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Humanitarian Space in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Time (GMT +01) 11:00 13:00


Brice de le Vingne - Operational Coordinator Afghanistan and Pakistan, Médecins Sans Frontières.

Nicki Bennett - Head of OCHA Pakistan’s policy and strategic planning unit. She is author of Civil–military principles in the Pakistan flood response in HE49

Vicki Metcalfe
- Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI

Wendy Fenton
- Coordinator, Humanitarian Practice Network

Presentation 1 Civil–military principles in the Pakistan flood response - Nicki Bennett, OCHA

Nicki Bennett’s presentation explored civil–military relations in Pakistan following the floods which began in July 2010. There are well-established precedents for military involvement in responses to humanitarian crises in Pakistan. In the last decade alone, these have included military responses to the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the floods and cyclone in 2007, the Balochistan earthquake in 2008 and the IDP crisis in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in 2008–10.

This relationship came out clearly in the findings of a survey of 150 humanitarian workers:

·        An overwhelming majority (95%) see civil–military relations as important or a key priority.

·        Only 5% see civil–military relations as a minor or unimportant issue.

·        Approximately one-quarter of respondents say they have regular and frequent contact with the military and regard this liaison as a day-to-day part of their humanitarian work.

According to respondents, such regular contact was necessary in order to:

·        Negotiate humanitarian access.

·        Manage staff security.

·        Share information about areas where there is a military and humanitarian presence.

·        Gain acceptance of humanitarian principles.

Using military assets in response to Pakistan’s floods between July and September 2010

OCHA Pakistan found a wealth of policy guidance available to determine whether military assets should be used in response to the floods. This policy framework includes the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines on the Use of Civil and Military Defence Assets; the IASC Guidelines on the Use of Military and Armed Escorts for Humanitarian Convoys; and the IASC Reference Paper on Civil–Military Relationship on Complex Emergencies. The Oslo Guidelines – a collaborative effort between 45 UN member states and 25 international organisations – provide further guidance on the use of military and defence assets, as do the Pakistan Civil–Military Guidelines.

Underpinning each of these guides is the principle of ‘last resort’, meaning that military capabilities can complement civilian efforts in disaster responses – but only when they offer a capability for which there is no comparable civilian alternative. UN General Assembly Resolution 59/141 of 2004 emphasises ‘the fundamentally civilian character of humanitarian assistance’ and underlines that military assets must be used ‘in conformity with international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles’. Guidelines further stipulate that the use of military assets is warranted in ‘extreme and exceptional circumstances’ where five conditions are met:

·        Military assets are used solely for humanitarian purposes.

·        Military assets are used as a last resort where there are no other means of gaining access to vulnerable populations and when there is no civilian alternative.

·        The urgency of the task in hand demands immediate action.

·        Military assets will be deployed for a limited time and on a limited scale.

·        Military assets are deployed with the approval of the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT).

The onset of the floods presented the Pakistan HCT with a range of decisions about the use of military assets. Within days, humanitarian actors were raising concerns about access in the northern districts of Swat, Kohistan and Shangla, with most major bridges and roads washed away or made impassable. Although some NGOs managed to reach these areas they did so only after 16 hours on foot or mule, making it clear that the only option for the transport of food and medical aid would be by helicopter. On 5 August the HCT found that all five criteria for the use of military assets had been met, and approved a request by the World Food Programme (WFP) to use military helicopters for the transport of food.

Accessibility problems increased as the flood surged from the north of Pakistan to the south. On 20 August the HCT expanded its initial authorisation of the use of military helicopters to include the transport of a range of life-saving relief items across Pakistan. In both instances, HCT members agreed on clear measures to limit the potentially negative impact of the use of military assets. This included ensuring that military officials understood that their role was restricted to transporting humanitarian aid and that, where possible, military markings should be removed from the helicopters.

Lessons learned

Despite the existence of a clear policy framework and the efforts the HCT made to establish a common position on the use of military assets, the implementation of principles in the Pakistan flood response has not been entirely straightforward.

