‘It is a cold liaison!’ Military perceptions of humanitarian distinction


‘You are the company commander today. Your task is to negotiate access to land with the local mayor in order to secure a new space for our military hospital, which has flooded.’ After a brief strategy session, my team proceeds to the negotiation table. I am seated directly across from the local mayor and his businessman friend, and I have one hour to convince these civilians to help me.

This is not a story from a conflict zone, though it is a theatre of sorts. The scenario unfolds on a military base in Italy, where a training run by the NATO Multi-National CIMIC (civil-military cooperation) Group is underway. The ‘mayor’ and ‘businessman’ are members of the Italian armed forces performing the role of civilians, while I, in turn, am a civilian acting as a military commander. How did I come to be involved in such civil-military shape shifting?

Attacks against humanitarian aid workers have attracted considerable attention in recent years, especially the October 2015 bombing of the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Important legal and operational measures have been proposed to bolster aid worker protection and, crucially, attempts are being made to better understand the causes of violence against aid workers. The roles played by other actors, such as international militaries, are being examined and there is renewed interested in bolstering guidance on humanitarian-military interactions  (e.g.  IASCMCDA, and country-specific guidelines).

The public conversation about aid worker security has opened a window for reflecting on the humanitarian-military relationship more broadly. As a former aid worker myself, I am intimately acquainted with efforts humanitarians make to separate themselves from military actors—often by appealing to a protected civilian status in IHL. Less clear is how these attempts are perceived from the other side. And so I am attending this NATO training and others like it to investigate how military actors learn about, make sense of, and respond to the humanitarians they meet in armed conflict contexts.

As the civilian humanitarian trainers at NATO emphasize, perceptions are paramount. One trainer states: ‘Beyond following the humanitarian principles, I must be perceived as following them, by the population, by the army, by the government…’ Another adds, ‘it’s all about perceptions—that’s the pin that I dance on.’

Military trainees are taught that their direct engagement in humanitarian-type activities is problematic for humanitarians, who fear the ‘association, mobilization, and utilization of humanitarian assistance to achieve other objectives.’ One military trainer advises: ‘You have to watch for mission creep, you can’t send the wrong message to the public.’ Another touches on general issues of proximity: ‘If they share a room and coffee with us, they can be seen as taking sides by people outside.’

How do the military trainees receive these lessons?

For some trainees, the humanitarian emphasis on principles makes sense. As one notes, ‘We have a different mission than the humanitarians, and we approach the local population differently.’ His colleague agrees: ‘When I hear them say they need to stay impartial, it’s a challenge for me. But if that’s what keeps them safe, I guess they have to use that.’ Humanitarian calls for separation are something ‘we’ll have to respect.’ Others are more troubled by humanitarian distancing. One trainee submits, ‘It is a cold liaison!’ Another responds, ‘Obviously we have different missions and mandates…but why can’t we work together?’ His colleague explains: ‘Because humanitarians think we endanger them.’

While the complex landscape of international civilian actors can be bewildering, this training aims to inculcate a sense of curiosity about non-military players. From one trainee’s point of view, international civilians have divided themselves into ‘castes.’ He speaks of intense UN-NGO turf battles, suggesting that the hierarchy of civilian agencies only makes sense to those inside it. A number of trainees argue that effectiveness should be the main metric by which humanitarians are assessed. They are quick to apply this to themselves as well: ‘We might say as military that a certain NGO is not very effective, but then you could look at a particular military contingent from a given nation and say they are not so effective either’.

To the extent that effectiveness can be defined broadly as helping war-affected populations, military trainees are somewhat perplexed by humanitarian calls for separation. As one trainee says: ‘I can help you help the local population, but you are not letting me.’ His colleague adds, ‘We really can provide a service…in the end we are helping somebody.’ For another: ‘We need to make them understand that the military is not just killing people. We are even looking after civilians.’ One trainee proposes ‘humanity’ as a point of common ground: ‘We do this with kinetic force. They do it by helping people. We have different theories and methods, but underlying this is a humane [intention].’

A further thread running through the NATO training is that military and humanitarian cultures are both built around a ‘mission-first’ focus. However, as the civilian humanitarian trainers are quick to point out, the content of their respective missions often differs markedly. This point seems to linger in the air, unresolved, at the training. And yet, trainees are eager to find out what pragmatic steps they can take to improve the relationship: ‘We have the gun and the uniform, so it’s for us to open the door.’

On the last day of training, I encounter the ‘mayor’ again. By now we have re-assumed our familiar identities: I am drinking coffee in my civilian garb and he is marching past in military uniform. We have shared the unusual experience of seeing things through each other’s eyes, and a smile of recognition passes between us. It is here that I am reminded of the difference between agreeing with someone and understanding their point of view. Curiously, this recognition was made possible through proximity, rather than the separation and distance that distinction seems to demand. This points to a provocative possibility: could humanitarian efforts at distinction be revitalized, rather than threatened, by a closer relationship with the military?


4 thoughts on “‘It is a cold liaison!’ Military perceptions of humanitarian distinction

  1. Thanks for an interesting post . It seems that the post , has ignored certain factor in that description :

    All depends also , upon the culture and the state or society , receiving the aid . If it is a Muslim one, or third world not one , Humanitarian aid or workers, may be perceived as a western biased force. In such , it may raise sometimes , suspicions concerning motives or back minds or even identifying them with occupation force and so forth…..

    The solution would be very simple and efficient . Working with local leaders , head of tribes , priests , leaders of the community , those who have influence upon local residents , all while showing respect , good intention , and honest motives . through them ( local leaders ) one may access better local residents needing humanitarian aid .

    In accordance , You may find great interest here :



    • Dear El Roam,
      Thank you very much for your comments and for sharing the ODI report. I agree with you that the perceptions of local populations, leaders, non-state and state actors are a crucial piece of the puzzle in thinking about how international intervening actors should relate to each other – and to local actors in the places where they work. The ODI report on perceptions in Afghanistan is a helpful contribution, and I would also flag two excellent reports on perceptions of aid: MSF’s ‘In the Eyes of Others’ report and the work of the Feinstein centre on mapping the ‘perceptions gap’.

  2. Pingback: How Sweden Is Using Virtual Reality To Help The Military Work With Civilians - Tech in America

  3. Pingback: Sweden is using VR training simulations to help the military work with civilians - ANDROID7UPDATE.COM

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