The unifying narrative and new wars

Over recent decades, an increasing number of actors have made their presence felt in the humanitarian arena. INGOs, local civil society, non-state armed actors, private corporations and even affected communities have appeared alongside the original state, military and humanitarian actors. Among these new actors, nonstate armed actors have done the most to unsettle the established narratives of conflict and protection. In response, there have been concerted efforts to recruit these new actors into the protection network.

Narrative policy theorists have identified two ways to recruit new actors into a network (see Roe, 1994). Broadly speaking, there is the possibility of engaging new narratives, which come from a different position to the existing narrative and are more relevant to these actors. Alternatively, and the path taken with the

Reframing humanitarian protection 55 humanitarian protection narrative, it is possible to extend the established narrative to incorporate new actors. In instrumental terms, it has meant adding to the original normative frameworks - international humanitarian law. While IHL traditionally focused on states and international armed conflict, modern IHL has gradually been extended in an attempt to govern the actions of organised nonstate armed actors. ’ Statements of customary law have also contributed to recent efforts to extend IHL and make it more relevant to non-state armed actors who do not have an historical allegiance to state and European-centric laws. Like the treaties, the rules of customary IHL address the protection of people who are not part of the fight. They are seen to be more relevant in non-international armed conflict, where treaty law has been found wanting. A rule is deemed customary, and as such binding on all state and non-state armed actors, if it is based on widespread practice supporting the requirement of the rule.6

The protection narrative has been further extended through the incorporation of IRL and an array of human rights conventions pertinent to protecting people from violence during armed conflict (see Chapter 1). This state-legal discourse of rights has worked to help integrate multiple new actors into the protection network, with both state and non-state armed actors having a responsibility to respect these international laws. Civilians too have been absorbed by this new discourse, for they are no longer passive beneficiaries, but active rights holders in this network of actors (see Slim & Bonwick, 2005). Furthermore, extending the protection narrative to include human rights law has worked to incorporate the INGOs that arrived in the conflict space after the Cold War. It does this through a broader understanding of protection that accommodates the different approaches of these new humanitarian actors. As the accepted definition discussed in Chapter 1 explains, protection now encompasses “all activities aimed at ensuring the full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of law” (Caverzasio, 2001, p. 19). Whether they are advocacy groups campaigning for the rights of affected communities, or relief agencies providing neutral and impartial humanitarian assistance, they can align their different approaches with this new, broader protection narrative. Ultimately, we now have a spectrum of legal frameworks that form an extension of the original protection narrative that has worked for decades to unite disparate actors behind a specific definition of the problem and the way to mitigate it.

Maintaining the network

To reiterate, power lies in the narratives that maintain an organisation’s interpretation of an event (see Roe, 1991, 1994). Transferring this to humanitarian protection, success has depended on the stabilisation of the normative legal frameworks and universal principles as the accepted definition of the problem, its cause and the way to solve it.' This stale-centric approach evolved out of a European understanding of war as an extension of state politics with the frameworks working to unify the key actors of the day - states, their militaries andhumanitarians - into a common interpretation of humanitarian protection.8 As our conceptualisation of war has slowly expanded over the past 150 years, so too have the frameworks and the actors they have attempted to unite. In the complex arena of the so-called new wars this has included efforts to encapsulate new humanitarians and non-state armed actors. Ultimately, the more interests recruited into this particular interpretation of events, the more dominant these humanitarian frameworks become and the more effective they are. This is an extension of Latour’s (1996) argument that project success is not inherently attributable to its technical design. Rather, it is a consequence of the projects “ability to continue recruiting support and so impose ... [their] growing coherence on those who argue about them or oppose them” (p. 78).

There is potentially, however, an ironic twist to these efforts to extend the protection frameworks - or the humanitarian narrative — to cover more actors in the complex and strained environment of contemporary wars. While at one level extending the narrative helps to recruit more actors, it raises the spectre of two negative consequences introduced by Roe (1991) in narrative analysis and Mosse (2005) in development anthropology. The first comes through the approach used to recruit new actors. As outlined above, by extending the narrative, it has become more complicated, undermining the simplicity and ambiguity that sits at the heart of a successful unifying narrative. Does this increasing complexity mitigate against the humanitarian narrative’s success in complex, contemporary wars? Research in narrative theory and development policy/practice analysis would indicate that it does.

Second, the broader the network and more disparate the interests, the more difficult it is to unify all actors under a single narrative. As discussed earlier, this common humanitarian narrative is supported for different reasons and serves an increasing diversity of actors. The international community has used it to rescue its self-image as civilised and humane, states to justify intervention, and militaries to reduce the lethality of modern war and protect their own. Humanitarian agencies use it for different purposes, its simplicity and ambiguity allowing them to justify their presence and approach. Insurgents have somewhat selectively adopted notions of humanitarian restraint as a strategy to garner community support and promote their international legitimacy. To repeat the question, is this diversity mitigating against the narrative’s success in complex, contemporary wars? As Mosse (2004) explains in the field of development, diversity destabilises and militates against coherence: “The greater the number of people who are invited to the party the more energy is expended attending their needs, and the more their needs shape the project” (p. 647).

It is here we start to see the increasing role of humanitarians, not for their ability to deliver relief or protect the rights of at-risk communities, which is quite limited, but for their unofficial role in recruiting new actors and maintaining the narrative that holds them together. As Mosse (2004) goes on to explain, this recruitment and maintenance of diverse actors is the task of skilled brokers who translate the meaning of the unifying narrative into the different institutional languages of its stakeholders (p. 647). In other words, linking this to protection,

Reframing humanitarian protection 57 brokers interpret the official frameworks so that they reflect the practical interests of different actors, giving them a reason to participate in the established order.

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