Civil-Military Coordination

Civil-Military Coordination

Soldiers are lean, mean killing machines. Brainwashed, incapable of original thought, and intent only on closing with and killing an enemy so conniving that they murder girls just for going to school. Aid workers are pink and fluffy, tree-hugging yoghurt-knitters. Warm and fuzzy social misfits with an adrenaline habit.

This is, of course, stereotypic rubbish but it’s not uncommon to hear views expressed along these lines when civilian aid-workers are operating alongside the military.

One does ‘quick impact projects’, the other does ‘development’. And both use a ‘lingo’ so totally incomprehensible to the other that they wonder if they are from the same planet, far less working to the same end. And they spend a lot of time wondering what that their respective ‘ends’ might be, and how they can work together towards achieving them.

Do aid workers with their social science degrees and earnest, self-righteous naivety really think they can ‘save and protect’? And what does ‘protect’ mean anyway when children run around wearing suicide vests?

So, why should some poor squaddie from Bargoid, dripping in bullets and weaponry he has only just learned to point in the right direction, spend freezing nights out on the hillsides of the Hindu Kush, risking life and limb to protect that floppy-haired teacher fresh out of training college who just wants to sit and drink tea with a bunch of semi-literate ‘rag-heads’ in a classroom with no windows, no blackboard, no books, and no pupils? Or escort an engineer who can’t put his helmet on properly to a rusty hand-pump with no handle?

Civil-military Cooperation in Multinational and Inter-Agency Operations

While many attempts have been made to improve civil-military cooperation in multinational and interagency operations over the past decade, field studies show that de facto cooperation remains inadequate, ad-hoc and fragmented.

The first challenge has to do with civilian and military actors’ lacking knowledge about one another’s organizational identities – meaning the traditions, cultures, and fundamental goals that constitute and constrain their activities in multinational operations. Indeed, stereotyping and prejudice due to lack of knowledge and information about one another’s work are one of the main obstacles to civil-military cooperation.

A fundamental point of principle for many humanitarian organisations is, for instance, to protect their identities as independent, neutral, and impartial actors when working in the field. From such a viewpoint, the military can be seen as neither independent nor impartial, as they will always be subject to political interests as well as constrained by mission mandates.

Furthermore, civilian actors have at times argued that the military lacks knowledge about, and experience of, delivering aid, and that they are too concerned with mission mandates and logistical issues. Another frustration that has been expressed by civilian actors is that while the military frequently turn to them to get information, they are often reluctant to return the favour.

On the military side, the fact that civilian actors are not a homogenous group is sometimes neglected. But, there again, neither is the military entirely homogenous. Helicopter squadrons, for example, with all their different roles, can be from the Army, Navy, or Air Force. Cavalry Troops have about one third the number of men than their infantry counterparts, the Platoon, use different weaponry, and are trained to think in different ways.

A key obstacle to closer cooperation in multinational and interagency cooperation is precisely this, the sheer scale and divergence of organisations, activities, and perceptions in the civilian sector. Indeed, the ‘jungle’ of civilian organisations can sometimes make it hard for military actors in the field to keep the various organisations and their activities in their proper ‘boxes’.

In the document “NATO Civil- Military Co-operation Doctrine”, for instance, NATO distinguishes between three principal types of civilian organisations: International organisations (IOs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and international and national government donor agencies. In so doing, they fail to make a distinction between NGOs and the Red Cross Movement which shows there is still some way to go in understanding each other.

A second overall challenge to civil-military cooperation is lack of knowledge about one another’s security concerns. For civilian actors, the always imminent threat of becoming a target in the conflict sometimes makes cooperation with the military necessary in order to secure the physical space necessary to carry out their work. At the same time, however, it is often crucial for humanitarian actors like MSF to uphold their impartiality and independence in a conflict. Too close cooperation with the military may – in the worst case – create doubt in the local community regarding the organization’s impartiality and neutrality.

For the military, in contrast, the central dilemma is rather the security risk connected with sharing operational information with civilian actors. At times, civilian personnel have been accused by the military of being too naïve about the security risks in conflict areas, and for refusing to fall into line with military structures.

