Blurred Lines in Humanitarian Assistance

As conflict changes to become more protracted and less compliant with international humanitarian law (IHL), relief organizations are often forced to balance security needs and uphold the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. This balancing act should theoretically not occur since IHL stresses that delivery of humanitarian assistance is dependent on the consent of involved combatants and access granted on impartial grounds. In reality, relief organizations have experienced an increase in attacks targeting aid workers, largely due to the politicization and militarization of humanitarian assistance.

What Krahenbuhl calls the “blurring of the lines” debate does not center on whether the military can contribute to humanitarian efforts, since it has an obligation under IHL to evacuate wounded civilians. However, the Oslo Guidelines specify that military involvement should be a last resort when no comparable civilian alternative exists and only deployed when meeting a critical humanitarian need. Indeed, cooperation with the military can overcome numerous challenges facing relief organizations. When Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) made the unprecedented request for military assistance during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, it was mainly to mitigate logistical challenges on the ground. MSF responders couldn’t effectively deliver assistance for lack of roads and supplies, especially given that commercial air carriers had stopped flying into the affected countries. U.S. military could provide air force contingency needs in addition to special capabilities in dealing with hazardous materials.

Although military assistance may be requested by relief organizations, it is paramount for there to be respect for the requesting organization’s mandate. MSF made clear that military personnel only be used for logistical support, not for “crowd control or quarantine, warning that such measures would only trigger fear among people.” The underlying issue complicating relief work is the perception that humanitarians are no longer abiding by the principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence. Policies integrating humanitarian aid into political and military strategies undermine the integrity of humanitarian assistance. When humanitarian assistance is actively used as a counterinsurgency strategy, it leads combatants and affected civilians to associate all humanitarians with specific political and military goals. Oxfam and eight other NGOs highlighted concerns with the increasingly militarized aid strategy implemented in Afghanistan by the International Security Assistance Force, mainly that a “militarized aid approach focuses not on alleviating poverty but on winning the loyalty of Afghans through the provision of aid.” If aid is being delivered as part of a military strategy, the counterstrategy is to destroy that aid. The U.N. also rejected the militarization of Afghan aid by NATO forces, arguing that the military should limit itself to clearing security threats and providing security for humanitarian organizations to deliver services. Adherence to their respective mandates would result in more effective cooperation and delivery of relief efforts where both organizations are involved.

The militarization and politicization of aid becomes a vicious cycle for humanitarian organizations working in conflict situations. Perception is reality and when combatants and affected populations become wary of the impartiality of service delivery, it leads to heightened security concerns and limited access. Reconstruction teams are associated with their countries’ militaries and often require heavy security and remain in compounds that preclude them from developing trust and obtaining community buy-in from affected populations. Aid groups worry that locals will begin to associate all aid workers with the military. This is especially problematic considering military-led humanitarian and development activities are driven by donor’s political interests and short-term security objectives. This often renders the development projects ineffective and potentially harmful to local populations. It also undermines the impartiality of service delivery when certain areas are serviced for strategic reasons and other, less strategically important areas are underserved and left vulnerable.

Overall, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate purely humanitarian assistance and military involvement, especially in conflict-affected zones. Krahenbuhl argues against the notion of a pre-established protected humanitarian space, saying that the space needed for action is created daily and over time by building trust, not taking acceptance for granted, and by adopting a principled approach and following it with discipline. Given that states are employing humanitarian aid and development as a military strategy, the landscape for strictly humanitarian assistance is becoming harder to navigate. When humanitarian action becomes part of strategies aimed at defeating an enemy, the risks for aid agencies in the field grow exponentially. Heightened security concerns lead to reduced access for aid workers in places where populations may be in dire need of strictly humanitarian assistance. While there have been examples of military providing support at the request of relief organizations, more harm has been done by making relief and development work integral to military strategy.


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