by Frederick C. Cuny A Presentation to the International Peace Academy 
and the UN Peacekeeping Commanders

EDITOR'S NOTE: From 1987-89, Fred Cuny worked in Sri Lanka during the period
that the Indian Peacekeeping Force was in the northern part of the country
attempting to bring peace between the Tamils and the Sri Lankan government.  In
a letter some years later, he wrote,

What follows is that presentation, which draws not only on Cuny's experience in Sri Lanka but on virtually all of the history of military-assisted humanitarian aid.

Niinsalo, Finland

November 1989

INTERTECT Relief and Reconstruction Corp.

3511 N. Hall, #302

Dallas, TX 75219


Use of military forces for humanitarian purposes is a long- established tradition in all corners of the world. In the public mind, there is an association between disaster relief and military involvement; indeed, there is often an expectation that military units will assist the civilian population in the immediate aftermath of wars and large-scale emergencies. The earliest recorded instances predate Alexander the Great. The assistance of armies to the populations they had conquered was seen as a humane gesture to the vanquished -- and, not inconsequentially, a means of winning some degree of loyalty to the new regime.

Initially, humanitarian assistance was simply logistical. Soldiers provided an interim administration to ensure that food and other vital supplies reached the population. There was an element of self-interest involved; if the people were producing food and goods, the army's own logistics were simpler.

By the Napoleonic period, this use of military forces had become so well-established that it was seen as an adjunct to military science. The concept of establishing martial law over civil populations was developed as a means of structuring this involvement in a post-conquest period. While most European armies of the period pursued only a limited security objective with martial law, Napoleon and the French revolutionary armies saw it as a means of changing the social structure and bringing the benefits and new social order of the French Revolution to the occupied territories. (That they failed is a lesson to be learned.)

Post-World War II Europe witnessed what was perhaps the most extensive use of the military in civil affairs. It is important to recognize the influence this had both on military doctrines of civil involvement and on development of the international relief system and the approaches that relief agencies have used since that time. The task that faced the Allies in the aftermath of the war was enormous. Virtually an entire continent had to be administered. Vestiges of the Nazi regime had to be eradicated, whole populations had to be reunited or resettled and economies rejuvenated. Civil government and the rule of law had to be reestablished and entire civil administrations restructured.

The role of the military was expanded as never before. The public administrative function was perceived as so important by the Allies that special attention was given to recruiting civil administrators, city planners, urban development specialists, and hundreds of persons skilled in operating the systems of modern cities and their governments.

From the beginning, the objective was to establish martial law in the occupied territories, then quickly rebuild indigenous capacity to manage the cities, the provinces and, ultimately, the national governments. In Germany, the process took longer but the goal was the same -- the military role was to shift from security and management to strictly security as quickly as possible.

At the time this was happening, the international relief system as we know it today was in the process of being established. Prior to the war, there were few non-governmental agencies (NGOs). The humanitarian agencies of the old League of Nations had generally been very limited in scope and had not survived the war. The United Nations was just getting underway; agencies such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme were just starting and others such as UNHCR were only in the talking stages.

As the new system was being put together, the military was still very much involved in civil affairs and therefore played a major role in humanitarian operations. The military had the resources and controlled the logistics, so that a natural association developed between humanitarian assistance and military involvement. Many of the strategies and approaches that have been used since that time evolved from this post-war association.

Let's examine the nature of the problem that they faced. Not only were many people homeless, but millions had been moved far from their homes. Large camps were set up to provide temporary assistance until people could be relocated or until their homes and jobs had been reestablished. Due to the transitory nature of the situation, the disruptions in local markets, chaos in the transportation systems and many basic shortages, relief efforts relied heavily on temporary measures and goods supplied from outside the affected region. Food, blankets, tents and clothing all were needed and were useful to the refugees and displaced persons.

The Allied armies were in the process of demobilizing and many of the needed materials were conveniently on hand. General Lucien Clay once remarked that, to a large degree, the civilian relief agencies were in the business of military surplus disposal. The goods were on hand, they were cheap and little additional effort was needed to transport them to the people in need. Thus, an entire set of relief approaches became fixed in both doctrine and public perception. Think for a moment of some typical relief measures: construction of refugee camps; distribution of food, blankets and cots; massive inoculation of people against typhus, typhoid and cholera -- these were all approaches employed by the occupation forces to assist the civilian population. To a large extent, they were dictated by the nature of the problem and by the resources that were on hand.

There was one other event seared in public memory that stimulated military involvement in humanitarian relief, literally in another dimension. The Berlin Airlift of 1947 was an incredible feat wherein an entire city was totally supplied from the air. Probably in no other case has the military played so vital a humanitarian role. More than any other event, the images of those planes delivering everything from food to coal fostered acceptance of the link between air forces and humanitarian assistance and, more importantly, acceptance of the costs incurred. No matter that airlift is the most expensive means of delivering a commodity; in emergencies, planes have become almost mandatory means of delivering emergency assistance.

In the late 1940s, the relief system began to expand to other areas of the world: the trouble spots of decolonialization (India, Palestine, et al), then the flash points of the Cold War (Korea, Greece and others). Military involvement continued and a new form was added, the international peacekeeping forces of the United Nations and regional organizations. Peacekeeping commanders found that relief agencies still turned to them for assistance from materials to logistics support.

In the 1950s, the relief system began to expand into the newly- emerging nations, focusing first on the displaced persons that so often resulted from liberation struggles and then on natural disaster relief. For the most part, the system continued to use the techniques used in post-war Europe, adapting them to needs in the developing countries.

Or so they thought. The problem was that these responses were often inappropriate and counterproductive. There were many differences between displaced people in Europe and civil war and famine victims of the Third World. Provision of tents to victims of an earthquake or hurricane often delayed reconstruction and failed to address critical land issues. Construction of refugee camps for famine victims drew people away from their land, making agricultural recovery nearly impossible and creating an even larger relief requirement. Massive inoculations were not only inappropriate but, when applied incompletely, they often broke down the people's natural immunities, actually increasing their risk to disease.

