MINUSTAH Delivers Food Supplies to Haitian School MINUSTAH Delivers Food Supplies to Haitian School Photo credit: UN Photo/Sophia Paris
The United Nations Humanitarian Civil–Military Coordination (UN–CMCoord) response to the Haiti earthquake
by August 2010

Large-scale foreign military forces were deployed in response to the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, with contingents from the United States, Canada and a number of Latin American and European countries, in addition to existing military and police forces operating as part of the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). This is part of a growing trend: from the Indian Ocean tsunami to the South Asia earthquake, military forces are increasingly being tasked by their governments to respond to disasters.

Humanitarian actors have an opportunity to utilise military capacities in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, when civilian capacities are typically not readily available. The resumption of operations at the airport in Port-au-Prince – a vital aid artery – is a clear example of what the military can achieve in the early phase of an emergency response. According to US government figures, the airport’s throughput increased from 13 commercial flights a day before the earthquake to 200 a day by 21 January.[1] US forces also dedicated considerable resources to the repair of the seaport. Other ‘niche’ military capabilities, such as airlift, emergency medical support and logistics, were deployed on a large scale, and foreign troops played a key role in ensuring a secure environment for aid delivery and the protection of IDP camps.

At the same time, however, the presence of substantial military forces, in the midst of an equally massive humanitarian response, means that all parties need to coordinate their efforts, to ensure that resources are put to best effect and that action is coherent and cohesive. The United Nations Humanitarian Civil–Military Coordination (UN-CMCoord) function has a key role to play in facilitating this interaction.


The UN-CMCoord deployment

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, a UN-CMCoord officer was dispatched to the headquarters of the United States Southern Command (SouthCom) in Miami, the operational HQ for the US military’s deployment. A four-strong team was also dispatched to the field, comprising two officers from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)’s Emergency Response Roster (ERR), one from the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) Team and a fourth through OCHA’s Stand-by Partnership Programme.[2] In addition to the liaison officer at SouthCom, a second, very experienced UN-CMCoord officer was stationed in Washington, working with the US military, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). A month after the earthquake a longer-term follow-on team was established, with four officers in Port-au-Prince and one in Leogane.

The initial days of the response in Haiti were extremely challenging, largely due to the swift deployment of large numbers of military personnel – in short, the officers were overstretched. As the greatest amount of damage occurred in Port-au-Prince, and much of the humanitarian and military activity was centred there, UN-CMCoord officers were likewise concentrated in the capital. Although there was a UN-CMCoord officer in Leogane, and a civil–military assessment was carried out in Petit Goave, areas north of Port-au-Prince where there was a significant military presence were assessed by the team but could not receive constant attention.[3]

Liaison also took place at the strategic level, in New York with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and in Washington and Miami. This proved very beneficial to the overall humanitarian effort. Information exchange and facilitation of access to decision-makers on the ground were two areas that benefited directly from this interaction and liaison. At the field level, however, the UN-CMCoord team in Port-au-Prince – which evolved into a Civil–Military Coordination Cell (CMCC) within the overall OCHA structure – struggled to keep pace with the various military units and humanitarian agencies on the ground. Mobility in particular was a huge challenge, and regular visits to key offices were not possible. As is standard practice in UN-CMCoord deployments, the team organised a weekly Civil–Military Coordination Network Meeting to create a forum and dedicated location for discussing humanitarian civil–military issues and for resolving operational and coordination problems.

The team also worked with other civil–military platforms, including the Joint Operations and Tasking Centre (JOTC), established by MINUSTAH, OCHA and other key partners. Through the JOTC, humanitarian organisations in Haiti could place requests for military or police assistance in support of their relief activities. In effect, the JOTC acted as MINUSTAH’s ‘clearing house’ for requests for military assistance.[4] OCHA and the UN-CMCoord team also issued guidance to ensure that military actors participated constructively in cluster meetings. This guidance served a dual purpose: for the humanitarian community, it outlined why and how military actors should be involved in cluster meetings, to allay suspicions about the military’s role among some humanitarian organisations; for military personnel, it outlined how they could contribute to cluster arrangements, whilst not overwhelming the meetings.