One problem has been an apparent lack of respect for agreed principles among some humanitarian actors as well as UN member states, as illustrated by the case of the NATO air bridge. On 20 August, NATO announced its intention to create a strategic air bridge to transport donations from its member states to Pakistan. This capability was offered to humanitarian organisations and publicised as such. Of concern to the HCT was the potential security risk to humanitarian actors if they openly associated themselves with a military alliance whose supply convoys to Afghanistan were coming under attack within Pakistan. The HCT concluded that it could not approve its members’ use of the air bridge as it was not an option of last resort (air and sea transport were available commercially). However, at least two UN agencies made use of the air bridge, as did a number of NGOs.

Clearly communicating agreed positions proved another challenge. For some there appeared to be a contradiction between the humanitarian community’s reluctance to use the NATO air bridge, while at the same time using Pakistani military assets to reach isolated communities within Pakistan. This led to – unwarranted – accusations of inconsistency.

The Pakistan flood response demonstrates that the challenges involved in civil–military coordination can be overcome if humanitarian actors and governments are committed to respecting agreed principles and mandates. This case study shows that a unified HCT position using agreed criteria can be achieved quickly, and that effective joint aviation coordination can work well.

Where agencies and Humanitarian Country Teams are able to agree on common approaches these should be communicated more clearly to all stakeholders. In Pakistan, a lack of proactive communication with national and foreign government officials about agreed principles and criteria appeared to result in misunderstandings and disagreements which might have been avoided had these stakeholders been engaged at an earlier stage.

Presentation 2 ‘We don’t trust that’: the politicisation of humanitarianism in Pakistan and Afghanistan - Brice de le Vingne, MSF

Brice de le Vingne opened his presentation by arguing that humanitarian aid has been co-opted for political and military purposes in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, with serious consequences for the principles which are central to the work of humanitarians: perception and trust. It is important to remember that humanitarian needs arise from violent conflict in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Balochistan, Waziristan, FATA and the Swat Valley have all experienced conflict. In Afghanistan, MSF has access to just 20% of the country, making it very difficult for the organisation to carry out humanitarian medical action.

In both countries NGOs are perceived as corrupt and partial, and as acting on behalf of belligerents. The title of this presentation comes from a comment by a patient in an MSF health facility in Pakistan : ‘America is paying the people who are fighting against us and destroying our homes [the Pakistani army] and then they are giving us the relief. We don’t trust that’. Many share this sentiment.

The challenge for MSF lies in explaining to the communities we are trying to reach what our purpose is, and to convince them that we are there as independent, neutral and impartial humanitarians. To this end our strategy has been to:

·        Explain that we act as an independent, medical humanitarian association – with our own independent NGO identity.

·        Explain that our contributions are 100% ‘proper’ funds. (In other words our projects are funded by individuals and not governments.)

·        Achieve high visibility, for example by displaying the MSF logo on doctors’ gowns and other medical apparel.

·        Not compromise on keeping an international staff presence, to ensure the highest standards of medical care.

·        Focus our efforts on saving lives, for example by getting the wounded from the conflict zone to hospital. Saving lives must take priority over primary health care.

·        Maintain a no-weapon policy.

·        Maintain a no-armed-escort policy.

The politics of relief

MSF’s position as an impartial, neutral and independent actor has been undermined by the international response to humanitarian crises, where national security concerns are used to justify humanitarian interventions. For example the provision of international donor funding to assist flood-affected families was accompanied by declarations that the imperative to respond was underpinned by the need to prevent further destabilisation in Pakistan, thus helping to contain the spread of violent extremism. In previous conflicts such as Kosovo, military intervention was justified on humanitarian grounds, but in Pakistan and Afghanistan we are seeing an inverse trend whereby the humanitarian response is justified on security grounds. When the US and its allies referred to humanitarian organisations as ‘force multipliers,’ ‘part of the combat team’ and elements of ‘soft power’, the very meaning of humanitarianism was compromised, perhaps irrevocably. In Afghanistan, approaches to humanitarian aid are merging with longer-term processes of development and peace-building designed to build the legitimacy and capacity of the state, all under the guise of humanitarian principles. This trend further strengthens our argument that in conflict zones – and Afghanistan is a conflict country – there has to be an independent actor, not aligned to any of the belligerent groups.


