The Conceptual Context of Humanitarian –Military Relations in 2003

Throughout the 1990s, and reflected in documents such as ‘An Agenda for Peace’ and the Brahimi report,[2] the dominant model of humanitarian-military relations employed by the UN and western military forces could be described as the ‘integrated approach.’  This usually refers to efforts by governments and international organisations to co-ordinate diplomatic, military, developmental and humanitarian action with the purpose of preventing, reducing or resolving conflict. Its pursuit has generally been prompted by a perceived need to make order out of the diverse inter-institutional relationships that develop and to capitalise on the perceived opportunities provided by collaboration amongst differing types of organisation.  Confronted with chronic, complex and recurring emergencies even humanitarian organisations pressed for:

well thought out, long term solutions that address the underlying causes of conflict.  Such solutions must be implemented in a concerted effort by a variety of external actors.  Increasingly there has been a demand – not least from NGOs such as Save the Children – for complementary political, military and humanitarian action in countries in crisis, in the belief that a joint approach will be more likely to keep the peace, resolve conflicts, and restore normality. [3]

A desire to ‘integrate’ is usually rooted in the related assumptions that the differing strands of activity are both inherently compatible and greater when co-ordinated than when employed individually. However, these assumptions are themselves controversial.  For many, integration threatens to subordinate humanitarian action to political objectives with the result that humanitarian action may potentially be less able to alleviate the human suffering that is the essential heart of humanitarian action. In effect ‘integration’ may serve to undermine humanitarian action by transforming it from a fundamental and inalienable right of those in need into simply another tool of diplomacy.   Such difficulties are compounded in the context of military interventions in unresolved conflict.[4] In such circumstances, ‘integration’ may require the humanitarian community to associate with the political and military agendas of an intervening party in such a way that it erodes concepts of humanitarian impartiality, neutrality and independence; relied upon to secure access to communities on both sides of a confrontation line.

Given such controversies it is perhaps unsurprising that some states’ military doctrines have attempted to more carefully define the terms of the humanitarian-military relationships.   This has paralleled similar and earlier efforts by the humanitarian NGO community.[5] British doctrine reflects such a process and is best described as ‘the comprehensive approach’.  Such an approach is predicated on the necessity of political, military and humanitarian action but largely limits the role definition of the military to one focused upon security whilst emphasising the creation of a space in which other ‘dimensions’ of an intervention can function effectively and in accordance with their own mandates.  In principle such an apparent  separation of roles and activities enables the development of a ‘humanitarian’ and ‘peacebuilding’ space separate from but occasionally reinforcing political action. Its primary difference is the unwillingness to identify political, military and humanitarian action as inevitably reinforcing.

The ‘comprehensive approach’ does not tightly limit military action to security related activities, although it does portray military involvement as a last resort driven by absolute necessity or legal obligation rather than the norm to be aspired to.  Instead it focuses upon the generation of a ‘common understanding’ and the development of reinforcing synergies.  It envisages a:

‘situation that recognises that even though military objectives are a “given” by government, they may also share “considerable overlap” with NGO objectives and not simply represent statist self interest.  At the operational level, it makes sense to concentrate on where there is genuine overlap rather than conflict.’[6]

The evolution of British doctrine parallels developments in several European NATO states and reflects a fragile consensus[7] on the nature of humanitarian-military relationships that emerged during the implementation of the Dayton Accords in Bosnia from 1995. It also reflects a particularly vigorous dialogue between the military and the major British NGOs.   These debates represent the intellectual baggage of the 1990s. However, the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq raise questions about the nature of humanitarian action within such a context.  Is the integrated approach, a product of the 1990s still relevant?

The ‘New Realities’

Arguably the GWOT has had a dramatic impact on the debate.   Three ‘new realities,’ in particular, have emerged: the transformation of the security agenda; the transformation of the humanitarian landscape; and the sharpening of perceptions of the international humanitarian community as the product of a distinctive western normative construct.

The Transformation of the Security Agenda.

The transformation of the western security agenda is only partly a product of the GWOT. This process has two primary elements; the emergence of a distinctive ‘western’[8] ethos of war and the consequences of the GWOT’s linkage of the traditional state and the human security agendas.  Both of these have clear implications for the humanitarian-military relationship.

Notwithstanding the ‘bypassing’ of the UN over the interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, the western ethos of warfare manifests itself in terms of a vigorous debate upon the legitimacy of the resort to and the conduct of warfare. This obviously does not prevent resorts to military means, but stimulates a legitimisation debate focusing upon the ’causes’ of war, the decision making mechanisms for its initiation, its conduct, its objectives and the end state.  Governments, particularly those of the US and the UK, endeavour to portray violence as being harnessed to ‘good’ objectives and feed domestic audiences a complex calculus of ‘net’ benefits to offset the negatives.  The result is a discourse in which ‘humanitarian’ actions are stressed within the context of the overall intervention. This generates increased pressures to derive political benefit from humanitarian assistance.

At a macro level the GWOT has placed pressure on governments to sharpen and reposition the traditional tools of statecraft into what is, from a state’s  perspective at least, a more coherent relationship. This has led to a reconfiguration of the links between trade, aid, defence and development assistance – strengthening pressures for greater integration and reasserting the primacy of national, particularly US,  interests over humanitarian principles. In addition, for Macrae[9] it has merged the failed states and defence agendas. Prior to the GWOT there had been a visible disengagement from failed states, reflecting the salutary experience of Somalia and the idea that these represented environments that were not conducive to development assistance.  The GWOT has reversed this process, resulting in the subordination of humanitarian action to processes of political transition [10] and a greater emphasis upon the role of aid and reconstruction in military operations.

