Transcript: Negotiating with Warlords, with Hichem Khadhraoui

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Turi: [00:00:00] We’re thrilled to be talking to Hichem Khadraoui, who is the director of operations at Geneva Call. Geneva Call, an independent NGO, which promotes international humanitarian law and human rights among non-state armed groups. Hichem, it’s great to speak to you.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Hichem Khadhraoui: [00:00:18] Thank you. Thank you very much, Turi, for the invitation.

Turi: [00:00:21] Fantastic. Um, the first thing I’d like to do is to ask you to explain a little bit what Geneva Call is and what it does. Give us a bit of history.

Hichem Khadhraoui: [00:00:30] Thank you. Geneva Call. We are, uh, an organization that has a strictly emitter and mandate. We are based out of Geneva, but we have field offices in 15 countries worldwide. Our main objective is to make sure that civilians trapped in conflicts are basically spared from violations against their own rights against their life, that they have access to healthcare and that they are not subject to rape or forced recruitment. Um, and the way we do it is very unique. If I can say with regard to the, all the class seats with our landscape, we try to approach those than in conflict, uh, mostly causing these violations, uh, in today’s conflicts worldwide, we mostly have non international armed conflict.

Which basically involves non-state armed groups against States or non-state armed groups fighting against each other. We chose since 20 years to try to engage to approach these non-state armed groups, these illegal entities, that for most of the people worldwide is even hard to conceive talking to. And you try to approach them in a very objective manner without judging.

And you try to convince them. To basically change their behavior to basically understand better what is international remitter and lo, and to try actually to see, to make concrete changes for the benefit of the population. We believe that by trying to approach those were directly involved, we may see a change after world in, in having worlds that are basically more respectful for the civilian creation.

Turi: [00:02:12] Hichem. That’s extraordinary. Thank you for the overview in the context of Parlia. Um, the reason that I wanted to talk to you is because of course, you’re going into some of the most fraught situations around and trying to convince armed, angry and violent groups to abide by a set of abstract ideals.

Um, that you’re promoting to them in terms of negotiation, in terms of, um, empathy, in terms of bridging the divide, um, you can’t get more extreme, an example of, uh, uh, than what Geneva call and then what then what you do. So I’m, I’m thrilled to be talking to you in this hyper polarized time, um, to remind all of us that there is polarized, you know, conservative and liberal Democrat republican labour tory. Um, there’s polarized and then there’s, um, armed groups, um, and, and, and civil war. So sham, thank you so much for talking to us, give us a sense of the kind of organizations that you’re dealing with, the kind of the kind of armed groups that you’ve had to engage with.

Hichem Khadhraoui: [00:03:19] I can say that. Um, it’s hard to, to answer directly to your question because we have as many armed groups as we have type of conflicts, values, communities, different countries, different cultures. Um, arm groups, actually the mirror of the communities that are located and found in all these, all these contexts, we have armed groups that actually believe that they should replace the state.

And as an act, as such, we categorize them as cause I stayed on groups. Um, the lawns that, uh, already have like ministers, they have departments, they have justice, they have prisons. Uh, they have as well, uh, services to populations that sometimes even a better than the ones provided by the state. In context, where there is war raging.

Um, we have as well armed groups that are actually the mirror of the communities. They are like the defenders of the communities that they are, that they are fighting for. Um, the ones that are the ethnic based on groups, such as we found in Myanmar, for example, uh, they are defending their own communities that defending a way of life particular dialect. And of course they have different means and actions of the first category. We have as weird type of armed groups that we categorize as the radicalized around groups. The ones that believe that the let’s say the law that is respected and applied worldwide should not apply to them because they are at the margin. Of society and this radicalized groups, as we found in the Islamic state group, for example, or some groups, um, and many other places, uh, had their own set of laws, they have their own rules to follow and they basically reject any other type of law. And this is extremely hard because you have to basically convince them that there is a bridge between what they believe.

And what the other ones believe, because at the end we have sense of common understanding of what is a civilian and what is respect. Um, we have as well armed groups that are supporting state forces, usually in the mind of the people. Now I’m group is in the position on group a gorilla. Type, but we have many illegal entities that actually supporting state action in a particular civil war.

