Issue 30 - Article 12

Some Southern views on relations with the military in humanitarian aid

July 27, 2005
Nik Bredholt, Caritas

Recent crises have seen a marked increase in the participation of military forces in work usually regarded as the exclusive domain of humanitarian agencies. Since it is impossible today to provide aid in many situations without some kind of relationship with the military, the discussion is less whether there should be a relationship at all, but how to establish what the appropriate relationship should be, and where the boundaries should lie. These boundaries should be established so that those affected by an emergency continue to receive vital assistance in a way that does not undermine the independent and apolitical nature of humanitarian action, and which ensures that guiding values and principles are not compromised in other ways.

The discussion within the humanitarian community on relations with the military has tended to focus on Northern agencies and Northern militaries. There has been less focus on the Southern perspective: the perspective of those who actually experience the presence of these armed forces in their countries. This article looks at some Southern views, and argues that the main guiding principle must be the local context of the emergency. How humanitarian actors relate to military forces will depend on local knowledge, including local perceptions and, to a lesser extent, the kind of military in question, whether they are occupation forces, national forces, non-state armies or UN troops. Clear guidelines cannot be established far from the scene, but have to be contextualised at the local level.

An appropriate relationship: the Caritas discussion

In December 2003, the Caritas Confederation came together in Rome to discuss relations with the military, and to formulate a policy. Caritas is in a privileged position when it comes to achieving a global view, as it includes independent organisations from around the world. Each responds to a local constituency.

The general recommendation from the Caritas seminar was that the shape and nature of relations with the military depend on the individual context, and cannot be predefined. Military involvement in major natural calamities is not only acceptable but vital, as no other institution has the same means in terms of equipment and available personnel. The situation in the case of conflict, however, is different. In some circumstances, contact with the military may be a prerequisite for humanitarian access: to reach areas of northern Sri Lanka, for example, relations had to be established both with the Sri Lankan military and with the rebels. But the presence of the military in a particular environment can also have damaging effects. In particular, Africa has seen a range of examples of the use and misuse of military power, as well as of the impact of UN troop deployments. At the Caritas meeting, a representative from N’Djamena in Chad spoke of the difficulties the local population faced with the presence of UN peace troops. Foreign troops affected, not only the conflict that originally brought them in, but local society as a whole. A degradation of moral values, prostitution and the increased incidence of HIV/AIDS were all cited as some of the negative features of the UN troops’ presence.

Examples from the Indian Ocean tsunami and the DRC

The involvement of the military in Sri Lanka and Indonesia following the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in December 2004 provides some insight into this problem. Although the disaster hit populations indiscriminately in Sri Lanka and in Indonesia’s Aceh province, in both situations the existence of civil conflict meant that, for some, the national army was not a neutral actor supporting the local population, but an enemy. It thus could not act as an effective party to the relief effort. As Sri Lanka is only beginning to recover from its devastating war, especially in the Tamil areas in the north and north-east, tensions around military involvement are high. In addition, negotiations between the two parties, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government, are at a standstill, and the movement for peace is vulnerable.

Shortly after the disaster, on 8 January 2005, the president of Sri Lanka announced that relief work for the victims of the tsunami would be entrusted to the military commanders in each region. While this move might make logistical sense in areas that recognise the government, the north includes both government-held and LTTE territories. Local people told Caritas that the involvement of military commanders was not welcome in the north, where it could have been seen as a means of occupying their homeland. It appeared to increase Tamil suspicion of the government. Conversely, in Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s east coast, the local Caritas organisation had to stop a rebuilding project proposed by a European partner in an uncleared area as it was felt that the project would be questioned by the army as potentially supporting the LTTE. The substantial amount of money that the project would have required may have led to suspicion that project funds should also support the resistance, and could ultimately endanger perceptions of Caritas and its freedom of operation.