The military forces committed to these operations also continued to use the same modes and doctrines. Planes are used in ever-increasing instances to deliver food and supplies; engineers are still committed to build refugee camps. Yet there is increasing concern that these uses are not without costs. For example, a number of specialists have pointed out that the use of military aircraft to deliver food in Sudan in 1985 delayed vital decisions on alternative methods and obscured the fact that there was no onward delivery system from the airports out to the rural populations. When the rains came in the middle of the operation, it was necessary to bring in helicopters to shuttle the food outward. With proper planning, the food could have been far more effectively delivered and distributed by land.

The inappropriate use of military resources is part of a broader problem as well: the scarcity of humanitarian assistance funds. The public perception is that the costs of military participation in humanitarian operations are borne by the respective military establishment; but in most countries, the defense ministry is reimbursed by the foreign ministry/overseas aid department. Even in those countries where the military is not reimbursed, the usual practice is to develop an overall assistance program for the operation and allocate funds among emergency, rehabilitation and reconstruction activities. Within the program, military operations and humanitarian assistance compete for the same funds.

Military commanders might respond to these criticisms by reminding us that the decisions are usually in the hands of civilian authorities but, in reality, it goes far beyond this. Few civilians are knowledgeable about military capabilities and many harbor unrealistic expectations about what the military can and cannot do effectively. Furthermore, the nature of the relief system itself is such that there are few professional relief managers and many relief workers are first-timers -- to them, an army colonel with a helicopter, a jeep and an efficient staff with radios and other equipment looks heaven-sent.

Today the military is more heavily engaged in humanitarian operations than before. In the past five years, military aircraft have air-dropped food into Ethiopia, helicoptered aid into remote villages in Sudan, rescued flood victims (and often their animals) in Bangladesh, rushed pharmaceutical to earthquake sites, and delivered medical teams to hundreds of major and minor disasters. Engineers have helped rebuild roads and bridges (in some countries, to the point where there are more Bailey bridges than normal bridges!) and have supervised the construction of major flood control works in some regions.

In many cases this involvement is vital, but in others it may be at a hidden cost and more counterproductive than is generally realized. A key objective must be to define workable doctrines for this involvement and to make commanding officers aware of the social, political and economic impact they may have with different modalities of commitment. Among the questions that must be resolved are:

How are military forces and their assets deployed in humanitarian operations?

What models of deployment are commonly used and what doctrines need to be developed for each?

Are the current roles effective and, if not, what roles are effective?

How can military units be committed to peacekeeping or humanitarian operations without violating their neutrality?

How can foreign military commanders best coordinate with civil relief authorities?

To help answer these questions, we will look at reasons for military involvement in humanitarian operations, scenarios under which the military may be deployed, and configurations or models of deployment. We will then examine several cases to identify some of the key lessons and issues. To help understand the complexities of the relief environment and the constraints it presents, the nature of disasters in the Third World will be explored. Finally, the dilemmas facing military commanders in humanitarian operations will be identified and discussed, and specific recommendations for overcoming or avoiding the pitfalls will be presented.


Civilian authorities turn to the military for help in humanitarian operations for several reasons, among which the most obvious may be their physical assets. The military is often regarded as a cornucopia of assistance. Among the most sought-after assets are transport (land, sea and air); fuel; communications; commodities including food, building supplies and medicines; tools and equipment; manpower; technical assistance (especially logistics and communications) and facilities. Requests can run the gamut from the arcane, like delousing equipment, to the mundane, like maps; from cheap items like soap, to highly-sophisticated items like bulldozers; from off-the-shelf items like tents, to items that must be specially produced such as aerial photographs. Relief authorities know the military has the capability of providing these on request and, in a resource-poor post-disaster environment, it is not unreasonable for authorities to request them. Since many of the items are commonly stockpiled and since civil disaster agencies have few stockpiles of their own, especially in the developing countries, demands can be quite extensive.

Of these assets, several are particularly attractive to emergency managers. For example, communication is critical in emergencies but in most countries there are severe restrictions that limit civilian access to radio/telephonic systems. Thus, in the aftermath of a disaster, it is not unreasonable for civilians to turn to the military for these services.

The vast, disciplined and generally self-supporting manpower of the military is the other key asset coveted by civil disaster authorities. Most disaster victims will be looking after their own needs at a time when civil works and repairs may require large commitments of personnel. Again, it is not unreasonable for civilian authorities to want to put the army to work clearing rubble, patching roads, etc.

These last two assets help to explain the second reason why civil authorities often seek military assistance: communications and discipline -- what the military refers to as chain-of-command -- are important elements in managing the post-disaster environment. For the most part, civil administration will be severely limited; their communications are likely to be affected and staff members may be among the victims requiring assistance. On the other hand, few indigenous military organizations will be affected to any great extent; military facilities usually weather storms and earthquakes well and personnel are unlikely to be affected by famines or food shortages. In cases where local forces have been affected or have been ordered back to their barracks while an international peacekeeping force guarantees disengagement, the internal communications and command-and-control systems of the outside force are likely to be even more sophisticated and secure. To a civil relief official in the midst of post-disaster chaos, a disciplined, ordered system is just what is needed to get things out to the affected population.

Finally, there is the element of history and past experience. As mentioned earlier, there is a long association of the military with relief operations and an expectation of some degree of involvement on both sides. After the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the government was severely criticized by the public for not bringing in the army for more than routine security, despite President de la Madrid's stated reason that he wanted to employ large numbers of the victims in civil works projects rather than use the army to restore services and clear the rubble.


Five distinct types of deployment can be identified for foreign military forces, each with its own set of prerequisites, operational modalities, and problems.

1. Deployment after natural disasters: In this scenario, foreign military forces may be deployed as the result of a request from their own foreign disaster assistance agency or from the affected country. The usual intent is to provide logistics support for rapid delivery of relief supplies or to provide technical support to the host government, often complementing the host country's own forces and capabilities.

