Organization for Global Health

The Military Invasion of Humanitarian Space
by John Pringle
Excerpts from Juxtaposition 2008 Issue

On September 18, 2006, Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were handing out candy to a group of children when a suicide bomber attacked, injuring several Afghan children. On November 18, 2007, American soldiers in Iraq were handing out toys to children in a playground when a suicide bomber attacked, killing three children and injuring seven. In both cases, the soldiers seemed kind and charitable, so how could things have ended so tragically?

We must think critically of soldiers in terms of their presence around civilians and children. Handing out candy may seem kind and charitable, but putting children in harm’s way is not. During war, soldiers are combatants, and combatants are targets. For this simple reason, soldiers ought to keep away from civilians, particularly children. Many of us unfamiliar with war carry the image of the benevolent soldier, one who fights evil while protecting the innocent. This portrayal may stem from military public relations and popular media. The aforementioned incidents were surely meant to foster the compassionate image despite the tragic outcomes. However, the danger of soldiers approaching children symbolizes the danger of the military encroaching into humanitarian space. Insofar as this connection between soldiers and children blurs the distinction between military operations and humanitarian ones, it endangers not only the children and their families involved, but the very practice of providing aid to populations in danger.

Why would military strategists want the public to see their soldiers interacting with civilians, especially children? Repeatedly, we see these images with Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan and American soldiers in Iraq. One likely explanation is that it is meant to divert our thoughts from death and suffering, and to convince us that these soldiers are acting as humanitarians. This may be for the psychological benefit of the occupied; military forces often utilize psychological operations such as dropping humanitarian rations of food along with military pamphlets from warplanes which further blur military and humanitarian interventions. Thismay be for the psychological benefit of the public back home; the use of the image of the benevolent soldier is particularly evident in military recruitment campaigns such as those shown in Canada. A recent ad campaign focuses on military rescue and protection operations using the captions “Fight Fear, Fight Distress, and Fight Chaos”, but fails to mention “Fight War”. This may also be for the psychological benefit of the soldiers themselves; it has been estimated that of all the U.S. soldiers who fought in Iraq, about one in eight reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps by increasing their interaction with local civilians, the military aims to make fighting war more psychologically bearable.

Indeed, the image of the benevolent soldier has its uses, and is even consistent in part with international humanitarian law in that occupying forces have a duty to protect essential public health infrastructure. However, the unintended effect of this image undermines the ability of humanitarian aid workers to help populations in greatest need. The real damage is in blurring the lines between military operations such as protection, rescue and development operations, and true humanitarian aid. True humanitarian aid is guided by and founded upon humanitarian principles. As Nicholas de Torrente of MSF writes:

“The most important principles of humanitarian action are: humanity, which posits the conviction that all people have equal dignity by virtue of their membership in humanity; impartiality, which directs that assistance is provided based solely on need without discrimination among recipients; neutrality, which stipulates that humanitarian organizations must refrain from taking part in hostilities or taking actions that advantage one side of the conflict over another; and independence, which is necessary to ensure that humanitarian action only serves the interests of war victims, and not political, religious, or other agendas.”

We as humans have a right to receive humanitarian assistance and an obligation to provide assistance when needed – this is the humanitarian imperative (ICRC). Unlike soldiers, humanitarian aid workers strive to provide life-saving assistance impartially (based on need and without discrimination) and neutrally (without preference to any one party and without participating in hostilities). As a result, humanitarian aid workers must act and be perceived to be acting independently from political and military forces in order to promote safe access to populations in danger. When militaries are involved in organizing or delivering humanitarian aid, it can be regarded by their opponents as an act of war and legitimized attacks can ensue. This threatens civilians, aid workers, and humanitarian access to populations in danger.