The third and final challenge to civil-military cooperation concerns civilian and military actors’ lack of knowledge about one another’s diverging working procedures in the planning, implementing, and monitoring phases of an operation. Above all, there are large civil-military as well as intra-civilian variations when it comes to defining operational end-goals and establishing a working plan for achieving these. As one humanitarian organisation points out: “there are more and more aid organisations and agencies involved in the business of aid. Many have different values, goals and strategies.”

In this context, two particular aspects should be emphasised: On the planning and implementation level, the lack of convergence between operational terminology used by civilian and military actors represents a major barrier to civil-military cooperation. At the monitoring level, the great differences between how operational processes and outcomes are evaluated and reviewed by civilian and military organisations, give rise to equally tough challenges.

Military actors must know how the different civilian parties work, their perceptions of the situation, their principles, and vice-versa. Cooperation also requires that involved parties be aware of the terminology used by other actors. Furthermore, where practices are similar, civilian and military parties must share knowledge about their experiences.

Military Humanitarianism: an oxymoron?

Interaction between the military and humanitarian agencies is governed by existing civil-military guidance drawn up by NATO, the UN and the international humanitarian community. But in practice, there are often tensions in the relationship. Some humanitarian actors refuse to accept that international military have any role at all in humanitarian response. They argue that the humanitarian imperative’ of neutrality, impartiality and independence is compromised when they do, and that the so-called “humanitarian space” contracts each time to the point that their programmes deliver less while actually putting both themselves and the people they are trying to help in harm’s way.

For their part, the international military find such positions inappropriate since they fail to take into account the reality that armed forces, particularly where they are party to a conflict, have a moral and legal responsibility under the international laws of war to protect civilians and facilitate their assistance.

At the same time, the military acknowledge that they have, at times, failed to comprehend the essential contribution that humanitarian actors can make in crisis situations, including in saving life and protecting the innocent from further harm, and why humanitarian principles are so fundamental to the success of humanitarian operations.


The stated objectives of military humanitarian missions such as the one currently underway in Libya are shared by the international humanitarian community – to protect civilians and ensure access to life-saving assistance. Tensions arise in relation to the different strategies and tactics military and humanitarian actors consider appropriate to achieve these objectives. How the military mission to protect civilians is implemented, the likely chance of success and how this is perceived inevitably shapes the degree of civil-military coordination that is possible.

In Libya, the Security Council’s two principal objectives are the protection of civilians and the facilitation of access to humanitarian assistance. As such there is clearly a need for a coordinated effort, whether through cooperation or collaboration, by the international military and the international humanitarian community to achieve these aims.

While the ‘end’ may be mutual and agreed in principle, the means used in practice are clearly not. The military exercise command and control, for one, and scoff at such wooly and nebulous terms as “coordination” which appear to them to be little more than exercises in ‘paralysis by analysis’. Certainly, coordination as practiced by the international humanitarian community is neither the most efficient nor the most effective way to get help to where it is  needed most in good time. Without the sophisticated planning apparatus of the military, or the logistical assets required at any scale, humanitarian interventions are all about making rough sense out of shaky information. Decisions are made by consensus, too, which the military find results in little more than doubling the time it takes to get anything done, while racing to the bottom of the barrel of already low standards in the process.

International humanitarian agencies have remained largely silent on the merits of NATO’s action in Libya, but many have privately expressed limited confidence that the military strategy will succeed in protecting the Libyan people. Given the asymmetric nature of the conflict, and the experiences of “military humanitarianism” in places like Bosnia and Kosovo, it is reasonable to question how effective the NATO operation can actually be in protecting civilians. As the commander of the NATO operation, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, once vividly put it in the Economist magazine, “it’s a knife fight in a phone booth and it’s very difficult to get in the middle of that”.

