• Send page
  • Print page

Civilian-military relations and cooperation in humanitarian emergencies: View from the International Committee of the Red Cross

26-01-2001 Statement

Workshop organized by the Swiss Development Agency, Bern, 26 January 2001. By Meinrad Studer, Diplomatic Adviser, International Organizations Division, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva.

I would like to thank the Swiss Development Agency, the organizer of this workshop, and in particular Director Walter Fust, for giving me the opportunity to present a point of view of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on civilian-military relations in humanitarian emergencies.

The deployment of the military on humanitarian missions has become a major topic of debate now that armed forces in several countries are undergoing transformation. In addition to their traditional role in ensuring territorial defence, the military are increasingly called upon to carry out missions on behalf of the international community. Assigning humanitarian activities to military forces in certain emergency situations abroad is thereby considered a viable, even desirable, option. This development raises several issues that deserve careful consideration — in particular, the differing aims and principles of military forces and humanitarian organizations.

I will limit my remarks to international military missions in situations of armed conflict and their relationship with humanitarian organizations. I will therefore not be speaking about humanitarian action taken by the military in response to natural or technological disasters, which are outside the scope of the ICRC's mandate and activities, nor will I consider humanitarian work carried out by armed forces within their own nation's borders.

The Kosovo crisis in 1999 was one of the recent events that caused the humanitarian community to reflect on the dual role of the military, which h ad simultaneously engaged in a war campaign and in providing humanitarian assistance. While NATO war planes struck targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the same military alliance committed large resources to relief efforts for refugees arriving in Macedonia and Albania. Although, in the circumstances, the use of military assets to help hundreds of thousands of refugees was widely welcomed, it raised concerns about the " militarization " of humanitarian aid. Moreover, it also caused fears that it would set a precedent of allocating resources for military relief efforts at the expense of those intended for civilian institutions and distribution channels.

Many individuals and organizations — including the ICRC — are wary of the military assuming a distinct role in humanitarian work. They believe that when military forces are deployed in situations of armed conflict for the sole purpose of delivering humanitarian aid, it becomes less likely that the underlying political causes of a crisis will be addressed. Moreover, it is all too easy to confuse an immediate and simple inflow of logistical help with the far more complex and arduous tasks of restoring and maintaining peace and security.

It should also be noted that when humanitarian organizations are associated with military forces, there is a greater risk that they will no longer be perceived to be impartial and independent of political control. This is perhaps the ICRC’s main concern, which has been expressed as the risk of “diluting the concept of humanitarian action in the eyes of the belligerents”. This concern is due less to the limits of military humanitarian action per se than to the " contagious " impact that it may have on civilian humanitarian action. The confusion of roles could make humanitarian workers appear to compromize on their impartiality and threaten their personal safety.

I should also like to make a more general point on international military missions in situations of armed conflict. Despite the greater potential for different types of international military involvement in crisis management, there are several reasons why the military will always be involved only selectively and in certain contexts. We must bear in mind that — except in the case of natural disasters — 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.

If we look beyond the Balkans, we see humanitarian agencies dealing very much on their own with a large number of crises. The ICRC currently has some 12,000 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, there are at present very few situations in which the ICRC and international military forces are in the same area and undertaking operations that require close coordination and thus regular contact.

One of the main issues in this debate is how international military involvement could be carried out in a more consistent and coherent manner. Another is how to demarcate the frontier between humanitarian and military activities. It is useful here to recall the fundamental principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence which, in the ICRC’s view, govern humanitarian action. The ICRC’s work is free of any con sideration or objective of a political or military nature, the sole motivation being to meet the needs of the victims. Its activities go beyond simply assisting the victims of internal violence and armed conflict — they also involve striving to ensure their protection, in accordance with humanitarian law and principles. To achieve this, certain rules must be observed, including the prohibition of taking sides and of discrimination between victims other than on the basis of need. In addition, ICRC operations are by their very nature non-coercive; they must be accepted by all sides and thus, by definition, can never be imposed by force.

The military, on the other hand, remain subject to the political control which determines their mission and objectives. Even when the ultimate aim of their mission is humanitarian, such missions are designed with the use of force — if only in self-defence — in mind. There will always be a risk that military relief efforts will be perceived as partisan by local warring parties. The problem is exacerbated in a peace-enforcement operation and/or where the international military effort lacks UN Security Council authorization. In such situations, a close association between military and humanitarian organizations may arouse hostility on the part of the local population, which in turn endangers humanitarian efforts — as was the case for example in Somalia in 1992.

We should also consider how the traditional role of the military is affected when soldiers are primarily involved in humanitarian work. What are the implications for their training?   What should be their relationship with humanitarian workers? Who should direct such activities? Some governments and military people point out that their soldiers are not “social workers”, but are trained to deter and, if necessary, fight a war. For some it is also unthinkable that military personnel could be subordinated to civilian co mmand and control. Others, however, feel that the military can and should get involved in humanitarian assistance.


In view of the foregoing, we consider Switzerland's proposed " White Paper " a timely and very important contribution to the current debate on civilian-military relations. The paper defines general principles for the involvement of the military in humanitarian activities and makes very useful distinctions among different types of possible deployments. Furthermore, it clearly identifies limitations and risks involved in using military assets in international humanitarian emergencies and proposes criteria for their use that are very much in line with ICRC policy and thinking.

In fact, the main criterion for use of military assets by humanitarian organizations should in our view be that such assets must be placed under civilian control and responsibility. Moreover, their use should in no way jeopardize the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian agencies. This is often more a matter of perception than of fact. Incidentally, military assets are in general more expensive than civilian assets, which is one of the reasons why they have not been more widely used by the humanitarian community in recent years. Military assets have been used only in a few extraordinary situations in which humanitarian agencies were unable to cope, such as during the massive outflows of refugees from Rwanda to Goma in 1994 and from Kosovo to Albania and Macedonia in 1999.

Much of what I have said so far may seem to give a rather defensive and narrow view of the issue of military involvement in humanitarian emergencies. I should therefore also like to stress the positive contributions the military can make in the humanitarian field without turning itself into a humanitarian enterprise. There are indeed a number of tasks to which the military bring unique capabilities and areas where they can play an indispensable role. For instance, in an unstable situation, the military can restore public order and thus not only protect the civilian population but also facilitate the work of aid personnel. The military may also play an essential role in tasks such as setting up and policing safe havens for civilians during hostilities or, after a conflict has ended, by clearing mines, by monitoring demobilization and decommisioning operations, and by supervising the safe return of refugees and internally displaced people to their home regions.

To sum up, the ICRC believes that a two-pronged approach, with two principal objectives, is required in the face of armed violence and conflict. 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 organizations should manage crises in a comprehensive manner, taking a holistic view of the factors involved but showing due regard for their respective responsibilities, mandates and spheres of competence.

To put it in a nutshell for the purposes of this debate, we welcome the prospect of the Swiss armed forces playing an active role in peace-keeping operations. We believe that the chief task of such missions must be to contribute to establishing or maintaining peace and security rather than to provide humanitarian assistance, which can already be done by a host of civilian organizations. We are keen to ensure that the distinction between military and humanitarian missions does not become blurred, as we are convinced this would be to no one's advantage.

Ref. LG 2001-004-ENG