Issue 44 - Article 12

Military responses to natural disasters: last resort or inevitable trend?

October 6, 2009
Charles-Antoine Hofmann and Laura Hudson, British Red Cross

States are increasingly contributing military assets in humanitarian emergencies. As a result, the humanitarian community has paid growing attention to civil–military relations, culminating in a series of guidelines and research activity and more frequent interaction on the ground. Most of this work has focused on complex emergencies. The subject is undoubtedly more contentious in conflict settings, where blurring the lines between humanitarian and military actors can compromise neutrality and independence, restricting humanitarian access and increasing security risks. It is also relevant in responses to natural disasters, for two reasons.  First, many recent large-scale disasters have occurred in contexts of ongoing conflict or violence, which means that some of the issues encountered in complex emergencies also apply.  Second, many governments are gearing up for a greater military role in disaster response, and military involvement, whether national or international, is likely to become more frequent.

This article is part of an ongoing research project conducted by the British Red Cross to examine civil–military relations in natural disasters, with specific reference to the experiences of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Desk-based case studies and interviews conducted so far focus on four recent operations in which the Federation was involved: the tsunami response in Aceh (2004), the Pakistan earthquake (2005), floods and a cyclone in Mozambique (2007) and the Haiti hurricane (2008). Some of the main findings are highlighted below.

Military involvement in natural disasters

While the involvement of the military in relief operations is not new (think of the 1948-49 Berlin airlift, for example), military engagement in relief activities has grown since the early 1990s. Military resources were used in response to the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, and after Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998. More recently, the US military supported the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the UK military was brought in to help tackle floods in Britain in 2007 and huge numbers of Chinese troops were deployed in the aftermath of the earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008. Following the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, domestic and international military actors mounted the largest humanitarian helicopter airlift ever seen. Regional alliances too are paying growing attention to the role of the military. Initiatives are currently under way in the Asia-Pacific region, largely in reaction to the tsunami. NATO is playing a growing humanitarian role in disaster response, for example in the US Katrina response and the Pakistan relief operation in 2005.

There are various factors driving the growing interest of the military in responding to disasters: assisting relief efforts can improve the military’s image and provide training opportunities, and may also be a way for the military to diversify their role at a time when armed forces globally are experiencing budget cuts. With an increase in the incidence of natural disasters, national and foreign militaries can be expected to play a bigger role – particularly in large-scale disasters, where the capacity of humanitarian organisations may be stretched.

Humanitarian actors view these developments with a wary eye. In the US, the NGO consortium InterAction has raised concerns about the newly established US Command for Africa (AFRICOM), whose tasks include supporting humanitarian assistance. Growing interest within the European Union in deploying civil defence and military assets outside EU territory has prompted similar concerns. Critics of the military’s involvement in relief claim that it is inefficient, inappropriate, inadequate and expensive, contrary to humanitarian principles and driven by political imperatives rather than humanitarian need.

Guidelines on civil–military relations in natural disasters

The Guidelines on the Use of Foreign Military and Civil Defence Assets in Disaster Relief, known as the Oslo Guidelines, state that, whereas the involvement of domestic military forces is often a first resort due to lack of capacity elsewhere, the use of foreign military assets must be a last resort. These guidelines also clearly affirm the primary responsibility of the affected state for providing humanitarian assistance on its territory, and state that foreign military and civil defence assets must complement (rather than supplant) existing relief mechanisms. The final authority over the use of foreign military assets clearly lies with the affected state: for instance, the Indonesian government accepted a good deal of foreign military support, but put a 90-day limit on deployments. The principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship affirm ‘the primary position of civilian organisations in implementing humanitarian action’, and require states to ensure that military assistance is ‘in conformity with international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles, and recognises the leading role of humanitarian organisations’.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has its own guidelines on relations with the military. The key principles are as follows:

  • While maintaining a dialogue with armed forces at all levels, components of the Movement preserve their independence of decision-making and action.
  • All components of the Movement ensure that they act and are perceived as acting in accordance with the Fundamental Principles, in particular independence, neutrality and impartiality.
  • Each component draws a clear distinction between the respective roles of military bodies and humanitarian actors, paying particular attention to perceptions locally and within the wider public.
  • The use of military assets by a component of the Movement – in particular in countries affected by armed conflict and/or internal strife/disturbance – is a last resort solution, which can only be justified by serious and urgent humanitarian needs, as well as by the lack of alternative means.
  • The Movement does not use armed protection.


Nature of the dialogue and interaction with the military

Depending on the context, the form of engagement between military and humanitarian actors varies, ranging from keeping a safe distance to much closer levels of collaboration, sometimes with recourse to military assets. Developing good personal contacts with the military has proved valuable whatever level of coordination is required. For example, despite a desire to publicly distance themselves from the UN mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), Federation staff developed discreet personal contacts. This helped the Federation access important security information and increased MINUSTAH’s understanding of the Red Cross’ concerns.


Military assets as a last resort

The principle of last resort is key for the Red Cross. Perceived as a useful ‘safeguard’ from an operational perspective, it can, however, be hard to apply in practice. Indeed, it implies that programme managers should explore every available option before making an informed decision. In rapid-onset situations, pragmatism often prevails and good judgement is generally sufficient to assess whether realistic alternatives are available.

