Humanitarian Health Action

Proceedings from the WHO Conference on the Health Aspects of the Tsunami Disaster in Asia

Phuket, Thailand, 4-6 May 2005

Civil-military cooperation

46. The Tsunami disaster was characterized by unusually close civil-military cooperation. Soon after the disaster, the military response was coordinated by a combined Support Force based in Utapao, Thailand. It brought together the military capabilities of 30 nations alongside a United Nations civil-military liaison cell. The arrangement enabled the early dispatch of several assessment and response missions. One - the multi-agency health assessment mission in early January - systematically assessed needs in several hard to reach locations in Aceh. It resulted in the first comprehensive assessments of need covering 500,000 vulnerable people.

47. Participants heard that the civil-military interface worked best if civilian authorities took responsibility for specifying what was required from the military in the way of logistical, transport, and other practical assistance. Civilian planners should be involved alongside their military counterparts from the beginning and deployed in the field at the same time, with clear agreements made beforehand on command and control, and tasking. The use of national military assets in disaster relief is not unusual, but international cooperation among militaries on humanitarian assistance is still ad hoc. This international cooperation remains beset with concerns. These need to be addressed through focused dialogue specifically designed to further develop standards for civil-military cooperation. The standards can then be incorporated into future training.

48. The scale, and overall success, of civil-military co-operation in the tsunami response has triggered a serious debate. Concerns over the military’s ability to operate within accepted humanitarian principles and to ensure the integrity of humanitarian space preoccupy staff of many humanitarian agencies.

49. Participants considered that these concerns were valid: hence the need for careful work to enable persons working at different levels - within civilian bodies and within military organizations - to understand each others’ motives (and fears), and to agree the procedures through which they can work together. These include joint efforts under agreed memoranda of understanding. However, great care needs to be taken when civilian humanitarian agencies and militaries work together in a conflict area. Proper information must be provided to the population beforehand. Such joint work is best undertaken within the context of the already existing civil-military and public-private liaison mechanisms led by the United Nations, as well as innovative means at national - and community - levels.