The emphasis upon placing humanitarian action within a broad ‘political’ framework is reinforced by factors within the US and UK defence establishments’ particularly the increasing emphasis on ‘effects based operations.’[11] In essence this involves capitalising on technological change through the linkage of precision weapon systems and networked information technologies to achieve more precise effects and possibly with smaller force levels.  Geoff Hoon hinted at the wider consequences of this during his RIIA speech when he argued that we:

‘must therefore move away from always assessing defence capability in terms of platforms or unit numbers.   It is now more useful to think in terms of the effects that can be delivered – we must consider what effect we want to have on an opponent and at what time…There are traditional so-called ‘kinetic effects’ [or] other effects designed to influence the will of an adversary…Effects based planning has always been understood intuitively by good commanders.’[12]

Organisationally this is embodied in structures which attempt to create synergy from various strands of traditional military and non-military activity.  Consequently there is pressure to sweep civil-military co-operation (CIMIC) into military effects based planning structures; increasing the pressure on ‘CIMIC’ planners to achieve an operational or strategic effect linked within a strategic framework.

Such pressures add to the politicisation of humanitarian action and begin to unpick the Balkan consensus.

The invasion of Afghanistan reinforced these processes and placed additional strains on the military-humanitarian relationship that transferred to the invasion of Iraq.  Prior to the invasion of Afghanistan the humanitarian community was extremely concerned that the war would be protracted, the winter severe and that this combination would prevent the flow of aid, with potentially disastrous consequences.   Nevertheless, the rapidity of the Taliban’s collapse and the mildness of the winter transformed the debate from one of western militarism into the more traditional one of limited engagement and caused many policy makers to conclude that the humanitarian community was unduly alarmist in its general approach.

Other strains in the relationship began to show from the autumn of 2001. The tendency to use a wider range of implementing partners (in particular the US’s use of military civil affairs officers and commercial organisations such as Bechtel and Research Triangle Initiatives) to provide services such as health, education, water, electricity basic infrastructure reinforced the sense of conflating western political, economic and humanitarian agendas.  James Bishop, highlighted the consequences of this, arguing that:

‘Consumed by  their counter terrorism mission following the attacks of September 11th, US leaders came to regard humanitarian NGOs as ‘force extenders’ and ignored our need to preserve our independence.  Anxious to counter act the public outcry provoked by accidental killings of civilians, the American military started humanitarian activities designed to win favour with the Afghans.   The fact that the military personnel engaged in these activities  usually wore civilian clothing whilst carrying weapons blurred the necessary distinction between members of the military and humanitarian workers, potentially putting the latter at risk.’[13]

Others argued that civilian garb was being used by soldiers to disguise combat operations. Shenkenberg, for example alleges that US troops, dressed as civilians, had conducted ‘secret operations’ while pretending to be assessing humanitarian needs.[14] The issue of uniforms was compounded, argues Bishop, by a range of security related issues.   US restrictions on peacekeepers, restricting them largely to Kabul had a doubly negative impact; reducing law and order beyond the capital and restricting humanitarian access to these areas.   Simultaneously, US Civil Affairs Teams deployed into outlying areas and engaged in civic action projects that were perceived by the humanitarian community as a ‘distraction’ from the military’s security mission and eroded the transparency, independence, impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian organisations and therefore raised the level of threat to the humanitarian community as a whole.  The frequent comments by US planners that contingency plans for Iraq took into account lessons from Afghanistan led to concerns amongst some that the wrong lessons had in fact been applied and that this model might reappear if Iraq were invaded.   The resulting estrangement between NGOs and the US military that resulted from many of these debates provided the tableau upon which the relationship in Iraq was initially constructed.

The Transformation of the Humanitarian ‘Landscape’.

These structural changes relate to a wider conflation of humanitarian and developmental agendas that stemmed from the 1980s and obviously predate the GWOT.  The original debate is particularly challenging for at its centre lies controversy over the meaning of  humanitarian assistance.   Concepts of humanitarian action are rooted in the traditions and principles of the Red Cross Movement and International Humanitarian Law.  The purpose of both was to place limits on the conduct of war, to develop a framework of responsibilities for states engaged in hostilities and a means for providing a form of independent assistance to the largely military victims of armed conflict.   The mechanism for ensuring access to all those in need was an acceptance of the apolitical nature of humanitarian action; a position underpinned by the operational principles of neutrality and impartiality.  ‘Humanitarians’ undertook to take no stance on the politics of the resort to violence or the positions or conduct of the sides engaged in the struggle.  The provision of assistance did not imply any form of legitimisation of any aspect of the political or military agenda of either belligerent; rather, it was narrowly conceived as a means of saving life.   In effect, humanitarian assistance was rooted in the depoliticisation of humanitarian action or, at the very least,  the maintenance of a unique and separated form of humanitarian politics divorced from the geopolitical considerations of the belligerents. Such concepts of humanitarianism explicitly eschewed the idea of humanitarian action as an agent of any form of political change or conflict management.

By way of contrast, development assistance does not share these ‘Dunantist’[15] origins.  Rather it was conceived as transformative in nature and therefore inherently political.  Such assistance marked a commitment to reinforcing the structures, institutions and capacities of a recipient state and therefore implied both legitimisation and empowerment; especially when delivered bilaterally through governmental or intergovernmental donor bodies.  In essence, development and humanitarian assistance represented fundamentally different activities.

