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Civil-military coordination during humanitarian health action

Summary of position paper1

A recent position paper has been produced to guide country-level health clusters on how to apply Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) civil military coordination principles to humanitarian health operations. The paper is intended to serve as the basis for discussions with a wide range of stakeholders including health cluster partners, military representatives, civil defence and civil protection actors and other humanitarian clusters. The relation between health humanitarian actors and non-state military groups is outside the scope of the paper.

Army helping civilian evacuation in Pakistan 2005

The paper reviews the existing guidance on civil-military coordination and attempts to clarify how it applies to the health sector. It also identifies some gaps in the guidance and emerging challenges.

The document’s target audience is health cluster participants involved in civil-military coordination. It is also intended to stimulate discussion within the overall humanitarian community and military counterparts.

The document is informed by and builds on the more general efforts of the United Nations (UN) and other humanitarian organisations to identify appropriate civil-military coordination modalities during humanitarian crises. The position paper is a work in progress that may be revised to take account of inputs from global health cluster (GHC) partners and other humanitarian agencies, as well as developments in the area of civil-military coordination.

The scenarios in which humanitarian health agencies operate are complex in terms of internal dynamics and interactions with external parties involved in the response. Over the last decade, military actors have been increasingly involved in relief activities in various settings, including sometimes providing direct assistance to crisis-affected populations. From a humanitarian perspective, this poses specific questions regarding the extent to which their involvement has a positive impact and, conversely, whether and how this involvement might affect humanitarian organisations’ ability to respond impartially to the needs of the population. Civilmilitary coordination problems are particularly relevant for the health sector. Health activities have historically been part of counterinsurgency military strategies. More importantly, rehabilitating the health sector is increasingly seen as key to ensuring the country’s stability.

Different mandates

Humanitarian organisations and military forces have different mandates:

These fundamental differences at the core of the mandates – the needs of the population on the one hand and political/security goals on the other – guide the respective decision-making processes of humanitarians and the military. This can result in minor differences that still allow for cooperation (e.g. when responding to a natural disaster in a non-conflict setting) or major differences (e.g. those that may occur in combat settings). Any confusion between the different mandates carries the risk that humanitarian aid agencies may be drawn, or perceived to be drawn, into conflict dynamics. Humanitarian agencies that are perceived as acting according to agendas other than their humanitarian mandate may lose their credibility in the eyes of other local actors, as well as the trust of the population they are there to serve. This can severely affect their ability to operate and ultimately, create security risks for their staff and for the aforementioned populations.

Identifying a way to engage with the military – one that does not dangerously confuse the two mandates – is at the core of the civil-military coordination challenge.

Limitations in current guidelines

The IASC’s current guidelines clearly outline the principles that should inform the relations between military and civilian actors. Some limitations in the guidelines emerged during the preparation of the position paper:

Proposed revision of the civil-military coordination guidelines

The GHC encourages the revision of the civilmilitary coordination guidelines to respond to the new challenges posed by emerging complex scenarios including the following:

The proliferation of non-traditional actors in the humanitarian arena has blurred the lines of distinction between humanitarian action based on the principles of humanity and impartiality and other activities inspired by different agendas. This calls for an analysis of how the interactions between different actors and agencies can affect humanitarian principles.

National civil defence and civil protection agencies, which are part of the international disaster response system, raise a number of questions for coordination which must be addressed in relation to the specific nature of the entities involved. There is no internationally agreed definition of civil defence or civil protection actors in terms of how they operate, what is their mandate or nature of the relationship with military or security forces of their countries. While in some countries and regions, these terms may have developed distinct meanings, these terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Given their increasing importance in humanitarian response, improved coordination is needed between humanitarian health actors and civil protection actors in the field and globally. How this should happen in a specific setting depends on the specific nature of the civil defence and civil protection actors in that setting. It may be appropriate to include some of these actors in the health cluster coordination mechanism itself, where these are civilian actors explicitly operating on the basis of humanitarian principles. It is important to note that even such entities may regularly rely on their own national military forces for transportation and other logistical support when responding internationally and that this should be considered in determination of coordination approaches. In other cases where there is a stronger link to a political or military agenda (including where the entities themselves are comprised of military personnel), the approach should more closely resemble the approach to coordination with military actors in the setting.

Private security providers have become part of the crisis response landscape. Humanitarian organisations frequently use the services offered by these companies, ranging from security training to facility protection services and more rarely, the armed escort of humanitarian convoys. International guidelines contain little guidance on the use of private security providers. When debating whether to use such services, humanitarian agencies should apply the general principle that interaction with the military must not affect the actual or perceived independence of humanitarian health action.

The scenario where national armies and civil defence and civil protection units are intervening in their own country, assisted by an international response effort, raises specific issues that go beyond the scope of the traditional civilmilitary coordination modalities. National armies are often leading or are the main actors of a national civil defence and civil protection system. International assistance may be deployed, upon request of the national government, to support the national response effort but the final decision on what to do and how to carry out the relief effort rests with the national authorities. In this framework, certain civil-military coordination principles (e.g. last resort, no direct assistance) are difficult to apply and to some extent not useful to guide relations with national military forces. Certain dilemmas remain, particularly when national military forces are also involved in responding to internal political crisis and unrest (e.g. northern Pakistan).

In recent years, there has been an increasing tendency to include humanitarian assistance as part of or in the service of broader agendas of a military or political nature. This trend has been formalised with the ‘comprehensive approach’ concept embraced by NATO, which aims at combining military, political and humanitarian activities in the overall goal of the stabilisation of a country. This concept – first operationalised with the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in Iraq and Afghanistan – may become the model for future civil-military coordination. However, this blending of strategies and tactics serves to undermine the international humanitarian community’s core humanitarian principles. The integrated mission concept developed by the UN follows a similar trend. Although there are significant attempts to protect the humanitarian space within integrated missions, the concept foresees the integration of different agencies and components into an overall political/strategic crisis management framework. This can blur the lines between the UN’s different political and humanitarian branches, with predictably negative results.

The military’s involvement in the provision of indirect and direct health activities is multi-faceted:

Evidence from the field suggests that most of these health actions go unreported and uncoordinated with the overall health national framework. The GHC is concerned that these health services may not be appropriate to the context and that ad hoc health actions might raise the expectations of the local population and create inequalities and inequities in the provision of health services.

The GHC reiterates the guiding principle that health activities should be based on assessed health needs and guided by humanitarian principles, not by objectives that are either political or military in nature. It recommends that health activities should not be used as a component of a “winning hearts and minds” strategy.

The GHC recommends that whenever military actors are involved in the provision of health services, any such action should follow the health priorities and plans approved by the national government/ local health authorities, and adhere to the international humanitarian response plans.

Local actors and populations view international aid organisations more and more as part of a ‘western agenda’ and less and less as neutral and impartial agencies responding to humanitarian needs. As a possible consequence, the number of security incidents targeting aid workers has been on the rise since 1997, and attacks on medical workers and facilities are a common feature of armed conflicts. This is an element of the larger phenomenon of the shrinking of the humanitarian space, which means humanitarian agencies are less able to access affected populations and provide much-needed assistance.

The GHC is concerned that continuing coordination with military forces might further skew local actors’ and populations’ perception of the impartiality of humanitarian health actions.

Show footnotes

1IASC Global Health Cluster (2011). Civil-military coordination during humanitarian health action. Provisional version – February 2011

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Reference this page

Civil-military coordination during humanitarian health action. Field Exchange 42, January 2012. p17.



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