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Blurring the lines between humanitarian and military action undermines aid

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The Libyan crisis being a perfect example of an intervention that is simultaneously military and humanitarian, Parliament organised a hearing on if and how military and political objectives can coexist with humanitarian action when helping civilians in armed conflicts. Politicians, military officers and NGO representatives pointed to lessons from Afghanistan, DR Congo, Haiti and Libya which could help improve the situation and uphold the independence and neutrality of humanitarian actors.

Opening the meeting, the vice-chair of Parliament's Development Committee, French EPP member, Michèle Striffler, said "efforts of humanitarian aid workers providing impartial help are often jeopardised by political military and security actions", but "both sides need each other".

The militarisation and politicization of aid undermine efficiency

Speaking of conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Prof. Robert Kabamba of Belgium's Liège University explained that there was confusion between military action as a first step to solve a crisis and humanitarian aid as a second step: "The role of the military forces was vague" and their mission "not clearly defined".

In any case, assistance should only be based on actual needs, Ross Mountain of DARA (an NGO specialising in the review of humanitarian donor activity) underlined: "We identified politicisation and militarisation of aid as increasing problems with negative effects on access, protection and safety"…

Speaking from the donors' perspective, the head of ECHO, the European Commission's international aid department, Peter Zangl said: "When aid supports military force, it is no longer considered as humanitarian. The more aid is perceived as politicised, the less effective it is".

Different roles and objectives, same terrain

Humanitarian intervention is, or ought to be, by its very natural neutral. Ingrid Macdonald of the Norwegian Refugee Council shared her experiences in Afghanistan and Sudan and pointed out that "we should not be seen as a threat by either side of the conflict" and went on to draw one clear dividing line: "The military is present to engage in conflict, while aid workers are there to alleviate the suffering".

On behalf of CARE International, Ester Asin Martinez suggested that humanitarian aid should remain outside the scope of the European External Action Service as donors should be impartial and "humanitarian assistance is not a crisis management tool".

In the same vein, Farah Karimi, representing Oxfam Novib reminded the audience that "Oxfam was in Afghanistan long before military arrived and will still be there after 2014" and warned that "militarisation and politicization of aid undermines aid credibility and its perception by communities".

More dialogue, better coordination

However the simultaneous presence of humanitarian and military actors during a crisis cannot always be avoided, or as Martin Lacourt of the International Committee of the Red Cross explained "we are all in the same river, but not the same boat. The boat of humanitarians is more fragile, but they know the river". How can the two co-exist? "We share operational space; we are not asking for protection, just coordination and information sharing".

However, the very fact of "sharing the river" complicates the situation and, speaking for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Antoine Gerard spoke of the need to "create firewalls, negotiate guidelines and codify our relationship".

Haiti, Chad, Libya: when military action becomes unavoidable

Gerard spoke of the case of Haiti, reminding that the military was called in as a last resort to assist the humanitarian effort, with Luxemburger Liberal MEP Charles Goerens agreeing that the two types of organisations coexisted well in that case

General Jean-Philippe Ganascia, who commanded the European peacekeeping mission to Chad and the Central African Republic, remarked that "the 10 000 European soldiers involved in Chad learnt a great deal about the humanitarian way of working" and called on MEPs to "support Member States’ efforts to come up with doctrine documents on civil protection so that everybody involved can do their best.”

Sometimes however the true needs of the moment lead to an even bigger overlap of the humanitarian with the military and the political. European External Action Service Managing Director for Crisis Response, Agostino Miozzo said that in the volatile Libyan crisis is a typical example of this, adding that in any case the EU and the UN were ready to support humanitarian actors in situations when they are no longer able to carry out their missions with their own means.

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