And you have sometimes with hybrid a mix between a state support and the non-group. So the picture is extremely diverse and complex as a world. And this is why we have to be extremely careful when we, when we decipher this, uh, this situation to, to engage on groups on the ground.

Turi: Amazing. So just to, just to go through that topology again, in my head, what popped was quasi state arm groups would be something like, um, the Kurdish groups in, in Eastern Syria or the FARC in Columbia that for many years sort of dominated a huge area of. Uh, uh, of land there, the, um, the, the local hyper community-based arm groups would be like, as you said, Myanmar potentially even ETA in the Basque country that closely re closely represent a specific community. The third would be, um, armed groups that are, uh, sort of exclude themselves from the standard, uh, Humanitarian umbrella or unit.

Those are the idea of universal full rights as they expressed you described, or might talk about IAS or alcohol. Uh, as an example of that, and the fourth was these arm groups that work with, um, work with the state. One might say, for example, that his Bella in Lebanon is an, is in part allied. And in part against, uh, the state of Lebanon itself, is that roughly, uh, it’s sort of a decent topology of the full types you’ve just described.

Hichem: This is very correct. Are you really, uh, pictured where the complexity of this and we have, we can have more and more type policies. We can even speak about cyber groups. Um, of course, next week I will have an event as well on cyber warfare and armed groups. And we have maybe in the armed groups that are on the individual space causing as well.

It must’ve damages, and this would require a study in itself. So. Armed groups are basically trying to copycat States. And usually unfortunately to take what’s was the worst side, but that’s where trying as well to, to evolve according to the value situations of the particular conflict. And you have armed groups that are joining umbrella entities, getting together, splitting again.

So it’s a very fluid environment and this is even more fluid in the past. I would say two decades and I was just wanting to. Two take one statistic that is very formally striking. Um, in the past six years we saw more arm groups created than in the past 60 years of conflict. This is just to show you the, the density of the, um, of the, of the equation.

I mean, in a conflict like Syria in the beginning of the conflict in the 2014, 2015, we saw, um, no more than 1,300 armed groups fighting, uh, in the given time in the, uh, in the country. So what is the reason for this mass proliferation of armed groups around the world in the last six years? Is it mostly tied to Syria?

Is it, is it more macro? Is it something to do with climate change? Is it to do with globalization? What, what what’s going on? It’s very interesting. You, you actually, um, hinted on, on three, I will say arguments that, that, that are supporting this, uh, this proliferation. Um, when I take the, the example of Syria, Syria is basically the, the conflict.

Where we saw globalization as its best. Uh we’ve um, regional polar has being involved with international power being involved and we saw as well, what we are seeing, you know, the conflicts when we have state entities, uh, creating or sometimes supporting, um, groups to fight. Uh, on their behalf, on the ground, uh, we have less and less, uh, um, Wars between States in something from the past, from before the cold war and the call and the end of the cold war really launched the era of farm groups where we have armed groups, basically, um, fighting.

Uh, and stays being behind having more hidden role. And this created a lot of, uh, a lot of issues because to whom you speak at the end, who is responsible at the end of the, of the, of the action climate change as well, has a lot to play because climate change provoke huge consequences, uh, in any country, but especially in conflict in, in countries or a conflict. Is happening, uh, the drought, for example, that provokes massive displacements in Syria, in South Sudan, in the Sahara region, um, provokes as well, a lack of economic opportunities, uh, sorry for many, many young people and men that used to work in the, uh, in the field was, uh, uh, Cattle herders. And this creates basically opportunities for illegal entities to create, uh, these type of farm groups and fights and as well, the legitimation sorry to. To fight, um, globalization as well brings, uh, more and faster connections between, uh, States and as well between non States. So you have non-state armed groups that communicate exchange expertise or weapons. Uh, it’s a whole network on its own. And I just want to take one example that will illustrate this globalization.