Whilst in principle distinctions between the two activities are obvious, in reality they blurred even before the onset of the GWOT.   The 1990s witnessed the practice of humanitarian assistance being infused with a range of longer-term development, conflict resolution, human rights advocacy and state-building agendas. States employed humanitarian action first as a substitute for more effective forms of involvement and then invoked humanitarian objectives as part of the process of legitimising military intervention.  Furthermore, pressures from donors and major international institutions contributed to the subordination of much humanitarian activity to political frameworks intended to mitigate the effects of, or contribute to the active resolution of, disaster-producing conflict.  Donors also stressed containment strategies, designed to limit cross border population movements, but blurring distinctions between humanitarian action and programmes with broader conflict management objectives.   Within these debates the finite and limited nature of humanitarianism has been diluted by competing and politicised objectives even before the GWOT’s overt linkage of the development and security agendas.  This has resulted in the partial homogenisation of the security, development and humanitarian agendas and their framing within a western geopolitical framework.

The ‘Westernisation’ of Humanitarian Action

This homogenisation also has a cultural dimension.[16] NGO dependence on western donors and the increasing involvement of these donors in the humanitarian domain has complicated the positioning of humanitarian action with respect to the culture in which many INGOs are embedded.  This dependence has been compounded by the paucity of civil society in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In both of these examples, most international NGOs have very little real contact with local community leaders  or belligerents (the remnants of the Taliban and the Saddam regimes) and are therefore unable to change the preconceptions that they represent an extension of western strategies. These have posed challenges in terms of maintaining the perception a distinct humanitarian space separate from the exercise of US power. There is also a perception that many NGOs are engaged with a human security agenda that emphasises a distinctly western and post-modern normative agenda comprising largely liberal democratic freedoms.  A consequence of this is that the humanitarian enterprise is no longer viewed as a finite and discrete endeavour but more firmly bound in a specific cultural context.

The Impact of Iraq

The invasion of Iraq added to the controversies stirred up by the invasion of Afghanistan.  These began with a widespread but mistaken perception that there was not a strategic plan for ‘stabilisation’ operations in Iraq.[17] A classified plan did exist and in a broad sense did reflect significant elements of the ‘comprehensive approach’ and the debates of the 1990s.  It attempted to make clear provision for a separation (and limitation) of military from humanitarian activities; it endeavoured to create a situation in which civilians dominated the process of formulating and implementing humanitarian programmes; it tried to encourage the development of synergies through the sharing of information and the provision of funding; and formally at least made a commitment to the importance of a significant UN role in humanitarian co-ordination and a recognition of the importance of the civilian infrastructure to the stability of Iraq after the conclusion of high intensity military operations.   Nevertheless there were significant concerns about the overall quality and substance of the plan and whether it was effectively communicated to those charged with its implementation.

Despite such controversies, the quality of the plan was never really tested as, much to the surprise of many commentators[18] a humanitarian emergency did not materialise. There were no massive population displacements, no widespread food availability crises, chronic epidemics or bouts of inter-ethnic violence.   US officials (almost) gleefully attributed this outcome to the ‘careful planning and the skill and professionalism of our combat forces’[19] implying both the accuracy of planning assumptions and the effectiveness of responses. Yet in part at least such an outcome was as much a product of providence as it was of forethought and contingency planning. At the onset of conflict even coalition partners were uncomfortable with the paucity and the substance of contingency plans. Claire Short, UK Secretary of State for the Department of International Development warned of:

16 million people currently dependent on Oil for Food handouts deprived of their monthly ration for a sustained period, the complete collapse of water and sanitation systems in a largely urban country of 25 million people, and the possible use of chemical and biological weapons on the civilian population.[20]

The Military-Humanitarian Relationship

The relationship between the humanitarian community and the military coalition proved to be a complex one. From the outset, the belligerent status of the US and UK armies hung over the relationship whilst the belligerent status of the US/UK and the absence of Security Council resolutions either legitimising military action or defining clearly the roles of the UN specialised agencies reinforced the reluctance of significant elements of the humanitarian community to associate closely with coalition planners.  The fault lines tended to reflect two factors:

1.   Controversies over the nature of interagency planning, and 2.   The militarisation and politicisation of humanitarian action.

The Nature of InterAgency Planning

The primary difficulty arose from the apparent diminution of the UN’s humanitarian co-ordination role through the creation by the Department of Defence, of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA).[21] This mechanism served to reinforce the sense that the reconstruction and humanitarian assistance agendas were driven by a US strategic framework.

Despite a declaratory position[22] that emphasised a continuing UN co-ordination role there were clear differences in emphasis within the Bush administration over the extent of the UN’s role.   Department of Defence (DoD) planners envisaged a much more dynamic and controlling role for the military in humanitarian action; in part reflecting legal responsibilities under the laws of occupation, but also and perhaps more importantly their understanding of US strategic and the DoD’s own interests in limiting the UN’s role to humanitarian action rather than political transition. In contrast the State Department proved much more cognisant of the desirability of a major UN role in co-ordinating humanitarian assistance and the inevitability and implications of humanitarian independence.  Yet whilst the language of the strategic plan reflected a compromise it was the DoD’s position, a ‘maximalist’ ORHA and ‘minimalist’ UN, that was reflected most clearly in the structures designed to operationalise the interface with the humanitarian community.

ORHA’s resultant role was predicated upon a number of premises.   Firstly, that its primary task would be to manage a large scale humanitarian crisis in the context of a state in which most levels of government would remain.  Secondly, it was designed to sit above the pre-existing humanitarian-military co-ordination structures; augmenting rather than replacing them. In this sense it was not necessarily designed to take the UN’s role, rather it was envisaged as discharging a quasi-governmental function; a distinction that was to prove impossible to manage.  Thirdly, it was assumed that it would, in relatively short order, pass over many of its responsibilities to Iraqi Ministries.

