Pax et Bellum Editorial Board | General

Written by Henrique Siniciato Terra Garbino and João Maurício Dias Lopes Valdetaro.

This article reflects on civil-military coordination in United Nations peacekeeping operations, based on the authors’ experience working with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.

Evolution of civil-military interaction

Civil-military interaction in United Nations (UN) peace missions dates back to the first operations established by the Organisation. Civilian elements have always been present in the affected areas and a mutual understanding of roles and responsibilities between military and civilian actors was necessary. After the end of the Cold War, the number of UN-sponsored multidimensional missions increased significantly. Those missions were often mandated to deal with complex problems–such as reforming government structures or facilitating disarmament, demobilization and reintegration processes–, and had a larger civilian component to handle them. Insofar as the components of each mission were well defined, the interdependence between them was also commonly noticed.

Picture 1: Core responsibilities of multidimensional peacekeeping operations according to the Capstone Doctrine.

The military component, usually responsible for keeping a safe and secure environment, was not able to deal with the security problems alone. Investment in the development and human rights spheres was needed in order to create stability for the affected populations and, thus, bring about improvements on security conditions. In that way, the military benefited from the actions of the civilian component. The opposite, of course, is also true. That is, in areas with significant security threats, the military component would guarantee that the civilian component, alongside with non governmental organisations (NGOs), international organisations (IOs), and other humanitarian actors, would have the minimum security conditions to perform their functions.

Many other organizations faced the same situation where military and civilian actors shared the area of operations. As a result, several doctrines were conceived reflecting different scopes and interests, depending on the institution or government behind them.

Picture 2: Different concepts related to civil-military coordination (adapted from an article by João Maurício Dias Lopes Valdetaro).

In this context of mutual support and in order to standardize the understanding within the Organization, the UN established its own interpretation. The UN divided civil-military coordination into two distinct concepts. The first one related “to the humanitarian civil-military coordination function that provides the necessary interface between humanitarian and military actors to protect and promote the humanitarian principles and achieve the humanitarian objectives in complex emergencies and natural disaster situations”, which is referred to as UN-CMCoord; the other one pertained to “a military staff function that contributes to facilitating the interface between the military and civilian components of an integrated mission, as well as with the humanitarian and development actors in the mission area, in order to support UN mission objectives”, called UN-CIMIC.

In this article we will explore the second concept, that is, the civil-military coordination carried out by the military in United Nations peacekeeping operations. The insights presented here were drawn from three tours of duty with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), as well as from a total of eleven years of accumulated experience at the Brazilian Peace Operations Joint Training Center.

United Nations Civil-Military Coordination

Put simply, UN-CIMIC is the mechanism set in place by peacekeeping operations in order to establish and facilitate coordination between the mission’s military component and the range of civilian actors present in the mission area. The concept is grounded in principles that fundamentally differ from other related doctrines (e.g. CMO and NATO CIMIC). As a consequence of the broader scope of multidimensional peacekeeping operations and the premise of civilian leadership, military peacekeepers have taken on more support roles to civilian-led mandated tasks, such as assisting in electoral processes or facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid, just to name a few. Thus, UN-CIMIC also made it essential that the military has a clear understanding of the civilian effort and focus its coordination efforts in common mission objectives, as opposed to purely military objectives.

The main tasks related to the UN-CIMIC function are information sharing and civil assistance. While the latter may only be implemented in certain circumstances, the former should be a continuous activity throughout the mission. On one hand, information sharing, as well as civil-military liaison, assures that relevant actors share a common understanding of their mandates, possibilities, and limitations; given that sensitive content is managed accordingly, it helps to avoid conflict, gaps and duplications, and is understood as the minimum level of interaction. Civil assistance, on the other hand, entails support activities carried out by the military in benefit of civilian partners or directly to the mission beneficiaries. Support should be based on the comparative advantages of the military component and include, inter alia, the provision of security, logistics, engineering, command and control, and intelligence services. In this sense, civil assistance is context-bound, based on the specific needs of the civilian actors themselves.

