An estimated 80% of the casualties of modern wars are civilians. This dramatic shift has occurred primarily because the nature of wars has shifted. Trench wars between large armies for territorial control are a thing of the past. Today, asymmetric and unconventional conflicts  between a State and one or several Non-State Armed Groups (NSAG) are the norm. Moreover, the geography of war has shifted. Now these conflicts often take place in urban areas with devastating consequences for civilian populations and infrastructure.

To mitigate that suffering and the effects of conflicts, humanitarian organizations have to make a choice: either they stay in safe areas and operate from there or they have to take risks to reach the most vulnerable communities that are often in areas under the control of NSAGs. Access to such areas is by no means assured and negotiating with NSAGs is not an easy task.

To better understand some of the challenges facing humanitarians in conflict zones today, JMEPP spoke to Hichem Khadhraoui, director of operations for Geneva Call, about what negotiating with NSAGs means, how his organization goes about doing it, and some of the challenges he and his team face in the field.

Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy: Mr Khadhraoui, can you tell us a little about GC? What does it aim to achieve and where does it work?

Hichem Khadhraoui: Geneva Call (GC) is a non-governmental organization that is dedicated to promote respect by armed non-state actors for International Humanitarian Law. It works in 20 countries around the world with a focus on the Middle East. The aim of the organization is to enhance the protection of the civilian population. GC is a relatively young organisation that was created in the year 2000 out of an understanding that, although states could ratify treaties and laws, conventions and norms because of their entity as states, Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs) cannot do so because they are not recognized by international law, which in essence was made by states and for states.

Thus, GC recognizes the vacuum that exists, which prevents a NSAG from committing to a specific norm. Therefore, GC endeavours to engage with willing NSAGs by using what we call a Deed of Commitment, which is a treaty-like tool signed between GC and the NSAG under the auspices of the Geneva Canton in Switzerland. The Deed of Commitment was created to allow non-state armed actors to show commitment to specific humanitarian norms. So far 55 NSAG have signed deeds of commitment and GC is engaging in dialogue with over 100 NSAGs.

As far as the content of the deeds of commitment is concerned, we focus mostly on tangible issues. The first specific issue we focus on is the banning of the use of anti-personnel mines by armed groups. The second is the protection of children from recruitment by armed groups with the key objectives of releasing minors who are currently recruited, preventing future recruitment and ensuring respect for education institutions during conflict. The third focus is on prevention of sexual violence in conflict and the elimination of gender discrimination in conflicts.

JMEPP: What are the challenges that you and your organization face in carrying out your work?

Khadhraoui: Because of the size of GC, we face incredible pressure to develop and scale up so that we can respond to the protection needs of communities. This creates constant pressure on the limited resources that GC has to allocate. But we face many other challenges.

The first one is the multiplicity of armed actors that are involved in today’s conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen. Another very concrete challenge we face is the issue of security. Accessing remote areas where the NSAGs operate has concrete risks and security challenges that are enormous. Finally, it is important to remember that we are dealing with NSAGs that are seen and perceived as “terrorists.” Thus, convincing states on the need to talk with these groups is often a big challenge that we face. Furthermore, the proliferation of anti-terror legislations and the whole narrative of countering violent extremism (CVE) has put a lot of stigma on humanitarian organizations that try to engage and negotiate with Non-State Armed Actors. Thus, in order to minimize that stigma and avoid criminalization of our action we try to do a lot of advocacy at UN level and, earlier this year, we had the opportunity to share our concerns and advocate for greater engagement with NSAGs at the World Humanitarian Summit. These efforts have given us the opportunity to build coalitions and contribute to the debate so that we can reduce the impact of conflicts on civilian populations.

JMEPP: How is your organization different from the plethora of NGOs operating in the Middle East?

Khadhraoui: We are complementary with organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Doctors without borders (MSF). Whenever necessary, we exchange information and coordinate with them both at the strategic and field levels. Also thematically, we do care pretty much about the same things with the objective of minimizing the [effects of the] conflict on civilian populations and protecting their access to healthcare in emergencies. However, unlike the ICRC, UN agencies, and NGOs like MSF, we do not have [humanitarian] assistance programs. We do mostly engage with NSAGs based purely on improving their behaviour and protecting civilians. So GC does not engage in frontline negotiations to provide humanitarian assistance but focus on strengthening the rule of law amongst armed non state actors with the ultimate aim to improve the life of the civilian population.

JMEPP: How do you negotiate? What tools and approaches? And what’s in it for the Armed Groups to get involved?

Khadhraoui: We have a two-pronged approach. Basically, the ultimate objective of GC is to have NSAGs change the behavior of their fighters. We do this by asking an NSAG’s leadership to sign a document, the, whereby they commit to respecting key specific humanitarian norms. After the signing we do an implementation plan where we agree with a clear timeline for the implementation of the commitment to which they signed up. Once the implementation begins, they send regular compliance reports that detail what actions they have undertaken to minimize violations and the progress in respecting [these humanitarian] norms.