ORHA’s difficulties began with the nature of the crisis that it confronted.  Few Pentagon planners had anticipated the degree to which the Saddam regime had hollowed out both the administrative structures of the Iraqi state and its infrastructure.  This was compounded by the flight of many ministry staff in the face of the coalition’s military advance and the destruction of many of their buildings in the fighting and the subsequent looting.  Where ministries remained, ORHA discovered the paradox of a weak but centralising bureaucracy dominated by political and ethnic divisions and a culture in which even high level officials were unable to take decisions.  Such difficulties were compounded by ORHA’s lack of organisational cohesion and its inaccessibility combined with a dramatically deteriorating security environment.   Furthermore, ORHA faced not the expected humanitarian crisis but a range of issues related to political transition, nation building and the creation of an occupation authority with an interim ability to administer directly rather than simply through pre-existing structures. ORHA’s difficulties in dealing with such an unplanned for reality generated further controversy; emphasising the absence of a clearly defined role for the UN both in the co-ordination of humanitarian activity and in the process of political transition.  It also led ORHA to rely upon the coalition’s military civil affairs capabilities to discharge key reconstruction and humanitarian functions; thereby militarising both.

The UN’s position prior to and during the invasion was difficult, with the secretariat needing to steer a path between co-option and irrelevance. The result was an understandable mixture of ambiguity and aloofness; a direct result of the UK/US’s belligerent status and the absence of a UN resolution authorising military action.[23] Notwithstanding the necessity of the approach, it served to disrupt the usual preparatory  interagency and intergovernmental communication and planning processes.[24] Nevertheless, significant and discrete contacts were made, particularly by WFP[25] and UNICEF.[26]

Notwithstanding the internecine struggles between the Department of State and the DoD, the US faced a genuine dilemma in terms of the relationship between ORHA and the UN.  Both Geneva and Hague law placed obligations upon the coalition to make provision for humanitarian assistance to the civilian population. Clearly this implied some form of co-ordination role although the law is unclear whether this function can be delegated to another institution such as the UN.  Nevertheless, Kofi Annan made clear the difficulties of delegating such a role:

Under international law, the responsibility for protecting civilians in conflict falls on the belligerents; in any area under military occupation, responsibility for the welfare of the population falls on the occupying power. Without in any way assuming or diminishing that ultimate responsibility, we in the United Nations will do whatever we can to help.

In effect, the creation of ORHA was an implied necessity if the coalition were to discharge such obligations.  Appearing to recognise the inevitability of such an organisation, Annan set out to identify the terms under which he would endeavour to work with it, making clear his intention to draft proposals which would see the UN’s involvement in the continuation, geographical expansion and then the adaptation and subsequent handover to Iraqis of the ‘oil for food’ programme and the public distribution system (PDS).  This provided obvious benefits to the US; food distribution would inevitably be an enormously difficult and expensive undertaking (with 60% of the population being dependent on this system) and would represent a diversion of military assets.  Furthermore, despite the size of such an undertaking, this was clearly a ‘finite’ task that did not threaten an increasing UN involvement in the political transition process and finally may even have served to convince elements of world opinion of the ‘benign’ nature of  US intentions.  Nevertheless, whilst Annan appeared not to dispute the need for a body such as ORHA in principle, its existence in the absence of a clear UN Security Council Resolution defining and legitimising a broader role in humanitarian co-ordination also appeared to limit and make ambiguous the relationships between the military, ORHA and the humanitarian community as a whole.

From the start this was to prove contentious within the broader humanitarian community who feared that the alternative to a strong UN role in the provision and co-ordination of humanitarian assistance was military involvement in both.   Oxfam for example, representative of many,[27] argued that whilst an occupying power had an obligation ‘to ensure the provision of food and other vital necessities..’ this does not necessarily mean, however, that it should provide such items directly.’ Rather, they continued, ‘civilian agencies under UN leadership should assume this responsibility as soon as conditions allow. And any military force should do everything it can to create an environment secure enough for this to occur.’  In order to achieve this the ‘UN should be provided with the mandate and resources necessary to coordinate what is likely to be an immense and complex undertaking.   Before, during, and after any conflict, a clear channel of communication must be available for a timely exchange between humanitarian agencies, under coordination of the UN, and military forces.’[28] Others argued that the scale of the humanitarian crisis about to befall Iraq was potentially so vast that only the UN had ‘the scale and authority to co-ordinate a humanitarian effort of the scale that would be required, both during the immediate relief phase and for the reconstruction that followed.’[29] Furthermore, argued CARE, UN civilian co-ordination would ensure the humanitarian community that their neutrality and impartiality would be protected whilst also facilitating ‘a neutral process of transition to a new government and civil administration of the country’s infrastructure’ – a justification that was at the very heart of why the US DoD did not want UN involvement in this.

As a consequence, throughout the war itself and the immediate post conflict phase there existed a tremendous degree of ambiguity in terms of the division of labour between ORHA, the UN and the coalition military.   However, ORHA’s perceived failures, a deteriorating security situation and the continuing hostility of states that objected to the war appeared to force the US into greater reliance upon the UN.   SCR 1483 (22 May 2003) was arguably the centrepiece of that strategy.

The NGO Role

In addition to those outlined above the greatest obstacle to NGO involvement in the planning process prior to the war arose from a reluctance to invest in humanitarian preparedness out of fear that this would signal the inevitability of war.  This was compounded by a generalised opposition to the war on the grounds of its probable impact on the population.[30]

There were also serious concerns about ORHA’ and the military coalition’s capacity to respond to any resulting humanitarian crisis either efficiently or impartially.   Such difficulties were further compounded by the ambiguity in the relationship between the humanitarian community and the occupying power.   The initial reluctance of the coalition to declare itself to be an occupying power was seen by some as an attempt to avoid the more burdensome responsibilities of the Geneva Conventions’ additional protocols.  This ambiguity led to difficulty in defining roles and responsibilities.   What, for example, were the responsibilities of the coalition and what were those of the NGO community?  Some NGOs viewed ‘gaps’ in the provision of assistance by the coalition as  failings for which it must be held to account whilst others saw these as ‘niches’ to be filled by NGOs and others.

