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The ICRC and civil-military cooperation in situations of armed conflict

02-03-2000 Statement

45th Rose-Roth Seminar, Montreux, 2 March 2000, by Jean-Daniel Tauxe, Director of Operations, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva.

Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the organizers of this conference, the Swiss Federal Assembly and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for giving us the opportunity to present the ICRC's views on civil-military cooperation in situations of armed conflict. The relationship between military operations and humanitarian endeavour has received particular attention in recent years, as the assignment of humanitarian tasks to international military forces is increasingly considered as a viable option for crisis management.

Several developments, all stemming from the end of the Cold War, have created the potential for more frequent and wider use of military resources in such situations. The most significant among these are:

  •  Military realities . Certain Western States, the EU and NATO are rethinking military doctrine, particularly in the field of security, and are seeking ways of using some of their military capabilities and assets, which are presently underutilized, for civilian purposes.

  •  Increased demands .   The geopolitical evolution in the last decade has led to the emergence of new types of conflict. Perhaps the most serious characteristic of these new conflicts is that very often civilians are no longer the victims of " collateral damage " , but are deliberately targeted. The heavy toll taken among the civilian population and the risk of destabilization of entire regions have created a growi ng demand for military intervention to restore peace and security.

  •  Institutional developments . There has been a revival in the role of the United Nations Security Council. The permanent members no longer systematically use their power of veto to block decisions in favour of military intervention on humanitarian grounds. This has resulted in greater possibilities on the part of the Security Council to undertake not only peace-keeping but also peace-enforcement operations under Chapter VI and VII respectively of the United Nations Charter.

The implications of these developments have led the United Nations to conceive an " integrated approach " to crisis management, and in certain military operations have also favoured a closer connection between military and humanitarian action. While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) generally welcomes this, it feels that direct involvement of the military in the humanitarian domain gives rise to several paradoxes – related to the divergent aims and principles of military forces and humanitarian organizations – which merit careful consideration.

The ICRC views humanitarian action as being governed by the principles of impartiality and non partisanship, and is therefore convinced that it must be conducted independently of political and military objectives and considerations. Our humanitarian activities involve affording the victims of armed conflict or internal violence not only assistance but also protection, as provided for by humanitarian law and principles. This implies observance of a number of rules, including not taking sides and adopting a strictly non-discriminatory attitude vis-à-vis the victims. ICRC’s humanitarian operations are also inherently non-coercive, that is they must be accepted by all and can thus never be imposed by force. It is self-evident that the military can hardly adhere to these principles, as it remains under political direction and is designed to use force, even if it is only for self defense.

Despite the greater potential for military intervention to which I briefly referred, there are several reasons why the military will continue to be involved only selectively and in certain contexts. We must bear in mind that almost all of today's emergency humanitarian operations are undertaken in response to internal conflicts, that is, conflicts in which action by the military cannot be based on clear and consistent criteria. In these situations, we have to take into account the international community’s hesitation in deciding how far it should become involved in the internal affairs of a State. The determining factors are therefore not only rational objectives and an impartial analysis of the situation but also the risks and resources States are prepared to invest in matters that may not serve their interests. To put it bluntly, powerful nations tend to be overly responsive to their own political and economic interests while being under-responsive to challenges of a humanitarian nature in places that do not engage their perceived strategic interests.

So it comes as no surprise that humanitarian agencies continue to occupy the central role in responding to a large number of crises. This is the case in many of the places where the ICRC is heavily involved, including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the northern Caucasus, Central Africa and the Great Lakes, Angola and Colombia. The ICRC currently has some 11,000 staff working in 58 countries and is conducting operations in connection with some 20 ongoing armed conflicts and 30 situations of violence and internal strife. Apart from the Balkans, Sierra Leone and East Timor, at present there are very few situations in which the ICR C and international military forces   both operate in the same area and undertake operations that require close coordination and thus regular contact with each other.

One of the most important testing ground for far-reaching civil-military interaction to date has been Bosnia-Herzegovina. From the experience gained in this particular context we have learned, on the one hand, to weigh the risks resulting from a blurring of military and humanitarian roles, and on the other, to identify areas of cooperation where the military could make a significant contribution to the work of humanitarian organizations.   Here I should like to give a brief outline of these issues   and a few concrete examples of cooperation.

  •  Blurring of roles  


The deployment of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia-Herzegovina undoubtedly helped countless civilians and saved many lives, but it also contributed to the militarization of humanitarian assistance. It showed how reluctant the international community was in backing political action by military means and how easily the military became involved in relief operations. On many occasions the ICRC and other organizations called for a clear line to be drawn between military and humanitarian responses. Indeed, it was absolutely vital for the ICRC to be perceived as independent of political control and impartial in the delivery of aid.

  •  Areas of cooperation after the Dayton agreement  


 The release and transfer of prisoners  

At the end of the war, in accordance with international humanitarian law and as stipulated in the Dayton Agreement, the ICRC organized the release and transfer of persons detained in connection with the conflict. During these operations, IFOR provided the security and logistics in hand-over areas as specified in the ICRC plan of operation. The presence of IFOR units at the checkpoints along the inter-entity boundary was essential for ensuring the necessary security framework. At the same time, IFOR guaranteed full respect for the ICRC's independence. This cooperation led to the release and transfer of 1,100 detainees and is considered a prime example of successful humanitarian-military interaction.