We wanted actually to engage a non-group in Colombia and the armed group was extremely hard. To talk to, they were very, let’s say suspicious of any foreigners trying to talk to them. They say that, you know, they’re all, you all come from the West and you have the hidden agenda. The CIA is with you and all these, all these words that we hear and how did we negotiate it? We basically talked to a non group which was located in the middle East. That had the same mentality and share the same values and they were communicating to each other actually, and these aren’t group in the middle East basically send some messages to the leadership of this group in Columbia. And thanks to that, we were able basically to directly engage with these group.

So just to show you the, the, the extent of this globalized communication that we are witnessing today,

Turi: [00:12:31] That’s extraordinary Hichem. Um, so yes, Geneva call is taking a single message, which is respect for universal human rights to a multiplicity of groups in different. Geographies with completely different cultures. Your work therefore of negotiation is extraordinarily difficult and extraordinary diverse. And that’s, I think what I really want to talk to you about today. So tell me, how does the journey work of convince, seeing somebody who is on a very, very different path, whether it’s around the use of child soldiers, the use of civilians as shields, all the various different things, which. You guys at Geneva called are trying to stop happening. How do you, how do you turn somebody? How do you turn a group? Um, as radicalized as one, which has taken up weapons.

Hichem Khadhraoui: [00:13:26] Yeah. Thanks. Uh, thanks for, for, for this question. I mean, it’s, um, it’s a long journey, as you say, and you actually say the right road, it’s a journey. If someone thinks that, uh, by just clicking in clapping in the hand, we can open, let’s say your channel of communication between the non group member or leader and someone external to design group is wrong. Uh, it’s an extremely, I would say sensitive, um, matter. That requires a lot of preparation before.

And I think it’s something that we, I need to communicate is, uh, it’s not something that, uh, that is life. That is a given. I mean, it’s something that is that we need to work on. We work a lot with local communities and there’s just one. Maybe you want to highlight one story just to explain you maybe the, the mechanism, uh, or the behind, uh, This work behind this disengagement.

Um, I just want to take one context is the context of the DRC, the democratic Republic of Congo. Um, this country, unfortunately, uh, has seen war since for decades, more than four decades, 40 years. Um, it’s a civil war. You basically have the state forces fighting against myriads of non-state armed groups most located on the Eastern side of the Congo, which is border with Rwanda and Burundi as other countries as well.

Um, this Eastern part of the Congo are called the Kivas Northern Southern Kiva was, and just in these two districts, we have not less than 130 armed groups. Fighting controlling territories, controlling populations, controlling minds, uh, doing businesses. Um, so this is the terrain where we basically works is no six years. And I just want to highlight one particular district here, which isn’t another key one. Once Toby, you had been one arm group. This arm group actually was recruiting children. We knew that the communities knew that because they were forced to send their children to the ranks of disarm groups. Um, rather than going to schools, we have a lot of organizations that had the information, but it was very hard for, for anyone to basically try to speak with them. They were very, let’s say far away from any town and the urban centers at Geneva, we thought about what would be the best way to try to talk to them. So what we did, we tried to say, let’s understand where they are, where they are leaving. Disarm group was concerning a vast territory in the jungle. We have mountains and jungles.

There is a very hostile environment for away from roads, from the cars and to understand better the way they leave. We have to put ourselves in their shoes. So what we did, we talked with one local NGO. Uh, there are human rights, NGO, Congolese, human rights, NGO that are from the community of Dusan group from the same community.

And we trained, we trained these local NGO on the mechanism on IHL on human rights. And you basically ask someone, can you spend. Couple of months with the armed groups live with them, understanding them, talk to them. And this person went and spent a couple of couple of months, even more in the jungle, talking to them, talking about what we do very indirectly and here, the stood, he lived with them. He understood basically the hard life. And then the wrong group started to realize that there isn’t a Swiss NGO that actually doesn’t come with a big four by four doesn’t come with B publicity, but just want maybe to understand their own side of the story. And after that, we basically had a mission when I took part of it. And we basically went to the headquarter. Far away in the mundane. It was a test by genre leader. So we basically to the four by four, we drove one day we stopped in one small village. We took them motorbike. We drove eight hours. In impossible roads. Sometimes there were no roads. I think I fell almost like four times in, in a murder then towards like is everywhere. I mean, it was a disaster, it was rainy season. It was just disgusting. And they, they made it on propose that we went to see them on the rainy season just to give you the difficulty. And then we stopped in a place we slept. And then the third day we walked. Oh, we worked, we worked for, uh, I would say six hours, six hours. We work there and we w we reached, um, the mundane where the young groups was located. It was the headquarter. They could not even believe that we reached them. They said at the beginning, how did you were even able to be there? And after that we stayed one night, we discussed for the whole night. I didn’t talk about humanitarian law.

