The necessity for humanitarian aid is generally depicted by the occurrence of natural as well as man-made disasters including famine and drought, tsunamis and hurricanes as well as diseases, wars and other forms of human conflict that leave many people homeless and dying. Provision of humanitarian aid is guided by various fundamental principles such as neutrality, impartiality and independence, among others, geared towards prevention and alleviation of human suffering, protection and saving of lives and promoting human dignity (International Committee of the Red Cross-ICRC 1996, p. 1-5).
However, with different areas experiencing the need for humanitarian aid being defined by differences in culture and politics as well as a problematic terrorism dynamic and influx of various humanitarian actors, successful provision of humanitarian aid has been (and is) derailed by tensions. As Meharg (2007, p.2) avers, ‘in this age of complex conflicts exacerbated by terrorism, insurgencies, unilateral military interventions, and the unchecked growth of the reconstruction and stabilization industry, the age of a neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian space has come to pass’. This paper critically discusses the role of the military, as one of the humanitarian actors, in the provision of humanitarian aid amidst rising tensions sparked by insecurity, political meddling, cultural differences as well as misunderstandings.
Humanitarian Aid and the Military
Fundamentally, the role of the military in humanitarian aid can be understood in relation to three major dimensions including the military as a humanitarian actor, as a protector of humanitarian actors as well as an actor in cooperation with civil society in humanitarian aid. The military as a humanitarian actor is depicted in the effort advanced in saving lives caught up in the Pakistan earthquake which saw the Pakistani army, its citizens, outside civilian and military relief teams and other Islamic organizations branded as ‘terrorist’, work together without conflict (Donini et al. 2008, p.16). Another dimension of the military as a humanitarian actor is highlighted by the use of military force in saving lives of people subjected to injustices and inhumane acts; a situation that even necessitates breaking the rule of neutrality upheld by humanitarian aid agencies (ICRC 1996, p.9).
For instance, Barnett (2011, p.3) indicates that Doctors Without Borders ‘which had developed a well-earned reputation for opposing humanitarian intervention on the grounds that war and humanitarianism should not be confused, supported a UN military intervention to stop a genocide in Rwanda’. However, the inclusion of the military in humanitarian efforts has proven to be troublesome including in non-conflict areas as exemplified in the aforementioned case of Pakistan. Donini et al. (2008, p.17) avers that ‘the welcome of Pakistan’s military nevertheless waned as the crisis stabilized, highlighting the need for a clearly delimited definition of the role of the military in humanitarian response, especially with regard to exit strategies’.
With regards to cooperation between the civil society and the military, the latter is involved mainly in post-conflict operations where they work hand in hand with civilians in activities involving restoration and support for political stability as well as humanitarian conditions. Mychajlyszyn (2007, p. 165-8), indicates that the role of the military in civil-military relations post conflict primarily focus on dealing with threats and utilization of force by former as well as current combatants while the civilians, who may be diplomats or humanitarian groups focus on alleviating suffering. However, the roles they play are multiple, not only the provision of much-needed security for all the other stakeholders involved but also in the provision of humanitarian assistance and keeping the peace, in general. Civil-military relations are embodied by the provincial reconstruction teams introduced in Afghanistan and Iraq which are affirmed to provide security and assistance based on an unproven assumption on military’s efficacy in quick impact projects (Donini et al. 2008, p. 39).
Nonetheless, the integration seemingly inherent in civil-military relations (even though wished for despite failure) is highlighted as illusory as the American military is shown to have failed in routinizing civilian-military relationships. Furthermore, the concept of a civil-military operations center, which embodies integration between civilians and the military, is indicated as enjoying fleeting success due to ‘reluctant non-governmental organizations or over-aggressive military personnel’ (Mariano 2007, p.145). In line with this, an example is given of potential negative consequences tied to violation of the principle of neutrality that underlies humanitarian work where inclusion of the military alongside humanitarian workers has the potential to jeopardize the humanitarian endeavor (ICRC 1996, p.7). Donini et al. (2008, p.36) also highlights other examples of Iraq and Sri Lanka regarding Civil-Military relations where the ‘assistance and protection activities’ provided by the military “makes for a loss of neutrality and contributes to perceptions of the aid effort as artisan, if not ‘corrupt’”.
The increase in insecurity due to terrorism creates an opening for the involvement of the military in humanitarian aid in relation to the protection of humanitarian aid workers as well as their resources (de Torrenté 2013, p.608-1). This may explains sentiment by Meharg (2007, p.14) who is of the opinion that militarization of humanitarian aid will increase as the military is well-equipped to provide the necessary humanitarian assistance in counterinsurgency situations. On the same vein, Zyke (2013, p. 19) indicates that the military, during the AU mission in Somalia, was tasked with the responsibility of aiding in the security of aid shipment via ports and other key transit points. Affirms that the military’s engagement with humanitarian aid ‘has ranged from the provision of armed protection for humanitarian convoys to the direct implementation of relief aid distributions’ (Barry & Jefferys, 2002).
However, the accompaniment of humanitarian aid workers with the military especially in high conflict zones has only served to precipitate deep hatred of outsiders leading insurgents to attack humanitarian aid workers on the basis that they are spies for their government. In line with this, Donini et al. (2008, p.9) comments that ‘the Taliban have come to distinguish between the ICRC, with whose principles they have no quarrel, and the “corrupt agencies” that have taken the side of the government and the US-led coalition forces’. This only serves to highlight the apparent tensions that substantially curtail the ability of humanitarian aid agencies to alleviate suffering of the affected due to the involvement of the military especially when the militarization of humanitarian aid is further influenced by political meddling. The situation is further worsened by reports of missing funds and resources targeted to needy populations in conflict areas as depicted in the 2014 Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) Report where, despite increases in funds, some needy populations do not get any relief (Development Initiatives 2014, p. 3-8)
Generally, it seems that the military, amidst changes in the political and security environment, is bound to be involved even more in disaster response due to their capabilities especially in the area of security. Fundamentally, their engagement in humanitarian aid involve responsibilities as humanitarian actors, as a protectors of humanitarian actors as well as actors in cooperation with civil society in the provision of humanitarian aid. However, despite their necessity in the humanitarian space, they only serve to constrict this space as the populations being served understand that the military usually has other objectives that do not necessary conform to humanitarian aid.
This is affirmed in a report by Taylor et al. (2012), which indicates that integration between various groups including the military and humanitarian groups towards effective provision of humanitarian aid seems to have failed especially when the latter is influenced by political actors. Major challenges remain with regards to provision of humanitarian aid and the role of the military in the efforts as their presence seems to have a largely negative effect on the ability of humanitarian aid agencies to alleviate suffering based on the aforementioned principles. Can scholars and practitioners alike in the field of humanitarian aid (seemingly established already as a community of practice) come up with lasting solutions that can exploit the synergy and associated positive outcomes that could be gained from an amalgamation of effort between the relevant players?