Operational interaction between UN humanitarian agencies and belligerent forces
by Greg Hansen, independent consultant April 2004

The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted in unprecedented threats to the integrity of the humanitarian system and to the credibility of some of its leading institutions, perhaps most especially the UN. In the wake of the bombing of the UN office in Baghdad in August 2003, there has been a groundswell of interest in examining how the UN manages humanitarian crises in armed conflict.

Humanitarian space in a conflict zone depends on the consent of warring parties and the acceptance of the host population. All humanitarian agencies working in conflict need to manage the tensions inherent in dealing with belligerent forces on the one hand, and on the other safeguarding their real and perceived independence and neutrality. This balancing act is especially difficult when the belligerent nations are major donors. For UN agencies, the management task is further complicated by the multiple roles that member states expect the UN to perform.

In a single country, as in Iraq, different elements are given simultaneous responsibilities to administer sanctions, investigate and report on weapons of mass destruction, coordinate humanitarian action, meet emergency needs and endorse – or not – an invasion and occupation by Permanent Members of the UN Security Council.

Currently, the UN’s civil–military coordination is conducted largely on an ad hoc basis, in a policy vacuum. While the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has produced guidance for interaction between UN personnel and the occupying power in Iraq, this does not go far enough to deal with the threats that conflict of interest, deferral to belligerent chains of command, lack of transparency and individual conduct pose to the UN’s real and perceived independence and neutrality.

For all the difficulties, it is essential that UN agencies have some form of engagement with belligerent forces or occupying powers, both for their own security and to limit the harmful consequences of warfare for the civilian population. Ideally, engagement prevents the potential blurring of roles between military and humanitarian actors, coordinates the use of UN Military and Civil Defence Assets (MCDA), ensures that military assets are not injudiciously used for humanitarian operations, and enables the smooth and timely flow of information.

While engagement with belligerent forces or occupying powers has been essential, the form of engagement in recent emergencies has been deeply flawed.

  • Without precedent, in October 2001 UN humanitarian agencies co-located staff members within the military headquarters of a belligerent force in an active conflict occurring outside of UN auspices. On the orders of the UN Secretary-General, the UN presence at US Central Command (CENTCOM) Headquarters in Tampa, Florida was low profile, and no UN flag was displayed. But the presence of UN staff nevertheless implied UN endorsement of coalition military operations, and undermined the perceived independence and neutrality of UN humanitarian operations and staff by suggesting that the UN was the humanitarian instrument of a belligerent force. Co-location with the US-led coalition also suggested that UN agencies practiced different standards of independence and neutrality from belligerent to belligerent, particularly because – whether justified or not – UN agencies had suspended contact with the other set of combatants in both Afghanistan and Iraq soon after hostilities began.
  • UN civil–military liaison positions were staffed with nationals of belligerent nations or occupying powers. In the case of Afghanistan, all of the UN agency liaisons to CENTCOM were nationals of countries participating in the US-led coalition. Many were one-time military personnel, and thus had former colleagues among the belligerent forces.
  • The argument has sometimes been advanced that a national and former military officer of a belligerent nation will be a more effective representative of the UN’s humanitarian interests. This has not been demonstrated. Indeed, the erosion of real and perceived neutrality and independence has far outweighed any notional benefits. Real, legal and perceived conflicts of interest existed under the recent arrangements. Former military officers who collected pensions or continued to hold security clearance from their home governments were legally bound by the secrecy laws of those governments, at the same time as they were in the paid service of UN humanitarian agencies, and ostensibly accountable to humanitarian principles. The assertion of the UN’s humanitarian interests by some liaison staff was periodically tempered or stymied by an inappropriate deference to CENTCOM’s rank structure and chain of command. Loyalty oaths taken by commissioned officers, and their adherence to the military ethos of duty, suggested the possibility of dual allegiances between their home countries and the UN system, in particular when specific military operations were proving fundamentally incompatible with the humanitarian imperative.
  • The UN’s civil–military coordination efforts with US-led forces were opaque and, at times, highly secretive. While the substance of humanitarian diplomacy should arguably have been discreet, there was a blanket lack of transparency that obscured even the structure of coordination mechanisms. This invited all manner of speculation. Just prior to the invasion of Iraq, senior UN humanitarian officials paid furtive visits to CENTCOM’s forward headquarters in Doha, Qatar, feeding the perception that the UN had taken sides in a fait accompli and was engaged in joint planning with US-led forces. Even within UN agencies there was noticeable – though largely unspoken – discontent about the perceived subjugation of humanitarian to political agendas for the sake of smooth relations with prominent member states and donors.
  • After the onset of hostilities, the relationship between UN humanitarian agencies and belligerent forces was at times necessarily adversarial, given the range of humanitarian responsibilities entrusted to the UN. Again, there were perceived inadequacies in the strength with which the UN asserted the humanitarian agenda with belligerent forces, both at the policy and operational levels.

These are serious shortcomings, and they point to the need to professionalise and codify operational interactions between the UN’s humanitarian agencies and belligerent forces and the occupying power. Recent crises and attacks on UN aid operations and personnel have given rise to renewed speculation about whether the UN’s humanitarian and political roles have become irreconcilable and whether, therefore, new and separate humanitarian institutions are now needed. The perennial tensions between these dual roles will not be resolved by a code of conduct. But while much damage has been done to the UN, the UN has done much to damage itself. In the absence of radical reform to its humanitarian apparatus, faulty processes can and should be dealt with decisively.

