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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder24. Working with the Military
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentCategories of Military Forces
View the documentPossible Roles of Military Forces in Humanitarian Operations
View the documentCoordination Between Military Forces and Civilian Agencies
View the documentKey References




· In humanitarian emergencies UNHCR staff will sometimes work alongside military forces: these might be UN forces ("blue berets"), national or regional forces acting under mandate from the UN, or other national or regional forces;

· Humanitarian agencies must be, and be seen to be, neutral and impartial acting solely on the basis of need. It is important that these agencies maintain independence even from UN authorized military activities;

· Each operation will need to develop a coordinating structure suited to the situation, the type of forces and the required civil-military relationship;

· The UN Department of Peace-keeping Operations (DPKO) is responsible for all UN peacekeeping operations and has overall responsibility for UN relations with military forces.

1. Working with military forces can bring both opportunities and challenges for humanitarian agencies.

2. Military forces can support humanitarian agencies only within the limitations of their own resources and priorities, and within the limitations of their authority to provide humanitarian assistance, including how and to whom the assistance is provided.

Legal Framework for International Military Action

3. One of the purposes of the United Nations, as set out in its Charter, is to maintain international peace and security. The Charter invests the Security Council with this specific responsibility, and describes the measures which can be taken to achieve this in Chapters VI and VII of the UN Charter.

4. Chapter VI, dealing with the peaceful settlement of disputes, mandates both the Security Council and the General Assembly to make recommendations upon which the parties in dispute can act. Peacekeeping operations under Chapter VI take place, at least in theory, with the consent of the parties to the conflict.

5. Chapter VII, dealing with mandatory measures, allows for enforced solutions to a dispute where the Security Council has identified "a threat to the peace, a breach of the peace or an act of aggression". Article 42 provides for the use of armed force "as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security".

Categories of Military Forces

6. The military forces with which UNHCR may be involved or encounter include:

i. UN forces (peacekeeping);

ii. Regional or other forces acting under UN authority;

iii. Regional military alliances (e.g. NATO and ECOMOG), ad hoc coalitions;

iv. National forces;

v. Non-state forces.

UN Forces

UN Peacekeeping Forces

7. UN forces ("blue berets") usually fall into the categories of observer missions or peacekeeping forces. These UN forces are assembled from countries willing to contribute and who are acceptable to all the parties to the conflict.

8. Observer Missions are made up mainly of lightly armed officers whose main function is to interpret the military situation to assist political and diplomatic mediation.

9. Peacekeeping forces usually contain combat units with logistics support. In the past, peacekeeping activities have included:

i. Positioning troops between hostile parties, thereby creating buffer or demilitarized zones and the opportunity to act as a liaison between the parties to the conflict;

ii. Promoting the implementation of cease-fires and peace accords by observing and reporting on military activity, assisting in the disengagement, disarmament and demobilization of forces and prisoner exchanges;

iii. Assisting local administrations to maintain law and order, facilitating free and fair elections by providing security;

iv. Protecting humanitarian relief operations by securing warehouses and delivery sites and routes, escorting humanitarian aid convoys, ensuring security for humanitarian aid workers, and providing logistics support;

v. Supporting humanitarian operations by undertaking engineering tasks for the maintenance of essential utilities, services and aid delivery routes in a time of crisis, disposing of mines and other weapons, delivering humanitarian relief supplies or providing logistics assistance to humanitarian agencies.

UN Mandated or Authorized Forces

10. Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter the Security Council may authorize or mandate the deployment of national or regional forces with a "war-fighting" capability. These forces normally will have tighter security rules than UN peace keeping Forces and Observer Missions, and UNHCR staff may find access to facilities or information more difficult. Mandated forces often do not report to a civilian chief inside the area of operations, and may therefore see themselves as acting independently of the international authority directing the civil and humanitarian programmes.

Regional Forces

11. UNHCR may also work alongside regional forces such as peacekeeping or intervention forces set up under the direction of regional institutions (for example, the Organization for African Unity, (OAU) or NATO.

National Forces

12. Humanitarian agencies may have to coordinate or negotiate with host country military, police, gendarmerie, militia or other armed elements. UNHCR staff should balance the advantages and disadvantages of accepting assistance or security from such forces, particularly in circumstances where there is no clear command structure.

Non-state Forces

13. These often consist of rebel groups, militia and other armed groups which have little or no sense of discipline, a poorly defined chain of command and often no discernible political programme.

Possible Roles of Military Forces in Humanitarian Operations

Delivering Humanitarian Assistance

14. In exceptionally large emergencies and as a last resort, military assets could be used to deliver humanitarian assistance, for example in the form of an airlift.

15. UNHCR has entered into an understanding with a number of governments that those governments will provide pre-packaged, stand-alone emergency assistance modules, called Government Service Packages (GSP).

There are twenty different types of packages providing assistance in certain technical or logistical areas such as long range airlift, road transport, water supply and treatment, sanitation and road construction. GSPs are not designed to be substitutes for traditional implementing arrangements in these areas, but are to be used only as a last resort in exceptionally large emergencies, where every other avenue has been exhausted.

