Issue 56 - Article 1

Civil-military coordination: the state of the debate

January 9, 2013
Simone Haysom
UN peacekeepers serve food to people displaced by the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010

Civil-military coordination in humanitarian crises is a controversial issue, particularly for humanitarian actors. There is anxiety about cooption and contagion by the military, about trade-offs between enduring political solutions and long-term basic assistance and about the relationship between principles and pragmatism in the delivery of aid. In the midst of these debates the original purpose of civil–-military coordination – to have a structured dialogue that enables more effective and principled delivery of assistance to affected populations – tends to be forgotten. With growing interest on the part of militaries to be involved in the provision of assistance there is both a need to revisit the basic intentions of civil-–military dialogue and to address the gaps that past practice and current guidance do not cover.

The rationale for civil-military coordination

By the nature of the contexts that they work in, humanitarian actors share an operating environment with the military. Pragmatic concerns for maintaining neutrality in these environments have always necessitated dialogue with militaries, in addition to other armed actors. Militaries may also have functions that dovetail with the work of humanitarian agencies, such as managing flows of displaced people or delivering assistance, and they have obligations towards civilian populations embodied in International Humanitarian Law (IHL) which overlap with the mandates and concerns of humanitarian organisations. There is a long history of militaries participating directly in the provision of humanitarian relief, including during the Abyssinian Crisis in 1935 and in the Berlin Airlift of 1948. In many countries, national militaries are the primary organised responders, particularly following natural disasters.

Much of the guidance produced by humanitarian organisations and bodies such as the United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) acknowledges the need for coordination between civil and military actors in conflicts and natural disasters. While many of the rationales for coordination have remained constant, the increasing role of the military in humanitarian contexts in recent decades has necessitated an evaluation of current approaches. In the eyes of many humanitarian actors, humanitarian aid has become increasingly politicised as it has become incorporated into the stabilisation agendas of the major Western donors, which have seen militaries undertake humanitarian assistance activities to achieve strategic or tactical goals in theatres such as Afghanistan. International militaries have also become increasingly involved in natural disaster response; the US military, for instance, has deployed to disaster zones 40 times since 2004. Given this increasing military involvement in humanitarian action, there is a growing need for humanitarian actors to evaluate how constructive their dialogue with the military can be. Are existing attitudes, guidelines and mechanisms adequate to achieve constructive dialogue on the ground?

Some humanitarian organisations have reacted to increased military involvement in the humanitarian sphere by further limiting dialogue, on the apparent assumption either that engagement will do nothing to address humanitarian concerns, or that eschewing dialogue is necessary to protect the independence and neutrality of humanitarian action. Attitudes to dialogue have been shaped by the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, where international militaries were at the same time belligerents in counter-insurgency campaigns and actors in stabilisation efforts which explicitly used humanitarian assistance as part of a military strategy supported by Western donor countries. These situations polarised the humanitarian community and have left many with a lasting cynicism about the value and objectives of civil– military coordination. However, while these experiences offer many lessons to humanitarian and military actors alike, they are not necessarily typical. Indeed, if anything they underscore the need to refresh the longstanding commitment in the humanitarian community to principled interaction with the military, and to update approaches and mechanisms to achieve this.


Humanitarian actors need to understand what the real challenges in civil-military coordination are, and how policies and approaches can facilitate more constructive engagement. The differences between military actors and humanitarian actors are not simply about language and terminology, although these are important in shaping the nature of the dialogue between the two sides; rather, they relate to fundamental differences in their agendas and priorities. These are invariably different, even between UN peacekeeping missions and humanitarians, and these differences have an effect on the interaction between the two spheres of action at policy and strategic level and on the ground, in theatres of operation. Clarity on roles and responsibilities is important, but it is not necessary to fight for a common agenda or to hammer out a way to co-exist. Militaries will rarely have a purely humanitarian role, even in natural disaster response. Humanitarian organisations should accept this, and focus proactively on their role in promoting adherence to the basic tenets of IHL and human rights law, and on areas of common ground, such as the protection of civilians.

There is a need too to address gaps in guidance, particularly in complex emergencies. The IASC guidelines on civil– military coordination describe four scenarios (peacetime, peacekeeping, peace enforcement and combat). In practice, however, it is often difficult to distinguish between these  scenarios, or to guide the transition between one scenario and another. For their part, the Oslo Guidelines on the use of military assets in disaster response do not cover situations where disasters occur during ongoing conflict, generalised violence or political instability. Greater clarity is also needed on how to operationalise key aspects of the civil-–military relationship, including the principle that military assets are used only as a last resort, and with respect to information-sharing.

The humanitarian community also needs to recognise and address its own deficiencies when it comes to adherence to humanitarian principles. Organisations have a poor track record in following existing guidelines, while the proliferation of humanitarian agencies in recent years, with different mandates, philosophies and approaches, makes it very difficult to achieve a consensus view on the appropriate level and form of interaction with the military. The heterogeneous and loosely aligned nature of the humanitarian sector also makes it difficult for militaries to know how to interact, and whom to interact with. Inappropriate engagement with the military by individual agencies has implications not just for the agency in question, but for the broader humanitarian community. Often agencies simply do not understand the legal obligations on military forces in particular contexts, and find it difficult to adapt to the different mandates they may be working under. For their part, the military finds it difficult to understand the differences in the approach, language and role of the various humanitarian actors they encounter.


For good or ill, proactive military engagement in humanitarian assistance is here to stay. Militaries and humanitarian organisations rarely interact on an equal footing: the civil affairs staff of NATO and the major Western military powers dwarfed those of the humanitarian community in Afghanistan, the funds available to militaries for assistance activities are far larger than the funds humanitarian agencies can call on and ministries of defence generally have more political clout than development and humanitarian aid departments. While difficult to achieve given variations in mandates and priorities, a common approach to the military will be far more effective than fragmented attempts at influence. Experiences from numerous contexts show that some level of dialogue – preferably at an early stage – has a greater chance of preserving humanitarian space and influencing military conduct. In a number of contexts, even those where the relationship has been most fraught, consistent efforts on both sides have enabled the development of clear structures and mechanisms for coordination.

Humanitarian and military actors alike need to remind themselves of the fundamental purpose of civil–-military dialogue, namely to improve the delivery of assistance to conflict- and disaster-affected people. Such dialogue has enabled humanitarian actors to share space with military forces since the advent of modern humanitarian action. Refusing any dialogue with the military is not an option: humanitarian actors must realise that engagement with the military, whatever their particular strategy in the environment in question, is a critical component of humanitarian action. This dialogue is necessary both to promote adherence to IHL and, symbolically, to demonstrate neutrality by speaking to all sides in the conflict. It is also an essential practical component in gaining access to populations in need.

Simone Haysom is a Research Officer in the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG). This article is based on Victoria Metcalfe, Simone Haysom and Stuart Gordon, Trends and Challenges in Humanitarian Civil–-Military Coordination, HPG Working Paper, May 2012,


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