Towards a code of conduct

Codes of conduct are unpopular. They imply that not everyone naturally adheres to high professional standards or behaves honourably and with integrity all the time in every situation. But a code of conduct is as much an aid to navigation as it is a tool of accountability. The following measures represent a first attempt to translate lessons learned from recent failings into clearer guidance. These measures are meant to improve adherence to the principles of neutrality and independence in UN humanitarian action, and to better preserve the quintessentially civilian character of humanitarian action.

1. Form of engagement

Civil–military coordination functions should be conducted at arm’s length from belligerent forces or occupying powers. Co-location should not occur. Effective liaison can be achieved, according to need, through liaison visits, conference calls and other indirect means, in support of assertive UN humanitarian diplomacy. The experience of other humanitarian agencies has demonstrated that such discreet approaches entail no reduction in the quality of civil–military coordination, and are less open to question.

2. Recusal

In the event of a real or perceived conflict of interest, employees of UN humanitarian agencies, at all levels and without exception, should routinely exempt themselves from civil–military coordination duties, including decisions related to the establishment of coordination structures. In particular, such conflicts of interest should be understood to exist when employees are nationals of a belligerent nation or occupying power.

3. Independence from the chain of command of belligerent forces

The real and perceived independence and neutrality of UN humanitarian agencies is harmed when UN staff defer to belligerent forces or occupying powers, or allow themselves to be intimidated by forceful personalities. Interaction with a belligerent’s command structure should take place at the lowest rank necessary to get a particular job done.

However, large military bureaucracies can be difficult to deal with. Where necessary, as may be the case when a commander is acting in an unhelpful, unduly time-consuming or obstructive manner, UN liaison staff should not hesitate to assert the UN’s humanitarian agenda with the most senior military decision-makers in their area of responsibility.

4. Transparency

The UN’s humanitarian agencies must be seen at all times to be acting in a neutral and independent way. Transparency is essential. By contrast, military organisations and operations are characterised by secrecy, and information is frequently classified.

Coordination structures adopted by or for UN humanitarian agencies must be transparent in order to avoid the appearance that UN agencies are taking sides, or making undue compromises with belligerents or occupying powers. The mechanics of coordination structures should be publicised and open to scrutiny in order to avoid any appearance that the UN has something to hide.

5. Qualifications

Civil–military coordination is a specialised and sensitive undertaking. Field liaison staff should be graduates of at least a basic – and preferably an advanced – UN Civil–Military Coordination (UN-CMCoord) training course. This would ensure greater consistency of approach. While a military background can be immensely helpful, greater emphasis should be placed upon humanitarian – rather than military – credentials.

6. Personal conduct

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) should provide active oversight to ensure that senior UN managers are accountable for setting the highest standards of principled and professional conduct. Perceptions of too-close relationships between UN staff members and military or civilian members of belligerent forces or occupying powers will increase distrust of the UN. Individual conduct in the practice of independence and neutrality needs to be beyond reproach. UN humanitarian personnel should not socialise with belligerents or occupying powers, either civilian or military, beyond what is judged minimally necessary for maintaining professional relations and protocol.

7. Organisational culture

In times of acute insecurity or in the wake of a direct attack, humanitarian agencies tend to become more insular, less transparent and more defensive. The bombing of the UN office in Baghdad and attacks on UN premises in Afghanistan have only worsened this tendency. Given the likelihood that the UN will soon be asked by member states to re-engage in Iraq in a sizeable way, this is likely to result in closer affiliations with the occupying power.

It should be the responsibility of managers at all levels to create working environments where the humanitarian imperative comes first, and where threats to real and perceived independence and neutrality are dealt with quickly, decisively and transparently to ensure that staff security and the integrity of UN humanitarian programmes are not compromised.

Next steps

A logical next step would be to situate these measures within the role played by the Humanitarian Coordinator in an emergency. Apart from further development of a code of conduct, UN interaction with belligerent forces would also benefit from broader guidelines, perhaps developed through an open and consultative process modelled on that used to develop OCHA’s Oslo Guidelines on the use of military and civil defence assets in disaster relief. Greater professionalism and consistency in the UN’s approach to interaction with belligerents needs to be nurtured over the long term by strengthened policy development, advisory and training capacities.

Increasingly, UN agencies are being called on to serve in places where the UN’s credibility is already in short supply, and where people are predisposed to distrust it, rightly or wrongly, as an instrument of Western interests. The UN Staff Association can clamour for greater staff security in war zones, but no amount of hardening of potential UN targets will protect aid operations and personnel if the UN’s credibility is compromised by the injudicious management of relationships with belligerent forces and occupying powers.


Greg Hansen is an independent consultant on humanitarian action in conflict situations. A former soldier and UN peacekeeper, he served as a UN liaison to US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, in late 2001 and early 2002. He has provided training for OCHA on civil–military coordination. His e-mail address is ghansen@islandnet.com.


References and further reading

OCHA, General Guidance for Interaction between United Nations Personnel and Military and Other Representatives of the Belligerent Parties in the Context of the Crisis in Iraq, version 3, May 2003, www.reliefweb.int.

OCHA, Guidelines on the Use of Military and Civil Defence Assets in Disaster Relief (the Oslo Guidelines), May 1994, www.reliefweb.int/ocha_ol/programs/response/mcdunet/0guid.html.

Jane Barry and Anna Jefferys, A Bridge Too Far: Aid Agencies and the Military in Humanitarian Response, HPN Network Paper 37, January 2002.

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