2. Deployment at the conclusion of a conflict: In this case, the deployed force is either a component of the victorious armies now turned into occupation/martial law forces (e.g., the Allied Forces in Europe 1945-50), or a close ally that is supporting the outcome of the conflict (e.g., the Caribbean forces that took part in the post- invasion administration of Grenada, 1983). Its principal role is as a police force, with a public administration/martial law role equally as important. Logistics and technical support play lesser, but still important, parts in the overall operation.

3. Peacekeeping: The primary role of a peacekeeping force is to intervene between two opposing sides. The prerequisite is a formal cease-fire or disengagement agreement and concurrence that the peacekeeping force will be permitted to enforce the disengagement (although enforcement may not necessarily mean use of force). In many, if not most, cases, both sides will remain armed but inactive. The principal role of the peacekeepers is disengagement verification. There may also be agreement that the forces may play a limited police role.

It is as peacekeeper that a military commander will face a new humanitarian assistance role, that is, as guarantor of access to relief and reconstruction assistance. To meet this task, the force may be required to use its military capabilities to ensure that people are able to secure their entitlements. For example, it would not be unusual for relief agencies to request escorts for relief supplies in the initial phases of the relief operation, especially to areas that have just been opened as a result of the cease-fire. Logistics and technical support may also be requested but, if a cease-fire is in effect and humanitarian agencies have the right of passage throughout the conflict zone, requests for use of the force's logistics and other assets should be minimal.

One key role that should be mentioned is bomb and mine disposal. Presumably, the terms of the disengagement will permit increased access to the conflict zone. As humanitarian agencies begin to undertake expanded relief efforts, there may be a request for minesweeping and other munitions removal. If the opposing sides are only disengaged and have not laid down their arms, it will be necessary to negotiate safe passage routes for relief agencies and the terms and conditions under which they may operate.

4. Point relief (during active conflict): In this scenario, the two warring factions have not agreed to total disengagement or to a general cease-fire that will permit relief operations, but they have agreed, usually through diplomatic back channels, to permit neutrals to deliver humanitarian relief supplies to an affected civilian population (usually threatened by famine) at designated points in the conflict zone -- thus the term "point relief". This scenario is becoming more common, especially in Africa (e.g., the Ethiopian famine in 1985-6 and currently southern Sudan). To date, the most common deployment of military units has been in an air support and logistics role, with military assets (usually planes, crews, and fueling and maintenance support) being placed under the command of a neutral international relief organization such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or the United Nations.

Point relief requires that both sides agree that the delivery sites are off-limits to military action. This is the key prerequisite for the commitment of military units. Without this concurrence, the participating forces and the operation itself can be placed in jeopardy.

In most cases, agreements have been observed. However, recent violations have led to calls for an expanded role for foreign military forces operating under this scenario, that is, as guarantors of the neutrality of the relief points. It is argued that, when the sites are agreed upon, an international military detachment would travel to the site (by the same route or method to be used by the relief column or aircraft), sweep the site for mines, and verify that the locale and access routes are safe for civilians. The theory is that the opposing forces would not risk killing neutrals, especially representatives of a major donor or military power. This mode of deployment is receiving more attention and has the advantage of forcing contacts between the opposing forces which could lead to a broader dialogue.

5. Humanitarian interventions and cross-border operations: In recent years, the relative success of many cross-border relief operations has led to suggestions for a more interventionist approach to humanitarian relief during conflicts. Some groups have spoken of disaster victims' "right to assistance" and some have advocated that military forces representing the world community be committed under extraordinary circumstances to guarantee safe passage for relief commodities. Cross-border operations have supplied food and medical supplies to rebel provinces in northern Ethiopia for years, airlifts are currently underway in southern Sudan, and humanitarian supplies have routinely been slipped across the border into rebel-held areas of Afghanistan. Probably the most dramatic operation was the Biafran airlift of 1968-70. To date, no multilateral humanitarian intervention has actually been carried out by regular military forces representing neutral nations. However, in 1987, the Indian Air Force executed an air drop of relief supplies to the Jaffna peninsula of Sri Lanka where Tamil minorities were under siege by the Sri Lankan forces. While the Government of India claimed the drop was humanitarian in nature, the mission was seen more as a warning to Sri Lanka that India was prepared to intervene militarily on the side of the Tamil rebels.

The Sri Lankan incident demonstrates the problems related to an intervention; no matter what the motives, the perception will be that the intervenor has chosen sides and is prepared to use force. For this reason, it is highly unlikely that military forces will be called upon to join a multilateral force for a humanitarian intervention. However, it is not unlikely that military assets (such as logistics capacity, commodities and perhaps technical assistance) would be requested to support a civilian cross-border operation up to the point where supplies or services cross the border.


The manner in which military forces are deployed in a humanitarian role can affect overall success and performance. Several distinct models can be identified.

1. Detached deployment of military assets: This is the most common model -- the military establishment simply donates commodities or lends equipment and the necessary personnel to man them. Civilian control over deployment is inherent in this model and the most successful applications of military assets usually follow.

2. Use of military units to augment civil manpower: Use of military units to provide additional manpower usually occurs during or immediately after a disaster. Popular roles are flood and fire fighting, debris clearance, post-disaster security and control. The guiding principle here is that military personnel should be used only to provide extraordinary services during the emergency and/or to supplement civil work brigades if there is a manpower shortage. The military should never be used to do work that large numbers of disaster victims could be paid to do. Survivors, especially low-income families, need alternative work opportunities and large-scale public works programs are a major source of post-disaster employment.

3. Use of military units as a substitute for civilian workers: In crises, it is often proposed that the military take over certain functions from civil authorities, ranging from operating municipal water systems to delivering mail. As a general rule, this is an unsuitable role for the military, especially for foreign forces. Few officers have the proper training and military take-over may only delay a return to normalcy.