Whilst the NGO community was initially somewhat averse to most forms of joint planning, fault also lies with the coalition.   Opportunities to create a more effective relationship had existed prior to the conflict and appeared to be strongly implied in the strategic plan itself.  As early as the 25th September 2002 InterAction, a major consortium of US NGOs, wrote to President Bush ‘urging that adequate contingency planning be undertaken for a humanitarian emergency.’  James Bishop, a senior InterAction Director, claims that information sharing efforts were halted by what he describes as a ‘gag order’ on US officials.  Only after the UN resolution in November 2002 did USAID and the Department of State begin discussions with the InterAction Iraq Working Group[31] and, even then, key elements of the emerging declaratory strategic plan were obfuscated.

The US military’s tight controls on information was partly for reasons of operational secrecy and partly to forestall open debates on the justice of the war and the nature and scale of any potential humanitarian crisis likely to be precipitated by US military action.[32] Given the overt opposition to war by many agencies[33] this was perceived as necessary in order not to undermine the case for war, but clearly it also imposed limitations on the degree to which effective interagency planning could take place.   The lack of NGO capacity in the region also discouraged collaboration. Oxfam, for example, make the point that:

‘unlike Afghanistan, where relief agencies have been working for years, the international aid community, with a few exceptions, is largely absent from Iraq. Fewer than a dozen international aid groups are operating in Iraq at this time and those that are present must contend with a lack of significant donor funding, as well as restrictions on their activities.’[34]

Furthermore, few NGOs would even be able to operate within Iraq or even neighbouring Iran and Syria until the lifting of US and/or UN sanctions against all three states; itself unlikely in the case of Iraq until the first shots in the war were fired.   Devendorf[35] highlighted the extent to which the sanctions regime, with few exceptions, prevented NGOs from even ‘conducting assessments and operations in Iraq where US-sourced funding or personnel are involved.’  Devendorf[36] concludes that ‘as a result, aid organizations have been largely unable to undertake the steps necessary to adequately prepare for emergency response operations in and around Iraq.’   Given the poor NGO infrastructure in Iraq and the limitations placed on NGO operations in the region generally it is reasonable to speculate that for the US military, NGO co-ordination was less of a pressing concern.

The Militarisation and Politicisation of Humanitarian Action.

A clear consensus[37] existed within the humanitarian community that humanitarian aid was most effectively delivered by civilian humanitarian agencies The direct provision of assistance by the military or their overt and direct support of humanitarian agencies was viewed by many with the humanitarian community as both inefficient[38] and, more importantly potentially compromising ‘the effective delivery of aid and lead to unintended consequences, potentially threatening the security of civilian aid workers.’[39] Arguably, this position was also reflected in the US government’s declaratory position and strategic plan. In effect both communities appeared to aspire towards a clear separation of military and humanitarian activities.

However, the potential nature of conflict in Iraq threatened to upset these aspirations. The possible use of CBRN weapons and the probability of extreme insecurity threatened to severely curtail the efforts of civilian humanitarian organisations;[40] obliging the coalition forces under Hague and Geneva law to make direct provision for humanitarian assistance.[41] This was not necessarily disputed on either side.   Military plans at all levels accepted that there would almost certainly be a requirement for military involvement in humanitarian action, particularly in terms of the delivery of water and, less so, of food.  Similarly several humanitarian organisations, of which Oxfam was one of the most influential, even called upon the coalition military, if circumstances proved to be extreme, to provide humanitarian assistance directly.[42]

This raised the prospect of a ‘transitional period,’ in which both the humanitarian community and the military would be directly engaged in humanitarian activities either directly or, in the case of the military, through supporting action.[43] Arguably, neither the humanitarian community or US war plans had clearly identified the potential for this transitional period to be protracted or what it meant in terms of relationships and military action.  Instead humanitarian organisations exhorted the coalition military to rapidly create conditions in which humanitarian organisations could move freely and obviating the necessity of military involvement, underestimating the problems that would be faced in creating such conditions.   Similarly US plans took no account of the impact of insecurity on aid agencies humanitarian space or their resultant relationships with the military; even rejecting considering the idea of creating post conflict policies that would generate humanitarian space (such as, for example, humanitarian corridors).  Coalition military planning conceived of a simplistic and sequential process, military involvement in the direct delivery of humanitarian assistance followed by a flood of civilian agencies obviating their (military) continued involvement and with a minimal and rather inconsequential transitional period between the two phases.

The reality, however, was a much more protracted transition between civilian and military operations; threatening to recreate conditions in Afghanistan where soldiers were delivering aid alongside humanitarian organisations.

In practice, distinctions between humanitarian and military action were compromised in a variety of ways. The coalition’s emphasis upon Umm Qasr port as the main humanitarian access port and its high profile first use by a British Naval resupply ship (carrying a cargo of humanitarian supplies) the Sir Galahad, on the 28th March emphasised the apparent connection between humanitarian assistance and the coalition’s stabilisation strategy.  Distinctions were also eroded on land.   During April, efforts to deliver aid to the southern towns of An Nasiriyah and Basra were regularly supervised by the coalition military; largely in order to avoid public disturbances.[44] A number of factors contributed to controversies surrounding these distributions. The absence of a needs based or systematic approach to several of the distributions contributed to a sense that these were at times unprofessionally handled and driven more by political necessity than by need. But it was the physical proximity of coalition troops to the distribution process itself (and at times their physical control of it) which most obviously blurred distinctions between military and humanitarian action and awakened fears that this would increase the probability that humanitarian organisations would be viewed as sub-contractors for the coalition military and generally ‘making it impossible for international aid organisations to render assistance independently of the armed forces.’ [45] Arguably, the coalition’s failure generally to make adequate provision for security and public safety measures in occupied areas or, more specifically to clearly identify to the humanitarian community areas that were considered to be ‘permissive’ hindered the independence of the humanitarian community 46] and also ensured that planning assumptions about the likely speed of a resumption of independent humanitarian activities appeared overly optimistic.

