Challenges of International Cooperation in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies

(4-6 November 2003)




            To examine the challenges and obstacles of coordination between military, humanitarian, and police elements responding to a complex humanitarian emergency, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies held a conference “Challenges of International Cooperation in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies” from 4 to 6 November 2003. The conference focused on six main areas – a) the changing international environment, b) the interagency policy process at UN and U.S. governmental levels, c) and four separate sessions examining the challenges facing the major actors in the complex emergency – International Governmental Organizations (IGOs), Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), the Military, and the Police.  The conference brought together senior policy makers, defense officials, humanitarian practitioners, and leading academics concerned with responding to and mitigating the effects of complex emergencies.  The specific objectives were to understand the challenges and cultures of each of the organizations, and examine ways to improve their capacity to work together.  Approximately 140 personnel from 33 countries within the Asia Pacific, as well as 2 countries outside the region (England and Zambia) participated in the conference. 


Listed below are the major conclusions of this conference:


1. The nature of war has changed, and with it, the nature of humanitarian assistance.


Although the prospect of state-to-state wars has decreased significantly in the last decade, the incidence of intrastate wars has increased exponentially.  Of the last 100 wars, 95 of them have been intrastate wars.  These wars frequently cause humanitarian emergencies in the forms of migration of refugees and internally displaced personnel; gross violations of human rights expressed by widespread genocide, ethnic cleansing, rape and torture; and the targeting of different ethnic, religious, or cultural groups.  Humanitarian assistance is now being provided in hostile conditions and the safety and ability of the humanitarian community to provide this aid has been threatened.  New ways will have to be developed to better respond to these circumstances.  Some optimism was expressed for the long-term outlook for war, though this has yet to be actualized.  With the increasing number of normative bodies and international instruments to resolve or at least manage conflict, we may see a decrease in the number and severity of wars in the future.


2.  The previous paradigm of humanitarian aid and development has undergone a transformation, and there has been an increasing muddying of roles and responsibilities.  As a result, the values of humanitarian agencies are being challenged. 


In previous humanitarian responses, quick fix and ad hoc action were the norm.  However, with the increase in the number of missions and the continuing shortage of resources, a lack of strategic vision on the part of the diverse players is dangerous.  As complex emergencies grow more difficult, especially in conditions of war, lines of responsibility are becoming blurred, not only between the military and the humanitarian community, but within the humanitarian community itself.  Humanitarian agencies are expanding into other agency’s fields of responsibility, safety is increasingly being compromised, well-intended assistance, rather than solving problems, does more harm than good, and assistance is increasingly being manipulated for political reasons.  The core values of the humanitarian - such as neutrality, impartiality, and independence - are being questioned.


3.  There are deep theoretical, practical, cultural differences between the military, police, and humanitarian agencies.  However, even with these differences, all agencies must learn to work together in order to accomplish their respective missions.


Although there are a myriad of reasons why humanitarian agencies and the security forces have difficulties working together, both organizations will be extensively involved in most complex emergencies.  The military and humanitarian agencies have different approaches to accomplishing the same mission, perceptions about a conflict differ significantly and influence decisions by these disparate agencies, different cultures inhibit easy collaboration, diverse organizational structures and dissimilar planning capabilities all work to hinder collaboration. However, there are many similarities between both groups - both are imbued with a desire to serve and motivated to improve the lives of those in need.  Given the diversity of actors, the most practical approach is to understand the challenges and cultures of each of the actors, work to bridge the institutional and cultural gaps, and work within established systems to accomplish the mission.  Engendering greater cooperation deserves a high priority, and this will only occur as all sides develop greater respect and understanding of the other organizations, and at all levels – strategic, operational, and tactical.


4.  More effective interagency planning is required at both UN and U.S. governmental levels.


Briefings by both former and current UN and U.S. personnel verified there are severe constraints in the interagency process established to respond to complex emergencies.  There is a fundamental lack of preparedness to deal with major emergencies, mostly due to interagency squabbles and turf battles, and a failure to use established coordination mechanisms.  DOD, DOS, and other agencies within the U.S. structure do not work well to respond to peace operations, only recently realizing that these operations must be part of the U.S. government’s answer to humanitarian dilemmas.  While the reconstitution of the Peacekeeping Institute was a move in the right direction, there is much work to be done within the U.S. government to reestablish this coordination. The United Nations suffers from a similar malaise.  There are deep divisions between the political agenda and the humanitarian imperative.  In both cases, this lack of coordination inhibits these organizations’ ability to respond quickly and effectively once catastrophe has struck.