4. Use of the military in security and police roles: Perhaps the most common role for national military units in civil emergencies is as an extension of local police forces. With proper training and subordination to civilian authority, this is an effective role for national units. The keys are training and subordination. Undisciplined and overly-threatening forces can inadvertently create their own sets of problems. Foreign forces should never be used to augment local forces in this role; the local population will see this as a provocation.

As peacekeepers, foreign military forces play a number of other roles that may become critical to the overall success of the intervention. As mentioned, they may become guarantors of the peoples' right and access to relief assistance. This may involve keeping roads open, ensuring public order around distribution sites, or guaranteeing that forces have disengaged to permit people to reach distribution sites in safety.

The police function in peacekeeping is highly-debated. The peacekeepers must walk a fine line between guaranteeing order and taking over routine criminal and civil police work. Many people imagine the military serving in the role of a "London bobby", gently restoring law and order to a violence-torn area. In some cases, this may work, especially if the population has been effectively disarmed. However, if the warring parties have only disengaged but remain armed, many experts believe that a foreign force should not be placed in the position of having to arrest and detain civilians other than when exercising their peacekeeping functions (although in practice it has often happened). Taking over routine police work may alienate the population and may give the impression that the peacekeepers favor the government. In most civil conflicts in the Third World, policemen in any uniform represent repression to the opposition. It should be remembered that the primary role of peacekeeping troops is to separate or disarm combatants, not to conduct routine criminal suppression. A better way may be to support the police effort indirectly by taking over security and guard duties normally performed by local police in order to release them for other duties.

5. Secondment or release of personnel to special relief units: In the late 1970s, the government of Sweden created a special Standby Force for Disaster Relief, as a civilian branch within the Defense Ministry. It was composed of military personnel temporarily released from active duty in order to perform duties in disaster relief without loss of rank or pay, and a cadre of civilians who volunteered for a period of twelve months. The Standby Force was organized along military lines, drawing most of its equipment from military materiel. In short, the Force was an attempt to build an organization with military-like capabilities, but avoiding direct military involvement and its connotations.

Several observers have noted that the makeup of the Force and its military orientation reduced its effectiveness. With large numbers of personnel being sent to a disaster area, all trying to find an appropriate role for "militarized civilians", the Force has had difficulties in providing meaningful and appropriate assistance. There have been some notable successes, especially in projects dealing with refugees; in 1985, their engineers built and maintained a refugee camp in eastern Sudan that was considered a model for its layout and systems. But overall, the unit has been characterized as an "over- response", and some feel that the Swedes have only managed to transfer the limitations of the military to civilian clothes. It is the military doctrines that are inappropriate, not the people. In other words, they have developed a response before defining the problem.


With all these assets, and the ability to command and direct them, there is still much concern about the commitment of military forces to humanitarian affairs. To understand these concerns, we will look briefly at some recent operations.

1. The Ethiopian Airlift and Airdrops (1985-6)

Operational scenario: Point relief

Commitment modalities: Logistics support, technical assistance

It was hailed as the greatest humanitarian airlift of modern times. In 1985, responding to international concern about the plight of starving people in Ethiopia's northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigray, an international airlift -- composed of C-130s from Sweden, Britain and Belgium (and later Canada); C-160 Transalls from the Federal Republic of Germany; and Anatov An-12s from the USSR, combined with helicopters from Poland -- began delivering food to remote areas of the famine zone. Ostensibly, the operation was to supplement the capabilities of the Ethiopian air force (which also operates An-12s).

Technically, the operation was a huge success. At the high point of the operation, 10,000 metric tons of food were delivered per month. Most of the food was airlifted to remote airstrips, then trucked to distribution points in nearby communities. To reach the more remote villages, and to permit people to stay in place and not migrate to relief camps in search of food, RAF and Luftwaffe planes airdropped grains using free-drop delivery. The effort was remarkable, for only minimal food losses resulted.

Yet there are haunting questions, cost concerns being among the most obvious. Even the mighty Hercules, which often carried 15-ton loads during the operation, can only carry a load equivalent to half that of a grain lorry (some grain trucks could carry up to 65 MT). The average cost of one flight equalled the cost to purchase a grain truck and fuel it for 6 months. Surely an investment in land transportation would have been of more lasting benefit in transport-poor Ethiopia.

Some have justified the airlift on the basis of a need for speed -- an argument that does not stand up. It took two Hercs operating 6 days to deliver what one convoy could deliver within the same period. Remember, the big planes were used to shuttle cargoes that were already in-country, not to deliver them to Ethiopia.

Another reason given was that many airstrips were inaccessible by road. This argument begins to get at the heart of the matter. A civil war was being waged throughout the air support effort. Two things should be pointed out about the situation. First, many of the airstrips used in the shuttle portion of the operation could be and were being reached by lorries at the same time that the airlift was underway. Second, the planes operated from government-held areas in full cooperation with Ethiopian authorities.(1) This had several results. The airlift was viewed with some suspicion by the two principal insurgent fronts: the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF). In their minds, the international community had taken sides. Thus, the mantle of neutrality was lost.

An even more important issue was that vital negotiations between the rebels and the government over safe passage for relief convoys were lost because the government had an "out" with the airlift. The negotiations could have opened more roads and made the food relief effort far more effective; in the case of Eritrea, a cease-fire for relief would have had even more benefits and possibly led to further peace discussions. So long as the planes were there, they did not feel as much pressure to negotiate.(2)

Another concern was the scale of the airlift and the fact that it was carried out during various offensives by the Ethiopian forces. It has been pointed out that the airlift permitted the Ethiopian Air Force to continue to use its own resources for the war effort (and even a controversial forced resettlement program). Critics point out that the Ethiopians (and the Soviets) had the transport capacity to undertake the operation, but again the pressure to do so was alleviated by the international effort.

