Lessons from Yemen’s Humanitarian Frontlines: Q&A with Cedric Schweizer & Claude Bruderlein

An International Committee of the Red Cross delegation inspects areas damaged by bombing in Yemen. Sanaa, August 9, 2015. (Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu/Getty Images)

Much-needed peace talks between Yemen’s government and Houthi rebels could commence in mid-November, according to the United Nations’ special envoy to the country, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. For now, much of Yemen’s population remains in danger, and humanitarian workers must negotiate on the conflict’s frontlines to deliver assistance.

The former head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Yemen, Cedric Schweizer, said this task was made harder by the multi-layered nature of Yemeni society.

“We needed to discuss with absolutely all the groups there—the government, of course, but also the armed groups, and different tribes and subtribes—to have a better understanding and to be able to have access to the neediest people,” Mr. Schweizer said.

Mr. Schweizer and ICRC Senior Adviser Claude Bruderlein spoke with International Peace Institute Senior Director of Programs Maureen Quinn, while in New York to discuss ICRC’s experience of these and other frontline negotiations, and to explain a new project aimed at allowing more humanitarian experts to share similar valuable information.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Cedric, you were in Yemen during a very tumultuous period, from 2013 until summer of this year, during which time a fragile political transition evolved into conflict. Can you describe what you saw, and what was in place in terms of humanitarian efforts?

When I arrived in 2013 in Yemen, the humanitarian situation was already very complicated, and the people were facing a very dire situation. The ICRC already had a delegation with four officers in the country, and our main aim was to try to give protection to the population and to deliver assistance.

The interesting thing about Yemen is that it’s a kind of multi-layered society, and we needed to discuss with absolutely all the groups there—the government, of course, but also the armed groups, and different tribes and subtribes—to have a better understanding and to be able to have access to the neediest people.

What enabled you to continue to have access and provide humanitarian assistance as the situation deteriorated?

It’s very important to understand that we are facing between three and four conflicts in Yemen. The first priority was to try to have better access to the field, to be able to deliver assistance, but then, when the Decisive Storm Operations started in 2015, we were facing even more problems in terms of humanitarian assistance.

The big issue was with our assistance accessing the country, and here we were mainly concerned with fuel. The problem in Yemen is that fuel is the most important thing if you want to get a generator functioning, if you want to get water, or if you want the machines in your hospital functioning. So we were dealing not only with the people within Yemen, but also from the outside with the people of the coalition, to be able to import these very vital needs like medicines, and also to allow the commercial system to function again, to ensure that fuel was going to be distributed within the country.

Claude, the International Committee of the Red Cross is launching a new project, or platform, in which humanitarian and ICRC staff are being interviewed, so that they can exchange information about these challenging frontline negotiations. Can you tell me what the hope is for the platform, how it works, and what the challenges are?

Essentially, the platform recognized that within the ICRC and the larger humanitarian community there is accumulated experience on negotiation and dealing with the most complex dilemmas and challenges in getting access to populations. The challenge is learning how can we capture and analyze this experience in a way that makes it available to other practitioners in real time.

We know that from here we need to develop not only memory—an institutional memory—about this experience, but also policy, tools, methods, grids, checklists, and so on that can be brought to groups of negotiators to talk among themselves. Ultimately, the intention is to inform conversation among peers. We believe that negotiations are best conducted by people at the field level, in context, with their personal skills and capabilities.

The aim of the platform is to support these frontline negotiators and mediators, and to try to connect them with experiences that take place in other locations with the same dilemmas, or across periods of time where former negotiators were there and also active in the same context, but where we may have lost track of them.

Why bring this dialogue and peer learning on humanitarian frontline negotiations to peacekeepers, development actors, and diplomats? Isn’t the work of humanitarians apolitical? Why have this dialogue here in New York?

Essentially, we consider that frontline situations have now become part of the daily lives of many members of the international community—peacekeepers, development specialists, human rights observers. In this context, we believe that ICRC’s experience is of use to other organizations, and equally we could learn from others in enriching our own experience.

Frontlines are part of protracted conflict, and we’re talking about there being a transnational nature to some of those frontlines. It’s by collecting our common efforts that we will be able to approach complex dilemmas and try to come up with original, innovative solutions, so we can better serve the population affected.

Cedric, given your experience in Yemen, beyond the need for additional human and material resources, what humanitarian policy questions or issues would you suggest need further fresh thinking or research?

Negotiation is one of the points I think where we have now started to try to have a better understanding, because we’re dealing with gut feelings in negotiations. We want to find and to understand better negotiation skills to help other colleagues know how to negotiate. The fact that we are negotiating almost on a daily basis is important to remember.

The second point I think is that we are facing more and more country-specific contexts in conflicts, and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is not respected. This is something that can be frustrating for us sometimes, to see how we can be sure that all the groups, all the people involved in conflict, understand and apply IHL. It’s one of the big challenges for the future.