Civil-Military Relations in Disaster Response

Increasingly, military, humanitarian and other civilian actors find themselves working together to respond to disasters and complex emergencies. These situations pose challenges for all parties concerned. Traditional humanitarian actors are asked to work in physically challenging environments or areas plagued by violence. In these settings, the humanitarian relief workers may nee the assistance of military actors for transportation or security. Yet for over a century, humanitarian actors have guarded their neutrality strongly eschewing government and military contacts that might infringe upon their special status. Today, many humanitarians work to relieve suffering amid complex emergencies and unconventional crises in which they need support from the military to do their job. At what point in the spectrum of support does assistance become interference?

Disaster relief also poses challenges for militaries. For some military leaders providing relief is a distraction from their primary mission to defend their country. For other military leaders providing humanitarian support is an appropriate duty that advances overall policy goals. Increasingly many military personnel understand that they will be deployed in complex crises, in which minimizing humanitarian casualties is politically important. 

Purpose and Focus of the Study Group

The study group focused on the relations among international military, humanitarian and civilian actors in disaster response. The United States and the European Union are major donors providing disaster relief in many areas. Therefore, this study group contributed to knowledge and policy analysis by comparing US and EU approaches to civil-military relations in a selection of cases at the strategic and operational levels.  These assessments contributed to an understanding of good practices for future force development and, maybe, enhanced cooperation between the EU and US or between military and civilian actors. 


Two cases studies each (four in total) were prepared on natural disasters and on complex emergency situations (post-conflict-related emergency or in a conflict situation).  The cases are 2004 Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Balkans/Kosovo, and Congo/Kivu.

The civil-military case studies were complemented by a comparative report that served as a “chapeau piece” analyzing the overall approaches of the US and EU based on all four cases. The four studies provided perspectives that inform the chapeau piece. The “Raising the Bar” project will publish a research volume based on the case studies as well as policies papers and an Action Paper with recommendations from all four project areas.

To download the concept paper for this study group, please click here.

For more information on this study group, please contact Jean-Luc Marret.