While humanitarian engagement may create space for peacemaking, this is by no means assured. There are tensions between a humanitarian approach and political engagement, and experience shows that belligerents might well use humanitarian engagement as a means of putting off discussion on political issues. Armed groups might, for example, agree to discuss access for aid workers and relief supplies to show they are responding to international demands, but do so only to postpone serious negotiations aimed at ending the conflict. Such behaviour can be encouraged by unwary outside governments and intergovernmental organisations under pressure to show they are doing something to address the conflict. This was the criticism levelled by humanitarian agencies in the Bosnia war, when the European Union, UN and others entered into numerous humanitarian agreements with the various warring factions, requiring these agencies to carry out various functions but postponing any serious pressure to end the conflict.
A key tension between the different approaches is the worry that a blurring of approaches will compromise the ability of humanitarian agencies to carry out their activities. Where actors with explicitly political or conflict resolution approaches are seen to manipulate humanitarian concerns for the sake of a negotiation strategy, relief workers fear that this will rebound negatively on their work. They will insist on a humanitarian 'space', free from the parties' short-term political interests where the sole concern is to tend to the needs of the war's victims in an impartial way. Though at times arguments defending this space may have an excessively 'purist' or unrealistic quality (given that humanitarian issues themselves are so often deeply politicised), it is important for those working to end the conflict to be attentive to the general point.
A related issue is that armed groups are alert to the fact that beginning a discussion on humanitarian issues may draw them towards political negotiation: where they are reluctant to proceed so far, this wariness may in fact create a block to solving humanitarian matters.
Ending conflicts is a difficult, long-term task. It would be unwise for its practitioners to gamble too carelessly with the short-term humanitarian goals of mitigating suffering. Using humanitarian issues as an entrée, therefore, must be done carefully and due recognition given to the fact that humanitarian principles are important in their own right. They cannot be simply subsumed, in a purely instrumental way, to the goal of resolving the conflict.
Key risks that arise, therefore, include:
- armed groups may use negotiations on humanitarian issues as an easy means of gaining legitimacy and delaying progress on substantive political issues;
- humanitarian principles may get subordinated to political ends, and if means to achieve those ends fail the conflict may continue with even less respect for those principles;
- armed groups win the legitimacy conferred by international engagement, without being forced to give anything in return.
A further set of issues concerns the universality of humanitarian principles. Governments and their military forces must show at least rhetorical commitment to international humanitarian law (IHL), because virtually all governments have ratified the core IHL treaties. Armed groups no doubt gain international legitimacy when they make a similar commitment, but only from the particular perspective of a state-centred world governed by a set of international norms of behaviour, regulated by state-dominated institutions. If an armed group's constituency and/or ideology expressly rejects or pays little heed to such a world then it may show little inclination to abide by its rules of behaviour.
In other words, when dealing with armed groups one cannot assume there is agreement on key humanitarian principles, even at a purely rhetorical level. Anarchists, fundamentalists of all stripes, new religious movements and others may indeed refuse to stand on the shared platform that allows for a discussion on means to enhance civilian protection or ensure access to medical supplies.