5.  Both the IGO and NGO humanitarian communities require reform.


Most countries look to the UN to be at the forefront of the most important emergencies. However, to respond effectively, the structure of humanitarian action requires substantial reform.  The quick fix and ad hoc action without a strategic vision can no longer suffice as a solution to the problem.  For the intergovernmental organizations of the UN, the primary challenge is to get these organizations to function more effectively as a system rather than a mixture of feudal entities, each with separate mandates, fund raising and independent programs.  Some recommended a reconsideration of regrouping these humanitarian and development agencies under a arrangement where the Secretariat would have greater control; others suggested a strengthening the Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) by providing it with more personnel and robust budget; others called for the reduction of the number of NGOs to only those that will abide by the Red Cross standards of conduct.  Additionally, the U.S. needs to get involved with the UN.  The UN needs U.S. leadership and participation to help the UN out of its present morass.  The U.S. needs to be willing to commit troops to UN operations and be willing to work under the blue beret. 


6.  Successes depends on people willing to work together and heeding lessons learned from the past.


From both speakers and participants, East Timor’s success could be attributed to the dedication of those involved in working with other agencies, coordinate their actions, respect the capabilities and professionalism of other groups, and apply previous lessons learned on other complex emergencies to the situation.  According to some speakers, some of the reasons why the U.S. is having such a difficult time in both Afghanistan and Iraq is the failure to incorporate other agencies in their planning process, marginalizing other security and humanitarian groups, undermining the work of aid organizations, and most of all, failure to heed lessons learned in other complex emergencies.  For some, the desire of the United States to go it alone has decreased the ability to deliver aid, significantly degraded its effectiveness, and has angered other organizations that could have helped the U.S. in its objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq.  One other point was brought out - new models of coordination are not necessary – it is necessary to make those models already in existence, work as they were intended.


7.  The military should provide humanitarian aid only in limited circumstances.


Both humanitarians and military agreed that the military’s main role is to establish and maintain security so that other groups may pursue work in their own areas of expertise.  The military should not provide aid on a regular basis except in circumstances where the security situation prohibits humanitarians from working or when there are no humanitarian workers present.  To do otherwise, is to detract from the main mission of the military.  Once the level of violence has been reduced and the security situation is satisfactory, if the military chooses to provide humanitarian aid, this aid should be coordinated with the humanitarian community to provide assistance to the long-term emergency and develop goals.  The humanitarian community may request, in addition to security, transportation, evacuation, escorts, infrastructure improvement, and demining assistance.  Other types of humanitarian responses by the military are usually outside the competency of the military, and can be done by the humanitarian community at a much lower cost.


8.  Strengthening Force Structures


For outside military forces, the challenge of tailoring responses to these complex emergencies requires significant adaptation.  Two types of troops essential for mission success.  During the war-fighting phase, significant numbers of infantry troops are essential.  During the transition phase, such troops as military police can assist considerably in the transition from combat to peace operation.  For these earlier phases of a peace operation, although it feels good for a country to send medical teams and is more politically acceptable to both domestic and international constituencies, it would be better for countries to send infantry and military police forces.   Additionally, police, both military and civilian, must be authorized greater powers of arrest and provided with acceptable legal structures to restore law and order as soon as possible.


Policy Recommendations


The response to complex humanitarian emergencies is under fire from many directions, and responses must be improved.  While this conference did not uncover many solutions to this ongoing debate, this three-day seminar expanded the discussion on this topic and introduced additional initiatives for further research.  The following policy recommendations are submitted for consideration:

-         The United Nations can be frustrating to work with, but the United States need this organization and our friends and allies to attain our national interests.  If the U.S. wants to reform the organization, it has to take a more active role in both the organization and on peacekeeping missions.

-         Now that the United States has reconsidered the idea of post-conflict resolution in Afghanistan and Iraq, it needs to strengthen the interagency process to better respond to these emergencies.

-         An ongoing program of discussions between security and humanitarian agencies should be instituted at strategic, operational and tactical levels so there is a greater understanding of the challenges each of these agencies face, and coordination can take place.  Humanitarian agencies should be consulted on a regular basis and invited to participate in exercise planning conferences, field training exercises, and command post exercises to elicit their inputs.

-         It is essential the military and humanitarian agencies develop ways in working more closely in war-time situations. 

-         Although each complex emergency is unique, there are common general traits and characteristics. The U.S. must learn from previous operations and incorporate these lessons learned into present missions.