1. Overview

Civil-military relations’ (civ-mil) is the term used by humanitarian agencies to describe interactions between humanitarian and military operations, including coexistence, coordination and cooperation. Decisions to work with military forces are informed by circumstances and change over time. CARE must ensure that there is no compromise of our principles (independence, impartiality and neutrality) and obligations in any interaction with military forces.

In both natural disasters and conflict, CARE often finds itself working with or near military actors, including non-state armed groups, state forces and international operations. In natural disaster situations, military forces often support relief operations. The relations between military forces-including peacekeeping operations-and humanitarian agencies can have serious implications for our acceptance among local populations and the belligerents (a belligerent is any state or non-state actor perceived to be an active party to a given conflict). The safety and security of aid workers, beneficiaries and programmes can be undermined if local communities or fighting parties perceive that a humanitarian agency’s independence, impartiality and neutrality are compromised.

The military’s obligations regarding humanitarian assistance and protection in conflict are outlined under international humanitarian law. Customary international humanitarian law declares that parties involved in international and non-international conflicts must allow and facilitate the rapid and unobstructed passage of impartial humanitarian relief, subject to their right of control.

Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, the primary responsibility for the survival of the population lies with the authorities or, in the case of occupation, with the occupying power. The Conventions and Protocols also state that if responsible authorities (the government or occupying forces) do not provide the survival needs of the civilian population, they must permit the free passage of relief operations. Additional Protocol II states that ‘if the civilian population is suffering undue hardship owing to a lack of supplies essential for its survival, … relief actions … which are of an exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature and which are conducted without any adverse distinction shall be undertaken’, subject to the consent of the warring parties. Additional Protocol I adds that offers of relief ‘shall not be regarded as interference in the armed conflict or as unfriendly acts’, and that the parties to the conflict ‘shall allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of all relief consignments, equipment, and personnel’.

The guidelines outlined in the Geneva Conventions provide a solid ground for humanitarian intervention. However, the Conventions and Protocols do not state that providing assistance is exclusively the preserve of humanitarian actors. As the occupying power has a duty to provide for the survival of the population, it is difficult to exclude the military. The phrase, ‘relief action of an exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature’, however, means that the military must not disguise itself as a civilian humanitarian actor to deceive the population and collect intelligence for future military action. In addition, ‘impartial humanitarian action’ means not expecting humanitarian actors to serve as force multipliers or to work for the benefit of one party to the conflict. A distinction between military and humanitarian actors needs to be clearly maintained at all times.

Each individual emergency situation is different, and requires managers to analyse the specific context to interpret and apply civ-mil policy appropriately in practice.

While the importance of careful management of civil-military relations in a conflict situation is more obvious, it is equally important to consider civ-mil in natural disaster contexts. Regardless of whether the context is one of conflict or natural disaster, the same basic policy and guidelines apply (refer to section 2).

In large natural disasters, national and international military forces and assets are regularly deployed to assist with relief operations. It is not uncommon for governments to designate a military body as the official lead relief coordinating agency. This immediately means humanitarian agencies are required to interact with the military in the coordination of the response, and means humanitarian agencies need to carefully monitor and advocate on issues such as:

  • maintaining independence and impartiality of decision-making, and ensuring humanitarian agencies are ‘coordinating with’, but not being controlled by, military actors
  • ensuring military actors involved in relief efforts are clearly identifiable as military and not disguised as aid workers
  • quick transfer of coordination of humanitarian efforts to civilian leadership.

See section 3 for more information and considerations.

It is particularly important to recognise that natural disasters often take place in countries affected by conflict or political instability. Humanitarian relief efforts after natural disasters can exacerbate conflict or even trigger new conflicts. Humanitarian agencies need to be careful to manage civil-military relations appropriately in this context so as not to contribute to conflict triggers, and to protect the perceived impartiality and security of humanitarian agencies if conflict does occur (refer also to Chapter 29 Conflict sensitivity).