How should aid workers, military personnel interact?

More than a year after a modus operandi was approved by humanitarian and military actors in Afghanistan, aid agencies have differing views on its success, but almost all agree it could be more strongly implemented and more widely disseminated.

“I think to a degree… the Guidelines [Guidelines for the Interaction and Coordination of Humanitarian Actors and Military Actors in Afghanistan] are achieving their purpose. The humanitarian community and the military are interacting within a clearly defined and accepted framework,” Wael Haj-Ibrahim, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Afghanistan, told IRIN.

He highlighted at least two of the Guidelines’ achievements over the past year.

“The Policy Paper No 3 that directs PRTs [NATO-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams] to abstain from the provision of humanitarian assistance unless specifically called upon by the civilian authorities is an important step. Another achievement is NATO's recognition that differentiation between combatants and non-combatants is crucial, and their directive to NATO troops to no longer use white vehicles as of 1 May 2009.” (see IRIN’s story on the use of white vehicles)

However, Oxfam International says the Guidelines, approved by the UN, NGOs, NATO-led troops and Afghan government forces in August 2008, have remained largely on paper.

Photo: Akmal Dawi/IRIN
Humanitarian aid must be delivered on basis of needs and according to principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality

“Sadly, little progress has been made since the Guidelines were endorsed over a year ago. It is unclear whether the Guidelines are actually being followed - or even the extent to which they have even been disseminated,” Ashley Jackson, a policy and advocacy researcher with Oxfam International in Kabul, told IRIN.

Jackson said no systematic mechanisms have been put in place to monitor compliance with the Guidelines.

“As a matter of fact, the civil-military  guidelines document remains on paper,” said Laurent Saillard, director of a consortium of over 100 Afghan and international NGOs called ACBAR.

Saillard blamed both military and humanitarian actors for what he called the “half-failure” of the Guidelines.

Curbing misperceptions

The Guidelines were designed to delineate interactions between civilian and pro-government military actors and curb misperceptions about the neutrality of aid agencies.


“The Guidelines were meant to help facilitate a practical interface, while the larger dialogue on the role of [the] military, [the] winning [of] hearts and minds strategies, the use of humanitarian and development aid as political tools, and so forth, is taking place with both the military and the political leadership that tasks them,” said OCHA’s Haj-Ibrahim.

Aid workers say the Guidelines are a critical tool for aid workers, as well as military actors.

“They reiterate the humanitarian principles and help communicate the importance of respecting these principles to military actors - for example, the right that aid workers have not to share information with the military if it may endanger lives or if it is to be used for military purposes,” said Oxfam’s Jackson.

Photo: Ahmad/IRIN
Some international aid agencies use armed guards to protect convoys, offices and staff

Way forward

OCHA, Oxfam and ACBAR agree that the Guidelines should be disseminated widely to all actors and that stronger monitoring mechanisms should be put in place.

“What we really need to focus on is actually disseminating them, and then creating a robust monitoring system to ensure that violations are reported or detected, thoroughly investigated and appropriately followed up,” Jackson said.

“The key is to press issues of contention with the political leadership of the relevant military. That is where strategic decisions, which the humanitarian community wants to see the military change, are made,” said OCHA’s Haj-Ibrahim.

OCHA could be more proactive in promoting adherence to the Guidelines and facilitating broader dialogue between the different stakeholders to achieve the goal of “humane, impartial and neutral” aid delivery, aid agencies said.

Summary of the Guidelines


Aid workers, according to the Guidelines, must comply as follows:


A) “Humanitarian actors must retain their operational independence, including the freedom of movement, recruitment of national and international staff, non-integration into military planning and action, and access to communications.”


B) “Humanitarian actors must seek to ensure sustainable access to all vulnerable populations in all parts of the country and the freedom to negotiate access across divides to such people.”


C) “All humanitarian assistance must be provided without engaging in hostilities or taking sides in controversies of a political, religious or ideological nature.”


The Guidelines require the military to:


A) Respect the neutrality and independence of humanitarian actors and avoid “operations, activities or any conduct which could compromise the independence or safety of humanitarian actors”.


B) “Comply with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law, human rights and UN Security Council resolutions to which they are subject.”


C) Be primarily responsible for “providing security, and if necessary, basic infrastructure and urgent reconstruction assistance - limited to gap-filling measures until civilian organizations are able to take over.”


D) “Liaise with humanitarian actors in order to identify means of distinguishing between their respective vehicles.”


The Guidelines also provide guidance on civil-military interactions in the protection and evacuation of aid workers and during a humanitarian emergency.


Military actors must not use assets of any kind belonging to a humanitarian actor except when there is prior and explicit permission by the actor concerned. 


Photo: Khaled Nahiz/IRIN
The UN World Food Programme lost hundreds of tonnes of food aid in armed attacks on its aid convoys in 2008

“In exceptional circumstances and as a last resort, military assets - which include personnel, equipment, supplies and services - may be deployed for the purpose of providing humanitarian assistance,” the Guidelines say.


Humanitarian actors should seek security primarily through local acceptance. To mitigate security risks aid workers are advised to adopt a “low profile”, and protective travel strategies.


“Only in extreme circumstances” should aid workers travel in vehicles belonging to the military, the Guidelines say, and such workers must not wear military uniforms.


OCHA and the NGO coordination umbrella ACBAR should liaise with military actors on security issues on behalf of aid workers.


Humanitarian actors may share information with military actors only if this helps the safety of civilians and aid workers.


However, any information which might endanger lives, jeopardize humanitarian activities, damage the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian actors, or be used for military purposes must not be shared with military actors.


Humanitarian and military actors must ensure the provision of aid on the basis of needs and according to principles of “humanity, impartiality and neutrality”.


“Humanitarian assistance must not be used for the purpose of political gain, relationship-building, or ‘winning hearts and minds’,” the Guidelines say.


Aid delivery can be direct - face-to-face distribution of goods and services - or indirect (through local partners). At all times Afghan and international laws and local culture and customs should be respected.


“The independence and civilian nature of humanitarian assistance should be clear at all times,” the Guidelines say.


Violations of the Guidelines by military or other security actors should be documented and reported to OCHA and ACBAR as soon as possible.


Any actor involved may also refer violations of the Guidelines to the Afghanistan Civil-Military Working Group for consideration.