Collaboration or Contention? Military Involvement in the Humanitarian Sphere

by Sandra Ivanov. Sandra Ivanov is from New Zealand with a postgraduate education in Peace and Conflict Studies. She is currently an editor of the blog “Conflict and Security”, and primarily works in the non-government sector. You can find her through Linkedin or follow her updates on Twitter.

The humanitarian sphere seeks to protect civilians, save lives and alleviate suffering in emergency situations. But growing interest from militaries to join in on these activities has created tensions inside humanitarian organisations, and between them and defence bodies. The military’s involvement in humanitarian action is not something new, but the goals and nature of involvement has evolved to become more direct to achieve strategic or tactical objectives. Problems of competition, misunderstanding and resistance to cooperation has undermined missions in complex crises overall, which has not only created logistical dilemmas, but endangered the civilian population both sides are trying to assist.

ivanov-003Civilian Worker VS Military Personnel
Humanity, neutrality, and impartiality are the underpinning principles of humanitarian work. Activities in the field must respect the dignity and the rights of the people involved, assistance is given on the basis of need regardless of race, religion, or political affiliation, and assistance is provided without workers being involved in hostilities or taking sides to one party. The heart of the civil-military problem lies with divergences in approaches and aims of humanitarians and militaries. As a structure attached to the state, defence bodies have political connotations to their involvement in humanitarian work with operations being conducted as stabilisation strategies to maintain national and international security objectives. The provision of aid is also conditional on the cooperation of aid organisations and communities affected to achieve broader political goals.

The rise of counter-insurgency missions during the Cold War spurred a rethinking of defence tactics to win the goodwill of the local population in order to protect forces and gather information. The military has a population-centric view of the causes of conflict – rooted in poverty, illiteracy, and unfulfilled aspirations, where development and reconstruction activities are thought of as being part of the solution to prevent insurgencies from forming. This theory opens up a huge can of worms widely discussed in academia, but importantly for civil-military interactions, the military view is attached to political goals which transgress the humanitarian imperative. It is perhaps the ‘militarisation’, and ‘politicisation’ of aid that the humanitarian sphere has most trouble with when it comes to engagement in the field.

Increasing military involvement has been attributed to the increase of natural disasters globally and with it, a shortage of agencies and resources available on the ground wherein military assistance would be needed. However, deliberate involvement in humanitarian action is arguably more obvious. In a time where the defence industry is facing more redundancies and larger budget cuts, including humanitarian duties pokes into new funding opportunities and increases the relevance and value of the military. It is also a tool to attract younger recruits by luring potential soldiers to a more ‘attentive’ side of combat. The military’s involvement with humanitarian jobs and aid allows states to utilise an instrument of political intervention in conflicts in order to replace the need for political action where security interests may be of minimal concern – a way to ‘manage’ conflict without full engagement or commitment. This view has also resulted from a need to improve the global image of militaries – especially in the West – with missions such as in Iraq and Afghanistan substantially damaging the reputation of defence.

U.S. military personnel load relief aid onto a U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter from the USS George Washington carrier at a landing zone at the airport in Tacloban, central Philippines, on Nov. 15, 2013. (AP / Wally Santana).

U.S. military personnel load relief aid onto a U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter from the USS George Washington carrier at a landing zone at the airport in Tacloban, central Philippines, on Nov. 15, 2013. (AP / Wally Santana).

Standards and Guidelines
Perspectives of the humanitarian sphere from the outside generally refer to loosely connected networks without clear chains of command, however, there are standards which conduct the provision of assistance. In a similar way that the military has its own doctrines which do not provide concrete steps to solve a particular problem, but provide a shared philosophy in which commanders use to interpret on a mission, the humanitarian sphere has standards as well. The Sphere Project ‘Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response’ is an internationally recognised initiative which intends to unite humanitarian agencies on issues of accountability and improve the quality of assistance to affected populations. In terms of specific civil-military guidelines, the most comprehensive guide and tool for humanitarian actors on coordination with the military is the IASC Reference Paper on ‘Civil-Military Relationship in Complex Emergencies’. It outlines the fundamental aims for both actors involved, and recognises that military coordination with humanitarian agencies is necessary to avoid duplication of relief efforts, identify gaps and ensure best use of available resources, while maintaining the safety of the affected population and humanitarian workers.

