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New report: Coordination problems hampering military role in international natural disaster relief efforts

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Better coordination could greatly enhance the contributions foreign militaries make in the crucial stages of responses to natural disasters such as the South Asian earthquake in Pakistan and floods in Mozambique, according to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The report, The Effectiveness of Foreign Military Assets in Natural Disaster Response, was launched today (Thursday, 13 March) at the United Nations in New York by the United Nations Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who commissioned the study.

'From deciding which countries send what military assets, to how operations are managed on the ground, to handing over responsibility to local and civilian humanitarian agencies, a step change is needed in the coordination of foreign military assets,' said Sharon Wiharta, a SIPRI researcher and the report's lead author. 'But I believe that this problem is being recognized.'

Since the responses to the Indian Ocean tsunami and the South Asian earthquake in 2004 and 2005, the role of foreign military assets-military personnel, equipment and expertise sent by foreign governments-in natural disaster relief operations has gained increasing international attention.

Among the recommendations made in the report are:

- Joint civil-military needs assessments are needed. In these exercises military and civilian humanitarian agencies cooperate in assessing the situation on the ground and identifying what capacities are needed, who can provide them and for how long they are needed.
- Push factors' should not be allowed to dominate decision making in the deployment of foreign military assets. The decision to deploy military assets to an international natural disaster relief operation should be based first and foremost on humanitarian needs and the interests of the relief effort and the affected country and communities. Such a decision will always have political dimensions, but these should not lead to the wrong assets being sent, leading to the overburdening of the management of the relief operation or even preventing more appropriate local or civilian assets from being deployed.
- Regional capacities to respond to disasters should be developed.

With natural disasters increasing in frequency and destructive impact, the advantages that the use of foreign military assets offer in terms of their capabilities and the speed with which they can be deployed must be recognized. However, objections to their cost and the effect that uniformed military personnel can have on the affected communities and on civilian humanitarian agencies must be taken into account.

'Foreign military assets have become a common feature of major international disaster relief operations. The report sheds new light on some of the complexities of using foreign military assets in this context. While conceived as a mean of last resort, using foreign military assets may sometimes be the first or even the only resort. It is in everyone's interest to further improve the way that humanitarian assistance is delivered in the wake of natural disasters, and OCHA will use the findings of this study to strengthen the collective response capacity, in the interest of the millions of victims of natural disasters,' said Hansjoerg Strohmeyer, Chief of OCHA's Policy Development and Studies Branch.

For more information on the report, contact SIPRI Researcher Sharon Wiharta (wiharta@sipri.org, +46 8 655 97 60 (office), +46 736 21 88 63 (mobile)) or SIPRI Public Affairs Coordinator Evamaria Loose-Weintraub (el-weintraub@sipri.org, +46 8 655 97 47).