I didn’t talk about human rights. I just ask questions. What is your life? What did you, what did you do before the commander was, was a teacher. Was a teacher that was displaced, but by previous fighting and then his other, uh, was an engineer, a third one was someone worth fighting before we the army, uh, of the state. So I try to understand better the stories. And the next day we explained, look, You know that you have children in your ranks. You know that by, by having that you are causing troubles within your own communities, you are weakening them. What is the best solution? Then you want to fight for your community, or you want to fight only for yourself.

And after that, they started to, to explain that they have no choice because they need young people to fight. They need young people to raise the war. So I told them, look, you need young people as well, maybe to have better education. To do good for communities to improve your economic situation, maybe as well.

It’s better off. And that’s when I said, if you want to be part of the dialogue, at some point we may, maybe the States, maybe all the actors do you want to be seen as the violator? All the arm group that tried to improve his behavior. And we discussed, we discussed. And after that, they accepted to start training with us on prohibition of child recruitment on protection of education. And we had four to five days training of all the lieutenants. They ask questions that challenged us. We did it actually, uh, in, in the jungle, we had some couple of trees to fall for the shade. We did one training on their domain, which we stayed with them. We stayed with them. And after some time, some months we got a call from our contact on the grounds and they say that the group actually was ready to release 78 children from their ranks.

They understood and they are ready to make a first gesture. And this was extremely appreciated by the communities, by the families. And they saw a different way actually from, from the behavior that they had before, to the behavior that are trying to have with those being there to basically support as well. There are changes.

Turi: [00:21:03] Hm that’s uh, an extremely moving story quite apart from being terrifying. Um, In the work that Geneva called does, and that you’ve discussed in the past, you articulate three core principles to the negotiation piece, to this, you know, th w the abstract rendering of what you’ve just described in story format, you saw you talk about ownership, localization, and contextualization.

Can you break down the story you’ve just told around the DRC into those three pieces. So what’s going on there? What were you doing? How do you identify what you did sort of in an abstract sense?

Hichem Khadhraoui: [00:21:47] Thanks a lot. No, we, we really believe in, in these three principles that is guiding, that are guiding our work, the ownership, localization and contextualization. The ownership first, the ownership is actually the belief that you actually own the rule that is not imposed on you. And to give you an example for this particular group in the DRC, but it applies to all the groups that you are talking to. Before coming to them and telling them you should respect IHL which is international humanitarian law or law of war and human rights. Um, instead of telling them, you have to respect these, these lows because in 1949 in Geneva States ratified the Geneva conventions and it applies everywhere to everybody. They don’t care to be Frank with you. They don’t care about 1949. They don’t care about, but they have not even been there on groups are not, let’s say consultants to any creation or development of law, because of course they are illegal entities. So they are far away from these foreign bodies. So what we do, we try to make bridges.

We tell them, okay, do you have your own rules? And of course they have organized on group. Has. Internal rules, policies, regulations that they can be extremely simple, to very complex set of registration. So we ask them, okay, give us your own rules. Let’s read them. So we read their own regulations and we saw that there was no mention of minimum age for recruitment.

So for the, all the commanders in the field, they had no limitations to recruit children. So what did we do? We tell them, look, we can provide you. We can revise your own rules. We can make sure that they’re actually compatible with what exists outside. So you part, as well as this international community here, you create the sense of ownership. You tell them that you belong to something. When we included this provision of minimum, age of recruitment, not below 18 years old, then it was much easier to move forward into negotiating release of children.

Turi: [00:24:07] Right. So that’s ownership. And I think that that makes, that makes a lot of sense. Yeah. Tell me about localization. Yeah.