Concerns and Challenges
For the humanitarian side, the biggest challenge is to remain neutral and impartial. If humanitarians are associated, or perceived to be associated with defence forces it can damage their ability to undertake certain tasks. It also undermines personal security and the security of the people they are assisting – the politicisation of assistance is noted as the primary cause of attacks. Inappropriate engagement can have implications for the humanitarian sphere as a whole, since perceptions and expectations of one humanitarian actor can influence how the entire sector is seen. However, military institutions also have concerns about their own involvement in humanitarian operations. Some critics note that when personnel undertake civilian tasks, it diverts resources from the role of war-fighting and decreases effectiveness in times of combat. Assistance in the humanitarian sphere can complicate troop withdrawal, and it is also acknowledged that military personnel are not fully trained to carry out the tasks put in front of them in a complex emergency. The nature of the humanitarian sector being varied and loosely aligned makes it difficult for militaries to know how to interact and who to interact with on a mission.

Haitians receive water from Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers at an aid-distribution point by the presidential palace.

Haitians receive water from Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers at an aid-distribution point by the presidential palace.

Positive Aspects of Collaboration
Although there are many disagreements in the civil-military relationship, there are positive outcomes if successful coordination is achieved for both parties, but most importantly for the citizens affected during a crisis situation. A fundamental basic is that humanitarian agencies cannot function to their full capacity without security. Humanitarians cannot avoid engagement with military forces as they will face greater challenges to access populations in need and may not even be able to work in certain affected areas without sufficient protection. The use of military resources to safeguard and deliver aid is paramount to a successful relief effort in an emergency situation.

The sharing of information is of utmost importance to seeing effective operations. Militaries should have knowledge of humanitarian plans and intentions, staff locations, routes and timing of convoys, and movement of civilians. Humanitarians should have information on timing of airlifts to coordinate delivery of aid and workers, information on relief activities the military is carrying out, and on strike locations and explosive munitions used during operations. It is also critical to remember that both humanitarian and military staff consider their work to be more than just a job, they both spend substantially long periods of time away from their loved ones, and have to endure difficult environments. There are commonalities between the two that can be shared and utilised.

Achieving Collaboration without Confrontation

  • Civil-military relations require clear boundaries and definitions of core humanitarian concepts because without clarity, persistent challenges in relations will remain. This includes redefining the term ‘humanitarian’ to fit into military doctrines. For example, the Swiss government is the only one to include humanitarian principles in domestic law – ‘states and military forces must avoid the use of the term humanitarian when their actions are motivated by political or military objectives’.
  • The challenges around civil-military relations should be realigned to put the people who need assistance at the heart of the matter – if those most vulnerable become invisible, then the humanitarian work itself is obscured by political objectives.
  • The roles of civilians and that of the military need to be clearly separated: it is important to stress that the role of the military is first and foremost, to secure the environment in a conflict situation in order for the humanitarians to undertake their work successfully.
  • The humanitarian and defence sectors need to engage in continual dialogues and information sharing in order to avoid duplication of efforts and minimise mistakes. It can even be suggested that more direct communication would be needed in the operational and planning cells of military command structures for necessary early interaction.
  • More education and training should be provided on both sides, to understand the presence of each party in the field. The military finds it difficult to understand the differences in approach, language and role of various humanitarian actors, and the humanitarians have a lack of awareness and understanding of the legal responsibilities of foreign defence structures in emergency contexts.

As the roles of humanitarians and militaries have merged to include a shared responsibility to protect civilians, dialogue and coordination is mandatory to ensure effective delivery of assistance in emergency situations. While it is difficult to overcome differences in mandates and approaches to how each party influences a crisis, differences can be used as opportunities to complement and supplement each actors’ capabilities in the field. A considerate and consistent effort from both civilian and military institutions is needed to develop structures and mechanisms for coordination – both needing to remember to place the populations affected as their first and foremost concern.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, Sandra Ivanov.

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