For the international relief community, the airlift was also the easy way out of a major dilemma. They had been experiencing great difficulty negotiating with the Ethiopian government on relief in the war zone. When the government failed to negotiate a safe passage agreement with the rebels, it was easier to ask for air support than to continue to badger the government. Again, a move towards peace was lost. This was not a failure of the military; it was a failure of civilian relief authorities and diplomatic missions. But the mere availability of the airlift capacity reduced the necessity of taking a hard line with the Ethiopians. (It is interesting that the fund-raising media used by the agencies during the period rarely mentioned the fact that a war was going on.)

It has been claimed that the air drop effort had some impact on reducing population migration during the famine. (Migration is one of the worst results of famine and significantly prolongs relief efforts.) Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support this claim one way or the other. By the time the air drops were regularly delivering supplies, migration was beginning to taper off. (Indeed, by the time the overall air operation got into full swing, death rates among the affected populations had already begun to decline, a sign that the most of vulnerable people in the population had already died.) However, it is likely that the operation did have some effect on both migration and what is called residual mortality, helping to save malnourished people who could not go to the relief centers. It is doubtful that the Ethiopian forces would have been able to accomplish this feat (air drop) with their own air assets even had a cease-fire been in effect. While more attention should have been devoted to developing a better distribution system in Ethiopia prior to the famine, it was not; and the remarkable efforts of the airdrop crews are to be commended.

One thing that contributed to the success of the air drops was a tacit agreement between the relief authorities and the rebels that the insurgents would not shoot at the aircraft. Without this, the Hercs and Transalls would have not been able to operate, and it is doubtful whether their respective air ministries would have committed them.

Lessons learned:

Aircraft should only be used for operations that cannot be carried out by other means, i.e., they should not be seen as an end in themselves.

Military forces should not be committed without a clear agreement from both sides of the conflict.

Commanders should ascertain whether the commitment of assets will help or undermine negotiations between warring parties.

Equal access to relief supplies should be guaranteed before the relief effort commences.

Military detachments should operate under neutral humanitarian aid authorities (and, where possible, from neutral bases).

2. Deployment of Medical Teams to Sudan (1988)

Operational scenario: Deployment after a natural disaster, in support of local military humanitarian assistance operations

Commitment modalities: Medical support, technical assistance

In the aftermath of heavy rains and flooding in Sudan in August 1988, the U.S. Army sent a team of medical personnel to assist the Sudanese army working with the civilian population. It was feared that the floods, which had inundated hundreds of thousands of latrines in the slums of Khartoum, would spread disease throughout the population. That concern was mirrored by civil disaster relief authorities; the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, among others, had sent teams of experts to assist the Sudanese authorities.

In such a situation, the doctrine of the military is straight- forward: immunize everyone at risk against all possible health threats. Therefore, the Army team began an extensive campaign to inoculate the population of their assigned areas. The problem with the doctrine is that, while it works well for a controlled population (like soldiers or citizens of an educated, medically-sophisticated society), in the Third World where people have little previous contact with modern medicine, other approaches are needed. Few people understand the nature of the health threat, few will return for their booster shoots (if they even understand they need them), and in many cases the medicines cannot be given effectively for myriad reasons. In short, the doctrines applied were not only ineffective; in many cases they were counter-productive and, in some situations, dangerous. Again, this is not to take anything away from the hard work and dedication of the military medical personnel. They were just inappropriately trained for the situation. Their medical doctrines were appropriate for the people they normally serve, but not for civilians under these circumstances.

Lessons learned:

Military medical teams operating in the fields of public health, preventive medicine or primary health care need to observe health protocols and doctrines developed for civilian populations after disasters.

Local military medical units may not be any more aware of civilian health needs than are foreign detachments. For this reason, foreign military health personnel should operate in close coordination with local health ministry and World Health Organization experts.

3. Construction of Refugee Camps in India (1971)

Operational scenario: Deployment during a civil emergency, in support of civilian authorities

Commitment modalities: Technical assistance, manpower

To escape the Pakistani civil war in 1971, an estimated 8 million refugees flooded into India from what would become Bangladesh. Indian army engineers were called upon to help construct refugee camps as temporary places for these people to live in the region around Calcutta. For the most part, the engineers concentrated on provision of water and sanitation, but in one instance they were assigned to design and build a large refugee camp on a sandy tidal flat and landfill known as Salt Lake.

The engineers began the work in June 1971. The original design was for 35,000 refugees. Construction teams laid out the camp, dug drainage ditches, installed batteries of latrines and began sinking tubewells. As soon as the basic infrastructure was complete, building materials for self-help shelters were brought in and the camp was opened. On the first day, over 100,000 people arrived!

The camp and its systems quickly broke down. Overcrowding was partly to blame; by the time the authorities were able to control access, 700,000 refugees had entered. But the designs of the camp and many of its systems were also at fault. The camp had been laid out in a grid following lines similar to that of a military installation. From the air, it resembled a division base camp. Administrative and medical facilities were highly centralized and, as the camp grew, the people at the edge were farther and farther away from clinics, food stores, etc. In practice, the greater the distance, the less people avail themselves of services no matter how great the need. Shelters resembled squad tents; they were all multi-family and were placed in long, orderly grids. Experience has shown that this is the worst possible arrangement for shelters. People are isolated and left visually unprotected. The result is depression, a lack of the social bonding needed for people to cope in such a situation, and an increase in social problems in the camp such as theft and rape.

Again, not everything was bad. The engineers did provide one important element: community organization. In order to build all the necessary shelters and camp systems, refugee manpower had to be mobilized. The engineers set up schemes for mass-producing shelters, digging ditches, sandbagging low-lying areas, and for hundreds of other routine tasks. This organization commenced from the minute a person entered the camp. After medical screening, those who were fit were immediately sent to a work gang and given an assignment. Several observers have commented that this immediate involvement helped overcome many of the psychological problems that the people faced; with something productive to do, they had less time to worry about their situation.

Lessons learned:

Physical order along military organizational lines is usually inappropriate for civilian populations. Refugee camps are not bases; they are communities whose residents have special social problems and needs.