In Pakistan, there was a clear justification for the Federation to use military assets, primarily air transport. Similarly in Aceh, the rapid deployment of military helicopters from the region was vital: waiting for civilian planes would have resulted in severe delays and additional loss of life. A more difficult question concerns when to revert to civilian capacity after the initial surge period has passed, particularly as military assets are usually perceived as a ‘free good’. While this holds true from the perspective of an aid agency, costs are always borne by the state. Ultimately, using military assets may have implications for the overall humanitarian aid budget, and it is generally accepted that military assets are usually more expensive than civilian ones. It should be noted that some governments, including the UK, make entirely separate allocations for military expenditure associated with humanitarian relief and state aid budgets. Over time, however, this might skew aid financing, effectively reducing funding to aid budgets.


Armed escorts

In all four of the case studies, the Federation abided by its rule of not using armed escorts. For example, the Pakistani military asked humanitarian convoys to use armed police escorts in the North-West Frontier Province. This was resisted by the Federation. In Aceh, government forces initially denied the Federation access to some locations thought to harbour supporters of the separatist Free Aceh Movement, unless staff were accompanied by armed military escorts. Further negotiations enabled the Federation to proceed alone and without incident.


Public perceptions

In all of the case studies, Federation staff considered public perceptions of the Movement’s independence and neutrality when deciding on levels of coordination with the military. For example, in Haiti the Federation sought to avoid direct public engagement with MINUSTAH. Privately, however, it coordinated with MINUSTAH when organising a distribution to ensure that MINUSTAH troops were available to respond if security became an issue. This cautious approach may have helped the Federation to reach some areas after the hurricanes in the south-east of the country, whereas access was blocked for the UN.


Conclusion: challenges and opportunities for humanitarian actors

Many humanitarian actors understand that the military can play a legitimate and at times vital role in supporting humanitarian relief efforts. Given the growing involvement of military actors in relief activities, humanitarian organisations have an opportunity and, some argue, a responsibility to engage more strategically with the military in order to limit the risks inherent in their involvement and maximise the potential benefits to the disaster response system and affected populations. The question for humanitarian organisations is no longer whether to engage with the military, but rather how and when to do so.


Issues to consider

    • Civil–military relations currently occupy a marginal place in the humanitarian sector. Apart from the ICRC, which due to its mandate must address the issue carefully and consistently, most organisations have very little – if any – capacity in this domain. Yet interaction with the military – both national and international – is likely to become more common. Humanitarian personnel need training, which should include familiarisation with military operating styles and terminology and operational guidance tailored to specific contexts or scenarios.
    • At the policy level, agencies should be working to influence military doctrine and explain their concerns, and support the dissemination and implementation of existing guidelines and the development of improved tools. The recent British Armed Forces doctrine publication on Disaster Relief Operations benefited from consultation with agencies, even changing its title from ‘humanitarian relief operations’ on the basis of agency advice. This engagement should not be limited to the military, but should extend to governments, who decide the roles the military will play in disaster response.
    • With the military’s growing interest in supporting relief interventions in foreign countries, it is crucial for states that are prone to natural disasters to ensure that they have a proper understanding of key rules and principles, such as the Oslo Guidelines. Preparedness should be improved through the development of national disaster plans and training activities. The Federation’s International Disaster Response Laws, Rules and Principles (IDRL) programme can play an important role here, by supporting governments to strengthen their domestic legal and policy frameworks for disaster response.
    • Finally, dialogue and coordination within the humanitarian community is badly needed. While most debates focus on civil–military relations in countries such as Afghanistan, where conflict is the defining feature, very little attention is paid to the growing role of the military in natural disasters and the implications for humanitarian actors and the principles that underpin their work.



Charles-Antoine Hofmann was formerly Humanitarian Policy Adviser at the British Red Cross. Laura Hudson is a BRCS Policy Officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Red Cross Movement.


References and further reading

C. Harkin, The 2004 Tsunami: Civil Military Aspects of the International Response (London: Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, 2005).

IASC, Civil–Military Relationship in Complex Emergencies, An IASC Reference Paper, 2004.

IASC, Guidelines on the Use of Military and Civil Defence Assets to Support United Nations Humanitarian Activities in Complex Emergencies, 2006.

InterAction, InterAction on Civil Military Relations, Policy Brief, September 2008.

M. Jochems, ‘NATO’s Growing Humanitarian Role’, NATO Review, Spring 2006.

J. Krombach-Wagner, ‘An IHL/ICRC Perspective on “Humanitarian Space”’, Humanitarian Exchange, 32, 2006,

OCHA, Guidelines on the Use of Foreign Military and Civil Defence Assets in Disaster Relief (Geneva: United Nations, 2007).

R. Rana, ‘Contemporary Challenges in the Civil–Military Relationship: Complementarity or Incompability?’, International Review of the Red Cross, 855, 2004.

SCHR, SCHR Position Paper on Humanitarian–Military Relations, 2004.

SIPRI, The Effectiveness of Foreign Military Assets in Natural Disaster Response (Stockholm: SIPRI, 2008).

E. Thomson, Principled Pragmatism: NGO Engagement with Armed Actors, World Vision International, 2008.

V. Wheeler and A. Harmer, Resetting the Rules of Engagement: Trends and Issues in Military–Humanitarian Relations, HPG Report 21 (London: ODI, 2006).


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