Picture 3: UNAMID officers exchange duties in while escorting a convoy of WFP trucks traveling in Darfur. Photo by Albert González Farran.

Civil assistance delivered by the military should be undertaken with care. Ideally, it should aim to be non-recurrent and not to create or reinforce local dependency on military assets. As a rule of thumb, we say that civil assistance projects should be identified by, coordinated with, and implemented through civilian actors. Moreover, in unstable contexts, civilian partners may be reluctant to cooperate with the military component. Civilian actors, particularly in the humanitarian sector, emphasize that close engagement with the military, even if under UN auspices, might endanger their perceived neutrality and thus put them as well as their programmes at risk. In those cases, engaging with humanitarian agencies may mean placing them at risk.

Nevertheless, the military may also play a significant role in supporting humanitarian assistance. As defined by the UN-CMCoord Field Handbook, this role entails independent activities that aim to save lives, protect human dignity, and alleviate suffering, following the principles of neutrality, impartiality and humanity. Considering that military forces, including blue helmets, depend on political will, be it national governments or the United Nations Security Council; they cannot fall under the definition of providers of humanitarian assistance, since its actions are not seen as independent and neutral in many cases.

However, how do we define the kind of military involvement in emergency response that we have seen in many natural disasters? According to Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the military role is to support humanitarian assistance, mainly by facilitating humanitarian access, sharing information, and, as a measure of last resort, providing actual assistance. That is, the military is to provide humanitarian assistance only when there is no comparable civilian alternative to meet critical humanitarian needs. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.

Coordination on the ground

To start with, coordination in a multidimensional and complex environment brings its own problems, due to the multitude of different actors undertaking different activities and with different agendas, most of it imposed by their governments and/or donors. It is costly, time-consuming, and does not yield meaningful results at first sight. Moreover, coordination is sometimes understood as a matter of authority and not as a shared responsibility. In other words, no one wants to be coordinated, but everyone wants to coordinate.

Apart from that, civil-military interactions are still deeply tainted with prejudice and stereotypes from both sides. On one hand, the military usually perceives civilians as unorganized, lethargic, and unable to defend themselves; on the other, civilians perceive the military as truculent, narrow-minded, and sources of more insecurity. Even some major international non-governmental organisations deliberately avoid any interaction whatsoever with the military. When it comes the military, there are also many misperceptions related to what civil-military coordination should be, especially regarding civil assistance projects.

Civil assistance projects carried out by the military can be particularly beneficial to military operations, by enhancing security, gaining public support and credibility, and facilitating intelligence gathering. During the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, for example, the Brazilian contingent launched a pioneer quick impact project called “Light and Security”. The project consisted of installing solar-powered lamp posts in Cité Soleil, the most violent neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince. The need for night lighting was identified by community leaders and the lamps were installed by a local company. Moreover, the project was funded, overseen and assessed by the civilian component. As a result, criminality rates dropped in the region and gave room for informal commerce in the now lit up streets. From a military perspective, night patrols became safer, trust between soldiers and Haitians was developed, locals began sharing more information on the whereabouts of gang leaders, and troop morale went up. As expected, the successful experience became a model for other similar projects and was duly publicized by the mission and the Brazilian contingent.

Picture 4: Local workers install a solar panel on lamp post in Cité Soleil, as part of the “Light and Security” project, a quick impact project implemented by Brazilian peacekeepers. Photo by Abassi Logan.

Problems arise, however, when these primarily military concerns, such as security, credibility, public support, and intelligence, become the main drivers of civil-military coordination. As stated above, the ultimate goal of UN-CIMIC should be to facilitate the wider peace process, and not solely military or humanitarian objectives .

A common practice emerged within MINUSTAH’s military component, which was to carry out short-term civil assistance activities (such as providing medical and dental care, and distributing toys for children) before and after raids in particularly violent areas in Port-au-Prince. In this way, intelligence gathering was facilitated before, and public support was kept after the raids. However, in one case, when Brazilian troops captured an eminent member of an armed gang in one of those raids, the gang leader threatened to kill all Haitians that would attend the civil assistance activity scheduled for the following day. Of course, the activity was redesigned, not to put innocent civilians at risk.

