Issue 19 - Article 21

Operational models for civilmilitary cooperation: possibilities and limitations

June 2, 2003
John Rollins
9 min read

While the debate on civil–military cooperation (CIMIC) in complex political emergencies continues unabated, several organisations and nations are in the process of defining their positions on the subject. Amongst them is NATO which, in the Balkans, has found itself having to interface with a wide range of civil actors, and recognised that, with the growth of involvement of the military in support of humanitarian operations, the issue of cooperation needs to be addressed.

In May 2001, Uppsala University sponsored a workshop to discuss the possibilities for, and practical limitations of, multifunctional cooperation in complex emergencies. Participants included practitioners from a wide variety of backgrounds, including the military and police, governments and donors, the UN and NGOs (see box for participant list). Representatives of the OSCE, ICRC, MSF and WFP were invited, but last-minute operational issues meant that they could not attend.

This article presents the broad outlines of the debate. It reflects the views of those working on these issues in NATO, and not those of the organisation itself, or its member states. Similarly, it does not represent the formal positions of the other organisations represented, but rather presents a range of observations made by those working on the issues.


Among the various issues examined, the workshop identified a series of questions that are central to humanitarian aspects of the debate on CIMIC. These included:

  • To what extent is it possible to coordinate the various functions (political, humanitarian, military, economic, policing) that might be mobilised in a complex emergency?
  • What are the practical, and perhaps desirable, limitations?
  • How far should the military go in conducting or supporting humanitarian activities?
  • What are the particular perceptions and needs of the humanitarian community (if such a thing exists), in particular concerning the ‘crisis of protection’?

Background issues

The workshop identified two primary issues affecting the debate, over which there has been considerable confusion and misunderstanding. The first is the question of what is meant by ‘civil–military cooperation’. This clearly means different things to different people, even within the military. Apart from the definitions used by individual nations, two formal definitions currently exist: one from NATO, and one from the UN. The UN simply refers to the need to cooperate at all levels within and outside the imm-ediate area of the emergency. NATO focuses on a ‘partnership’ between civil and military organisations in support of the military mission.

But even so there is confusion, about which two points need to be made. Firstly, NATO policy, although drawn up in consultation with a wide range of civilian organisations, is intended to provide guidance only to the military. CIMIC takes place ‘in support of the mission’, and addresses the military’s need to cooperate with other actors. Any other approach could imply a wish for the military to expand its activities into the civil sphere. Any involvement of the military in civil-related tasks should be exceptional, should happen only with the consent of all those whom involvement affects, should be short term and coordinated and, above all, should be needs driven. There is still debate within the military about the extent to which military forces should be geared up for such involvement. Some fear that building a CIMIC capability could lead to a supply-driven, rather than a needs-driven, approach. There are certainly various inherent pressures reinforcing this drive, such as a wish to be seen to ‘do good’.

The second issue is a failure to differentiate between natural disaster situations and complex political emergencies. There are two differences so fundamental that they change the nature of the debate on multifunctional cooperation. First, in the ‘pure’ disaster situation, there is normally a national host gov-ernment that has ultimate sanction over the activities of external organisations and agencies. Second, in complex emergencies the scope for the military to cooperate with civil organisations in non-military tasks may be limited by the requirements of the military’s security-related tasks, which take priority for the military. This includes civil control of military assets for non-military purposes – a limitation that may not exist in disaster relief.

workshop part

Principal findings of the workshop

It was generally felt that cooper-ation should bring tangible benefits to all parties. Notwithstanding the political and practical obstacles, this would require clearer formulation of military mandates by the key political decision-makers (among them the UN General Assembly, the EU, the OSCE and NATO members) than has been the case in the past, and for recognition of the ‘mandates’ of non-political actors, such as the ICRC and NGOs. The formulation of military mandates should:

  • be based upon multifunctional representation and cooperation from the earliest stages, including crisis monitoring, fact-finding and assessment;
  • match mandates with capabilities;
  • anticipate changes in mission requirements over time;
  • develop a realistic identification of capability gaps;
  • differentiate between core and support tasks (for example, if the military is to support civil implementation, roles, priorities and duration need to be stated as this will have an impact on force structure);
  • include civilian representation in the development of the military operational plan (for example, if the military is to support refugee returns or elections, the expectations of the civil authorities must be stated from the outset, rather than worked out ‘in theatre’ as has been the case hitherto).