Hichem Khadhraoui: [00:24:16] When it comes to localization is exactly what we did with our, with our partner. We tend to partner with what we call grassroots community organizations. We tend to approach and to work with organizations that are not only from the country. But you have many, many, uh, local organizations that actually don’t leave the Capitol cities or the main urban centers. We try actually to go to the local organizations that are from the communities, the grassroots ones, that ones, we not a lot of phones, not a lot of means. There are a lot of respect and a lot of understanding of the specific context. And here, when we say localization, we try basically to work with local person that wants to even improve.

If his own understanding or her own understanding of IHL law or human rights. So by working hand-in-hand with local grassroots communities, we basically show to the young group that we work as well as well, in sense of improving. As well as the culture and the information of community members that live in their territories, that what we try to do is not only to the armed group, which is as well geared towards, uh, all the local actors from the communities.

It can be youth associations, women, associations, any groups with communities. So this group effect is very important because we basically try to have a canvas of people. We have influence, uh, that actually receive all trainings receive as well. Uh, let’s say our engagement to make sure that our groups feel as well, that we are part of this local informal sector,

Turi: [00:26:05] Hichem this sounds a lot like a shift away from opponent to partner. It’s not that your co it’s not that you’ve taken their side it’s that you are part of a network of things, network of organizations, which understands some of their objectives. That you have, and there is a sort of a shared objective around community support or whatever it might be. So you don’t frame yourself as an opponent. You frame yourself as a more of a more as a partner.

Hichem Khadhraoui: [00:26:34] This is very correct. And this is really this thin line where we have always to be very careful in first of all, how we are perceived by the armed group, by the communities, by the state, by other actors. We are not here to. Fight. We are not here to say you are about which we’re not here to say that you are good.

You are an armed group that is waging a war, and you have to respect the rules. We have to find what is the best way, the most pragmatic way for them to change. And yes, we partner with local organizations on the ground. We are here to support any positive efforts that they will do to improve this behavior. In the same time, if they don’t respect the commitments, either violate, we don’t hesitate us where to come back to them to try to see what, what happens. And if they use a blatant disrespect, we don’t use that as well to publicly denounce. These bad behavior we have as well to make sure that it is very, let’s say balanced, uh, dialogue and negotiation with these, with the armed group.

Turi: [00:27:40] Okay. Understood. Tell me about this last key part, which you describe as contextualization central to the process of discussion.

Hichem Khadhraoui: [00:27:50] This, uh, particular law principle. I would like if you don’t mind trying to give another example from another continent, contextualization, Aras totally believed personally, how do this word? I mean, we, we don’t contextualize enough today despite the fact that we are an increasingly globalized world. We tend to apply a generic, very generic rules. We basically try and tend to apply the same rules everywhere we are disrespect, uh, of what is really happening on the ground. Why? Because I think we don’t really take the time.

To understand, to read, to analyze, to listen to what’s going on in a very, in a very place. I mean, when you talk about the conflict in the Philippines, for example, Philippines is not Manila. Philippines is, are not urban centers. You have myriad thousands of areas that are very diverse. And I just want to give one example that will highlight how we contextualize. We try to engage with one our own group in one of the islands that are. I would say radical alarm non-group that’s built in the Philippines. Yeah. And then one group that believed that the low of gold is of course above any laws that, um, international law should not apply for them because they are from the waist. Then, they are not, they are going to change the culture and destroy the culture and this, and this is something that is very strong. And because of that, it was very, very difficult to talk to them because they were rejecting us for the mere fact that we want to talk about international remit around Angelo,

Turi: [00:29:34] which they perceived of as being Western. So international human, human rights law or international humanitarian law is a code word for Western concepts of justice. And that’s what they were rejecting.

Hichem Khadhraoui: [00:29:47] That’s correct. Uh, which is unfortunate because if you look back into history, uh, the first let’s say rules and laws about human rights and you may Italian law, actually the relating from religious books, uh, from the matter of data, which is 4,000 years old, it’s a Hindus Corpus of law then to, um, to the Bible, to the Qur’an. I mean, many, many, many, many religions. Books actually talk about international law and human rights. So we always try to find these, these bridges. And this is where we talk about constant actualization. So just to come back to this Philippine example, we, we discussed them together and we touched, okay. How they’re going to approach them.

