Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What is so important about Civil-Military Relations?

During the Cold War, the topic of civil-military relations had little relation to the term as its used today. The military saw this relationship as limited to their dealings with civilian authorities and populations, a limited interface to facilitate their war-fighting effort and to harmonize or de-conflict their efforts with the daily lives of the civilian population.

The Cold War's end expanded the boundaries of this equation. States were overnight confronted with how they could put to use their armed forces. This was coupled with a marked increase in the awareness of war and internal conflict worldwide, this interest being married with the political will to deploy United Nations Peacekeeping forces at a scale never before imagined. Armed forces found themselves abruptly being reoriented towards peacekeeping in active civil wars such as the former Yugoslavia or Somalia, often with unclear roles and mandates, attempting to 'keep the peace' as best they could. In parallel, the international civilian response to such crises and complex emergencies saw an exponential growth of humanitarian agencies and NGOs, often leading to a 'humanitarian circus' that would follow CNN's cameras from one crisis to the next. The 1990's saw a snowballing of mediatized crises, and military and humanitarian agencies that would respond to them.

This intersection of these factors created issues that had not been considered. With increasing frequency, military forces were being given humanitarian mandates and roles. Armed forces have unique and often-underused capacities that can be a valuable contribution to achieving humanitarian aims. Equally, there was the political realization that there is a clear link between security and development, and that peacekeeping forces is not enough to ensure stability and the consolidation of the peace. With varying degrees of comfort, armed forces increasingly integrated the need to develop a multi-function capacity, best captured with the term 'Three Block Warfare'. In short, term describes an armed forces that can war-fight, peacekeep and provide humanitarian assistance, on three city blocks of a city, all on the same day. In less than a decade, humanitarian functions went from being a nice to have, to a core concern of armed forces.

This expanding range of activities undertaken by armed forces was seen as 'mission creep' by some, and was hotly contested by humanitarian organizations, with success. The 1990's saw the development and consolidation of accepted, universal principles and codes of conduct for such agencies, and some concensus on the importance of neutrality and independance in answering to the needs of victims. In denouncing the military's encroachment into their world, humanitarian actors were nonetheless faced with a number of contexts where their security degraded, and in the extreme, their staff and assets were directly targeted by parties to the conflict. There has been no development of a 'Three Block Humanitarianism' on behalf of civilian agencies. Over the last decade, it has become more difficult to find concensus on how agencies can maintain their principles, work in security and keep pace with their counterparts in the military and political realms.

These contrasting positions sum up the essence of the ongoing debate. Civilian humanitarian agencies have no exclusive rights to doing humanitarian work; while they may be particularly experienced or professional, other diverse actors, including the military, can make an effective contribution to the global humanitarian needs. That said, the increased 'blurring of lines', namely where the distinction between political, military and civilian actors and actions gradually collapses, there is a genuine fear that humantiarian agencies will simply be perceived as part of the political and military strategy, and lose their security and consequently, their access to victims. The two positions effectively remain on a collission course, and no quick-fix solution is in sight.