Thoughts on USIP’s civilian military relations guidelines

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.

Also read:

Soldiers and State-Building

SSTR – Observations and Recommendations from the Field

Strong Angel III – Final observations

One thought on “Thoughts on USIP’s civilian military relations guidelines

  1. Granted everytime some organization comes up with guidelines for improving the working relationship between the civil and military worlds it is a step in the right direction. Most of us that have been active in Peacekeeping, Operations Other Than War, or Stability Operations have attended many dany conferences on this subject going back perhaps three decades or more. The problem is that once the words are on paper they have no teeth, and they will have no teeth with which to enforce these guidelines until the civil and military sectors are brought together on on levels starting with joint pre-deployment training.

    Combatant Commanders today, especially Army BDE Commanders have not been serious training in how to use their non-kinetic enablers for the last six years, and someone out there seriously believes because someone creates yet another set of guidelines that they will be implemented. The height of folly just grows higher.

    There is a “War Fighter Insurgency,” especially within the US Army, which prevents these sorts of documents from getting much farther than the in box.
    If, after reading this personal communication, you have an interest in reading a short article on the “War Fighter Insurgency” I would urge you to take a look at the following article:

    Senior Army Commanders seriously want nothing to do with Stability Operations. They do not understand it, haven’t seriously trained for it, and those types of operations are just not “Warrior Like.” The fear is that conducting stability operations will take them too far away from their primary mission, fighting and winning our nations wars. They often don’t read the rest of their own doctrine which clearly mandates that they also conduct Civil-Military Operations.

    Finally the Army historically shys away from getting to close to civilian organizations because they believe that those relationships slows the Army down, and also that if there’s a victim in the civil-military relationship that it is the military.

    Finally, as to the long coveted neutrality of civilian organizations, mainly NGOs, that neutrality is viable right up to the point where an NGO contracts with one faction or another to provide security, drivers, worker bees, etc. As well that neutrality seems to stop when the bullets start flying. To quote Kipling:

    “For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
    But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot”

    The truth is, at least for the United States, until there is some legal, doctrinal, teeth in place to enforce the way civil organizations and the military work together writing these guidelines is accomplishing little more than making the authors feel good, despite the killing of the trees to make paper to print the guidelines on.

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