Basically, we do all of this because we want them to have ownership of the commitment. This is very different from other organizations that do seminars and disseminate information on International Humanitarian Law. What we want is for the groups to not only understand their behaviour but also to take concrete steps to changing them. Subsequently, we do monitoring visits that are un-announced to check their progress and commitment to the document. Additionally, we sit with the NSAG’s leadership and we do training that sometimes is three to four days long with case studies from real violations that they and their troops have committed during the conflict. In a way this is an “after action review” that give us the opportunity to understand what happened and for the armed group to take stock of their mistakes and look at ways of minimizing these mistakes and changing the behavior of their troops. Finally, we have developed a small app called “fighter not killer” that can be downloaded and contains scenarios that armed groups have faced. It helps promoting [humanitarian] norms and it is adapted to the new technologically-savvy armed groups that operate in the Middle East.

As for the question of what’s in it for them, first, I think that we have to understand that with many of these groups the approach is a long term one. We cannot think to change the behaviour of someone, let alone a group, from one day to the next. However, there are some groups that believe they need to be credible in their fight. Thus, in order to sustain that credibility, they need to make sure they respect and minimize the [effects of the] conflict on the civilian population. So many groups understand the role image plays in the media. Therefore, they believe that they have to somehow win, not only the military battle, but also the battle for the hearts and minds of the communities in which they operate. Finally, some leaders are very conscious of the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC). For example, as is in the case of Democratic Republic of Congo, the ICC pressure plays a big role and some leaders are fearful they might be indicted in the future if they don’t take active role in changing some disturbing behavior by their fighters.

JMEPP: As far as Jihadi NSAGs are concerned, a general assumption is that they are fighting against Western ideals and values. How do you engage with NSAGs that are supposedly fighting against the very same values – i.e. International Law – that GC tries to engage them with?

Khadhraoui: The important factor that we often forget to take account is that people and groups change. I will tell you the example of the Taliban. When they started being in control of Afghanistan in the mid 1990s they were totally against International Law and what it represented. But today, as the work of the ICRC demonstrates, they understand and respect the values of International Humanitarian Law and are committed to minimizing the violations of these humanitarian norms that negatively affect the civilian population. Another example is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen that has published a code of conduct and are keen to uphold humanitarian norms [regarding their activities in Yemen] that are very much in line with International Humanitarian Law. Thus, groups change as much as people change. So we have to be patient and accept that we will be here for the long run. Imagine if we had stopped as soon as we faced challenges with the Taliban or with AQAP. Today we wouldn’t be where we are in respect to these two groups.

There is a need to continue the dialogue regardless of the immediate challenges. Also, many groups are influenced by tribal leaders, religious groups and so on. For example, in the case of the Shia militant actors in Iraq, we talk and engage with Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. We engage with the religious Shia apparatus so that they can translate our message and support in our endeavours. I believe that there is a way to engage with NSAGs by engaging the people, entities and the environment that have a positive influence on the NSAG itself. Finally, I’d like to bring to the attention one of the critiques that I hear: that by engaging with NSAG we legitimize their actions and their existence. I want your readers to understand that whatever the agreement and the deed of commitment are about, there is never a talk of recognition of their legal status. From our side, there is absolutely no official or political recognition.

JMEPP: Do you negotiate with the Islamic State or has the Islamic State signed a deed of commitment?

Khadhraoui: To be frank, so far we haven’t started a dialogue with the Islamic State Group. However, we do not have a red line or limits that prevent us from speaking with the Islamic State. So far we don’t have access to them but would like to engage with them. We need to speak with them otherwise we would lose credibility. We cannot pick and choose whom we engage with because our objective is to engage with all groups that are involved in a fight so that they learn and incorporate into their codes how to minimize the effects of conflict on the civilian population.

JMEPP: Because of its work GC has access to a lot of privileged information. Who do you share your findings with? Do states approach you for information on NSAGs?

Khadhraoui: We are ready to share information. We are sometimes also facilitating contacts between armed actors and other organizations if we see a benefit for the civilian population. For example, if the community needs assistance and we talk about that with the armed group, then we can pass the message to humanitarian actors so that they provide assistance to these communities with the consent of the NSAG. However, we do not share information publicly because it would prevent us from engaging with the NSAG. We only share information with the authorization and consent of the armed group and only if it’s for the benefit of the population. I really want to stress that the beneficiaries of this process are the civilian population. So if we believe that sharing information will harm the interest of the community or the civilian population, then we have a moral obligation not to share information.

Mr Hichem Khadhraoui is the Director of Operations of Geneva Call, a humanitarian organisation promoting better respect for International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights among non-state armed actors in conflict settings. Before joining Geneva Call, he worked for around 11 years at the International Committee of the Red Cross both at the field and headquarters levels in various management and program coordination positions in countries such as Somalia, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan to name a few.