We cannot approach them directly. It would be too dangerous. And we saw actually that they were respecting and hearing a lot of Muslim scholars from their own, let’s say Island or area where they were living. There are going to, to the mosque of some Muslim scholars, there were sending their, their kids to the madrasa, which are the Quranic schools of particular, uh, Lama, which are the religious scholars of this area.

So we decided to go and talk to these are what I’m out, which are, let’s say religious experts and scholars, and you talk to them and you say, look, we want to be better. Communicate about the need to not recruit children, do need to protect women from any violation. Can you help us? And of course this, these people are civilians. They are very much educated and they say, okay, well, we can help you. And we had a lot of sessions was at night, they finished their, they their work during the day. And they came to office and at night for several weeks, we had extensive discussions trying to create bridges between religious law. And international humanitarian law or human rights law. We trying to create, let’s say, trying to see either is any point of comparison. If we can use, uh, let’s say X extracts from the Qur’an from the release use that we can then use them to basically communicate our message. And this helped us in packaging is in developing these messages. We made sure that for this armor, it was acceptable.

It was understood. We knew that if you would, uh, have understand our message and accepting our message, we will know that after that the armed groups would understand because they were following this all Lamaze teaching. And after that you are not basically developed with us. All these messages and communication campaigns are right the right to education and to not recruit children prevention of sexual violence.

And we basically disseminated through the mother assess through the preachers at the Friday prayers. And after that, we saw a couple of members of farm groups trying to approach us and say, Oh, that’s interesting. You basically talk the same language as us. We are ready to talk now to together.

Turi: [00:33:05] That’s extraordinary. So you’ve got, um, these three key principles of ownership, localization, and contextualization. I know this probably sounds ridiculous to you, but there’s a huge amount. I feel that one can learn about your experiences from your experiences, um, to be brought back into the general political conversations that we are having today.

Parlia’s perspective is that we are very fractured politically in the last U S elections demonstrated that, um, the same is true across many Western European countries. I’m in the UK. And that’s the case here as well as elsewhere. Always we’re looking at working out how one bridges, the gap, how one facilitates conversations between two sides that have absolutely nothing in common and as it, what I’m putting out of your. Um, your three examples is in sort of in translation for civilians, this idea of ownership, the armed groups that you’re talking to, you’re making them owners of the, um, the decision to abide by the, uh, by the, by the Geneva convention. That’s, uh, that’s, you know, not imposing. You’re suggesting you’re allowing them to take ownership. It’s it’s the opposite of patronizing. It’s the opposite of forced in terms of localization, you’re proving an element of partnership.

You’re part of the same ally. You’re an ally you’re you’re, you’re, you’re somehow involved in the same project as they are without subscribing to their politics. You’re demonstrating and engagement and commitment to their communities. Critical. And the third point here is contextualization, which is that you are specifically speaking to people with they’re in their own language, whether it’s a religious language or a cultural one, you’re not imposing external cultural norms onto their own new. You’re talking about it internally for that, for that. And I feel there’s that, that idea of partnership. That idea of, of, um, of ownership and that idea of, of, uh, of speaking the same inside the same language, all bears, um, thinking about in the context of our own much more mundane political polarization, too.

Hichem Khadhraoui: [00:35:13] It’s very interesting because. If you remove a weapons from the armed groups who are talking to you, you can actually say that you have this situation in the U S right now. Or we have groups that are, of course not armed for now for some of them, I’m sure that they’re heavily armed. That’s basically they’re like each other. They don’t, they don’t speak the same language. And this is the beginning of violence. And we really believe that we have to come back to the table just to discuss, just to say that we disagree. And if you try to find the same vocabulary. the vocabulary that is not seen by the other side as disrespectful, uh, is not acceptable, then you have a chance to move forward.

Turi: [00:36:04] Hichem. Um, what, uh, what a, what a great place to, to end this. Thank you so much for sharing your story, the work of Geneva call. Um, and it’s been a great pleasure to have you on the podcast.

This page was last edited on Wednesday, 20 Jan 2021 at 10:50 UTC