Brice concluded that there needs to be a clearer distinction between development activities that serve the objectives of governments and the West, and a principled humanitarian approach with an immediate, life-saving goal only. Both are legitimate forms of action, but they need to be distinct so that a choice can be made between the two. In the absence of such a choice the value of humanitarian principles in gaining access and acceptance is rapidly being eroded. With the devaluation of the humanitarian ‘currency’, it is the communities themselves that pay the heaviest price.

Vicki Metcalfe - Research Fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI

Vicki Metcalfe picked up on a number of points made by the speakers which she observed pointed to a clear trend towards the politicisation and militarisation of humanitarian assistance. Post-9/11, humanitarian aid is increasingly being used to meet military or security objectives. The principal risk is that those most in need of humanitarian assistance will not receive it. In complex situations, where those seeking to deliver humanitarian aid are associated with military strategies, there is a danger that belligerents will restrict access to vulnerable people. Indeed, agency staff have been attacked by virtue of their perceived association with political strategies.

Civil–military coordination increasingly entails multiple objectives. In Pakistan there has been a very significant reliance on military assets, as also in Haiti in response to the earthquake of January 2010.  Adherence to civil-military coordination guidelines has been weak – something which merits further scrutiny.

This ongoing trend for politicisation of humanitarian action is not limited to the experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  For example, they resonate with the current situation in Libya.  The stated aims of the UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, that the purpose of intervention is to protect civilians, have been expanded.  The increasing focus on regime change and supporting the rebels risk undermining the stated ‘humanitarian’ purpose of NATO’s intervention.

External actors are not the only threat to principled humanitarian action. As the ICRC and MSF have pointed out, we should also examine our own behaviour in how we respond to humanitarian crises, as our respect for humanitarian principles has at times been remiss. This suggests the need for some self-reflection about how we adhere to and implement humanitarian principles, and what degree of cooperation there should be with military players. The very idea of humanitarian space has to be constantly reassessed, and it should remain uppermost in our minds that humanitarian space is not a right – it has to be earned, at a cost that does not undermine humanitarian principles in high-risk environments.

There is a need for concerted inter-agency dialogue about the boundaries of humanitarian actions, and ideally one that can accommodate the views of the ‘Dunantists’ on the one hand (i.e. those who define humanitarian principles as those founded by the ICRC), and on the other those who favour multiple mandates. It is essential that those within the humanitarian community understand how best to apply humanitarian principles so that the most vulnerable populations receive the protection and assistance they need.


A combination of violent conflict and natural disasters has led to widespread humanitarian needs in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Humanitarian organisations in both countries are faced with increasing challenges that are undermining their ability to respond. The manipulation of humanitarian assistance for political and military purposes is widely perceived to have reduced operational access and created divisions amongst humanitarian actors, weakening and limiting their ability to assess and respond to those needs. Meanwhile, communities and armed actors are becoming increasingly hostile towards interventions, which are viewed as a western and politically partisan enterprise.

This event launches Issue 49 of the Humanitarian Exchange magazine from HPN, on the theme 'Humanitarian space in Afghanistan and Pakistan'.  Featuring articles from experienced practitioners, the edition assesses the nature of these challenges and outlines ways in which humanitarian organisations are attempting to overcome them.

Speakers will discuss issues related to humanitarian space in Afghanistan and Pakistan, drawing on their own extensive experience of analysis and operations in these environments. The event will be of interest to all agencies involved in humanitarian action, as well as to students, academics and researchers.