Operating in conflict-affected and high-risk areas  

18 December 2023

We have been advising and working alongside business leaders as ‘thinking partners’ for 20 years, helping them to navigate the challenges of operating in 'conflict-affected and high-risk areas' (CAHRA*). At the UN Forum in Geneva, we hosted a private roundtable with our clients to discuss the challenges and opportunities in CAHRA situations. 

Our expert, Nelleke van Amstel, shares her insights below.

In summary

  • To ensure a responsible approach to operating in a 'conflict-affected and high-risk area' you ideally need to act before it becomes a conflict.  By developing a global approach to heightened Human Rights Due Diligence (hHRDD) you can identify the high-risk areas and apply an hHRDD approach.  Doing so ahead of any conflict will give you an understanding of how your activities impact the conflict, and how the conflict impacts your activities.
  • Engaging with a wide range of stakeholders to understand the human rights situation on the ground is vital but challenging in a CAHRA context.  Access to stakeholders may be limited and you will need to take care in how you engage them.
  • You will need to tailor your response based on conflict analysis and a deep understanding of the operational context. We help our clients by working alongside them as ‘thinking partners’.
  • Understanding your responsibilities under international humanitarian law is important if you want to avoid reputational damage, or criminal and civil liability.
  • A rigorous hHRDD process will give you the crucial insight you need to decide whether to stay or go.

Nelleke’s insights in more depth

What should companies do if they find themselves operating in a CAHRA?

Firstly, don’t ‘find yourself’ in that situation.  Conflicts don’t suddenly appear, there are always signs.  Perhaps there is a rise in corruption, the suppression of freedom of speech, or tense elections.  My advice to business leaders is to act before the situation becomes a conflict.  If you are operating in a country with an oppressive regime, then know what the ‘red flags’ are before the situation deteriorates.  The only way to operate in a CAHRA is through implementing a heightened Human Rights Due Diligence (hHRDD) process.

What is hHRDD?

Companies operating in CAHRA’s are at a higher risk of being involved in human rights abuses and therefore need to be more rigorous in their risk management.

The United Nations Guiding Principles (UNGPs) state that operating in a conflict setting requires a deeper and wider HRDD that is proportional to the complexity of the situation.  Heightened HRDD means understanding how your activities impact the conflict, and how the conflict impacts your activities.

This is achieved by adding elements to a regular HRDD, such as a conflict analysis, an assessment of links to conflict actors (including governments), and the integration of international humanitarian law (IHL).  It also means expanding or adapting other parts of an HRDD for example, when a conflict sensitive lens is applied to human rights risk assessment and prioritisation, it can create a very different result.

Engaging with a wide range of stakeholders to understand the human rights situation on the ground is vital, although more complex if the security situation is volatile.  Ideally, it is done with sufficient regard for aggravated vulnerabilities, safety, bias and misinformation.

It is also important to acknowledge the limitations of doing HRDD in a CAHRA context.  You may need to accept that you will be working with a limited evidence base and be willing to act on credible risks rather than proven impacts.  Taking extra care drawing your conclusions where there is an absence of information.

As a company responds to a CAHRA context, it may change the way it operates.  It is important to integrate your findings and conflict risks into the revised risk management and decision-making processes that emerge.

Where should a company start?

There is plenty of guidance for companies but in our experience, every situation is different. We can help you understand the changing operating context, the increased risks to your people, what your peers are doing, the impact on your supply chain and how to respond. What is your responsibility if your employees are suddenly drafted to the frontline? How do you support colleagues with differing perspectives?  There is no blueprint, and each company will respond differently.

We have developed an assessment framework that integrates a heightened HRDD approach.  We use it to help our clients navigate their way and take responsible action.  Working as ‘thinking partners’ alongside our clients we tailor your response based on conflict analysis and a deep understanding of the operational context.  We work with in-country partners and context experts to understand the complexity of the situation on the ground and then guide our clients through the hHRDD process.  Putting it into practice needs skill and experience.  We discussed the complexities with our colleagues from Ukraine, Myanmar and Zimbabwe last year.

What should they look out for?

The headlines might cover the security risks, sanctions, and the military on the streets but your employees may be facing entirely different issues.  Perhaps they are unable to feed their family as their wages are worthless due to inflation.  What is your responsibility?  If they cannot get to work, are they paid a monthly salary, or can you offer them a loan? Do you understand your responsibilities under international humanitarian law (IHL)?

Are you aware that non-compliance can lead to financial or reputational damage, or even criminal and civil liability? This is a very real situation for some companies.  Do they know whether their warehouses are being used to store weapons?  Are the building materials that they can’t access being used in military construction?  How companies act in a CAHRA context is under increasing scrutiny by NGOs and campaigners, where any kind of contribution to the conflict can lead to reputational and legal consequences.

Should you stay or go?

Deciding whether it is possible to keep operating responsibly is different for every company.  Legal restrictions may make it impossible to leave, whilst the ‘red lines’ guided by sanctions are impacting your operations if you stay. A rigorous hHRDD process gives the crucial insight needed to decide.  Defining the positive impacts you can make if you stay and the negative impacts you will have if you leave.

For those clients who have worked with us to embed hHRDD before the situation disintegrates, the decision to stay or go is clear.  They know what the red flags mean and their Board is ready ahead of their peers to take responsible action.

Nelleke's final words

“Working with us as ‘thinking partners’ has enabled companies to mitigate the negative risks of staying. Listening to employees, suppliers and customers creates solutions that respond to their needs in a responsible way and to the benefit of all.  If you would like to hear more, please contact me at ."


*The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) describes CAHRA's as countries or regions where there is armed conflict, widespread violence, or other risks of harm to people.


Nelleke van Amstel

Senior Consultant

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