Blurred Boundaries: Militaries, humanitarian action and neutrality

Should militaries be involved in providing humanitarian assistance in conflict zones? This was the question at the heart of a debate co-hosted by the ICRC and the Centre for Military and Security Law (CMSL) at the Australian National University in Canberra earlier this month. 

Read also the interview of Vincent Bernard, head of the ICRC's Forum for Law and Policy, and Editor-in-Chief of the International Review of the Red Cross, by the Development Policy Centre, an Australian think tank, on the militarization of aid and the role of humanitarian actors in recent conflicts.

Using cogent arguments, philosophy and humour, two opposing teams raised a series of thought-provoking topics as part of the dynamic discussion, which was moderated by Vincent Bernard, head of ICRC's Forum for Law and Policy based in Geneva.

Team affirmative – arguing that militaries should be involved in delivering aid – comprised Melissa Conley Tyler, National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and Ned Dobos, Assistant Regional Director of the International Society for Military Ethics, Asia-Pacific Division. This side tackled questions such as: do militaries have a greater tolerance for risks than civilian aid groups? Could militaries become advocates for increased investment in aid? Are militaries more effective at delivering humanitarian assistance in conflict zones?

On the team exploring the other side of the argument were Mike Kelly, former minister for defence materiel and retired Colonel in the Australian Defence Force, and Professor Bill Maley from the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy. This team explored questions such as: does military involvement in aid challenge perceptions that humanitarian organizations are neutral? Could the blurring of lines between military, political and humanitarian activities endanger the security of aid workers? Could militaries be better at coordinating with aid groups?

The event was part of the ICRC's Conference cycle on Principles Guiding Humanitarian Action, a series of public events and experts' meetings aimed at fostering a global discussion around neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action.