Challenges of Civil-Military Engagement in Humanitarian Action: An Overview

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Military participation in the provision of humanitarian relief in complex emergencies is increasingly common. Foreign and national militaries have played particularly significant roles in responding to natural disasters — such as the floods and cyclone in Mozambique in 2007, or the earthquakes in Pakistan in 2005 and Haiti in 2010 — as well as in providing aid to civilians in fragile and conflict-affected states – such as during the recent conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan. Often, natural disaster and conflict overlap to produce complex humanitarian crises, as in the tsunami in conflict-affected Aceh and Sri Lanka in 2004, or flooding and displacement in Pakistan in 2010. While militaries can bring unique capabilities and resources to bear in emergencies, military engagement in humanitarian assistance poses significant challenges to effective humanitarian action. Especially in the case of complex humanitarian emergencies where the military is a party to a conflict, the tensions around civil-military relations are particularly pronounced.

Tensions around the use of humanitarian assistance for military purposes

The expansion of military engagement in activities beyond their traditional combat mandates — such as “counter-insurgency,” “stabilization,” or emergency relief operations — have often blurred the lines between military and humanitarian action. This is particularly common in recent counter-insurgency operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, for example, where militaries have sought to use humanitarian assistance and aid provision to “win hearts and minds” among civilian populations.

The use of humanitarian aid for political or military purposes represents a direct violation of the fundamental humanitarian principles of humanity and impartiality. International law requires that relief operations be of an “exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature.” When aid is allocated on a strategic basis to win popular support, for example – rather than on the basis of need alone – humanitarians risk losing their protected status as impartial.  Similarly, when aid becomes conditional on political/military cooperation, humanitarians risk losing their neutrality and independence. Even if they are not directly involved in military-led relief operations themselves, such actions can easily blur the distinction between humanitarian and military actors, leading to the perception of humanitarian relief as supportive of or associated with military operations. This is extremely dangerous, as it can result in a loss of acceptance and access to vulnerable populations, or at worst, the perception of aid workers as parties to the conflict and deliberate targets of attack. This applies to the provision of humanitarian aid and control of humanitarian access by national militaries as well as armed groups, a common occurrence in some contemporary conflicts that has serious complicated humanitarian relief efforts.

Tensions around the use of military assets for humanitarian purposes

Another challenge derives from the use of military and civil defense assets (MCDA) for humanitarian operations in complex emergencies and natural disasters. Especially in acute emergencies, and in difficult to reach or insecure areas, militaries may have some operational advantages in terms of rapid mobilization, logistics, personnel, supply, access, or security to contribute to humanitarian response. While useful in disasters, however, humanitarian professionals have often maintained that the use of military assets in relief efforts, especially in in conflict, “tends to increase risks to aid workers and the local population alike, and reduce the effective delivery of aid.”

At a policy level, a series of international frameworks — including the ‘Oslo Guidelines’ (2007) for natural disasters, ‘MCDA Guidelines’ (2006) for complex emergencies, and IASC Guidelines (2013) on the use of armed escorts — have established criteria for appropriate civil-military cooperation. They stipulate that military engagement in humanitarian operations should be: a ‘last resort,’ providing a unique capability where no appropriate alternative civilian exists; under clear humanitarian direction and coordination; timely, where urgency demands immediate action; and time-limited, with a clear exit strategy. These standards are broadly accepted in the humanitarian sector as the authoritative framework for civil-military coordination.

At the practical level, however, the application of these standards — especially the principle of ‘last resort’ — has proven challenging on a case-by-case basis. As a Humanitarian Policy Group publication notes, “Within the humanitarian community, views on civil–military coordination are at best diverse, at worst inconsistent and contradictory.” In Pakistan, for example, the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) adopted Draft Guidelines for civil-military coordination in 2010, stipulating that humanitarian actors should only consider joint interventions or the use of MCDA “under extreme and exceptional circumstances.” However, Greenwood and Balachandran note that “adherence to the guidelines has been inconsistent,” in part because of limited involvement of local NGOs, national organizations, government and military actors in their development. When widespread flooding occurred in Pakistan later that year, civil-military coordination remained problematic.

Towards More Effective Civil-Military Coordination

The series of international guidelines represent a significant step forward in the development of common norms and criteria for effective civil-military relations in complex emergencies. However, a great deal of uncertainty in interpretation and difficulty in implementation remains among humanitarian and military actors when it comes to translating these guidelines into practice. Furthermore, recent developments in conflict and humanitarian assistance expose the inadequacy of these standards to address the challenges posed by non-state armed groups and the direct targeting of aid workers, for example, or military responses to pandemics such as the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

To that end, there is a need for enhanced dialogue across humanitarian agencies on the evolving challenges of civil-military relations, and navigating tensions that may arise for principled humanitarian action in militarized environments. There is also a need for greater involvement of militaries, NGOs and civil society groups in this dialogue around norm development and practical implementation, a process that has hitherto been led by UN humanitarian agencies. Improved civil-military relations in humanitarian response will not only serve to reduce confusion, inefficiency and risks for both military and humanitarian actors, but ultimately, improve the quality of humanitarian protection and assistance available to vulnerable populations when they need it most.  

For a more detailed discussion of challenges and dilemmas in civil-military engagement in humanitarian response, tune in to this month’s ATHA Podcast.

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