War, however justified, is not a form of humanitarian aid. Armed intervention, even to prevent genocide or to protect human rights, is a military intervention and not a humanitarian one. As David Rieff, an expert in humanitarian affairs, argues, “A humanitarianism that supports the idea of war carried out in its name is unworthy of that name. … Call it politics, call it reason of state, call it nation building; but don’t call it humanitarianism.” Humanitarian war is a contradiction in terms. Using the term humanitarian to describe or to justify war implicates humanitarian aid workers and threatens their true purpose.

As illustrated by the two tragic incidents in the beginning paragraph, blurring the lines between war and humanitarian aid is tragically deceptive. Humanitarian aid workers specialize in saving lives, alleviating suffering, and reaffirming human dignity. Soldiers wage war which inevitably involves violence, killing, hatred, torture, rape, destruction, trauma, environmental devastation, epidemics, poverty, and suffering. It is misleading to think that war is primarily bad for soldiers – UNICEF has estimated that during all wars in the 1990s, 90 percent of all deaths were of civilians. In some cases, half of the civilian deaths were children. By the end of 2006, there were 9.9 million refugees worldwide in addition to the 4.4 million of Palestinian refugees, and 12.8 million of internally displaced persons.

Sadly, the global number of refugees increased for the first time in five years. These data from war-torn areas demonstrate that war causes the very disaster that demands a humanitarian response. Because of the devastating effects of war, the lives of civilians depend on a humanitarian space free of agents of war in any form. Humanitarian space necessitates humanitarian aid workers who are guided by the principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence. In the midst of the horror of war, the lives of aid workers and their beneficiaries depend on the absolute separation of the theatres of war and humanitarian aid.

Yet we are seeing an invasion of humanitarian space by multinational military forces, particularly by U.S.-led coalition forces. Why does this invasion take place? Perhaps, given the atrocious impact of war on civilians, military leaders are evolving a social conscience. However, it is likely that this invasion is simply about expanding military domination. I believe (as do many of my humanitarian colleagues in the field) that it is about exerting control over populations in and around the battleground, controlling human need and using it as a tool. An example of this is when coalition forces threatened to suspend aid to populations in southern Afghanistan if the civilians there refused to provide information about the Taliban. Also in Afghanistan, the U.S. military subverted humanitarian projects with soldiers in civilian clothing who were armed. This is an example of soldiers using humanitarian aid work as a cover for information gathering, clearly violating the principle of neutrality. This intentional deception deepens the blurring of the critical line between combatant and humanitarian aid worker, further increasing the likelihood of indiscriminate attacks. For humanitarian aid workers, this is the chance of being killed by mis-association. Humanitarian aid workers are driven by the needs of the populations they serve while militaries are driven by self-interest. This inherent clash of objectives makes it impossible for them to operate in tandem.

Some may argue that western coalition forces are better-equipped to deliver humanitarian aid. Despite all the reasons against having combat forces organizing or delivering aid, the size and wealth of militaries may outweigh the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence. It is true that the resources of humanitarian aid organizations cannot compete with global military spending of $1.12 trillion. However, the three tenets of humanitarianism – impartiality, neutrality and independence – are more important in effective aid delivery than military wealth and power. Take for example the American bombardment around Herat in Afghanistan. At least three densely populated villages were hit by American cluster bombs, killing several civilians. Cluster bombs are comprised of sinister little bomblets. Many of these bomblets do not explode on impact, but scatter over wide areas. I have seen these bombs up close in a war zone, and they look like little yellow plastic balls, but they are deadly. Those that do not explode on impact will wait to explode in the hands of curious children. At the same time as the U.S. military was dropping their cluster bombs, they were also dropping food packets in nearby areas. Not only did some of the food packets damage houses when they fell, but they were the same bright yellow colour as cluster bombs. One 15 year old child mistook a cluster bomb for a food packet which “blew his head off”, according to the report. At least one other child lost his hand and forearm for making the same mistake. We can assume that many more children were maimed or killed by these actions, although it is unlikely we will ever learn the actual number.