However, in light of available evidence, there is an apparent need for physical protection of civilians under imminent threat of attack. The ability of humanitarian agencies to provide that physical protection at this point may be limited, but NATO and humanitarian actors can play complementary roles in protection, including proactive efforts to protect civilians under imminent threat, promoting adherence to international humanitarian law, including by NATO, and advocating for rights to asylum. This, too, is part of ‘coordination’.


There are also tensions around the role of the international military in ‘facilitating’ humanitarian assistance. While NATO has insisted that it will not play a ‘leading role’ in the delivery of aid in Libya, the European Union (EU) has drawn up plans to deploy a military force to support the humanitarian effort, including securing ports and aid corridors – exactly the strategy used in Bosnia in the nineties which many feel merely prolonged the war, allowing many more people to die than would have otherwise.

Although offers of military support have been declined by the UN, agencies have felt under pressure, as they did in the Pakistan flood response last year, to accept the use of military assets from key NATO member states to support the delivery of assistance.

Agencies have asserted that such support is unnecessary, and are concerned that this may be an attempt to co-opt humanitarians into the wider political strategy of the international community.

Exactly when and how the military can enable the delivery of humanitarian assistance, how they coordinate with humanitarian actors, is clarified in the Guidelines on the Use of Military and Civil Defence Assets to Support United Nations Humanitarian Activities in Complex Emergencies (MCDA). The fundamental concept underpinning these guidelines is that of ‘last resort’ – military assets can be used in the delivery of assistance only when there are no other comparable civilian assets available, when all alternative delivery options have been explored, and where they are used for a very specific purpose and for a limited period. Use of military capacity in such circumstances must also be under auspices of civilians – the so-called “dual key” approach so lamentably applied by the UN in former-Yugoslavia, and so reviled by military commanders as a result.

Adherence to these guidelines by both humanitarian and military actors is essential, and not just for policy or conceptual reasons. There are operational risks inherent in military engagement in humanitarian response for both affected populations and humanitarian agencies. Affected populations may not receive the assistance they require because military actors do not have the technical skills necessary to assess needs or ensure aid is delivered safely. They may even be placed at risk of attacks by belligerents in ‘retaliation’ for accepting assistance, such as is the case today in Sudan and large swathes of Afghanistan under Taliban influence.

Since the intervention of international military forces in a conflict are frequently perceived as neither neutral nor impartial, any association with them may mean that belligerents or even affected communities no longer see humanitarian agencies as neutral third parties either, and will not cooperate with them or allow them access to deliver assistance. Belligerents may even attack aid workers as a result. The attack on UN offices in Mazaar-el-Sherif in March and Tripoli in May demonstrates how real these risks are in this context.

Dialogue is essential to enhance respective efforts to mitigate the risks to civilians, whether through sharing analysis or promoting adherence to international humanitarian law.

Robust civil-military coordination efforts are required to manage the relationship between the military and humanitarian agencies, to facilitate an understanding of what their respective comparative advantages may be, where these may be complementary, and when it is necessary for tactical and conceptual reasons that the two strategies are, and are seen as being, separate.

In Bosnia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Pakistan, the blurring of lines between humanitarian, military and political objectives has had a profound impact on the civilian population, ultimately jeopardizing efforts to achieve the shared objectives of saving lives and delivering assistance. Let’s hope the drive for ‘stabilisation’ in the ‘Arab Uprising’ unfolding across the Middle East doesn’t compound the problem still further.

All humanitarian action, including civil-military coordination for humanitarian purposes in complex emergencies, must be in accordance with the overriding core principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality.  This section outlines these cardinal humanitarian principles as well as other important principles and concepts that must be respected when planning or undertaking civil-military coordination.

Humanity, Neutrality and Impartiality

Any civil-military coordination must serve the prime humanitarian principle of humanity – i.e. human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found.  In determining whether and to what extent humanitarian agencies should coordinate with military forces, one must be mindful of the potential consequences of too close an affiliation with the military or even the perception of such affiliation, especially as these could jeopardize the humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality.  The concept of non-allegiance is central to the principle of neutrality in humanitarian action; likewise, the idea of non-discrimination is crucial to the principle of impartiality.  However, the key humanitarian objective of providing protection and assistance to populations in need may at times necessitate a pragmatic approach, which might include civil-military coordination.  Even so, ample consideration must be given to finding the right balance between a pragmatic and a principled response, so that coordination with the military would not compromise humanitarian imperatives.