The erosion of humanitarian independence had other dimensions.  During the combat phase humanitarian organisations required the permission of the coalition authorities to enter Iraq across the Kuwaiti border.  This process was administered through the Humanitarian Operations Centre-Kuwait (HOC-Ku), a structure established jointly by the Kuwaiti Government and the US/UK military.  Its original purpose was to facilitate both the sharing of information and joint planning between the humanitarian community and coalition commanders.  In order to facilitate this, elements of the US DART and of ORHA were periodically collocated.

However, the HOC-Ku concept was controversial.  Firstly, its existence and even its name implied to many within the humanitarian community the predominance of the military in the process of co-ordinating humanitarian responses.  Secondly, HOC-Ku represented an unwelcome departure from previous practice.

The concept of a Humanitarian Operations Centre was not new; originating first in Somalia (1993) as a means for co-ordinating governmental, UN  and NGO responses and serving as an interface with the military.  Similar organisations have been established elsewhere and these have employed different labels: the ‘On-Site Co-ordination Centre’ in Rwanda and the ‘Humanitarian Affairs Centre’ in Haiti for example.  But each of these had in common a predominantly civilian staff, largely drawn from the UN’s lead agency.  Whilst such structures played significant roles in the development and monitoring of the overarching assistance effort, in most cases the military role was limited to the provision of  logistics support and security information.  The US military in Somalia, for example, played only a small part in the running of the humanitarian programmes which were largely managed  by UN civilian staff with only a small military element discretely embedded in a support role. Military roles in such structures would normally involve acting as a conduit for information to and from another military headquarters and responding to requests for information, access to military controlled facilities (such as ports or airports) security or logistics support and monitoring the military provision of services and support throughout the area.[47] In effect, the military role has usually been reactive and without formal authority over agencies using the facility.

In contrast HOC-Ku was dominated by the coalition military who, appeared at least, to be the authority authorising humanitarian action in Iraq.  Furthermore, given the understandable reluctance of the UN specialised agencies to publicly associate with coalition war efforts the UN had no formal role within the structure. If a key element of the US declaratory strategy was to ‘leverage the capacity of these skilled, experienced and internationally- mandated humanitarian assistance organizations’[48] the structure of the HOC-Ku offered little hope of achieving this.

The large-scale involvement of coalition Civil Affairs troops in relief work also led to considerable frustration amongst several NGOs and echoed the problems of Afghanistan.   Deen, [49] for example, quotes James Jennings, president of Conscience International, as saying that several Baghdad based NGOs have been frustrated:

at the continued involvement of US military forces as principal purveyors of aid.  The international humanitarian aid community is firmly against the idea of armies posing as humanitarians, with bread in one hand and a gun in the other. This discredits genuine humanitarian assistance and tends to put the lives of aid workers in jeopardy.  International NGOs fear that relief agencies funded by the United States will be perceived as extensions of the US military occupation. [50]

The Politicisation of Humanitarian Assistance?

Donor control of the provision of humanitarian assistance was also heavily politicised.  A number of neighbouring states made high profile ‘humanitarian’ gestures through national relief societies and few of the resulting aid convoys had plans which linked the contents of the convoys with a distribution plan or a needs assessment process.

Several NGOs became concerned at USAID’s contractual stipulations for NGOs receiving US government grants.  ORHA also allegedly required press releases relating to projects funded from their money to be approved by the Pentagon’s Office of Public Affairs.[51]

The politicisation of the reconstruction process affected both the choice of priorities and the way in which the projects were managed, with potentially difficult consequences for the humanitarian community.   For example, in May 2003 USAID awarded over $35 million in grants to 5 NGOs for community-action programmes designed to generate some 250 village based committees that were intended to contribute to the identification and prioritisation of local needs (such as school repair and job creation schemes).[52] The journalist, David Bank discovered that three of US’s largest NGOs, Care, World Vision and the International Rescue Committee did not apply ‘for the new funding, citing continuing security problems in Iraq that are hampering their existing relief efforts, discomfort with oversight from occupying military officials, and the need to direct staff and resources to more pressing humanitarian crises elsewhere in the world.’[53] He suggests that at least one of these felt that involvement in community participation projects prior to the restoration of even basic services was premature and almost certainly driven by political imperatives. Other humanitarian organisations were even more sensitive about the idea of political oversight or association with the objectives of one of the belligerents.   Prior to the onset of war Oxfam (USA), Médecins Sans Frontières and CARE (USA) all declared that they would not accept grants from either the US or the UK.[54]


Whilst the coalition’s ‘humanitarian’ plan was undoubtedly controversial, there were some successes.  During the conflict, coalition air targeting decisions spared the civilian infrastructure to a far greater degree than many humanitarians expected.   Even land forces exhibited remarkable restraint in distinguishing between military objectives and civilian objects and protected sites.   After the conflict the WFP rapidly resuscitated the PDS with military assistance.   However, successes such as these were largely eclipsed by the failure of the coalition to make adequate provision for maintaining public order after the conclusion of high intensity conflict.

Furthermore, significant parts of the plan were not or were only poorly achieved.  From the outset there was a clear failure of efforts to create an effective organisational architecture providing for civilian leadership and the maintenance of distinctions between humanitarian and military action. The coalition also failed to create mechanisms for effectively disseminating needs assessment and security related information; further compounding the inability of the humanitarian community to carve out a humanitarian space in which they could take independent action.  As a consequence the humanitarian community generally found itself to be caught between choosing co-option or irrelevance.