Now compare military spending with that of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international non-governmental medical humanitarian aid organization. MSF offers life-saving emergency assistance during humanitarian emergencies to those most in need, while observing impartiality, neutrality, independence, and universal medical ethics. To ensure access to and care for the most vulnerable, MSF remains scrupulously independent from governments, militaries, and religious and economic powers. In 2006, while responding to humanitarian emergencies across the globe, MSF undertook over nine million medical consultations and hospitalized almost half a million patients. MSF treated close to two million people for malaria and provided one hundred thousand HIV/AIDS patients with daily anti-retroviral therapy in over thirty countries. MSF accomplished this and more with a total annual expenditure of approximately $800 million or about three days of the cost of the Iraq war.

The relative inefficiency of military interventions that use a humanitarian guise argues against purely humanitarian objectives for the campaigns. Accprdning to some journalists, the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq is to further U.S. foreign policy rather than to assist civilians in desperate need. Moreover, the extent of the media reporting on these supposedly humanitarian gestures by the military suggests that the gestures are meant to win the hearts and minds of the occupied and voters back home, not to reduce the suffering of affected civilians in a meaningful way.

NGOs such as MSF have come out against the military invasion of humanitarian space. In a 2007 press release, they claimed:

The violence directed against humanitarian aid workers has come in a context in which the U.S. backed coalition has consistently sought to use humanitarian aid to build support for its military and political ambitions. MSF denounces the coalition’s attempts to co-opt humanitarian aid and use it to ‘win hearts and minds’. By doing so, providing aid is no longer seen as an impartial and neutral act, endangering the lives of humanitarian volunteers and jeopardizing the aid to people in need.

Despite the incompatibility of military and humanitarian actions, the U.S. military continues invading humanitarian space for military objectives. Colin Powell, the former U.S. Secretary of State, proclaimed that “NGOs are a multiplying force of our combat team”. This disingenuous comment has had disastrous effects. Tragically, on June 2, 2004, five MSF humanitarian aid workers were murdered while traveling in a clearly marked MSF Toyota Landcruiser in northwest Afghanistan. The vehicle had been shot through the front windscreen, through the front passenger window and through the back windscreen. There was shrapnel embedded in the side of the car indicating a grenade had been detonated. Nine days after the attack, a Taliban spokesperson stated, “Organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières work for American interests and are therefore targets for us”. This incident led to MSF’s withdrawal from Afghanistan after 24 years of delivering critical aid to its civilian population. While it is now doubtful that the Taliban was responsible, many still feel that blurred lines between military and humanitarian operations contributed to the attack.

International humanitarian law, codified in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, applies in situations of armed conflict. Its purpose is to prevent the human catastrophe that would require a humanitarian response. A catastrophe results when political and military powers do not honour their obligations in violation of international humanitarian law. For these same forces to feign an interest in assisting is a show of duplicity. Humanitarian space is the last area of hope for many civilians traumatized by war. For the sake of aid workers and the populations they serve, this space must be purely humanitarian.

War results in suffering beyond comprehension. It stems from and results in the militarization of our societies. Many of our world’s resources are appropriated for war while poverty and disease flourish. So long as militaries continue imposing war and violence on civilian populations, there will be a need for humanitarian aid workers whose lives and work depend on impartiality, neutrality and independence. A humanitarian space can only be achieved when humanitarian aid workers and military personnel keep to their own theatres of war.


John Pringle is a Registered Nurse with his BScN from McMaster University. He worked as a northern outpost nurse for Health Canada before joining MSF in 2001, helping to provide primary health care in refugee camps along the Eritrean-Ethiopian border. He then earned his MSc in Community Health & Epidemiology from Queen’s University, and did another mission with MSF in 2006 as a field epidemiologist, investigating meningitis outbreaks across northern Nigeria. He is currently a PhD candidate in Public Health Sciences and the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto. His research focus is the effects of war on public health and global health ethics.

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