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Reconciling the Humanitarian and U.S. Military Perspectives of the Civil-Military Relationship

Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps (photo by Sgt. Ian Ferro)

By Connor Lewis


In this review of the humanitarian-military relationship I will highlight the humanitarian perspective through the lens of its guiding doctrine (UNOCHA Civ-Mil Handbook), highlight the U.S. military perspective through its guiding doctrine (Joint Publication 3-57 Civil-Military Operations), and finally, provide recommendations to reconcile the two. The reference paper "Civil-Military Relationship in Complex Emergencies", prepared by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), defines the nature and character of civil-military relations in complex humanitarian emergencies, reviews fundamental humanitarian principles and concepts, and provides practical considerations and guidelines for humanitarian workers engaged in civil-military coordination. The reference paper is the foundation upon which the more comprehensive UNOCHA Civil-Military Guidelines and Reference for Complex Emergencies handbook was built. The handbook retains the paper's essence and recommendations and serves as the guiding document for humanitarian engagement with military forces. The reference paper and the subsequent handbook are "a tool to which they (humanitarian workers) can refer when formulating operational guidelines that are tailored specifically for civil-military relations in a particular complex emergency.”[i] In this regard, the reference paper does not set out, or claim, to provide specific guidelines for the countless different types of complex emergencies in which humanitarian organizations and militaries interact. Rather, it sets out to define the nature of the relationship between humanitarian organizations and official militaries and provide a foundational and generic framework for humanitarian-military engagement. The paper, therefore, intentionally excludes differences between various military actors, humanitarian actors, and diverse types of complex emergencies. This review will, therefore, do the same.

The Humanitarian Perspective

The UNOCHA reference paper defines civil-military coordination as "the essential dialogue and interactions between civilian and military actors in humanitarian emergencies that is necessary to protect and promote humanitarian principles, avoid competition, minimize inconsistency, and when appropriate pursue common goals. Basic strategies range from coexistence to cooperation. Coordination is a shared responsibility facilitated by liaison and common training."[ii] The definition highlights the humanitarian community's priorities. Pay close attention to the order of desired outcomes; it matters. The definition clearly prioritizes the promotion of the humanitarian principles and de-confliction over pursuance of common goals. Additionally, it prioritizes co-existence over cooperation.

The Humanitarian Principles

First, let us look at the top priority: promotion of humanitarian principles. The reference paper states that "all humanitarian actions, including civil-military coordination for humanitarian purposes in complex emergencies, must be in accordance with the overriding core principles of humanity, neutrality, and impartiality.”[iii] The UN added a fourth principle, independence, in 2004. The four principles are formally enshrined in the UN General Assembly resolutions 46/182 and 58/114.[iv] The principles are defined in the UNOCHA civ-mil handbook as follows:

  • Humanity: Human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found, with particular attention to the most vulnerable people, such as children, women, and the elderly. The dignity and rights of all victims must be respected and protected.

  • Neutrality: Humanitarian assistance must be provided without engaging in hostilities or taking sides in controversies of a political, religious, or ideological nature.

  • Impartiality: Humanitarian assistance must be provided without discrimination as to ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political opinions, race, or religions. Relief for suffering people must be guided solely by needs, and priority must be given to the most urgent cases of distress.

  • Independence: a humanitarian principle that makes it possible to guarantee that humanitarian action is free of political, economic, denominational, military, and ideological influence.

The humanitarian principles enable humanitarian actors to gain and maintain access to vulnerable populations, guide the humanitarian effort, and protect the workers who carry it out. Through this lens, the complications and consequences of humanitarian-military coordination or even the perception of coordination become apparent. Militaries are inherently the antithesis of neutrality, impartiality, and independence. Thus, coordination can erode the humanitarian principles that humanitarian actors rely on for access and security and negatively affect their ability to operate effectively in complex environments. Within this context, the reference paper recommends that which is later formalized in the UNOCHA civ-mil handbook, the 'last resort' principle. In essence, the principle states that the use of military assets and actions involving visible interactions with the military be the option of last resort. And that "such actions may take place only when there is no comparable civilian alternative and only the use of military support can meet a critical humanitarian need."[v] With the principle of 'last resort' in mind, let's take a look at the next aspect of the humanitarian definition of civil-military coordination: types of coordination.

Humanitarian Coordination: Co-existence vs. Cooperation

The definition alludes to two types of coordination: co-existence and cooperation with co-existence being the first and most desired – order matters. Co-existence is when humanitarian actors and military actors occupy the same environment but merely operate side-by-side. Within this type of relationship, "coordination should focus on minimizing competition and conflict in order to enable the different actors to work in the same geographical area, with minimum disruption to each other's activities."[vi] Given the context of the 'last resort' principle, co-existence is the humanitarian's preferred method of coordination. In regards to cooperation, UNOCHA posits that "when there is a common goal and agreed strategy, and all parties accept to work together, cooperation may become possible, and coordination should focus on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the combined efforts to serve humanitarian objectives.” [vii] The humanitarian perspective of cooperation dictates that combined efforts serve humanitarian objectives, not military objectives. Logically then we can conclude that the humanitarian perspective on coordination (1) prioritizes co-existence over cooperation, (2) views cooperation as a last resort in order to maintain the sanctity of the humanitarian principles, and (3) that cooperation when absolutely necessary supports only one objective, the humanitarian objective.