Similar problems come up when assistance is delivered based on national and even private interests and principles, such as religious beliefs. For some time, it was common that national contingents in Haiti “adopted” specific orphanages or other philanthropic institutions and provided assistance on a regular basis. This approach, apart from being clearly biased and threatening the perception of impartiality of the United Nations, is likely to create or reinforce dependency on the military.

Lack of situation awareness and coordination during planning phases may lead to duplication of efforts or even counterproductive results. One curious case happened in Haiti in 2013, when several internally displaced people (IDP) camps were established around Port-au-Prince and supplies were in high demand. Under that situation, some contingents decided to deliver food without referring to the chain of command. At the same time, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) conducted a census in order to assess the situation of the IDP populations. The indiscriminate delivery of food by the military contingents, however, caused IDPs to move from one camp to another, in search for supplies. In the end, IOM was not able to fulfill its job because there was no fixed population in any of those camps, and the military contingents were told to stop the food distribution.

Nevertheless, recent experiences in responding to complex emergencies and natural disasters emphasize the importance and the need for civil-military coordination prior to the onset of and during such crises. National and foreign militaries, as well as UN military peacekeepers, are increasingly being tasked to support humanitarian assistance. Without military support, the emergency response to 2010 Haiti earthquake would have been completely different.

Picture 5: Brazilian peacekeepers help unload emergency supplies from a US military helicopter. To repair the massive damage caused by the passage of Hurricane Matthew, United Nations Peacekeepers, Haitian government agencies, international organizations, and residents, work to distribute food and emergency supplies to the population of Jeremie, in western Haiti. Photo by Abassi Logan.

To start with, MINUSTAH’s military component was a key first responder and helped set up the necessary coordination structures, necessary to accommodate the incoming actors. In the following day, Member States, IOs and NGOs sent aid to Haiti in various ways. Help came in the form of specialized urban search and rescue teams, firefighters, medical staff, military contingents, food and non-food items, bottled water, financial donations, among others. In order to manage the logistic chaos resulting from this large influx of people and materials, for the first time a joint humanitarian-military coordination centre was established. That center was responsible to register all incoming help and point out which were the best areas to receive that help, avoiding an overlap of efforts.

MINUSTAH’s military component and other foreign military bodies deployed in Haiti had an essential role in managing the aftershock crisis. In sum, the military was able to guarantee a safe and secure environment by providing armed escorts and area security; to provide valuable logistic assets, such as airlift, transportation, engineering, water treatment, among others; to rehabilitate the airport and provide air control; to provide emergency communications; and to assist in overall planning, intelligence analysis and coordination.

Final remarks

Even though the challenges on the ground are many and the resources to meet them are limited, shortcomings in civil-military coordination can be tackled by simple solutions, given the right change in mindset. First, troop-contributing countries should deploy dedicated and specialized civil-military officers to UN peacekeeping operations. UN-CIMIC officers should be culturally sensitive and able to communicate clearly and in a transparent manner with their civilian counterparts. Additionally, common training addresses the need of mutual understanding of the capabilities and limitations of relevant actors, and facilitates the comprehension of standard coordination mechanisms. Finally, by overcoming stereotypes and focusing on a common end state, civil-military coordination is translated into synergy by those who answer the call.


Henrique Siniciato Terra Garbino is a student at the master’s programme in Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University. He was deployed to MINUSTAH (2013-2014) and served as course convenor for the United Nations Civil-Military Coordination Course at the Brazilian Peace Operations Joint Training Center (2015-2017). E-mail: henriquegarbino@gmail.com.

João Maurício Dias Lopes Valdetaro is an instructor and course coordinator at the Brazilian Peace Operations Joint Training Center. He was deployed to MINUSTAH (2009-2010; 2015-2016) and has served as course convenor for United Nations Civil-Military Coordination Course at the Brazilian Peace Operations Joint Center since 2010. E-mail: jmvaldetaro@gmail.com.


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