Paper: The feeling rules of frontline humanitarian negotiations

Paper details

Paper authors Rebecca Sutton
In panel on Everyday humanitarianism
Paper presenter(s) will be presenting In-Person & Online


A puzzle arises in connection with the role of emotions in frontline humanitarian negotiations with armed groups. The figure of the humanitarian actor, as a sentient being or otherwise, is not fleshed out in any great detail in International Humanitarian Law (IHL) instruments. However, the history of IHL’s formation has been shown to have emotional underpinnings, and humanitarian practice has long been tied to emotive concepts like compassion, suffering and succour. In the Commentary to the First Additional Protocol of 1977, one also finds emotions being read into relief work. The Commentary stipulates that along with technical qualities there are also ‘personal qualities’ required in relief personnel: everyone engaged in humanitarian activity is to have an ‘understanding of human feelings’. If one contemplates the humanitarian actor as a legal actor and juxtaposes this figure with the ideal of the dispassionate judge, a different set of assumptions about emotion is apparently in play. On some level, there is an expectation that the humanitarian actor needs to have adequate emotional capacity to operate effectively. While the case for this might be even stronger in humanitarian negotiations—a relatively confrontational sub-field of humanitarian practice—the literature tends to either ignore human emotions or call for their suppression. Engaging with Hochschild’s concept of ‘feeling rules’, the article explores the (implicit) rules of display and expression of emotions that inform humanitarian negotiation practices. It draws on original empirical fieldwork conducted in the Central African Republic, Thailand, and Indonesia. The wider aim of the piece is to deepen our understanding of the interplay between law and emotions in this field of humanitarian endeavour.