‘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?

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