Guidelines for NGO Coordination with Military Actors During Humanitarian Crises

Photo By: Vivek Prasad is licensed under the CC BY-NC 4.0 license

Guidelines for NGO Coordination with Military Actors During Humanitarian Crises

When responding to humanitarian crises, NGOs independently asses the risks of when, how, and why they would or would not coordinate their activities with the U.S. military, explained Julien Schopp, InterAction’s Director for Humanitarian Practice, in his testimony Wednesday before the U.S. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

Schopp began by outlining four key principles humanitarians follow in their work:

  • Humanity: Human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found;
  • Impartiality: Humanitarian action must be carried out based on need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress and making no distinctions based on nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class, or political opinions;
  • Neutrality: Humanitarian actors must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious, or ideological nature;
  • Independence: Humanitarian action must be autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives that any actor may hold in relation to areas where humanitarian action is being implemented.

“These principles are a tool to convince people affected by disasters or conflict that we exist to serve them according to their basic needs, and that we are not part of a broader political or military effort,” said Schopp. “This is more and more important because today 80 percent of the humanitarian effort globally is devoted to supporting people affected by conflict and displacement and only 20 percent to the consequences of large-scale natural disasters, a complete reversal from 20 years ago,” Schopp added.

Continuing in his testimony, Schopp provided examples of when InterAction members cooperated with the U.S. military. For example, during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the U.S. military provided logistical air support, medical worker training, and the construction of treatment centers so that NGOs could more effctively implement programs to control the spread of the epidemic through medical interventions and community mobilization.

Recent examples of co-existence between NGOs and military actors can be seen in Syria and Yemen, where nonprofit organizations maintain a more clear distinction between different actors to minimize the perception that humanitarians are affiliated with military forces.

In other scenarios, NGOs may decide to participate in systematic information-sharing with military actors to avoid potential hazards, such as providing the coordinates of hospitals to avoid inadvertent targeting of these facilities by the military. InterAction and its members have advocated extensively that while participation in such systems, known as deconfliction, by parties to the conflict is welcome, it does not absolve any military actor of their obligations to mitigate harm to civilians and adhere to international humanitarian law in their military operations.

NGOs consider the use of military and civil defense assets only in exceptional circumstances, Schopp said in his written testimony, such as:

  • Unique capability: No appropriate alternative civilian resources exist;
  • Timeliness: The urgency of the task at hand demands immediate action;
  • Clear humanitarian direction: There is civilian control over the use of military assets; and
  • Time-limited: The use of military assets to support humanitarian activities is clearly limited in time and scale.

Watch Schopp’s testimony to hear him explain the international NGO community’s work on other issues such as disaster risk reduction, to prepare nations prone to climate hazards to respond to natural disasters themselves instead of requiring the support of international NGOs.

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