Humanitarian Access to Vulnerable Populations

Humanitarian agencies must maintain their ability to obtain access to all vulnerable populations in all areas of the complex emergency in question and to negotiate such access with all parties to the conflict.  Particular care must also be taken to ensure the sustainability of access. Coordination with the military should be considered to the extent that it facilitates, secures and sustains, not hinders, humanitarian access.

Perception of Humanitarian Action

The delivery of humanitarian assistance to all populations in need must be neutral and impartial – it must come without political or military conditions and humanitarian staff must not take sides in disputes or political positions.  This will have a bearing on the credibility and independence of humanitarian efforts in general. Any civil-military coordination must also be mindful not to jeopardize the longstanding local network and trust that humanitarian agencies have created and maintained.

Needs-Based Assistance Free of Discrimination

Humanitarian assistance must be provided on the basis of needs of those affected by the particular complex emergency, taking into account the local capacity already in place to meet those needs.  The assessment of such needs must be independent and humanitarian assistance must be given without adverse discrimination of any kind, regardless of race, ethnicity, sex/gender, religion, social status, nationality or political affiliation of the recipients. It must be provided in an equitable manner to all populations in need.

Civilian-Military Distinction in Humanitarian Action

At all times, a clear distinction must be maintained between combatants and non-combatants – i.e., between those actively engaged in hostilities, and civilians and others who do not or no longer directly participate in the armed conflict (including the sick, wounded, prisoners of war and ex-combatants who are demobilised).  International humanitarian law protects non-combatants by providing immunity from attack.  Thus, humanitarian workers must never present themselves or their work as part of a military operation, and military personnel must refrain from presenting themselves as civilian humanitarian workers.

Operational Independence of Humanitarian Action

In any civil-military coordination humanitarian actors must retain the lead role in undertaking and directing humanitarian activities.  The independence of humanitarian action and decision-making must be preserved both at the operational and policy levels at all times.  Humanitarian organisations must not implement tasks on behalf of the military nor represent or implement their policies.  Basic requisites such as freedom of movement for humanitarian staff, freedom to conduct independent assessments, freedom of selection of staff, freedom to identify beneficiaries of assistance based on their needs, or free flow of communications between humanitarian agencies as well as with the media, must not be impeded.

Security of Humanitarian Personnel

Any perception that humanitarian actors may have become affiliated with the military forces within a specific situation could impact negatively on the security of humanitarian staff and their ability to access vulnerable populations. However, humanitarian actors operating within an emergency situation must identify the most expeditious, effective and secure approach to ensure the delivery of vital assistance to vulnerable target populations.  This approach must be balanced against the primary concern for ensuring staff safety, and therein a consideration of any real or perceived affiliation with the military.  The decision to seek military-based security for humanitarian workers should be viewed as a last resort option when other staff security mechanisms are unavailable, inadequate or inappropriate.

Do No Harm

Considerations on civil-military coordination must be guided by a commitment to ‘do no harm’. Humanitarian agencies must ensure at the policy and operational levels that any potential civil-military coordination will not contribute to further the conflict, nor harm or endanger the beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance.

Respect for International Legal Instruments

Both humanitarian and military actors must respect international humanitarian law as well as other international norms and regulations, including human rights instruments.

Respect for Culture and Custom

Respect and sensitivities must be maintained for the culture, structures and customs of the communities and countries where humanitarian activities are carried out.  Where possible and to the extent feasible, ways shall be found to involve the intended beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance and/or local personnel in the design, management and implementation of assistance, including in civil-military coordination. Think about shoes and scarves … !

Consent of Parties to the Conflict

The risk of compromising humanitarian operations by cooperating with the military might be reduced if all parties to the conflict recognize, agree or acknowledge in advance that humanitarian activities might necessitate civil-military coordination in certain exceptional circumstances. Negotiating such acceptance entails contacts with all levels in the chain of command.

