Issue 56 - Article 5

Building consensus within the humanitarian community: lessons learned from the revision process for the IASC guidelines on the use of military and armed escorts

January 9, 2013
Jules L. Frost
Soldiers from the joint African Union – United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) peacekeeping force guard a supply convoy

In July 2011, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Working Group asked the Task Force on Humanitarian Space and Civil–-Military Relations to review and update the IASC Non-binding Guidelines on the Use of Military and Armed Escorts for Humanitarian Convoys (2001). The primary concerns that led to the decision to revise the guidelines were the recognition of a growing reliance on armed escorts, the need to synchronise a more robust decision-making process on the use of armed escorts with the new UN Security Management System (SMS) and inconsistencies in the interpretation and application of the out-of-date guidelines. The revised guidelines, which are currently under review by the IASC Working Group and Principals, include a new section which encourages due consideration of alternatives to armed escorts. Throughout the revised guidelines, greater attention is drawn to the importance of conducting comprehensive security risk assessments that emphasise programme criticality as well as threat, vulnerability and risk analysis as key decision-making criteria. The revised guidelines also highlight the need for UN and non-UN agencies to work towards developing a common position on the use of armed escorts, and propose that Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) meetings should be used as the primary fora to debate this.

This article reflects on the long and difficult process of revising the guidelines, offering insights and lessons learned on how to build consensus on the complex issues relating to civil–-military coordination.

Revising the guidelines

The task of revising the guidelines was assigned to a drafting team consisting of IASC members and representatives from UN agencies, international NGOs, the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) and the Department of Peace Keeping Operations (DPKO). The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was not formally involved in the revision process, but participated as an observer. Throughout the ten months it took to revise the guidelines, there were rigorous debates on content. While some of the obstacles to reaching agreement stemmed from a lack of familiarity with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and differing interpretations of humanitarian principles amongst participants, the greatest constraints to achieving consensus were related to process. Some participating agencies did not prioritise engagement in the process, and did not allocate sufficient staff time or follow through on agreed action points.

This lack of investment by agencies in the process of revising the guidelines was disappointing. It is also a cause for concern given the challenges that face humanitarian actors working in conflict areas. The operating environment for humanitarian actors has changed significantly in recent years, and relations with military actors, including international peacekeeping and other forces, have become more complex. As we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and elsewhere, achieving consensus amongst humanitarian actors operating on the ground with regard to their relationship with military actors is crucial to promoting and protecting the humanitarian principles which are necessary to support safe and effective humanitarian action.

Achieving consensus

Consensus amongst humanitarian actors is difficult to achieve, particularly in relation to some of the most complex aspects of civil-–military coordination. The mandate, mission and values of humanitarian organisations vary significantly. They rely on diverse ethical frameworks and values variously informed by principles, rights, sympathy and dignity and/or rules. The willingness of organisations to compromise these values to achieve critical humanitarian objectives also varies considerably. Thus, there are many diverse approaches to engagement with military actors, which are difficult to reconcile into a common position.

The goal of a consensus decision-making process is to arrive at an acceptable compromise, not unanimous agreement on every issue. Throughout the process of revising the guidelines several issues provoked lengthy and heated debates. Clarifying language choice and meaning was central to the resolution of several of these disputes. Obtaining consensus on what is meant by terms like ‘last resort’ reinforced the importance of words and their meanings. In other cases disagreement arose because some participants did not have a good understanding of IHL, or held different interpretations of humanitarian principles. One of the more contentious issues, which was extensively debated, concerned which actors (private security companies, local guards, military actors) should be listed as potential providers of armed escorts, and whether they should receive financial or in-kind support, at what level and under what circumstances. Reaching agreement on the roles, responsibilities, relationships and decision rights of the various actors involved in humanitarian civil–-military coordination, including the UN Designated Official, UN DSS, the Humanitarian Coordinator, the HCT and international NGOs, was complicated by a lack of clarity around how the ongoing implementation of the Transformative Agenda could affect these organisations. The Transformative Agenda, launched in December 2010, aims to build on and improve the impact of the Humanitarian Reform process initially in large-scale, sudden-onset emergencies that require a ‘system-wide’ mobilisation. The three priority thematic areas addressed are leadership, coordination and strategic systems.