There must be greater mutual understanding of the mandates, cultures and modus operandi of organisations working in different functional areas. Much is already being done to improve this through seminars, exercises and training programmes. However, individual personalities continue to be pivotal, and civil organisations are frequently frustrated by the rapid turnover of the military personnel with whom they interface. There is a need to ensure greater continuity in post and return postings to a theatre.

Regarding the question of who within the military is best for the job, experience shows that those with a mainstream background, rather than CIMIC ‘specialists’, may be more suited to involvement in civil tasks, and may have a better appreciation of the wider issues. Liaison Officers are of limited use unless they are well briefed and understand the mandates of the organisations involved.

CIMIC in humanitarian activities must be clearly differentiated from such cooperation in the sphere of reconstruction, whether institution-building or purely physical. Military involvement in the former risks compromising the impartiality, neutrality and independence of humanitarian agencies’ work. Involvement in the latter risks compromising the creation of long-term, sustainable structures. There must be a longer-term approach – perhaps with ten-year time horizons. There has to date often been a tendency not to look beyond immediate issues.

Practical and political obstacles will always exist. Even where they feel able to cooperate, humanitarian agencies and NGOs plan and work to standards, codes and criteria that differ from those of military and political staff. They do not have the same top-down, centralised approach that political and military structures might have. There are good reasons for this, and it must be allowed for.

Finally, the phrase ‘within means and capabilities’, often used in mandates, is ambiguous. Although its use may be unavoidable, it should be recognised as a limitation: the military’s security-related activities will normally take priority over humanitarian support activity when military assets are allocated.

Military involvement

The weight of humanitarian opinion matches that of most of the military that any involvement should be minimal, used as a last resort to fill a gap, and very much needs-driven.

There is a strong core of humanitarian opinion that goes on to argue that the military should have no ‘front line’ position in humanitarian response as this undermines the role of humanitarian actors. If there is any military involvement in humanitarian activities, it should be under civilian control because the military is not subject to humanitarian codes and standards. This argument highlights the distinction between natural disasters and complex emergencies: in the former, civil control of military assets is not especially problematic. In the latter, it poses a problem both for the military (military commanders must retain the capability to meet their primary security and war-fighting tasks) and the humanitarian actors (humanitarians need to be – and be perceived to be – impartial and independent). This does not rule out reaching agreement about the extent of military involvement, or some level of cooperation.

Bilateralism – even unilateralism – by national military contingents in theatres is rife. This has been particularly true in Kosovo, where the five nationally-led brigades – from the US, France, Germany, the UK and Italy – conduct CIMIC in different ways, despite emerging NATO policy and doctrine. This undermines trust between the military and the humanitarian community on the ground. There is potential to improve this, but some of the political issues will remain difficult to overcome.

Humanitarian protection and neutrality

Not only do views of CIMIC differ, but so do views of what the various actors in the ‘international community’ aim to achieve in any particular intervention. Humanitarian protection is an important case in point, underwritten as it is not by force, but by neutrality. This fundamental humanitarian principle is potentially endangered by association with the military. This issue was particularly pertinent in the Kosovo crisis, where the needs of the refugee population were less for relief assistance than for protection from abuse. (It should be noted that ‘protection’ here applies to the protection of aid agencies and of local populations.)

Many NGOs fear that they are being obliged, particularly through funding mechanisms, to follow political agendas. Even if this were not the case, there remains a wish or need not to be associated with institutions which have a political agenda. This issue is particularly pertinent in the question of refugee return to Kosovo. These tensions do not have to preclude cooperative engagement. However, if engagement between civil and military actors is to take place, it may have to operate in different ways and at different levels than a strictly integrated approach to conflict management might imply.


Despite the political and practical limitations, there is clearly scope for significantly greater coordination between many of the different functional aspects of the international community’s response to a complex emergency. This applies particularly to the planning of the political, military and policing aspects of an operation. However, a fully integrated approach covering all functional areas may be neither possible nor desirable. This applies particularly to the humanitarian aspects of a response. Humanitarian organisations and agencies do not act as a coherent, unified body, have their own processes and codes, and do not necessarily see the issues in the same way as political or military planners. However, this does not preclude movement towards better cooperation between civilians and the military.


John Rollinsis a British Army officer, currently serving at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), Mons, Belgium.


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