Civil Military Relations

Civil-Military Coordination, or CMCoord, is defined by the UN as "the essential dialogue and interaction between civilian and military actors in humanitarian emergencies that is necessary to protect and promote humanitarian principles, avoid competition, minimise inconsistency, and when appropriate pursue common goals".1 The humanitarian principles referred to above are the four key principles of neutrality, independence, humanity, and impartiality. Aid consisting of necessities must be granted to all who need it, regardless of their party or position, by an organization that remains unengaged in the conflict. The contested issues arising from the coordination discussion revolve around this principle of neutrality: militaries function to further the objectives of a particular party to the conflict, whereas principled humanitarian organizations do not.

Between humanitarian and military actors, there exists a lack of understanding of the scope and nature of their respective activities. NATO has dissected the typology of various humanitarian organizations to help avoid misunderstandings among military; however the result is a clumping together of various organizations - each with a different mandate - into three types of civilian groups: international organizations (UN, EU); non-governmental organizations (MSF, ICRC, Save the Children), and international and national government donor agencies (ECHO, USAID). In reality, resources, capabilities, and responsibilities vary from project to project, impacting significantly on how the organization functions. As a result, there is a general lack of knowledge about the specific security concerns of each group. In addition, knowledge sharing among military is often on confidential basis, whereas impartial humanitarian organizations may share information with locals to ensure that they as humanitarian actors ‘do no harm’.

The risk to both humanitarian actors and civilians is potentially heightened rather than diminished through coordination measures. The central concern is that humanitarian organizations may be perceived as biased, supporting one party to the conflict, and placed in a position of greater risk as a result. Also of concern is the blurring of the distinction between military campaigns designed to win the hearts and minds of affected populations and the humanitarian principle of impartiality. When engaging in “hearts and minds” campaigns, military actors often employ humanitarian language for explicit political gains, whereas humanitarian actors must remain impartial to all parties for both ethical and security reasons. Furthermore, in complex theaters, multiple objectives masked in action deemed “humanitarian” might place the population at risk. Insurgent groups may prohibit aid from reaching affected populations if it is viewed as support of and from the enemy party.

If done precisely, civil-military coordination may be beneficial for the security of all involved. Over the past decade, violent attacks against humanitarian actors have resulted in over one hundred deaths per year.2 Security against kidnapping, injury, and death is of major concern those in the field. For more information on this topic, see our thematic area on “security management”.

Currently, there is no universal framework for civil-military coordination is adhered to. Guidelines for CMCoord at the international and national governmental level exist; however, the discussion continues as to whether coordination is overall a positive exercise or one that detracts from effective humanitarian action.

Coordination with private military security contractors (PMSCs) presents similar considerations but unique challenges, as they are not uniformly covered by IHL as traditional military actors and may possess a myriad of mandates regulating their actions. Beyond guidelines for working alongside the military, some NGOs have already developed guidelines for working alongside PMSCs. The Montreux Document of 2009 lays a framework based upon IHL for PMSCs to align with. Developing a comprehensive coordination agenda for those organizations that opt to use private security will be a challenge.

Regardless of the extent to which civilian and military operations are coordinated, civilian humanitarian organizations must take the lead in undertaking and directing all humanitarian action. Whether coordinating with official or private military security, it remains the duty of the humanitarian actors to stay true to their principles and ensure the needs of the affected population are addressed.

1Ocha Coordination Civil Militaire
2UN OCHA, To Stay and Deliver: Good Practice for Humanitarians in Complex Security Environments, February 2011, pg. 1.


Giovanni 's picture

I do agree in principle with this text but in the meantime we should not only focus on perceptions and we should not stop to collaborate/coordinate due to this. A way forward needs to be identified. Taking into consideration recent and past history, I would say that conflicts are hardly evitable so finally militaries and humanitarians will be present in a conflict zone in any case. Military forces to enforce peace and security, humanitarians to aid, to protect and to support the affected civilian population. I can understand the differences, I can understand the fact that aid people do not accept military means to solve conflicts but as I say crisis are inevitable and a way to work together should be identified. Military forces cannot be considered (and cannot considered themselves) as the only solution of a crisis but in the meantime humanitarians should understand that without security aid and support will not be effective and will not reach all affected population. Both parties should be considered as part of the solution (clearly this will be the case when military forces are not the cause of the conflict, and when military forces are behaving according to the humanitarian law), both with their distinct mandates, missions and core values. A comprehensive way/approach to understand each other, to mutually influence the way to work should be identified with in mind the only interest of the stability of a region affected by a complex crisis/emergency.

Recent Tweets

Follow Us

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
Vimeo icon
YouTube icon

Our Sponsor

A Program Of

All materials © 2014 Harvard University

Back to Top

Back to Top