Friday, May 04, 2012

Khalil Dale Follow-up

Several days ago I posted about abductions in Pakistan and the murder of Khalil Dale. Since then I’ve received several emails from readers asking me to elaborate on some my comments.

To begin with, I can’t speak to the ICRC’s efforts to secure Mr. Dale’s release. I wasn’t involved and don’t have access to the details. I do know that ICRC is very professional when it comes to safety and security. And my heart goes out to those involved in the negotiations. It’s devastating when someone loses their life despite your best efforts and intentions. Second-guessing decisions made at the time can haunt you for a very long while.

Abductions are a delicate subject within the humanitarian community. The main reasons you don’t hear too many details about kidnappings (those covered by the media or not) are because of an organization's desire to:
  • Comply with K&R insurance policy terms
  • Protect organizational reputation
  • Decrease legal exposure (especially, if good security standards weren’t in place)
  • Discourage copy-cat abductions
  • Prevent sensitive security measures and responses from being revealed
These are all obviously very good reasons. However, not sharing information about abductions also greatly increases risk. I’m aware of organizations that don’t share post-incident lessons learned, even with internal staff. I know of organizations that won’t disclose to other humanitarian groups working in the same area that an abduction has occurred, thus increasing the chances another NGO may be targeted next. And I can count more than one organization that sends mixed messages by not adhering to publicly stated abduction policies. In my opinion it's a mess and a big vulnerability because abductions aren’t discussed more openly (with the occasional exception of NGO security practitioners talking among themselves, and then only with others they know well and trust).

While it’s human nature to want to know the inside story behind an incident, whether out of idle curiosity or as an attempt to find meaning, there are ways to have a dialog without getting into specifics that could cause further harm. The aviation, law enforcement, and military communities all recognize the importance of sharing information on sensitive topics and do so successfully; often scrubbing out compromising details, but leaving the key lessons intact. I’ve long believed the humanitarian community could benefit from doing the same with abductions and other types of safety and security incidents.

In regards to Pakistan specifically, here’s my take on what appears to be happening. In various restive provinces, at least one group, perhaps more, is staging abductions with the primary goal of forcing international humanitarian organizations to suspend operations. This may be stated explicitly as a demand or not, but the point is other demands are secondary. If the secondary demands are met, they provide economic benefit to the abductors (the demands are typically greater than what organizations have experienced in the past and there’s an increased chance the organization may cease operations following the experience). If the secondary demands aren’t met, the abductors are very willing to carry out violence because it supports their primary goal (whether this is what happened in the case of Mr. Dale is a matter of speculation). These abductions have been well planned and carried out with a military or intelligence agency level of precision.

In social planning, this kind of situation is known as a wicked problem. It is very complex and there are no quick and easy solutions. It’s worsened by a lack of sharing information and collaboration among NGOs. I know for a fact there are humanitarian organizations working in Pakistan that are unaware of these types of abductions. When faced with a kidnapping they will approach negotiations with the belief the problem can ultimately be resolved by coming to some reasonable agreement over demands. Professional negotiators who are engaged by insurance companies may believe the same (I'm aware of several instances where negotiators with a considerable amount of experience handling kidnappings in Latin America were brought in to deal with Pakistan abductions, and were at a significant disadvantage because they didn’t understand local culture, context and how NGOs work).

While thankfully not all abductions in Pakistan (and potentially elsewhere) are going to be wicked problems, it is worthwhile to know they are occurring and could be something your organization may face one day.

Please forgive me for speaking in generalities. This is a sensitive and difficult subject, one that weighs heavily on me and other humanitarian security practitioners. My words are meant to raise awareness, encourage thought, and hopefully lead to greater formal or informal exchange of information between organizations.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home