Services for refugees must be brought to them. They are not in a state that encourages them to seek the services.

Social organization can play a significant part in helping people cope. (However, efforts to organize the people should not be overbearing or dictatorial.)

4. Evacuation of Earthquake Victims in Guatemala (1976)

Operational scenario: Deployment after a natural disaster, to complement local military relief efforts

Commitment modalities: Logistics support

Thousands of people in remote rural villages in the rugged Guatemalan highlands were injured in the massive earthquake of 1976. The United States immediately offered to send a detachment of helicopters to aid in bringing the injured to hospitals in the capital. The helicopters, manned for the most part by English-speaking crews, went into operation within days of the first shock. In a short period of time, they airlifted almost 700 people, more than 75% of whom were children, to hospitals located an average of 120 kms from their villages.

The areas where the helicopters operated were heavily populated by descendants of the Mayans. Until the earthquake, rural farmers and villagers in the remote highlands had little contact with the outside world. The vast majority of residents spoke one of the more than 20 Indian languages in one of the scores of dialects within each. A few miles from the capital, few people spoke Spanish, the national language. Thus, for many families, the nightmare of the earthquake was only the beginning of their tragedy. For few people had any idea where the helicopters were taking their children. Even if the crew had known the eventual destination of the patients, there was no way to communicate this to the parents. For their part, many of the parents assumed, quite naturally, that the helicopters would bring the children back -- this was their first exposure to the machines -- and it was several days before they realized that this would not happen. For months afterward, there were pathetic rituals of bands of people going from hospital to hospital trying to find their lost children. While many were recovered, many others, especially infants, were not. It had never occurred to the military crews that such a thing was happening. They had even taken the precaution of having Guatemalan military medical personnel along on some of the flights, but they too were unprepared for the situation, as the Guatemalan military is drawn largely from the Ladino population rather than the Indian community.

Lessons learned:

Preparations for any humanitarian operation should be just as thorough as for a military operation.

Foreign commanders cannot always rely on local military authorities to know the situation better than expatriates.

There are many other cases that could be used to illustrate situations where the military was inappropriately committed to a civil relief operation. What is important to note is the common thread that runs through each one: the military forces were not properly trained for their roles, the doctrines under which they operated were inappropriate for the mission, and the realities of the emergency environment were not known or understood prior to their commitment. In the cases of outside military involvement, there was a failure on the part of civil relief authorities to alert the military to the operational issues and, in the case of Guatemala, failure of the local counterpart forces to provide the necessary orientation about operational problems.


Perhaps at this point it would be appropriate to discuss the nature of disasters in the Third World and why military units, especially those from industrialized countries, often find it difficult to undertake civilian relief roles. Only by understanding the environment in which the military operates can we understand the limitations of the military establishment and the pitfalls that may be encountered.

Until recently, disasters were seen as temporary events that could be resolved with relief aid. But some unsettling facts have emerged. Countries on the road to development, experiencing a disaster, suddenly lost momentum. Resources grew scarce, and development programs had to compete with reconstruction activities for available funds. In the aftermath of wars, the outcome was even worse.

At first the solution was assumed to be more relief aid from the industrialized countries, and annually appropriations grew. Despite the influx of aid, the results were discouraging. Perhaps the answer was to speed the response, to devote more resources, or to expand the international delivery system. But these measures and others were applied, few with meaningful results. Why?

The concept of a disaster as a separate event requiring a rapid response of medical and material aid was not entirely accurate and led to efforts that were not only very ineffective, but in many cases counterproductive. The basic problem was the conceptual failure by aid organizations to link disasters in the Third World with poverty and underdevelopment. Relief agencies tended to view disasters as discrete emergencies and responded by providing emergency medical assistance, basic goods (especially personal articles such as clothes and blankets) and temporary emergency shelter, usually tents. Emergency aid, collectively called "relief", was distributed free, as a form of charity. Even if this were totally effective in meeting emergency needs and could be provided at an appropriate time, such aid would still not address the roots of the problem: poverty and underdevelopment.

More than any other human event, a war or a natural disaster dramatically brings into focus all the basic problems and inherent weaknesses of a society and often forces a reappraisal of goals. Critical decisions, previously unaddressed, can no longer be ignored, and choices must be made. When it became evident in Guatemala that the earthquake had affected the poorer sectors (especially the Indian communities) to a far greater extent than the middle- and upper-class families, everyone recognized the portent this held for the future of the country. For the first time, people who had been unconcerned about poverty or unaware of the extent of poverty in Guatemala were brought face-to-face with the reality.

Disaster-induced changes occur because disasters create a climate wherein changes in society are more acceptable. While not all people, least of all the governments, experience a desire for change, pressures from victims often evolve into demands for fundamental changes -- demands that may cover not only changes in the society, but also changes in the form of the community, including land and housing.

The changes that may occur are numerous and varied. Changes in building styles, methods and materials can often be traced to a disaster. Migrations or relocations of people from one area to another can alter urbanization or rural living trends. Land invasions following earthquakes have affected the makeup of peripheral settlements around large cities and, in many cases, have affected the pattern of land ownership and tenure, not only in the immediate area of the invasion but also in surrounding communities. In wars or droughts, when large numbers of people are forced to migrate, the place where they stop in order to receive relief supplies often becomes a new settlement.

The loss of economic opportunity or need to find alternate sources of income have often caused large-scale migrations. Migrations compound the problems for relief agencies since they have to provide relief instead of development assistance, significantly increasing overall post-disaster assistance costs. Unfortunately, many of the principal relief strategies used today encourage, rather than discourage, migrations.

For a society, disasters often bring changes in the structure of community leadership. New organizations may be born out of necessity to deal with the disaster and may remain to continue the work of bringing economic change to the community. New leaders often emerge, sometimes to replace leaders felled by the disaster, but more often to replace those who have proved ineffective or unable to cope in the aftermath of a disaster.

