Strategy and Humanity: NGO-military relations

“At each stopping place, long narrow huts had been erected to receive the wounded who,on leaving the carriages, were placed on beds, or on simple mattresses lined up one beside the other. Under these shelters stood tables heavily loaded with bread, soup, wine and, above all, water, as well as lint and bandages which continued to be constantly needed. The darkness was lighted by a mass of torches which were held up by the youth of the locality where the train had stopped; and the Lombard townspeople, acting as improvised orderlies, made haste to bring their tribute of regard and gratitude to the conquerors of Solferino. Without noise, in religious silence, they dressed the men’s wounds, carrying them out of the train with fatherly care and laying them carefully on the couches prepared for them.“  Henri Dunant ‘A Memory of Solferino’

The world has changed and is far from the stillness and deathly quiet of the battlefields that the founder of the Red Cross, Henri Dunant wandered around in Italy. As he gazed upon row after row of wounded soldiers, the depth of human suffering prompted a response which underpins the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality. These noble principles are those which many aid based non-governmental organisations (NGOs) strive to maintain and rightly so. However, such organisations are increasingly faced with the reality that the battlefields of today are not delineated open spaces with organised territory, with one area for weapons and another for lunch; they are villages, family homes, the shop on the corner, entire cities. ‘Humanitarian space’ – a term for the physical and metaphorical space in which humanitarian organisations carry out their work – is highly contested ground. Furthermore, the nature of their work has become politicised and no longer carries the impartial ambivalence that justified its existence. Consider present-day Syria, where aid resources are being marketed, stolen or passed off as goodwill gestures by warring parties to the towns they inhabit, as well as the unprecedented numbers of aid workers killed in the last decade.

Thus, there is no doubt that a degree of security is absolutely necessary in order to provide even the most basic of humanitarian assistance in areas where conflict is still rife. Increasingly, given the efficiency, strategic mindset and capabilities of organised forces, both state and private militaries have been deployed to ensure that aid is delivered securely and that workers are protected. So why is there still such disparity and unwillingness to co-operate between the humanitarian and security spheres? This is a huge question, which brings in multiple factors such as the perception of the military by donors and recipients of aid alike. However, on a practical level, we may initially consider three reasons.

Firstly, military forces often view humanitarian assistance in terms of its strategic value in a conflict zone. The material and political value of providing resources is of intense importance in conflicts which are increasingly fought in civilian spaces, reflecting the blurring of state and non-state actors in combat. This polarises humanitarian priorities of impartial provision of aid for people in need; the military, on the other hand, considers NGOs’ disregard for security considerations as irresponsible. Secondly, securitising an aid environment has the potential to erode neutrality and relations with the communities in which NGOs work- relations which may have been painstakingly built up over a period of time. Thirdly, as the humanitarian world increasingly becomes aware of the need to incorporate sustainable development into emergency aid work that contributes to rather than replaces state responsibilities, the immediacy of military security objectives clashes with the need for long term planning.

Perhaps ironically, Dunant’s initial idea was for relief organisations to provide care and aid for wounded military personnel; whilst he condemned war, he understood its necessity and the willing sacrifice of soldiers. The nature of warfare has changed to the extent that civilians now pay the price of war waged in unstable countries, not only in lives but in the disastrous consequences of disrupting the basic supply of food, water and shelter.  In such environments, the demand for humanitarian assistance has never been greater – equally, so is the need for a secure environment in which to work.  The fourth panel of the upcoming CSD conference combines the professional experience and expertise of leaders in both military and humanitarian spheres which will contribute to the broad discussion of how to better approach this complex partnership.

Nicole Tribe


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