Option of Last Resort

Use of military assets, armed escorts, joint humanitarian-military operations and any other actions involving visible interaction with the military must be the option of last resort.  Such actions may take place only where there is no comparable civilian alternative and only the use of military support can meet a critical humanitarian need.

Avoid Reliance on the Military

Humanitarian agencies must avoid becoming dependent on resources or support provided by the military.  Any resources or support provided by the military should be, at its onset, clearly limited in time and scale and present an exit strategy element that defines clearly how the function it undertakes could, in the future, be undertaken by civilian personnel/means. Resources provided by the military are often only temporarily available and when higher priority military missions emerge, such support may be recalled at short notice and without any substitute support.


This section outlines the main practical considerations for humanitarian workers engaged in civil-military coordination.

Establishment of Liaison Arrangements

Liaison arrangements and clear lines of communication should be established at the earliest possible stage and at all relevant levels, between the military forces and the humanitarian community, to guarantee the timely and regular exchange of certain information, before and during military operations. However, these activities should be conducted with caution.  Either mentioning or concealing to the public the existence of direct communication between the humanitarian and military actors could result in suspicion and/or incorrect conclusions regarding the nature of the communication.  Due to its possible impact on the perception of humanitarian operations, at times, it may be reasonable not to disseminate or publicize the liaison arrangements between the humanitarian community and the military.  Obviously, such a decision has to be balanced with the need to ensure accountability, transparency and openness towards the local population and beneficiaries.

There are a number of initiatives within the UN system that focus on preparing humanitarian personnel on civil-military issues and practical liaison arrangements in complex emergencies.   This includes the UNCMCoord induction courses, organised by OCHA’s Military and Civil Defence Unit (MCDU).  This unit also conducts pre-deployment training and workshops tailored to a particular content and mission.

In addition to UNCMCoord Officers deployed by OCHA, UN agencies may deploy Military Liaison Officers (MLOs) to focus on specific sectoral and operational civil-military issues and DPKO may deploy Civil-Military Liaison Officers (CMLOs).  Where established, the United Nations Joint Logistics Centre (UNJLC), an inter-agency facility, also provides a civil-military coordination function on an operational logistics level.

Information Sharing

As a matter of principle any information gathered by humanitarian organisations in fulfillment of their mandate that might endanger human lives or compromise the impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian organizations should not be shared.

However, to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to populations in need, information sharing with the military forces may at times become necessary. In particular, information that might affect the security of civilians and/or humanitarian workers should be shared with appropriate entities. Information sharing between humanitarian and appropriate military actors may include:

  • Security information: information relevant to the security of civilians and to the security situation in the area of operation;
  • Humanitarian locations: the coordinates of humanitarian staff and facilities inside military operating theatre;
  • Humanitarian activities: the humanitarian plans and intentions, including routes and timing of humanitarian convoys and airlifts in order to coordinate planned operations, to avoid accidental strikes on humanitarian operations or to warn of any conflicting activities;
  • Mine-action activities: information relevant to mine-action activities;
  • Population movements: information on major movements of civilians;
  • Relief activities of the military: information on relief efforts undertaken by the military;
  • Post-strike information: information on strike locations and explosive munitions used during military campaigns to assist the prioritisation and planning of humanitarian relief and mine-action/UXO activities.

Use of Military Assets for Humanitarian Operations

The use of military assets in support of humanitarian operations should be exceptional and only on a last resort.  It is recognized, however, that where civilian/humanitarian capacities are not adequate or cannot be obtained in a timely manner to meet urgent humanitarian needs, military and civil defence assets, including military aircraft, may be deployed in accordance with the “Guidelines on the Use Of Military and Civil Defence Assets to Support United Nations Humanitarian Activities in Complex Emergencies” (“MCDA Guidelines”) of March 2003. In addition to the principle of ‘last resort’, key criteria in the MCDA Guidelines include: (1) unique capability – no appropriate alternative civilian resources exist; (2) timeliness – the urgency of the task at hand demands immediate action; (3) clear humanitarian direction – civilian control over the use of military assets; (4) time-limited – the use of military assets to support humanitarian activities is clearly limited in time and scale.

