Japan: the role of armed forces and the ICRC in natural disasters

23-04-2012 Interview

The 16th Tokyo Defense Forum (TDF) and its Open Seminar were held on March 15th and 16th in Tokyo organized by the Japanese Ministry of Defense. The ICRC was invited as one of a few international organizations to participate in both seminars. Larry Maybee, the ICRC regional delegate to armed forces for Asia and the Pacific, spoke as a panelist in the first session of the Open Seminar. In this interview, he explains the role of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in natural disasters, emphasizing the importance of coordinating with armed forces.

What is the role and response of the ICRC in the event of natural disasters?

The ICRC and its partners in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have almost 150 years of experience in responding to natural disasters! Within this so-called "Red Pillar" of humanitarian action, there are 188 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The National Societies in the countries affected by natural disasters always play a central and critical role in responding to the humanitarian needs of the people. Where it has the capacity, the National Society leads the Movement humanitarian response and all humanitarian efforts are be channeled through it. The ICRC plays a more central role coordinating the humanitarian effort in the case of natural disasters which occur in countries that are affected by conflict or other armed violence, where the ICRC has established operations.

What about in peacetime?

For natural disasters occurring in peacetime, the ICRC has a less prominent role. In these situations the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies plays a more central role, supporting National Societies where needed, in terms of capacity and resources and coordinating the Red Cross and Red Crescent humanitarian response.

How do you cooperate with armed forces?

The three components of the Movement give preference to cooperating with each other, within this so-called "Red Pillar" of humanitarian action. The ICRC does, however, coordinate its activities with other agencies, including the armed forces, where it makes sense in the specific situation, for example to avoid duplication of effort and inefficiencies. The ICRC focuses its humanitarian action in areas where it has the expertise and the capacity to respond; it concentrates on the core activities it carries out in armed conflict, which are equally needed in natural disasters.

Do you have recent examples of ICRC's assistance in natural disasters in Asia?

The ICRC has responded to many natural disasters in Asia and around the world over the years. For example, recently, it supported the impressive response of the Japanese Red Cross to the tragic events following the devastating Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Our organization was active in Thailand and the Philippines providing relief for flood victims in those countries. The ICRC has also provided humanitarian relief in many other natural disasters, along with our partners in the Movement. In 2004, for example, the ICRC deployed its staff, equipment and expertise following the Indian Ocean Tsunami (Aceh and Sri Lanka). We also responded to the 2005 Kashmir earthquake (Pakistan and India), the 2009 cyclone Nargis (Myanmar), the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the 2010 Pakistan floods. In addition, the Movement is involved in other less well publicized floods and natural disasters in many countries around the region, on a regular basis.

As a former army officer and currently in charge of building relations with armed forces in Asia, what is your opinion of the role of armies in natural disasters?

The ICRC understands that the armed forces play an important role in supporting their governments by responding to natural disasters, within their own countries. This is a common role given to the armed forces. Usually in these cases, the military is called out in support of the civil authorities and the soldiers involved are unarmed. This is not problematic in countries that are at peace, where there is no political, ethnic or religious violence or tensions. Coordination between the ICRC, civilian agencies and the military in these situations is easier.

The ICRC believes, however, that military forces should become involved in natural disasters at the request of the civil authorities and should always remain under their control. They should as a rule be unarmed and be used to fill gaps in the civil humanitarian response. The military should concentrate their activities in areas where they have unique and specific expertise that is unavailable in the civilian sector; this includes, in particular, transportation (air, ground and sea), engineering, logistics and communications.

The problem seems more complex in situations of armed violence…

Military involvement in natural disasters raises significant concerns in contexts where there is armed conflict, violence or political or other tensions, particularly where the military is involved. This is the case whether the military is responding within its own country or is deployed to another disaster-affected country. In these situations, the military may be viewed with suspicion or worse by the local population; in extreme cases they may be actively involved in the conflict or violence, conducting operations in the disaster-affected region. There is also the danger that their humanitarian response and the relief they provide is not impartial, but rather distributed with political and/or military objectives, for example to win the hearts and minds of the population.

In these situations, the ICRC and other components of the Movement are reluctant to engage or coordinate closely with the military. Doing so could jeopardize their neutrality, as well as the impartiality and independence of their humanitarian action, which are fundamental to the mandates of these agencies.  

Beyond natural disasters, how does the ICRC cooperate with the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) in peacetime?

Given its mandate to work in armed conflict and other situations of violence, it is natural for the ICRC to engage with the armed forces, on many levels. It is a fact that the ICRC has  operations in many, if not all the countries where the armed forces deploy, whether on peacekeeping, disaster response or other operations. In the case of the JSDF, for example, the ICRC has operations in Haiti, Pakistan, Lebanon and in South Sudan.

What kind of programmes do you develop with the JSDF?

The ICRC conducts several activities with the JSDF each year. For example, it has provided briefings for JSDF personnel deploying to UNMISS (South Sudan) and been involved in training JSDF officers at regional peacekeeping training centres. The ICRC provides technical support and expertise in the development of JSDF doctrine, such as the new Prisoner of War Manual. The ICRC co-organizes an annual seminar with the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS), on a theme related to international humanitarian law (IHL).

The ICRC also participates in multinational military activities throughout Asia, where the JSDF is also involved. These include military training exercises, such as Exercise Cobra Gold, the largest military exercise in Asia, which is held each year in Thailand. The ICRC also sponsors JSDF officers to attend courses overseas to learn IHL, including the Senior Workshop on International Rules Governing Military Operations (SWIRMO), and at the Institute of International Humanitarian Law in San Remo, Italy.

The ICRC seems to have a strong relationship with the JSDF…

The relationship the ICRC has developed with the JSDF is an important one, built on mutual trust and respect. The ICRC is happy with the state of our interaction with the JSDF and we are optimistic about how it will develop in the future. It is particularly important for the ICRC and the armed forces of countries in the region to understand each other and our respective mandates and activities in operational contexts where we are both present. In addition, it is useful for us to understand where and how we can interact, and what the limits to this interaction are, before we find ourselves together in a high intensity, stressful environment.


The 16th Tokyo Defense Forum (TDF) is organized in two different sessions. The first one, a closed session, is set with a view to sharing critical and operational agendas for the armed forces in the Asia Pacific region and exchanging regional views on "civil-military relations" as well as "maritime security". Following this session, the second TDF Open Seminar is a public event organized in order to highlight the current security environment increasing public awareness in Japan, together with senior defense officials from more than 24 countries in the region as well as key international organizations.


Tokyo, Japan. Panellists, including the ICRC's Larry Maybee, at the Tokyo Defense Forum's Open Seminar, organized by the Japanese Ministry of Defense. 

Tokyo, Japan. Panellists, including the ICRC's Larry Maybee, at the Tokyo Defense Forum's Open Seminar, organized by the Japanese Ministry of Defense.
© Japan Ministry of Defense