The role of military during and in the aftermath of natural disasters

Posté par Jérôme Larché le 5 décembre 2010

 Présentation de JL au 13eme Congrès Humanitaire de Berlin – 15 octobre 2010

The year 2010 has been particularly impacted by major humanitarian crisis, both in conflict and natural disasters settings, and effectively associates more than ever trauma, chaos and politics. Introduction 

Relationship between civilian and military/combatants constitute a critical issue to humanitarian NGOs which are confronted by manifold challenges in their relations with these military actors, including international peacekeeping forces, state and non-state armed forces, armed groups and combatants.  

The ability of NGOs to deliver assistance in times of conflict and natural disasters depends on their ability to maintain their humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence from any political agenda involved in a natural disaster, particularly in case of pre-existing conflict as in Pakistan. 

Associations with any party to the conflict whether indeed real or perceived, can compromise their access to affected populations. For this reason, ‘civil-military relations’ (Civ-Mil) poses numerous challenges and is a critical policy and operational issue for humanitarian NGOs. 

In recent years, humanitarian NGOs have witnessed an increasing use of humanitarian discourse by policy-makers and military officials to describe political strategies and military operations. 

This contestable labelling undermines the distinctions between humanitarian assistance and political forms of intervention in crisis situations. This blurring of the lines is damaging both to the conflict / natural disaster affected population, and to our humanitarian mandates. 

Through Haiti and Pakistan examples, I will try to focus on the need, for humanitarian community, of a clear and collective stance towards relationship between military (regular and privates ones) and humanitarian actors. 

Earthquake in Haiti (January 2010) 

The earthquake in itself was barely foreseeable, but that was not the case for its humanitarian and sanitary consequences. It also highlighted another crisis, political and social one, which last since Haiti’s independence, in 1804. Before the earthquake, 80% of the population was living with less than 2 dollars per day, and with a child mortality rate of almost 60/ 1000 births and GNP / inhabitant of 1300 dollars. Under the UNDP classification, Haiti is located at the 203rd place on 229 countries. After the earthquake, American forces entered very rapidly in Haiti, to restore and control Port-au-Prince airport. Some OCHA representatives argued for a better efficiency in aid delivery that a foreign army (the US army) did not let the control to civilian authorities, UN or Haitian authorities as well. However, some facts show that this military control led to some problematic issues: 

-          Some planes transporting mobile hospitals have been unable to land; -          American or Canadian citizen have been prioritized, mobilizing helicopters and other aid logistics; 

-          Some Haitians have been refused to enter public hospitals by American armed forces,… At this time, some NGOs accepted this integrated approach where objectives were not only humanitarian, but sometimes also political. What is more problematic is that they accepted to function under military control, and not civilian control, which is contrary to Oslo guidelines. This situation led to an altered perception of aid, seen sometimes as partial, and which maybe participated to the already difficult security context. 

However, logistics and transportation provided by American forces have been helpful, given the huge needs encountered, but crisis disaster response modalities and its coordination should have been more rapidly transferred to a civilian control. This militarization of aid led to a potentially and deleterious confusion. Floods in Pakistan (August 2010) 

In late April / May 2009, after a previous agreement aborted, the Government of Pakistan launched a large-scale military operation against pro-Taliban militants in Buner, Lower Dir, and Swat Valley (districts located in NWFP). The local civilian population either started moving out or have been trapped in the hostilities area, hardly accessible to external aid. The majority of those who left, fled into Peshawar, Mardan and Swabi districts, although some displacement has also been reported towards other areas of the country such as Islamabad / Rawalpindi or Lahore. This sudden vast displacement of population adds on the previous displacements all over western Pakistan, caused by the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, in NWFP, in the FATA[1] and in Baluchistan. 

According to the UN Logistics cluster and Pakistani authorities, the total number of displaced people and new IDPs was estimated between 1.6 and 2.2 million people. The observed pattern of displacement[2] was that the majority of displaced families did not accommodate within the available IDP camps. 80% of the displaced population (up to 90% in Swabi district according to our analysis) was instead finding shelter within host families, placing then excessive burden on those families, or gathering in some “spontaneous gathering points” such as school facilities or public premises. Combined to a precarious situation before the crisis for the whole population, this led to an extra burden on host population which had to share little it owns and leading to pauperization. 