As a matter of principle, the military and civil defence assets of belligerent forces or of units that find themselves actively engaged in combat shall not be used to support humanitarian activities.  While there are ongoing hostilities, it will be necessary to distinguish between operations in theatre and those outside. In theatre, the use of military assets for humanitarian purposes should generally not be undertaken.  Only under extreme and exceptional circumstances would it be appropriate to consider the use, in theatre, of military assets of the parties engaged in combat operations.  Specifically, this situation may occur when a highly vulnerable population cannot be assisted or accessed by any other means. Outside the theatre of operations, military assets of the parties engaged in combat operations may be used in accordance with the above-mentioned principles and guidelines. However, preference should first be given to military assets of parties not engaged in combat operations.

Any humanitarian operation using military assets must retain its civilian nature and character.  While military assets will remain under military control, the operation as a whole must remain under the overall authority and control of the responsible humanitarian organisation.  Military and civil defence assets that have been placed under the control of the humanitarian agencies and deployed on a full-time basis purely for humanitarian purposes must be visibly identified in a manner that clearly differentiates them from military assets being used for military purposes.

Use of Military or Armed Escorts for Humanitarian Convoys

The use of military or armed escorts for humanitarian convoys or operations is an extreme precautionary measure that should be taken only in exceptional circumstances and on a case-by-case basis. The decision to request or accept the use of military or armed escorts must be made by humanitarian organizations, not political or military authorities, based solely on humanitarian criteria. In case the situation on the ground calls for the use of military or armed escorts for humanitarian convoys, any such action should be guided by the principles endorsed by the IASC in September 2001.

Joint Civil-Military Relief Operations

Any operations undertaken jointly by humanitarian agencies and military forces may have a negative impact on the perception of the humanitarian agencies’ impartiality and neutrality and hence affect their ability to operate effectively throughout a complex emergency. Therefore, any joint civil-military cooperation should be determined by a thorough assessment of the actual needs on the ground and a review of civilian humanitarian capacities to respond to them in a timely manner. To the extent that joint operations with the military cannot be avoided, they may be employed only as a means of last resort, and must adhere to the principles provided in the above-mentioned  “MCDA Guidelines”.

One must be aware that the military have different objectives, interests, schedules and priorities from the humanitarian community.  Relief operations rendered by military forces could be conditional and could cease when the mission of the military forces changes, the unit moves or if the assisted population becomes uncooperative.  Such action by the military can also be conducted primarily based on the needs and goals of the force and its mission, rather than the needs of the local population.

Separate Military Operations for Relief Purposes

Relief operations carried out by military forces, even when the intention is purely ‘humanitarian,’ may jeopardize or seriously undermine the overall humanitarian efforts by non-military actors. The other parties to the conflict and the beneficiaries may neither be willing nor able to differentiate between assistance provided by the military and assistance provided by humanitarian agencies. This could have serious consequences for the ability to access certain areas and the safety of humanitarian staff, not to mention the long-term damage to the standing of humanitarian agencies in the region and in other crisis areas if humanitarian assistance is perceived as being selective and/or partial.  Assistance provided by the military is susceptible to political influence and/or objectives and the criteria used in selecting the beneficiaries and determining their needs may differ from those held by humanitarian organizations.


Last resort is defined as follows: ‘Military assets should be requested only where there is no comparable civilian alternative and only the use of military assets can meet a critical humanitarian need.  The military asset must therefore be unique in capability and availability.’  (See paragraph 7 of the MCDA Guidelines.)

Updated on 16 July 2011
This is is a section from Clusterwise 2. Reproduction is encouraged. It would be nice if the author, James Shepherd-Barron, and were acknowledged when doing so.

1 Comment

  1. I will use the section that outlines the cardinal humanitarian principles for an exercise on English language for military students that will be presented to a e learning Conference in Bucharest, Romania. Thank you.

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