Issue 45 - Article 3

Military participation in humanitarian action: reflections on the Colombia case

December 9, 2009
Francisco Rey Marcos, Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action

The role of the armed forces in humanitarian operations has long been an issue of debate. With the end of the Cold War and the growing importance of humanitarian issues during the 1990s, the participation of military contingents in aid operations has been re-examined, and the UN has launched initiatives to address this issue and agree criteria to govern military involvement in humanitarian action. While some agencies, chief among them the ICRC and MSF, seek to avoid contact with the military, most humanitarian organisations at one time or another have worked with armed forces, particularly for logistical support and protection and security. Under the Oslo process, a set of directives has been developed to guide military involvement in humanitarian response, including respect for the principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality, the utilisation of military assets as a last resort, civilian control of the humanitarian component and no direct military participation in aid missions.

The issues military engagement in humanitarian action raises apply with particular force in Colombia, where the armed forces are directly engaged in conflict with the country’s various armed groups. This article explores the involvement of the military in humanitarian assistance, the policy context within which this engagement takes place and the difficult implications for humanitarian action military involvement poses.


The first government of Alvaro Uribe, between 2002 and 2006, introduced a ‘Democratic Security Policy’ designed to restore state control ‘over the majority of national territory’. This policy has subsequently been revised during Uribe’s second administration, resulting in the Democratic Security Consolidation Policy (DSCP). Under the DSCP, the government has prioritised territorial control by the armed forces over social recovery.

The new war plan is based on the Integrated Action Doctrine (IAD), a ‘group of principles that seek to orient the coordinated action of legitimate force with the social action of the State and civil society’. The objective is to deploy resources from the defence sector to welfare projects in which the armed forces are involved, but where the rest of the state is still not present. With this approach, the government has sought to strengthen the governance, credibility and legitimacy of the state in areas where there has been no or only precarious state presence.

The instrument for implementing this strategy is the Centre for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI), led by the Presidential Agency for Social Action and International Cooperation (Social Action or SA), of which the military and the police form a substantial part. The SA is a governmental entity responsible for public policy related to populations affected by armed conflict, and serves as a fundamental channel for international assistance. The CCAI has initiated activities in 60 municipalities in 11 areas of the country. The criteria for choosing areas for intervention include whether special military activities are being carried out; humanitarian needs are present that require urgent attention; there are high levels of poverty and marginalisation; illicit crops are being grown; and the state’s presence is weak.

Presidential Directive 01 of 2009 reinforces the link between military and civil components for ‘integrated action’:

With the goal of complying with the objectives of the Democratic Security Consolidation Policy, maintaining investor confidence, and advancing effective social policy, the national Government has concentrated on a mechanism that enables the strengthening of the alignment of the military, police, and anti-drug trafficking efforts with efforts in the social, justice, economic development, and institutional spheres of the State in strategic zones of the national territory, entitled Strategic Leap.

The Directive goes on:

it is the responsibility of each entity to supply information and territorial analysis for the definition, execution, and monitoring of regional consolidation plans, oriented at the coordination of military and civilian forces. These will be elaborated and approved during the first quarter of 2009 and will take into consideration the components of Humanitarian Assistance as related to Emergency, Justice, Security, Social Development, Economic Development, Governance, and Property Allocation. It is fundamental to collaborate with local governments to define and realise the prioritisation of each one of the intervention components as proposed in the Strategic Leap.

Finally, Directive 01 states that ‘potential sources of international cooperation will be coordinated by SA through the International Cooperation Office’.

Challenges for humanitarian action: the thin red line

The ‘Strategic Leap’ presents a series of challenges to humanitarian action in Colombia. The first concerns the maintenance of and respect for humanitarian principles. The government’s policy converts humanitarian action into an instrument for achieving distinct non-humanitarian objectives, without consideration of the impartiality, neutrality or independence of humanitarian organisations. Evidently, neither guerrillas nor paramilitary groups respect humanitarian norms, but this does not mean that the state should not demand respect for the international legal instruments that govern the status and role of civilian organisations in conflict. Humanitarian assistance is clearly being manipulated to serve other ends, and is perceived as partial and politicised by the very people it is trying to help.

Second, the principle of distinction between military and civilian action has been lost. According to Gloria Flórez, Director of the NGO Minga: ‘When a social or humanitarian programme depends on the Armed Forces, it involves the population in armed conflict. To receive aid or any kind of support from one of the groups in the conflict immediately turns them into a military objective of the other’.  In a case such as Colombia, where armed groups have not complied with the principle of distinction, thereby exacerbating the suffering of the civilian population, this increased confusion is dangerous. On numerous occasions, the mere presence of an armed group in a territory has been used to stigmatise the civilian population residing there, justifying attacks against them.

Third, social organisations are being coopted by the state and by the armed forces. The predominance of government entities in the CCAI and the instrumentalisation of humanitarian and development assistance make aid organisations appear as institutions serving the government. This is complicating access to certain zones by humanitarian organisations. A recent communiqué from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)’s Front 29, received by humanitarian agencies in Nariño Department, states that the guerrillas consider the CCAI and the organisations that participate in it to be military targets.

Fourth, civilian life is being militarised and peaceful space in the midst of conflict is being constrained. Relying on military ‘solutions’ assumes a refusal to address the root causes of the violence, and rejects local approaches to resolving them. According to one activist: ‘Peace is generated by recognising the local way of life, and consequently the integral action of the strategy should strengthen the abilities of the communities to promote their development’.  The militarisation of civilian life will, in fact, hamper attempts to reinforce civilian institutions in Colombia. Moreover, it presupposes the usurpation of local autonomy and destroys the potential to construct any local capacity for peace.

Lastly, humanitarian space is being reduced. All of the issues discussed above lead us to conclude that the space for principled humanitarian action oriented towards meeting the needs and protecting the rights of victims of conflict is shrinking.


Ever since the birth of modern humanitarianism in the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in 1859, international society has sought to articulate a clear distinction between the rights and responsibilities of combatants and the role of civilian organisations in alleviating the suffering conflict causes. The humanitarian paradigm that emerged after Solferino emphasises that aid should be provided by impartial organisations, ensuring that relief reaches victims on both sides of the conflict. This principle applies to states, as signatories of international legal instruments, and to armed forces, both of which must respect the legal provisions that allow civilian organisations to carry out their work. In Colombia, however, this distinction between the civilian and the military realm has come under increasing pressure as the government has sought to instrumentalise humanitarian action in the service of political, military and strategic ends. The debate over the participation of the Colombian armed forces in humanitarian operations must be addressed with greater rigour and clarity: in Colombia, as indeed in other difficult contexts, the thin red line between humanitarian and military action is as vital now as it has ever been.

Francisco Rey Marcos is Co-director of the Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH). His email address is


[1] All of the quotations are taken from the text of Directive 01.

[2] Statement by Gloria Flórez, Director of the non-governmental organisation Minga, ‘Lines of Thought on Social Recovery’, Hechos del Callejón 36 (On the Road to Peace), UNDP, June 2008, p. 5,

[3] Statement from Gyna López, Coordinator of Redprodepaz, in ibid., p. 6.



Comments are available for logged in members only.

Can you help translate this article?

We want to reach as many people as possible. If you can help translate this article, get in touch.
Contact us

Did you find everything you were looking for?

Your valuable input helps us shape the future of HPN.

Would you like to write for us?

We welcome submissions from our readers on relevant topics. If you would like to have your work published on HPN, we encourage you to sign up as an HPN member where you will find further instructions on how to submit content to our editorial team.
Our Guidance