16. Due to their extraordinary scale and cost it is assumed that GSPs, if called upon, will represent additional funding and will not be deployed at the expense of funds that would otherwise have been available to UNHCR. The Military and Civil Defence Unit also has arrangements with governments to use these pre-packaged emergency resources, as well as packages covering other areas. Within UNHCR, the responsibility for the development and deployment of GSPs rests with the Director of the Division of Operations Support. Further information can be found in the Catalogue of Emergency Response Resources (see Appedix 1).

17. When these assets are deployed the operation must maintain its civilian character and appearance. The guiding principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence from political considerations must be carefully adhered to.

Information Support

18. Military forces usually have a greater capacity to collect information than humanitarian agencies. This includes aerial reconnaissance information which may be of value in tracking the movement of refugees and in site selection. Care must be taken, however, in the interpretation and use of such material: the information it provides needs to be carefully weighed against information available from other sources, in particular first hand information form UNHCR staff on the ground.

Security of Humanitarian Operations

19. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 (see Annex 1 to chapter 2 on protection) oblige the parties in conflict to grant access for humanitarian aid, but does not provide for its forcible imposition should access be denied. Parties to a conflict may be unable or unwilling to control threats to the safety of humanitarian personnel and operations. Peacekeeping mandates may therefore include specific duties relating to the security of humanitarian personnel, including creating the conditions in which humanitarian operations can be carried out in safety.

20. However, using force to protect humanitarian assistance may compromise the foundation of those activities, since the actual use of force, by its nature, will not be neutral. Before using peacekeeping or other forces to protect humanitarian activities, the priority should always be to negotiate with all the parties to the conflict to try to ensure humanitarian access. The use of military force to secure the provision of humanitarian assistance should never become a substitute for finding political solutions to root causes of the conflict.

21. Where it is necessary to use peacekeeping forces for the security of humanitarian operations, it is particularly important to maintain a neutral stance and to ensure that this impartiality and neutrality is apparent to all parties.


22. Any plan for evacuation of humanitarian workers should be coordinated with any military forces present (see Chapter 23 on Staff Safety).

Coordination Between Military Forces and Civilian Agencies

UN Coordination

23. The Department of Peace-keeping Operations (DPKO) is responsible for UN peacekeeping. This includes the deployment of its military and civilian personnel to a conflict area (with the consent of the parties to the conflict) in order to stop or contain hostilities, and supervise the carrying out of peace agreements. DPKO therefore has overall responsibility for the UN's relations with military forces.

24. Where a UN force is deployed, there will usually be a Special Representative of the Secretary-General with overall responsibility for all related UN operations, including humanitarian operations.

25. There is a Military and Civil Defence Unit (MCDU) within the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The task of the MCDU (based in Geneva) is to help ensure the most effective use of military and civil defence assets in support of all types of humanitarian operations, including refugee emergencies, where their use is appropriate. Among UN humanitarian organizations, the MCDU is the focal point for governments, regional organizations and military and civil defence organizations concerning the use of these assets.

Establishing Principles and Reconciling Mandates

26. Misunderstandings between military forces and civilian agencies can be avoided if, at an early stage, time is spent on clarifying:

The objectives and strategies of the operation as a whole, and of each of its civilian and military components;

The basic principles, legal constraints, and mandates (local or global) under which each organization or force operates;

The activities, services, and support which the organizations or forces can expect from each other, as well as any limitations on their ability to deliver;

Which aspects of the operation will be led by the civilian agencies and which by the military forces, and when there should be consultation before decisions are made;

The fora in which the humanitarian agencies make decisions about their operations (e.g. the coordinating body described in chapter 7, on coordination).

Liaison Channels

27. Proper communication channels need to be developed between civilian and military organizations in order to deal with the differences in organizational priorities, structure and size. The risk of civilian agency staff being overwhelmed by multiple approaches from the military can be avoided by providing a single point of contact for the military through the designation of one UNHCR staff member as a liaison officer where the size of the operation justifies this. The military forces may have specialist civil affairs units. These units will often be made up of reservists with particular civilian skills or military specialists and act as the main point of contact between the humanitarian and military organizations. Within the military, the hierarchy is as follows: General, Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel, Major, Captain, Lieutenant, Warrant Officer, Sergeant, Corporal, and Private.

Key References

A UNHCR Handbook for the Military on Humanitarian Operations, UNHCR, Geneva, 1995.

Humanitarian Aid and Neutrality, Morris N, UNHCR Symposium 16-17 June 1995, Fondation pour les Etudes de Dnse, ISBN 2-911-101-02-2.

The US Military/NGO Relationship in Humanitarian Interventions, Seiple C., Peacekeeping Institute, US Army War College, 1996.

UNHCR IOM/91/9 UNHCR/FOM/96/97, UNHCR and the Military, UNHCR, Geneva, December 1997.

Working With The Military, UNHCR, Geneva, 1995.