Discussion Paper on Humanitarian Interaction with National Militaries


The humanitarian community’s engagement with governments will almost always include interaction with national militaries. The level and degree of interaction will largely be dependent on the type of mission the military performs. In most natural hazard-prone countries, national militaries act as the primary arm of the government, tasked to immediately respond to the humanitarian impact of natural disasters. National militaries offer distinct capability, can rapidly mobilize and deploy, and fill capacity gaps as needed. Generally, professional armed forces have genuine concern in helping their fellow citizens affected by natural disasters. They will be there and will do something about the situation.
Given this reality, humanitarian actors are expected to interact with them in these types of scenarios where there are no or very few sensitive issues.

In conflict-induced humanitarian emergencies where national militaries are involved in the conflict as a belligerent force, the interaction with national militaries is almost exclusively delimited to preserving and protecting the humanitarian operating environment, protection of civilians and ensuring access.

Operational Issues

The overarching challenge for the humanitarian community is how to appropriately interact with national militaries given varying emergency environments, the level of professionalism of national militaries and their understanding of the role of the humanitarian community in emergencies. Just as not all humanitarian organisations are the same, not all militaries are the same. Mutual understanding of each other’s roles in emergencies seems to be the key to appropriate interaction.

Humanitarians operating in a country need to have a good understanding of the endemic hazards that trigger humanitarian emergencies in the country and the national military’s likely or predictable role(s) in those emergencies. This includes knowing the various military formations that cover certain geographical areas and their leadership. If and when the humanitarian community does a mapping and analysis of key government actors at the national and/or the sub-national level, the national military must be a key component of that process. This provides a good basis on how to engage national militaries and establish dialogue at appropriate levels. Dialogue keeps a two-way line of communication open; it links people, breeds understanding, dispels mistrust and builds mutual respect. Moreover, dialogue provides an opportunity to learn from the other party. Listening alone already promotes understanding, which allows parties to explore new possibilities and opportunities, with mutual respect for each other’s mandates and responsibilities.

Timing, as strategists in war and business say, is everything. This proposition also applies to humanitarian interaction with national militaries. The humanitarian community needs to establish dialogue as a preparedness measure, before a new emergency happens and/or an escalation of an on-going humanitarian crisis transpires. It is essential that the humanitarian community does this coherently and at all appropriate levels. Mutual understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities will not magically happen overnight; it has to be a deliberate investment of time and collective effort on the humanitarian community’s side to engage with national militaries.

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