Issue 49 - Article 5

Civil-military principles in the Pakistan flood response

February 4, 2011
Nicki Bennett, OCHA

The devastation caused by unprecedented flooding in Pakistan between July and September 2010 triggered a massive humanitarian response. The government of Pakistan, international donors, UN agencies, NGOs, faith-based groups, private sector organisations and volunteers alike mobilised to assist more than 20 million people directly affected by the floods. Foreign governments stepped forward to offer cash assistance as well as in-kind aid, including military assets.

On the ground, humanitarian actors were grappling with the challenge of launching an emergency response of unprecedented scale, across a huge and geographically diverse area. For the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) in Islamabad,[1]this meant making decisions and issuing policy guidance not just on how to meet massive and urgent humanitarian needs, but also on how to do so in a principled way.

The Pakistan flood response proved that it is possible for an HCT to draw on principled policy frameworks to develop unified positions to guide operational practice, including on the issue of civil-military relations. However, the experience has also revealed a selective regard for agreed principles among certain stakeholders (both within and outside of the humanitarian community), and has raised questions about humanitarian agencies’ actual understanding of basic civil-military principles.


Using military assets: global and national policy frameworks

The use of military assets for humanitarian purposes has been discussed extensively by humanitarian agencies as well as UN member states. Working under the mandate of the UN General Assembly, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) has developed clear policy frameworks for the coordination of civil–military issues, including the ‘Guidelines on the Use of Civil and Military Defence Assets’, the ‘Guidelines on the Use of Military and Armed Escorts for Humanitarian Convoys’ and the ‘Reference Paper on Civil–Military Relationship in Complex Emergencies’. The ‘Oslo Guidelines’, a collaborative effort between 45 UN member states and 25 international organisations, provide further guidance on the use of foreign military and civil defence assets.

Underpinning each of these documents is the basic principle of ‘last resort’, meaning that military capabilities can complement civilian efforts in disaster responses – but only when they offer a unique capability for which there is no comparable civilian alternative. UN General Assembly Resolution 59/141 of 2004 emphasises ‘the fundamentally civilian character of humanitarian assistance’, and underlines that military assets must be used ‘in conformity with international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles’. Humanitarian assistance must be provided in accordance with the principles of neutrality, humanity, impartiality and independence.[2]

In Pakistan, the HCT has drawn on this global policy framework to develop the Pakistan Civil–Military Guidelines. Formally adopted by the HCT on 5 March 2010, these guidelines acknowledge the need for humanitarian and military actors to operate effectively within the same environment, and establish agreed principles and practices. They recognise that the use of military assets in a conflict-affected country such as Pakistan may have a negative impact on the perception of humanitarian actors’ impartiality and neutrality, and hence affect their ability to operate safely and effectively. Therefore, as a matter of principle, ‘military and civil defence assets shall not be used to support humanitarian activities’. The guidelines also acknowledge, however, that the use of military assets may be warranted in ‘extreme and exceptional circumstances’ where all of the following five conditions are met:

  • Use of the asset is based solely on humanitarian criteria.
  • It is a last resort, when a highly vulnerable population cannot be assisted or reached by any other means and there is no appropriate civilian alternative.
  • The urgency of the task at hand demands immediate action.
  • Use of the asset is clearly limited in time and scale.
  • Use of the asset is approved by the HCT.

Since their adoption, these criteria have proven a useful tool for informing HCT decisions on specific response strategies. For example, a few months before the floods hit Pakistan the HCT used the criteria to decide whether military helicopters should be used to carry out an early recovery assessment in inaccessible landslide-affected areas of Gilgit Baltistan (the decision was no, as civilian alternatives were available and the proposed activity was not life-saving).

From policy to practice: the Pakistan flood response

The onset of the floods presented the Pakistan HCT with a range of difficult decisions regarding the appropriate use of military assets. Within days, humanitarian actors were raising serious concerns about lack of access in the northern districts of Swat, Kohistan and Shangla, where almost all major bridges and roads had been washed away or severely damaged. While some NGOs managed to reach these areas with medical supplies and initial relief items after 16 hours on foot or mule, it quickly became clear that the only option for the transport of heavy goods (such as food aid) would be by helicopter. On 5 August, the HCT reviewed the situation and found that all five criteria for the use of military assets were met, and approved a request by WFP to use military helicopters for the transport of food.

Accessibility problems increased as the flood wave surged from the north of Pakistan to the south. Within weeks, large numbers of roads and bridges in other provinces, including Balochistan, Punjab, Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan, had become impassable or partially submerged. On 20 August, the HCT expanded its initial authorisation of the use of military helicopters to include the transport of a range of life-saving relief items across Pakistan.

In both instances, HCT members agreed on clear measures to limit the potentially negative impact of using military assets. This included ensuring that military officials understood that their role should be restricted to transporting goods, and limiting the presence of humanitarian workers on military flights. HCT members also agreed that there should be no media on military flights, and that military markings should be removed from helicopters wherever possible.

Challenges in policy implementation

Despite the existence of a clear policy framework and the efforts the HCT made to develop unified positions on the use of military assets, the practical implementation of principles in the Pakistan flood response has not been without challenges.