Disasters are one result of the cycle of poverty common to developing countries. The roots of poverty are the increased marginalization of the population caused by high birthrates and the lack of resources (or the failure of governments to allocate resources) to meet the basic human needs of an expanding population. At the center of the resource issue are the parallel problems of land and economic opportunity. As the population increases, land in both rural and urban areas becomes more scarce, and those seeking new land for farming or housing are forced to accept marginal lands offering less productivity and a smaller measure of physical or economic safety. Such trends result both in rapid and unchecked urbanization and in massive deforestation of mountainous and jungle regions that occurs as small farmers push into less tenable areas for farming. In addition to the political failure of governments to develop new economic systems and to reallocate resources (especially land) to benefit the nation as a whole, there is an inappropriate attempt to use high technology to instantly "modernize" the society. This has two contradictory results: higher unemployment and rising expectations.

Recognizing poverty as the primary root of vulnerability and disaster in the Third World is the first step towards developing an understanding of the need for change in current disaster response practices. For if the magnitude of disasters is an outgrowth of underdevelopment and poverty, how can we expect to reduce the impact with food, blankets and tents -- the traditional forms of assistance?

The issues are largely the same in the aftermath of both natural disasters and civil war. In many cases the very reason a war was fought was over issues of entitlement, poverty, land, fair housing and food. For military units, especially peacekeeping forces, deployment in this environment requires extreme caution.


1. Conflicting Values in Emergencies

One way to explore the dilemmas facing the military is to examine the conflicting values at play in an emergency. Following a disaster, there are many conflicting perceptions regarding needs and requirements held by the government, the local military, relief agencies and the population. For example, take the issue of tents. For the government, tents offer a quick solution to what they see as a temporary shelter problem. Furthermore, tents do not imply permanency; if the government decides to change its reconstruction or settlement plans, people in tents can easily be moved.

For the relief agency, tents are a comparatively cheap solution. Often they will be donated by a foreign military establishment and many can be transported by air or lorry to the disaster site.

For the survivors, the tent is of little use. Most people in the Third World build their own houses at very low cost with indigenous or locally-available materials. It is not uncommon for people to build houses for less than US$100. Given the comparative cost of a tent big enough for a family of 5 or more (US$150 - 1,500), most survivors view tents as a waste of money. They would much rather have the cash or its equivalent in building materials.

It is well-documented that most survivors build their own emergency shelters, normally using a portion of the materials salvaged from their old homes. The process of salvaging and building is very important; it reduces costs and permits people to recapture and hold the materials so that they will not be bulldozed during rubble clearance activities. More important (especially to people whose land tenure is not legally recognized) is the fact that construction of the shelter demonstrates a degree of permanence to the authorities -- to them a tent is definitely only for secondary use.

There is one more aspect to consider, that is, the subtle "message" that is conveyed when a tent is given out to disaster victims. The tent implies a temporary solution, an unfinished process. It hints that something else is coming since it is obviously an interim solution. Contrast this to the approach of providing tools and building materials; the message is clearly "get on with it -- don't wait for anything else". Of the two approaches to shelter, which promotes self-sufficiency and accelerates reconstruction, and which supports passivity and dependence and creates unreasonable expectations?

This is only one example, built around what is almost an inconsequential relief item. Far more complex issues abound.

2. Nuances of Involvement

There is one additional caution that must be clearly understood by any military commander contemplating the commitment of his forces to a humanitarian operation in a developing country. In many countries, the military represents the power of a repressive government and local people, far from welcoming the arrival of the military after a disaster, are often fearful of any increased presence of the armed forces, local or foreign. Since the visiting units will almost certainly avail themselves of the facilities of the host military, in the minds of the people, the foreigners will be linked to the host military in the public mind -- a sort of guilt by association.

An extension of this problem occurs when the visiting military is placed under local civil defense authorities. Civil defense in many developing countries has connotations beyond simply assisting the civilian population. Many civil defense agencies are dominated by military officers and internal security forces whose role is to control, not aid, the civilian population. In some cases, the agencies are a shadow command designed to "take over" in a complete sense in an "emergency".

3. The Mantle of Neutrality

One of the most important determinants of the success of a military deployment in a humanitarian operation is whether or not the force is able to assume and maintain a "mantle of neutrality". The importance of this cannot be overstated. If at any time one or more parties of a conflict perceive that a foreign force has other than humanitarian objectives, either for itself or for the other party, the operation in which it is involved will be regarded as a military intervention and the force will become engaged in the conflict.

Once the mantle of neutrality is lost, it cannot be regained. This is especially a problem for non-UN peacekeeping missions (e.g., the Arab League force in Lebanon, the IPKF in Sri Lanka, the western Multi-Lateral Force in Lebanon).

4. Humanitarian Assistance vs. Pacification

Perhaps the single most common point where a peacekeeping force loses its public support is when it inadvertently offers humanitarian assistance that is perceived by the insurgents as "pacification". This is a particularly difficult issue for, as we have seen, relief officials commonly turn to military commanders with requests for use of their assets. How can the commander determine whether the aid he is providing will be perceived as humanitarian or not?

First, he must negotiate the limits of assistance with all parties. It is extremely important that field-level contacts be established and maintained throughout the assistance effort. Activities that both sides permit will change from one locality to another; the only way a commander can proceed is with a broad understanding by both sides of what can be carried out without interruption. On the government side, a general agreement on the range of permissible activities is required. On the insurgents' side, specific clearances for each locality are needed. For example, a road may be permitted in one area and not another, depending upon whether it goes through a sanctuary or could be used for military purposes. In Sri Lanka, reconstruction of schools is controversial, since they have been used in the past as temporary military encampments or outposts for controlling roads. It is possible to work out informal agreements with both sides. It must be clearly understood that, unless these contacts are made, assistance should not be provided.

Second, it is absolutely vital that assistance actions not be used for political gain by either side of the conflict. As soon as the program is seen to be politically motivated, it will be attacked by the opposite side.