There was also a failure to create an effective ‘civil’ component in any of the co-ordination structures.   As a consequence, military structures often proved largely unviable, and at times distinctly amateurish, whilst ORHA was widely viewed as an almost unmitigated failure.  There were also failures on the part of the NGO community.  Several agencies failed to  identify their own coherent plan for how they would interact with the ‘occupying power.   Approaches ranged from the distant, considered and principled stance of groups such as Oxfam and SCF(UK) through to alternatives ranging from simple confusion to the at times ‘dependent’ stance of at least one US human rights group euphemistically described by several coalition military civil affairs staff as the ‘camp followers’.

From such experiences it is possible to conjecture that the frameworks and discourses of military-humanitarian relationships developed during the late 1990s in the Balkans have been overlaid and distorted by other considerations, and these provided the context of the relationship in 2003. These ‘other considerations’ have been brought to the fore and emphasised by the GWOT and a hardening of US unilateral impulses but relate to debates which predate the GWOT.


[1] Dr Stuart Gordon is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Security Studies, University of Reading.   During 2003, he also served as Director of Operations at the military coalition’s Baghdad based Humanitarian Operations Centre, the Iraqi Assistance Centre (IAC).

[2] The ‘UN Panel of Experts on UN Peace Operations’ 2000 report called for the UN’s primary instruments of influence, its political, military and humanitarian capabilities to ‘come under a unified leadership in order to implement stated Security Council resolutions evoked under the UN Charter to ensure the maintenance of international peace and security.  See also Damian Lilly ‘The Peacebuilding Dimension of Civil-Military Relations in Complex Emergencies: A Briefing Paper.’

[3] Ibid.,p.3.

[4] Interview with Nicholas Morris, former Inspector General, UNHCR.

[5] See Damian Liily, Op.Cit.

[6] Hugo Slim,  Op.Cit.

[7] Despite this ‘consensus’ the terms, extent and purpose of any humanitarian-military relationship will vary widely in practice and will be structured by the nature and specifics of any particular crisis.  Causal variables in this relationship include the mix of nationalities in the military force, differences in national military doctrines, mandates and/or role of the military forces, the UN co-ordinating structures and the range and nature of the NGOs, as well as the resources being made available to the different agencies.   As a consequence, in practice humanitarian organisations’ relationships with the military tend to be diverse; existing on a continuum starting from a position of ‘separation’ through to recognising the need for a ‘common understanding’ (or ‘complimentarist’ approach) through to a ‘coherent’ and then to what amounts to a centrally ‘ordered’ or ‘directed’  multidimensional response (in the sense of subordination within some form of priority setting structure).  In its simplest organisational manifestation ‘integration’ may, therefore, be little more than a process designed to facilitate information (and analysis) sharing through to more developed funding consortia or inter-institutional priority setting apparatus, almost certainly centred around the operational UN agencies.  In its most developed guises it may be central direction by a government or, as per emerging British doctrine, one form of intervention being used in order to create some form of ‘space’ for others.

[8] Seen most visibly in the US and the UK.

[9] Joanna Macrae and Adele Harmer ‘Humanitarian Action and the Global War on Terror’ (London: ODI HPG Report, 2003).

[10] Nick Cater quoting Father Richard Ryscavage, director of the Jesuit Refugee Services USA and chair of InterAction’s Humanitarian Policy and Practice Committee in ‘U.S. agencies debate divisions over Iraq’ (ReliefWeb, 19 May 2003).

[11] See .’The Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter’ Cm5566 Vol I.    See also House of Comons Defence Committee, ‘A New Chapter to the Strategic Defence Review’ Sixth Report of Session 2002-03, Volume 1: Report.

[12] Geoffrey Hoon, UK Secretary of State for Defence, RIIA Speech, 10 March 2003.

[13] James K Bishop ‘Combat Role Strains Relations Between America’s Military and its NGOs.’ Humanitarian Action Review Iraq Special Edition, Summer 2003, p.28.  See also Ted Van Baarda and Larry Minear ‘Military Haberdashery in Afghanistan’ at FMR13 pp14-15. www.fmreview. org/ FMRpdfs/ FMR13/fmr13.5.pdf

[14] Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, ‘Aid organisations risk becoming contractors for the attack on Iraq’ Op ed in Trouw (Dutch daily Newspaper) 8 April 2003.  Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop is coordinator for ICVA.

[15] Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross movement.

[16] Macrae, Op.Cit.

[17] The White House announced in February of 2003 that USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration had been meeting for several months with a range of humanitarian organisations. USAID’s senior leadership had also met for several months with a wide range of both US based and international organisations.

[18] Including Oxfam, (see Oxfam, ‘Iraq: Humanitarian – Military relations’ Briefing Paper 41 (Oxfam: Oxford, March 2003).), SCF and the UN humanitarian agencies.

[19]‘For Clearance Draft ‘ of  ‘Testimony before the Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations, House of Representatives, 18 July 2003, Joseph J. Collins, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Stability Operations.

[20] Claire Short, evidence before House of Commons International Development Select Committee, 13 March 2003.

[21] ORHA was established in January 2003 under retired US Lieutenant General Jay Garner but staffed by individuals from the US military and a range of government departments

[22] ‘For Clearance Draft ‘ of  ‘Testimony before the Committee’ Op.Cit.

[23] The UN staff themselves were reluctant take an actively overt role in supporting the coalition’s humanitarian contingency planning given the controversy surrounding the resort to military action. Furthermore, UN, and a number of NGOs, staff remained anxious to avoid the appearance of condoning military action that the Secretary General had declared would fall outside the charter.