Following a central governmental decision, NWFP government announced on last July that IDPs should go back to their villages of origin as soon as areas are declared “clear and safe”. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and many violations on IDP guiding principles, notably by forced returns, were observed 

Last but not least, by end of July monsoon has shown signs of greater scale than previous years, foreseeing potential impacts in area of intervention. Further assessments guided MdM to develop specific response to urgent needs in districts such as Nowshera & Charsadda, and to increase the scope of health services in Kohat district with the set-up of a Diarrhoea Treatment Center. In this highly sensitive political and military context, with a combination of WHAM and counter-insurgency strategies, NGOs movements were severely controlled by Pakistani military forces and did not reach all conflict- and disaster-affected populations. 

In southern parts of the country, as in Sindh Province, such a conflict context was not present but forced displacements of populations, led by militaries, were also observed. 

Possible rules of regulation 

In natural disaster settings, the use of military assets as a last resort for humanitarian operations must be under civilian control, thus avoiding any association between humanitarian aid and a military or political objective which could hinder the overall humanitarian efforts. 

In accordance with international legal instruments and guidelines (such as International Humanitarian Law, Oslo and MCDA guidelines, IASC reference paper on civmil relationship in complex emergencies), humanitarian actors are to maintain a clear distinction from military/combatant actors in their identities and actions as per their recognized roles and mandates. 

In relief operations, civil protection is the organization of civilian bodies designated to respond to a range of emergency measures in the event of natural, environmental and/or industrial disaster. In the European Union, the civil protection resource is another instrument which European humanitarian aid may draw on. These assets, when deployed in a humanitarian context in third countries, are under civilian command and in principle deployed in response to a formal request from the affected state. 

Even if the Lisbonne Treaty is quite ambiguous towards possible roles of humanitarian actors, the European Union recently re-emphasized the commitment to principled humanitarian action in the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid (December 2007). VOICE, a platform of 86 european international NGOs, calls for the implementation of this joint policy statement which has been signed by European Commission, European Parliament, and the 27 EU Member States in order to ensure the access and space for independent humanitarian action. It is important also to recall that humanitarian action is neither an instrument for resolving conflict or managing crises, nor a mean for fighting against terrorism. 

This collective stance is, to my point of view, a mandatory condition to safeguard our access anywhere and anytime to vulnerable populations that is now under threat from this confusion. I am convinced that this confusion threatens not only acceptance of our work by communities but also their participation in it – acceptation and participation being key elements for the security of our programs and teams – and, as a result, compromise our actions. It is therefore necessary to be determined to remain an impartial and independent player, and concerned to be made a potential tool of any government’s policy. Coordination between humanitarian actors and military/combatants should be avoided, particularly in conflict areas. 

We can, however, recognize that dialogue with armed forces can be necessary to make delivery of aid more effective, to save lives, promote humanitarian principles, avoid competition and minimize inconsistency. Such dialogue can take place only if it poses no security issue for the beneficiary population, for local partners and for our teams, and if it does not compromise our impartiality. 

We encourage the entire humanitarian community to promote, in all circumstances, VOICE policy statement and operational recommendations, which has been already adopted at the European level by 86 international NGOs in 2009, and shared with DG ECHO, in Brussels. Because of climate change, natural disasters are supposed to be more frequent in the following years, but their consequences on populations will be hardened by pre-existing social precarity and poverty, as it has been shown in Haiti, in Pakistan or even in New Orleans, after Katrina hurricane. More efficient and proactive disaster response preparedness mechanisms and a strict adherence to Oslo guidelines by all actors are important steps we need to promote. 

Moreover, the situation can be ever more critical if complex emergencies and natural disaster are associated, as in the recent Pakistan floods crisis or in Sri-Lanka after the Tsunami in 2006. For all these reasons, we have to talk with military, particularly those promoting integrated- or comprehensive-approach as NATO, in order to explain our positions …but a “safe distance” should be maintained between humanitarian and military. A distance aimed at promoting a constructive dialogue but also aimed at impeding a deleterious confusion. 

In these difficult contexts, we know also that sometimes we need to make some compromise with our principles and that we need to be pragmatic. That‘s why it seems to me so important to have a shared, clarified and promoted principles framework on humanitarian-military relationship issue, not only in conflict settings, but also in natural disasters settings.   



[1] Federally Administered Tribal Areas 

[2] This pattern of displacement is identical to the one that we observed following the 2005 earthquake in the nearby Hazara division, and the main reasons for people not willing to settle in IDP camps would be that camp settings do not enable IDP groups to maintain their social organisation (high density of people vs. village life) nor their cultural organisation. More pragmatically, camps are not adequate settings for those of the IDPs that left with belongings and cattle, and the high temperatures in these areas at the time being make it uneasy to live under tents. 

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