The United States Institute of Peace along with Interaction recently released a set of Guidelines for Relations between US Armed Forces and Non-Governmental Humanitarian Organisations in Hostile or Potentially Hostile Environments. References in this post require that you download this document.
They are well written and comprehensive and a useful addition to the vexed challenges of civilian-military relations especially in theatres of conflict. Given my personal interest in this as yet embryonic field and my previous work on SSTR, I jotted down some notes as I was reading through the guidelines.
The first and most obvious to note is that the document specifically deals with the US military. It is fairly clear that civilian military relations with non-US forces will necessitate different approaches. Armies for example that stand accused of deliberately and consistently violating human rights and are also key actors in a conflict do not present themselves as actors humanitarian agencies will willingly interface with. In this sense, the US Armed Forces are an exception, though there is already documentation on how some other professional armed forces approach civilian military relations.
Point #7 under Section A ends on a vital point that I’ve often stressed – that perception is as or oftentimes more important than reality. This was brought out in the Strong Angel III civilian military meetings report as well. However, the guidelines seem to contradict this point in the next section. Point #2 under Section B states that “NGHO travel in US Armed Forces vehicles should be limited to liaison personnel to the extent practical”. I would imagine that no one from NGHOs should ever be seen using vehicles belonging to the military unless it is explicitly clear in the minds of all stakeholders including aid recipients and local communities as to why such a course of action is necessary.
Point #2 under Section 2 points to the need to share unclassified information with NGHOs, but neglects to mention a reciprocal responsibility of NGHOs to alert the Armed Forces on ground conditions such as the mood of communities, sources of discontent, perceptions and rumours as well as socio-political and cultural dynamics that remote sensing, satellite imagery and military intelligence may not always ascertain with the degree of veracity that long-standing NGHO operations in the field often demonstrate (though this concern is partly addressed in Point #3 under Section C).
Point #4 of Section C could in most occasions contradict Point #6 under Section A. NGHOs will often work with communities or section of local communities regarding as military threats. Modern day intra-state conflict no longer offer NGHOs or the military easy definitions of civilians and armed combatants. Accordingly, in extremis situations that involve such actors who may be classified as threats will invariably vitiate vital logistics support by the military for some critical humanitarian operations.
Option #1 under Section B is a complete non-starter in my opinion. No one that I know of in NGHOs will be comfortable giving information to the Department of Defense or a US Government website, particularly if it includes information on groups proscribed by the State Department which by definition the US cannot be seen to be supporting in any way. While Options 2 and 3 are viable, it occurred to me Wikis, Webs and Networks: Creating Connections for Conflict-Prone Settings offers many interesting perspectives that could feed into the content here.
On the same lines, Point #1 under Section C is a tad outmoded. What is more important to underscore here is connectivity and contactability rather than physical proximity. I’m not entirely convinced that placing NGHO liaison officers close to military headquarters is a good idea – technology today afford many ways in which geographical divides can be bridged. What is important to focus on is not bringing people physically closer together, but fostering greater information flows by stakeholders working in concert, connected through and participating in collaborative networks, along the lines of the One Text platform I helped develop in Sri Lanka.
Point #4 under Section C brings to mind the point that not all NGHOs are aware of all the guidelines, operational frameworks and mechanisms that govern their behaviour in, understanding of and approach to humanitarian aid situations as enumerated in the USIP document. The tsunami response for example saw a massive influx of NGHOs into Sri Lanka and Indonesia – few of them knew anything about collaboration, government and inter-agency liaison, collaboration, coordination and well established international and UN guidelines on aid delivery. The resulting chaos led to a familiar litany of issues including corruption and communal tensions.
The USIP guidelines end with a definition of NGHO “independence”. This is clearly easier said than done and also ignores reprehensible measures, that I personally have been subject to in Sri Lanka, that require blatant branding of initiatives and humanitarian aid funded by certain governments and bi-lateral funding agencies. It is a problem well articulated in Wary of Aid, an article that appeared in Newsweek in early 2005. Maintaining independence in a theatre of conflict is a daily challenge and is one that can deeply affect civilian military relations.
There is another challenge posed by the definition of independence in the USIP document. In stating that “NGHOs will never knowingly or through negligence allow themselves or their employees to be used to gather information of a political, military or economically sensitive nature for governments or other bodies that may serve purposes other than those that are strictly humanitarian” the document essentially brings to light the great difficulty NGHOs have in opening up to the military, since information they share with the best intent and interests to support humanitarian aid work can and probably will be used in military planning.
There is one last comment I’d make on these guidelines. I was disappointed to not see any emphasis or recognition of gender in the guidelines, an aspect that I along with the rest of the authors of SSTR – Observations and Recommendations from the Field felt was crucial in designing civilian military liaison mechanisms and frameworks.
In fact, though SSTR – Observations and Recommendations from the Field predates these guidelines, not only does it complement them but in many instances fleshes out in greater detail how certain points can be operationalised in the field.
Many points on civilian military relations in general with a bearing on a critical appreciation of these guidelines can be found in the posts on this blog referenced below. The USIP guidelines are clearly a step in the right direction, but as ever, the devil is in the details and operationalising these guidelines in real world scenarios.