From an early stage, the UN-CMCoord team also recognised the need for a sustainable structure in place that could dovetail with the broader humanitarian coordination framework. One of the primary reasons why the UN-CMCoord structure worked well, when it reached full capacity, was that key liaison staff from many military and humanitarian organisations were graduates of UN-CMCoord courses run by OCHA’s Civil–Military Coordination Section (CMCS), based in Geneva.[5] Throughout the various stages of the response, some 20–30 graduates were present in the country at any one time. These graduates represented their respective organisations in the coordination of their activities with other actors within the relevant clusters, as well as bilaterally with other organisations. Their presence highlighted the benefits that the UN-CMCoord training programme can have at an operational level in times of emergency. Numerous graduates also provided staff support to headquarters functions in DPKO and OCHA in New York, USAID and OFDA in Washington and at HQ SouthCom in Miami.


Lessons learnt

Although the wider humanitarian community may still have reservations about military involvement in humanitarian work, the reality is that national or foreign militaries – or in some cases both – are increasingly likely to be asked by their governments to respond to emergencies. In the interest of making the humanitarian emergency response more effective and predictable, the involvement of military forces needs to be taken into account and appropriately planned for by all parties in such situations. One of the most obvious conclusions that can be drawn from the operation in Haiti – and one which reinforces current practice – is the need to engage with the military before a disaster strikes, so that humanitarian agencies have the opportunity to shape military planning, rather than simply reacting to it.

The following observations can be made based on civil–military interaction in the Haiti earthquake response:

1)      A general awareness and understanding of UN-CMCoord as a function will help considerably in initiating dialogue and facilitating interaction between humanitarian and military actors.

2)      Interaction between humanitarians and the military should take place in a structured way, in two stages. The first stage, as in Haiti, involves setting up a CMCC within the OCHA office; the second stage involves longer-term work at the cluster level, the principal operational coordination platform in response operations.

3)      UN-CMCoord officers need to enhance their knowledge of the cluster approach, and the wider humanitarian community needs to determine, for the future, how the military should best plug in to this system. Likewise, UN-CMCoord should be recognised as a common service available to both cluster leads and UN and non-UN agency heads within the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT).

4)      UN-CMCoord capacity should include the ability to cover other potentially affected areas without jeopardising capacity in the national capital, which, in the case of Haiti, was the centre of gravity for the coordination of response operations.

5)      The timeliness of the deployment of UN-CMCoord capacity to undertake specific liaison functions in emergencies is crucial; if it occurs promptly, the UN-CMCoord officer involved is afforded the opportunity to prioritise, target and facilitate the right levels of interface (be they strategic and/or operational). 

6)      UN-CMCoord should be able to plug into the broader response and preparedness effort by contributing to contingency planning exercises, scenario planning, transition planning and other activities that support the efforts of the international humanitarian community and the governments of affected states, ultimately benefiting populations in need.



In today’s emergencies interaction among responders extends beyond the humanitarian community to include a range of other actors, including the military. Indeed, focused, humanitarian-led direction needs to be provided to the military to ensure that they are appropriately informed as to what is required, when it is needed and how it should be utilised.

By their very nature, all emergencies are different and there will never be a perfect, fully resourced, fully coordinated response involving all the required capacities. These realities demand decisiveness in implementing the ‘best possible’ solution rather than procrastinating and waiting for a ‘perfect’ one. Key to this is the ability to adapt and improve the response as it occurs. To this end, the UN-CMCoord function needs to constantly seek out ways to improve, in order to remain responsive to the challenging and dynamic needs of emergency situations.


Alan Butterfield is Humanitarian Affairs Officer, CMCS. Ronaldo Reario is Humanitarian Affairs Officer and Robert Dolan is Associate Humanitarian Affairs Officer, CMCS.


[1] See ‘Search and Rescue Missions Continuing in Haiti’, 21 January 2010, http://www.america.gov/st/americas-english/2010/January/20100121170950esnamfuak0.3139154.html.

[2] The Stand-by Partnership Programme (SBPP) is operated by the Surge Capacity Section (SCS) of OCHA. It involves a partnership with ten external organisations, which maintain rosters of humanitarian professionals who are rapidly deployable to humanitarian emergency situations to provide external support of OCHA.

[3] A civil–military assessment is essentially a survey of the civilian actors and military forces operating in a particular area. A UN-CMCoord officer carrying out such an assessment will log all groups that are present, the work that they are doing and their exact location.

[4] For more on the JOTC, see: http://www.logcluster.org/ops/hti10a/jotc-info-sheet.

[5] Further information can be found at http://ochaonline.un.org/cmcs/training.