Lack of respect for civil-military principles

The first problem has been an apparent lack of respect for agreed principles among some humanitarian actors as well as UN member states, as illustrated by the case of the NATO air bridge. On 20 August, NATO announced its intention to create a strategic air bridge to transport in-kind donations from its member states to Pakistan. Additionally, and without prior consultation, this capability was offered to humanitarian organisations, and publicised as such. Of key concern to the HCT was the potential security risk to humanitarian actors if they openly associated themselves with a military alliance whose supply convoys to Afghanistan were coming under frequent violent attack within Pakistan (more than 100 attacks were documented against NATO assets inside Pakistan in 2010, killing 37 people and injuring 64). Following extensive internal discussions, the HCT concluded that it could not approve its members’ use of the air bridge as it was not an option of last resort because air and sea transport was available commercially. Despite the clear policy framework, at least two UN agencies decided to make (albeit limited) use of the air bridge,[3] as did a number of small NGOs who were not members of the HCT.

The Pakistan government and several donors challenged the HCT’s attempt to maintain a principled position, arguing that no time should be wasted in moving goods into the country and that the use of the NATO air bridge would make the humanitarian operation more cost-efficient. Both claims were inaccurate. While the emergency response did suffer a number of delays in the delivery of relief goods, cluster leads repeatedly stressed to donors that these were related to supply shortages in items such as tents and tarpaulins, not to any gap in global airlift capacity.[4] With regard to cost-efficiency, civil–military guidelines stipulate that cost may not be used to justify the use of military assets; in fact, the Pakistan floods confirmed existing findings[5] that the costs involved in using military assets tend to be met from governments’ humanitarian budgets.

Difficulties in communicating nuanced positions

Clearly communicating agreed positions (including the nuances of certain civil–military principles) proved another challenge. Particularly for those who had not participated in the HCT’s lengthy discussions, there appeared to be a direct contradiction between the humanitarian community’s reluctance to use the NATO air bridge, while at the same time agreeing to use Pakistani and foreign military assets to reach cut-off communities within Pakistan. This led to accusations that the HCT was being inconsistent.

In fact, the HCT treated each case on its own merits. Recognising the complexities of the situation, the HCT did not place any ban on the use of military assets (including the air bridge), but merely requested that HCT members consult amongst themselves on each case to ensure a unified approach that would meet the criteria outlined in global and national guidelines. Similarly, the HCT could not publicly or permanently associate itself with a conflict party – instead, it agreed that humanitarian actors could coordinate with military counterparts around a set of relatively narrow and time-bound activities.

Struggling with definitions – what does ‘last resort’ actually mean?

A final complicating factor stemmed from disagreements between agencies about the actual meaning of an ‘option of last resort’. On the one side were agencies that had not used any military assets, arguing that it was still possible to carry out humanitarian action using civilian alternatives. At least one NGO (MSF) has criticised the HCT – and the UN – for acting in a manner that could jeopardise the work of aid agencies who had gained trust and acceptance among communities in conflict areas.[6] While some critics have said that they could not envision any situation in which they would accept the use of military assets in support of their own work, others agreed that exceptions could be made – but only where there was a direct and immediate threat to life and security (for example, using military helicopters to rescue a drowning person).

On the other side were agencies that argued for a broader interpretation of the principle of ‘last resort’, to include not just direct and immediate actions to save a specific life, but also indirect or gradual actions to save lives and alleviate suffering. It was this definition that HCT members (including those who chose not to use military assets for their own operations) ultimately used to inform their decisions to authorise the use of military assets to transport relief items to cut-off areas. It should be noted that this did not prevent some HCT members (especially NGOs) from adopting a narrower definition of ‘last resort’ in relation to their own activities.


The Pakistan flood response has demonstrated that civil-military coordination – including the use of military assets – remains a challenge, both at the political and operational level. This challenge can only be overcome if humanitarian actors and governments are committed to respecting agreed principles and mandates. Pressure from donors such as the US and the UK on the Humanitarian Coordinator and humanitarian organisations in Pakistan was inappropriate and contrary to the coordination architecture and Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative that they profess to support. Such actions threaten the authority of the HC and the role of the HCT, and risk politicising the response.

Where agencies and Humanitarian Country Teams are able to agree on common approaches, these should be communicated more clearly to all stakeholders. In Pakistan, a lack of proactive communication with national and foreign government officials about agreed principles and criteria appeared to result in misunderstandings and disagreements which might have been avoided or at least discussed more constructively had these stakeholders been engaged at an earlier stage.

Similarly, differences between agencies with regard to definitions should be resolved through early and more robust debates and a transparent examination of different mandates, at the local and national as well as global levels. While a diversity of approaches will always prevail, the Pakistan experience showed that even very different agencies are often in a position to develop common frameworks for defining their operations. At a minimum, agencies must openly discuss measures to mitigate the impact that difficult decisions may have on the broader humanitarian community.


Nicki Bennett is the head of OCHA Pakistan’s policy and strategic planning unit. Her email address is: She writes here in a personal capacity, and the views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.

[1] Humanitarian Country Teams (HCTs) aim to improve humanitarian coordination and policy-making and to promote partnership among the various members of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. HCTs are chaired by the Humanitarian Coordinator and consist of representatives of key UN agencies and NGOs. The International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement attends as an observer.

[2] A/RES/46/182, OP2 (1991), A/RES/60/124, PP4 (2005).

[3] These UN agencies were challenged on their decision to use the air bridge at an HCT meeting on 1 October, and did not make further use of air bridge following this HCT meeting.

[4] It should also be noted that the majority of relief goods (including many of the largest and heaviest relief items, such as staple foods) were generally sourced inside Pakistan and not in Western donor capitals.

[5] See SIPRI, Effectiveness of Military Assets in Natural Disaster Response, 2008, and an internal evaluation report by DFID on ‘The Use of UK Military Assets in Support of the Pakistan Earthquake Response’, 2006.

[6] MSF, ‘Drowning Humanitarian Aid’, Foreign Policy, 27 October 2010.


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