A bridge too far: aid agencies and the military in humanitarian response

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Jane Barry with Anna Jefferys
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Since the beginning of the 1990s, military peace- keeping forces have increasingly intervened in countries in conflict, forcing a more direct engagement than ever before between the military, local populations and humanitarian agencies.Within this context, the military has, to varying degrees, become involved in a relatively new territory, namely humanitarian assistance. This engagement has ranged from the provision of armed protection for humanitarian convoys to the direct implementation of relief aid distributions.As the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) puts it, there is an ‘evolution of military thinking in regard to the provi- sion of humanitarian aid and services. In NATO and elsewhere there has been an evolution of the doctrine of military–civilian operations, with an increasing tendency for military forces being used to support the delivery of humanitarian aid, and sometimes even to provide this aid directly’ (OCHA, 2001).

Military movement into what has traditionally been ‘humanitarian space’ raises significant issues of principle, as well as policy and operational questions, for the entire international community, including governments, the military, humanitarian agencies and the UN.While members of the international community discuss ways to clarify and improve relations between international peacekeeping forces and humanitarian actors in conflicts, these debates have tended to focus on improving relations through increased under- standing, with an eye to developing an integrated, or at least closely coordinated, ‘military–humanitarian’ relief response.This view is based on the premise that the military should maintain – and in some cases even increase – its involvement in humanitarian relief and rehabilitation. This issue has become much more urgent in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September and the subsequent US-led military action in Afghanistan, with some key Western politicians explicitly calling for a merger of political,military and humanitarian aims. In January 2002, the UK government’s Conflict and Humanitarian Affairs Department (CHAD) announced that it would consider bids from the UK-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan for ‘humanitarian’ work in Afghanistan, should these projects meet CHAD’s selection criteria.

Despite a proliferation of conferences, reports and publications on the subject, analysis of civil–military relations is limited, and practical policy guidelines are relatively undeveloped. Most publications conclude that increased military engagement in humanitarian assistance is inevitable, and to a certain degree welcome and acceptable. According to this view, increased cooperation between groups is required in order to improve the overall effectiveness of the peace support operation, thereby also enhancing humanitarian assistance efforts.The main barrier to improved cooperation is simple ‘misunderstanding’, to be resolved through more joint training, conferences and academic programmes. This will bring the relevant groups closer together, and resolve the ‘culture clashes’ that seem to engender mistrust.

This paper argues that these propositions are based on several faulty premises. First, while increased military engagement in humanitarian assistance activities may be a possible future trend, a number of military, political and humanitarian analysts have begun to seriously question whether this is an appropriate direction for peace support operations, concluding that the differences in approach and aims go beyond mere misunderstanding. Second, the idea that increased cooperation – and with it coordination – will itself improve humanitarian assistance is a pervasive but relatively unchallenged assumption. However, there is no clear evidence that indicates a significant correlation between military and humanitarian coordination in the field and the quality or aid agencies and the military effectiveness of humanitarian assistance efforts. Finally, the simplistic perception that barriers between humanitarian agencies and the military are based in misunderstandings and cultural clashes glosses over much deeper, intrinsic differences between core aims and principles.

There are profound differences between the mandates, missions and principles of formal military forces and humanitarian agencies.The military has a core mandate to foster security and protect civilians by establishing and enforcing a safe and stable environment. Humanitarian agencies, by contrast, have a mandate to directly implement humanitarian aid programmes. It is essential that these two roles – impartial humanitarian assistance as a response to an urgent and inalienable right, and peace operations with their inevitably partial and political mandates – are kept separate.