The U.S. Military Perspective

Joint Publication 3-57 (JP 3-57) defines the purpose of civil-military operations as the following: "to attain unified action between the civilian and military counterparts during the execution of join operations. Unified action synchronizes, coordinates, and/or integrates joint, single-Service, and multinational operations with the operations of other USG departments and agencies, NGOs, international organizations (e.g., the UN) and the private sector to achieve unity of effort.”[viii] It goes on to state in the next paragraph, "unified action is achieved when all partners are integrated into planning, and all actions are coordinated and synchronized to achieve the commander's objectives."[ix] This definition poses an issue. If the purpose of civil-military operations, which includes coordination, synchronization and/or integration with humanitarian organizations, is to achieve unified action and the purpose of unified action is to achieve the commander's objectives, then humanitarian organizations are inherently viewed as a means through which to achieve a military commanders ends (objectives).

This understanding is in direct contrast with how humanitarian organizations view the same relationship. The U.S. military's definition and stated purpose of working with humanitarian organizations disregards the humanitarian perspective. The consequences of this doctrinal misstep permeate throughout the force and have resulted in an institutional misunderstanding, especially at the tactical level of U.S. military and humanitarian relationships. This misunderstanding has led to mistrust between the two communities. On the military side, commanders are left frustrated, wondering why humanitarian organizations are hesitant to cooperate. On the humanitarian side, aid workers are left to deal with the consequences of perceived military involvement because of the well-intentioned but misinformed actions of the military. As the DOD’s force "organized, trained, and equipped to conduct Civil Affairs operations and to support civil-military operations."[x] Civil Affairs (CA) Forces are best suited to bridge this gap in understanding.


Civil Affairs Doctrine

Army CA forces are spread across the joint force and regularly engage with conventional forces, special operations forces, interagency, and civilian organizations. This level of reach, combined with the unique knowledge and skill set of the CA Regiment, makes it the ideal force to carry out such a task. The first step is to level the knowledge bubble across the CA Regiment. In order to do this, the humanitarian perspective should be introduced into CA doctrine. A foundational, base level of knowledge should be added to Field Manual (FM) 3-57 Civil Affairs Operations, and an additional Army Techniques Publication (ATP) should be created to provide a more nuanced understanding. The ATP should follow the lead of the UNOCHA civ-mil field handbook, in that it should serve as a guide for military personnel as they navigate the complex humanitarian-military relationship. The ATP should both articulate the essence of the relationship as well as provide the detailed nuances of working with different types of humanitarian organizations. These nuances include the different mandates, roles, funding streams, etc. of different NGOs and IGOs. The ATP should be developed with input from the United States Agency for International Development's (USAID) Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). OFDA’s active participation in doctrine development would ensure that OFDAs important coordination role is institutionalized in doctrine and consequently understood throughout the force.

OFDA Coordination

OFDA is the U.S. Government's (USG) lead coordinator for foreign disaster relief.[xi] OFDA operates in a unique space between U.S. foreign policy and humanitarian relief. As a U.S. government entity, OFDA is an arm of U.S. foreign policy (one of the three Ds; development), but it also operates within the context of the humanitarian principles and culture. OFDA exists to coordinate USG humanitarian efforts with local, regional, international, and intergovernmental humanitarian organizations. OFDA's unique positioning makes it the ideal organization to contribute to the U.S. military effort to better understand and coordinate with humanitarian organizations.

Furthermore, Army CA, given its unique positioning between military and civilian, is the perfect organization to coordinate OFDA's support. The CA Regiment should conduct joint education and training programs with OFDA and support the introduction of additional OFDA humanitarian assistance advisors. OFDA advisors currently exist at the operational and strategic levels, but an effort should be made to expand their reach down to the tactical level. The tactical level is where coordination is most likely to occur and should, therefore, be prioritized.


Civil Affairs is uniquely positioned to educate the broader U.S. Military about the complex coordination relationship between military and humanitarian actors. The U.S. Military's current doctrine surrounding such coordination is both insufficient and misleading. It ignores the humanitarian perspective and presupposes humanitarian support for military objectives. This misrepresentation has led to a misunderstanding within the U.S. military that has resulted in a relationship of mistrust between the U.S. military and humanitarian actors. The humanitarian community has a handbook that guides its collective perspective and actions towards the military. The U.S. Military needs a similar handbook that guides its collective perspective and actions towards humanitarian actors. The CA Regiment, supported by OFDA, should take the lead in this effort. The recommendations made in this article are far from exhaustive but serve as a starting point for further dialogue.

About the Author

CPT Connor Lewis is a student in the Civil Affairs Qualification Course at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. He has experience working for humanitarian organizations in Africa and South America.

The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.

[i] UNOCHA, IASC (2004). “Civil-Military Relationship in Complex Emergencies”. Retrieved from: page 4 [ii] UNOCHA, IASC (2004): page 5 [iii] UNOCHA, IASC (2004): page 8 [iv] United Nations. (2018). Un-CMCoord field handbook (v2.0). Geneva: Page 16 [v] UNOCHA, IASC (2004): page 10 [vi] UNOCHA, IASC (2004): page 6 [vii] UNOCHA, IASC (2004): page 6 [viii] JP 3-57: Civil-Military Operations, JP 3-57: Civil-Military Operations (2018). Retrieved from: Page II-I

[ix] JP 3-57: Page II-1 [x] FM 3-57: Civil Affairs Operations, FM 3-57: Civil Affairs Operations (2019). Page 1-1 [xi] 2020. Office Of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance | USAID Organization | U.S. Agency For International Development. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 May 2020].



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Ryan McCannell
Ryan McCannell
Jun 05, 2020

Terrific article - I posted this to my LinkedIn page to generate some attention from my colleagues working in humanitarian assistance. This piece stands out to me because of the author's ability to remain objective and balanced when comparing both humanitarian and military world views. It's clear he respects them both and wants to explore the gaps, overlaps and synergies without bias.

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