[24] George Devendorf, Op.Cit, p.1.

[25] These were over the resuscitation of the food public distribution system, border crossing, port access and security issues.

[26] UNICEF was effectively lead agency for water and sanitation.

[27] See also Raja Jarrah, programme director of CARE International UK quoted in CARE Press Release ‘UN must lead relief efforts in Iraq, CARE warns’ dated 19 March 2003.

[28] Oxfam, ‘Iraq: Humanitarian – Military relations’ Briefing Paper 41 (Oxfam: Oxford, March 2003).

[29] Raja Jarrah, Op.Cit.

[30] Many humanitarian organisations highlighted the extreme vulnerability of the Iraqi population.  The possibility hat CBRN weapons would be used was only one factor. Whilst coalition military planners had in mind the consequences of the invasion of Afghanistan  and the 1991 war, the humanitarian community stressed the inappropriate nature of such parallels.   Iraq lacked Afghanistan’s agricultural base, had endured a decade of sanctions and thirty years of Baathist rule had undermined civil society; resulting in the absence of both independent organisations and initiative. The collapse of the Saddam regime also threatened the destruction of the state run food distribution system (the PDS).  The fragility of the PDS and the lack of alternative coping strategies led to enormous concern seen most clearly in a range of leaked UN planning documents. See

[31] James K Bishop ‘Combat Role Strains Relations Between America’s Military and its NGOs.’ Humanitarian Action Review Iraq Special Edition, Summer 2003, p.28.

[32] These debates certainly took place.  ICVA made clear their opposition to war as early as February, partly in response to the leaking of UN contingency planning documents. See Anders Ladekarl Chair, International Council of Voluntary Agencies, ‘Statement from ICVA Conference on NGOs in a Changing World Order: Dilemmas and Challenges to World Leaders on Possible War in Iraq’, 15 February 2003, Geneva, Switzerland.  See also Oxfam’s warning on the subject in Oxfam, ‘Iraq: Humanitarian – Military relations’ Briefing Paper 41 (Oxfam: Oxford, March 2003).

[33] See CARE Op.Cit.  See also CARE ‘Evidence on Iraq to the House of Commons: The humanitarian situation after the war Evidence submitted to the House of Commons International Development Committee on 22 May 2003.  ‘Other agencies, including large and influential agencies such as OXFAM  and SCF were also opposed to hostilities largely on the grounds of the unique vulnerability of Iraq to a humanitarian crisis.

[34] Oxfam, ‘Iraq: Humanitarian – Military relations’ Briefing Paper 41 (Oxfam: Oxford, March 2003).

[35] George Devendorf, Op.Cit.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Oxfam, ‘Iraq: Humanitarian – Military relations’ Briefing Paper 41 (Oxfam: Oxford, March 2003).

[38] Ibid.

[39] ‘Oxfam Briefing Paper on Humanitarian-Military Relations’ dated 13 March  2003 at breve34.htmlm

[40] A number of NGOs, including large and significant ones such as Mercy Corps, had come to the conclusion that they would be unable to operate in a CBRN environment.

[41] US and UK planners recognised that there would be an interregnum in which direct involvement in HA type activities, particularly water and food distribution would be necessary.

[42] ‘Oxfam Briefing Paper on Humanitarian-Military Relations’ Op.Cit states that the military should assume that ‘particular responsibility that any occupying power bears under the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure the supply of food and medical necessities, and the maintenance of hygiene and public health both during armed conflict and its aftermath. With war planning underway, the US and other governments must ensure that they can fulfil these obligations. Military forces must be prepared to provide assistance if the environment in Iraq proves to be too insecure for civilian agencies to operate, or if those agencies are unable to be properly positioned or do not have the capacity to respond in instances where the absence of assistance would result in unacceptable human suffering.’

[43] For example, during March and April the UK Armoured Division organised water trucking operations in the most hostile areas of Basra whilst UNICEF delivered to the more ‘permissive’ locations.

[44] Arguably whilst under customary international law, an occupying power has a duty to ensure public order and authority only once a stable regime of occupation has been established Human Rights watch argue that under the 1949 Geneva Conventions ‘the duty attaches as soon as the occupying force exercises control or authority over civilians of that territory — that is, at the soonest possible moment.’  See also Convention IV, article 6.

[45] Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, ‘Aid organisations risk becoming contractors for the attack on Iraq’ Op ed in Trouw (Dutch daily Newspaper) 8 April 2003.  Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop is co-ordinator for ICVA, an international association of humanitarian organisations in Geneva.

[46] See also ‘Testimony of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Richard.L.Greene,  U.S. Department of State (13 May 2003) Before the House Government reform Sub-Committee in National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations’ Dated 13 May 2003, p.5.

[47] See

[48] See also ‘Testimony of Principal …’ Op.Cit. p.5.

[49] Thalif Deen, ‘Military aid workers threaten relief agencies’ Inter Press Service Release, 18 July 2003.

[50] Certainly, by May 2003 the US civil affairs officers intentionally used Civil Military Operations Centes (CMOCs) in Baghdad and the Humanitarian Assistance Co-ordination Centres (HACCs) in Al Hilla, Balad and Baghdad itself to leverage NGO capabilities; creating an almost seamless military and humanitarian endeavour designed to achieve a mixture of objectives ranging from the overtly political to the genuinely humanitarian.

[51] James Jennings, President of Conscience International at

[52] David Bank, ‘Humanitarian Groups Spurn Iraq’ The Wall Street Journal, 29 May 2003.

[53] Ibid.

[54] See Nick Cater, ‘U.S. agencies debate divisions over Iraq’ (ReliefWeb, 19 May 2003).

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