Neutrality can be attained by:

carefully selecting assistance activities. As a general rule, assistance should focus on repairing or rebuilding critical infrastructure of a non-controversial and non-visible nature (such as water and sanitation facilities). Avoid systems such as telecommunications that only one side is likely to use or control. Wherever possible, the assistance should be provided through or by international organizations (IOs) such as UNICEF, UNHCR or UNDRO, or by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

avoiding collaboration with politically-sensitive ministries or agencies of the local government. Groups to avoid include ministries of defense, interior, security, etc. There are line ministries in every government that are generally regarded as non-provocative, such as ministries of health, transportation and others. If the peacekeeping force must collaborate with government ministries to deliver aid, assistance should be channelled through these ministries. Participation by any government ministry, agency or department associated in any way with the government's conduct of the war will result in immediate identification of the effort as pacification.

avoiding politically-sensitive issues. Key issues that must be avoided include:

--- providing assistance to people in government-sponsored resettlement or relocation programs or zones;

--- providing support to colonizations, "peace villages" or settlements designed to occupy or hold a contested zone;

--- supporting forced changes in settlement patterns that are clearly unpopular (e.g., villagization schemes).

avoiding politically-sensitive areas. In some cases, it will simply not be possible to provide humanitarian assistance to a particular locale. This may be because the area is too politically complex to work in or because pacification or similar programs have been carried out there. For example, commanders should avoid areas where a government is relocating people away from the conflict zone. Even if the humanitarian assistance were targeted for non-relocatees, the fact that it was carried out in the relocation zone could give the appearance that it was somehow linked to pacification.

To decide which locales should be given preference during the initial stages, the best suggestion is to analyze where communities are returning to normal without assistance. For example, the return of refugees or displaced persons to their communities can often give a clue regarding which areas the people consider safe, since they usually have much better knowledge about the local situation than governments or relief agencies.

5. Operational Issues

There are a number of operational problems associated with using military assets. First, military units are not suited to long-term disaster roles. Very few commanders are willing to allow their troops or key personnel to devote extensive time to non-defense-related activities. Thus, organizations dependent upon the military in key sectors must by necessity limit their involvement to the emergency period.

A second problem is that any organization or activity tends to mold its method of operation around the key participants. If the military assumes a major role in disaster response, activities will be molded to military capabilities. A subtle example of this is the emphasis on the use of tents as emergency shelter; because military units already have tents and can erect them quickly, few alternatives are sought.

The third problem is precisely what makes the military so efficient in the first place, that is, its highly-centralized control system. Its hierarchy is designed to facilitate control and centralize authority. But in a disaster, people need to get together and develop collective responses. A military hierarchy of decision-making can discourage and inhibit this process.


In order to address the problems that will face commanders who are ordered into humanitarian operations, there are several tasks that need to be undertaken.

First, military establishments that are likely to be committed to humanitarian operations need to develop a body of in-house expertise on civilian disaster relief. This should not be too difficult. There are numerous training courses now available, ranging from self-teaching courses offered by the University of Wisconsin Disaster Management Center to intensive university courses (e.g., Cranfield/U.K.) to special training institutes such as the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center in Bangkok. Courses range from general topics ("What is a Disaster?") to highly-technical or specialized topics such as "Refugee Camp Planning" and "Supplementary Feeding for Refugees and Displaced Persons".

The need for training extends to non-military authorities involved in peacekeeping or other humanitarian operations where neutral military forces or detachments may be deployed. As mentioned earlier, civilian relief authorities hold misconceptions and unrealistic expectations about military capabilities and tend to ask the military to undertake assignments that cannot be accomplished easily. Training regarding appropriate tasking of military units and assets in humanitarian operations should be provided specifically for emergency operations staff of the Secretary General's staff, director-level personnel at UNHCR, UNDRO and UNICEF, and resident representatives of UNDP. Other bodies in the relief system that could benefit from training or orientation are the ICRC, the League of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies, and major NGOs (especially those that are routinely involved in food logistics). Emphasis should also be placed on effective coordination models in different types of operations.

Second, military establishments should take a lesson from the post- World War II occupation of Europe and develop cadres of officers whose MOS is peacekeeping, humanitarian operations, and civil support operations.

Third, more effective means of coordination with and subordination to international relief authorities should be developed. In every case, it is extremely important to place military forces under civilian control. The resources that are needed in a disaster and that the military can easily provide should be identified, including transport, communication and medical services. Plans should be made to place small units under the temporary authority of civil officials for specific tasks. It will then be easier for non-military authorities to manage these resources, and local leaders will not feel overwhelmed or threatened by the presence of soldiers in their community.

It should become a matter of doctrine that, in a humanitarian operation, no matter how close the linkage with local military authorities prior to the emergency, the foreign forces will strive to attain and maintain the mantle of neutrality.

In civil operations where use of force by the foreign units is not a role, i.e., after civil disasters, it is extremely important to ensure that the military detachments are not threatening to the civil population. An effective and non-threatening way of integrating military and civil functions is to assign officers with a technical background to humanitarian operations and, at the local level, to place command of military units under the authority of junior officers or senior non-commissioned officers.

Finally, under no circumstances should foreign military commanders allow their forces to become identified with one side or the other when they are in a peacekeeping or spot delivery role. As guarantors of equal access, peacekeepers cannot in any way become involved in pacification efforts. To do so will destroy their credibility and draw them into a conflict which they cannot win.


1 Initial flights were operated under the direction of the Ethiopian Commissioner of Relief & Rehabilitation with clearances from the Ethiopian Air Force. Later, the planes were operated under the UN banner but still with clearances and close supervision by the CORR and EAF.

2 This issue has arisen in peacekeeping operations where critics have claimed that successful peacekeeping has led to stalemated negotiations, for example in Cyprus. As long as the two sides are not fighting, there is less pressure to conclude a comprehensive peace agreement.

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