The Sri Lankan armed forces were not the only military actors in the tsunami relief operation. The American military also took an active part. The US dispatched more than 20 naval ships including an aircraft carrier and 1,300 marines to the tsunami zone. As the LTTE is on a US list of terrorist organisations, the presence of US military personnel in the relief effort was taken as cover for spying and an attempt to collect information for the government of Sri Lanka. Caritas turned down an offer of helicopter assistance from the US military because it was seen as potentially jeopardising the non-partisan position of the Church in Sri Lanka. The status of the Catholic Church, as a well-known entity not related to either the government or the Tamils, has throughout the conflict provided church people with an ability to cross the lines in ways that NGOs in general cannot do. In a situation of widespread suspicion and distrust, a recognised and known identity might prove useful in order to gain access, whereas an NGO label is often less clear.

In post-tsunami Aceh in Indonesia, Caritas members have found that it was nearly impossible to work without some kind of relationship with the military. Because of martial law and the absence of a local government with which to coordinate, Caritas was effectively without a natural local partner, as the Indonesian church is relatively small. At the same time, the difficulties in working in close coordination with the military may be preferable to implementing through local structures if these structures represent religious fundamentalism. The perception is that aid in such circumstances could be used for other purposes. Thus, the military, though it might be seen as an occupying power, might be the preferred partner, when no other reliable alternative exists.

Experiences in Bunia in the DRC are different again. Caritas DRC implements food programmes both in the city and in the bush, in close coordination and contact with local communities. As DRC has no unified national army, but rather a variety of larger or smaller armed groups, there is no national army to relate to, and no local government with effective power.

According to the local Caritas organisation, many people have lost faith in the UN presence, MONUC, and for that reason Caritas cannot be seen to coordinate field visits with MONUC if it wants to travel outside Bunia. Instead, Caritas communicates directly with communities close to the rebels, and these communities themselves make the local security contacts Caritas needs to secure access in rebel-held areas. This is a better guarantee of security than MONUC could provide.

Context above all

Caritas’ Southern members do not make the same distinctions between occupation forces, national forces, non-state armies and UN troops that are made in the policy papers developed by Northern NGOs. What really matters is the impact these military forces have on the local environment, and this depends greatly on context and perception – on the NGO in question, and its relation to society.

The case mentioned above of the US helicopter being offered for relief operations in northern Sri Lanka points to the dilemma of military involvement in humanitarian aid. As a means of moving relief items into difficult-to-access areas, a helicopter is extremely useful; however, the signal its use sends to local people must be taken into consideration. In the short term, aid might be delivered, but in the long term the relationship between local society and the humanitarian actor may be endangered. Context is everything, and local Southern organisations will understand the context in a different way to those from the North. Where Northern NGOs typically respond to a Northern constituency, a Southern organisation with a local constituency has to consider local perceptions and the long-term consequences of their actions. These organisations are linked to their local societies, and they cannot withdraw if problems arise. Although they can shut down operations, they will have to live with those who are in power. Northerners can ultimately leave and decide to terminate any dialogue with a hostile group or government.

As far as UN military deployments are concerned, the potentially adverse impacts that the presence of UN troops might have on the local environment are recognised as a problem at the highest level. However, the policy papers from the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) do not deal with this. Caritas members from Liberia, Sierra Leone and DRC, where there are large contingents of UN troops, are concerned, and the network will probably have to deal more concretely with the difficulties that arise, and provide guidance for its members on how to denounce wrongdoings, participate in the monitoring of mandates and avoid the use of church buildings and structures without proper indemnity.

Contextualisation is a sine qua non in framing relations with the military, and local Southern organisations will perceive this context in a different way to those from the North. Without local trust and confidence, relief work becomes very complicated. Irregular armies are a reality in a number of African countries, not just the DRC. This, combined with a lack of government and distrust towards UN troop contingents, raises the question whether clear guidelines for relations with the military can be established at all.

Nik Bredholtworks in the International Cooperation Department of Caritas Internationalis in Rome. His e-mail address is:

References and further reading

IASC reference paper on ‘Civil–Military Relations in Complex Emergencies’, June 2004.
SCHR position paper on humanitarian–military relations in the provision of humanitarian assistance, final version, 18 October 2004.
Ambiguity and Change: Humanitarian NGOs Prepare for the Future, Tufts University, 2004. (This study marks a significant step forward in including Southern views.)
Greg Hansen, ‘Operational Interaction between UN Humanitarian Agencies and Belligerent Forces: Towards a Code of Conduct’, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 26, March 2004.


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