Less time could have been spent debating and trying to reach consensus on these points had the agencies involved already developed clear internal policies and positions regarding engagement with the military or other armed actors. For example, one of the agencies involved struggled to present a united perspective amongst its own staff during the revision process. Debate that should have been internal to the agency took place during drafting team sessions, which diverted attention from the primary agenda, delayed progress and impacted on the agency’s credibility with partners. In other cases, representatives of agencies that had no clearly defined policy or position aggressively put forward their own personal beliefs and preferences, which were not always endorsed by their organisations later.

Lessons learned


Building consensus requires strong and effective leadership committed to maintaining the momentum necessary to achieve the desired outcome. An effective leader has a clear vision and strategy, can structure and run meetings effectively, actively engages interested stakeholders and is able to elicit and incorporate a range of opposing views. Investment upfront in crafting a course of action can save a great deal of time and energy throughout the consensusbuilding process.

Establish the ‘decision-rule’

Achieving consensus does not necessarily mean obtaining the agreement of everyone to everything. Therefore, it is important that the group establishes at the beginning of the process the ‘decision-rule’, that is the level of agreement necessary to finalise the decision (for example, agreement of all but one or two participants). If this is not done, as was the case in the drafting task force, the consensus-building process remains open-ended and can result in frustration and disappointment. It was not clear at the end of the process whether the leader was empowered to make a decision on behalf of the group, or whether another round of consultations was required.

Commitment, collaboration and compromise

Commitment of the leader and group members to both the process and the end result is vital. The high turnover of the task force members indicated that some agencies either did not see participation as a priority or did not have the capacity to maintain a consistent presence. In several cases, task force members were reassigned or redeployed elsewhere by their agencies, and new people were assigned who had not been adequately briefed. Trust between members then had to be rebuilt, and whatever consensus had been achieved up to that point had to be renegotiated. This substantially slowed down the process and created a degree of frustration. While it is impossible to eliminate this problem entirely, the participation of those agencies that did try to manage and minimise the rotation of staff in and out of the task force was more effective.

Knowledge and experience

It is important to have people with relevant knowledge, experience and decision-making authority around the table. We have all participated in meetings where the room is filled with staff that are present because no one else could attend. They have not been briefed and are unable to make effective contributions or take decisions. This can easily demotivate those who have come prepared. During the debates pertaining to the roles, responsibilities and decision-making authority of the various UN entities, the people who had this knowledge were often not present. This resulted in time being wasted on long-drawnout debates. The drafting team had extensive policy experience but lacked significant operational experience pertaining to the use of armed escorts. Efforts to get this experience on the drafting team from the beginning would have improved the process and perhaps eliminated the need to ‘ground-truth’ the guidelines.

Time and active listening

All participating organisations should be afforded equal opportunity for input into the process. It is essential to ensure that concerns that are either fundamental to an organisation’s mission or mandate or which could negatively affect the wider humanitarian community are not overlooked. The result will be a stronger, more informed outcome owned by the task force, thus setting the stage for greater adherence and success in implementing the resulting decision.


For the humanitarian community to improve its relationships with military actors, it is important that we build consensus on how we should interact with the military. Achieving a greater degree of consensus within the humanitarian community on civil–-military relations can contribute towards:

  • A common understanding of civil–-military relations: This can minimise complexity, increase adherence to existing policy and guidance and clarify and maintain the fundamental distinctions between the humanitarian and military domains. Greater cohesion among humanitarians will enable the military to engage more effectively with us.
  • Mitigating security risks to humanitarians and beneficiaries: The nature of the relationship between one humanitarian agency and the military may have an impact on the work of other humanitarian agencies. For example, the use of armed escorts by one agency may negatively impact the perception of neutrality and impartiality of other humanitarian agencies in the same operational area. An agreed approach among the humanitarian community regarding the use of armed escorts can improve operations, mitigate security risks and identify an appropriate balance between a principled and pragmatic approach.
  • Identifying better solutions: Focus on making use of the diversity that exists within the humanitarian community to discover alternatives and improve the effectiveness and impact of humanitarian assistance.

Lessons learned from the revision process for the guidelines on the use of armed escorts demonstrates that getting the right people around the table at the right time, with strong leadership and adequate time to share perspectives, learn from one another and discover areas of agreement to build upon, is key to achieving consensus. Given the degree of collective action that is required of the humanitarian community, we need to better equip ourselves to lead and manage consensusbuilding processes.

Jules L. Frost is Senior Advisor, Civil–-Military and Police Relations, at World Vision International.


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