 The search for missing persons  

Under the provisions of international humanitarian law, each party to a conflict is obliged to search for persons who remain unaccounted for at the end of the hostilities, and to divulge any information it may have in that regard. In order to facilitate this process, the ICRC set up a working group in which IFOR and SFOR took part and provided valuable information.

 Mine awareness  

In addition to running its most comprehensive mine-awareness programme to date, the ICRC set up a database on mine accidents in Bosnia-Herzogovina using information obtained from victims and hospitals. This information has been shared with IFOR/SFOR and the data base has become an important platform for cooperation with the military.

 CIMIC structures and the security dialogue  

One direct result of NATO's deployment in Bosnia-Herzegovina was the establishment of central and regional Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) structures. The ICRC has been participating as an observer in these fora exchanging information on humanitarian issues.

The ICRC has also been attending the regular security meetings held by IFOR/SFOR. However, the ICRC has made it clear that its participation in these meetings does not imply that it is dependent on NATO for its security. On several specific occasions, the ICRC delegation in Bosnia-Herzegovina has informed the SFOR Commander that it would remain on the ground as long as the security of its staff was assured. The ICRC needed to keep a distance from the military so as to maintain its independence since it could never be or perceived as being subordinated to NATO command.

 Instruction in international humanitarian law  

ICRC delegates have been participating regularly in NATO military exercises and training courses, notably with the aim of helping to improve knowledge of international humanitarian law among NATO troops and familiarizing them with humanitarian issues and the ICRC's mandate, role and activities.

These few examples, most of which are currently also relevant for Kosovo and East Timor, show that there is much scope for constructive interaction and cooperation between the ICRC and the military when they are working alongside each other. However, the fact that military operations and emergency humanitarian action sometimes give the impression that they are converging must not be allowed to disguise their fundamentally different nature: They must be distinguishable not only in substance but also in appearance. The clear demarcation that the ICRC advocates between military and humanitarian operations stems from recognition of and respect for their different mandates which, as the world stands today, are both necessary and complementary. But that recognition does not imply that these mandates are mutually exclusive. Indeed, mutual consultation is indispensable. Moreover, the two forms of activity share a number of principles which I feel are easily identifiable. These are the principles of international humanitarian law which the ICRC defends and promotes, and which all armed forces, UN, NATO and others, are under an obligation to respect.

I should like to add that the military can, in fact, render invaluable humanitarian services, as several recent experiences have demonstrated - without turning into a humanitarian enterprise. This is the case when there is a severe shortfall between the demands for relief assistance and the resources available from humanitarian organizations to be committed quickly to sustaining civilians, as it happened last year in Albania and Macedonia with the massive influx of refugees from Kosovo. The same goes even more for natural disasters where humanitarian activities undertaken by the military are far less problematic, the latest example being the involvement of national and foreign military forces in the rescue and relief efforts undertaken for the flood victims in Mozambique. Humanitarian organizations may also use military assets, such as tents, communication equipment or military aircraft for the delivery of humanitarian aid, in operations that remain under their entire responsibility and direction. Particularly in the eighties, the ICRC has conducted some of its major relief operations with the help of military logistics.

To sum up , the ICRC believes that in the face of armed violence and conflict a two-pronged app roach, with two principal objectives, is required. The first objective is to deal with the root causes of the crisis; in other words to search for a political and military settlement. The second is to alleviate the effects of the crisis in humanitarian terms, that is, to assist and protect the victims.

In this framework, political, military and humanitarian players should manage crises in a comprehensive manner, taking a holistic view of the factors involved but having due regard to their respective responsibilities, mandates and spheres of competence.

The following are, in the ICRC’s view, three key points concerning the nature of military and humanitarian action and the relationship and cooperation between the two:

  1. Military operations should be clearly distinct from humanitarian activities. Particularly at the height of hostilities, military forces should not be directly involved in humanitarian action, as this would or could, in the minds of the authorities and the population, associate humanitarian organizations with political or military objectives that go beyond humanitarian concerns. The primary aim of military operations should be to establish and maintain peace and security and help sustain a comprehensive political settlement.

  2. Humanitarian action is not designed to resolve conflict but to protect human dignity and save lives. It should take place in parallel with a political process aimed at addressing the underlying causes of the conflict and achieving a political settlement. It should not be used to mask a lack of resolve to take appropriate political action, or to compensate for the inadequacy of such action. There is no substitute for the political will to find a political solution. Such pol itical commitment is essential if military and humanitarian action are to remain effective.

  3. Humanitarian agencies must be allowed to maintain their independence of decision and action, while consulting closely with military forces at every phase and at every level. Some consultations should be held early in the preparatory phase of military missions, for example when the purpose of these missions is to create safe corridors for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. In the course of operations, there should be a regular exchange of views , both in the field and at headquarters, on how the respective mandates are being fulfilled. This should help enhance mutual respect and understanding of objectives and constraints.

Thus the ICRC firmly believes that effective and comprehensive crisis management calls for good working relations, constructive dialogue and cooperation among the civilian and military entities involved. Indeed, any objective assessment shows the real world to be so complex and so diverse that narrow dogmatism will achieve nothing. The ability to adapt remains crucial. The ICRC is convinced that the key to a more precisely tailored response to crisis situations is not to merge the activities of the military with those of humanitarian organizations, but rather to identify points of contact at which interaction may be consolidated in a spirit of complementarity.

Thank you for your attention.

Ref. LG 2000-040-ENG