International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Aid Groups Urge NATO to Separate Military and Humanitarian Activities to Protect Civilians in Afghanistan

Ahead of today’s NATO Summit, the International Rescue Committee and 15 other relief organizations operating in Afghanistan have sent a letter to delegates urging that NATO troops clearly identify themselves in Afghanistan and distinguish military actions from humanitarian activities, as a means of protecting Afghan civilians and aid workers.

The letter was sent to NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and heads of state, ministers and other representatives of NATO member countries. 

According to the aid agencies, civilians in Afghanistan are increasingly at risk. In 2008, civilian casualties rose by as much as 40% compared to 2007 and aid worker fatalities doubled to 31 killings. The letter also notes that access to people in need of assistance and protection is consistently deteriorating.

The aid groups stress that military forces, including NATO, endanger the civilians they aim to protect and contravene international law when they do not clearly identity themselves and inadvertently or deliberately blur the lines between military and humanitarian activities.

In the letter, the humanitarian aid organizations call on NATO military forces operating in Afghanistan to implement the following recommendations:

  • Military forces should clearly distinguish themselves and their assets from the civilian population and civilian assets. Adherence to this obligation reduces civilian casualties that result from mistaken identity, and helps civilians identify, and thereby, avoid military personnel and vehicles which may be targeted.
  • Military facilities should not be located in, and military convoys should not transit through urban areas. Military facilities located in, and military convoys transiting through, urban centers increase the risk of civilian casualties and destruction of civilian property. 
  • Military forces should not use white vehicles. White vehicles and the white color have come to represent impartial and independent humanitarian actors who provide aid to civilians irrespective of political, religious or military considerations and who are not parties to the conflict. The use of white vehicles by military forces compromises NGO identity, community acceptance and impartiality. By undermining NGO security, it deprives Afghans of vital aid. 
  • Military forces should not use relief or development activities to attempt to win people’s hearts and minds for tactical, counter-insurgency or other military objectives. Instead, military resources should be focused on activities where the military has a comparative advantage such as physical security and support to the security sector. Hearts and minds military activities are expensive, unsustainable, and often not effective and compromise the identity and security of civilian and humanitarian aid providers.
  • At a minimum, international military forces and their contractors should refrain from relief activities when there are civilian actors capable of delivering assistance. The provision of basic services by military actors where civilian and humanitarian organizations are operating are unnecessary and compromise the security of humanitarian aid workers.

Signatories are ACF, ActionAid, Care, Catholic Relief Services, Concern World Wide, Cordaid, DACAAR, International Rescue Committee, Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children, War Child Holland, ZOA

The IRC, Oxfam and other humanitarian aid groups in Afghanistan also issued a new report this week, "Caught in Conflict," which warns that the planned troop surge in Afghanistan could increase civilian suffering and outlines how NATO and other international military forces should transform the way they operate in Afghanistan.  Read Full Report [PDF]

About the IRC
A global leader in humanitarian assistance, the International Rescue Committee works in 42 countries offering help and hope to refugees and others uprooted by conflict and oppression. During crises, IRC teams provide lifesaving services and healing programs for children. As emergencies subside, the IRC stays to revive livelihoods and help shattered communities recover and rebuild. The IRC also helps resettle refugees admitted into the United States. A tireless advocate for the most vulnerable, the IRC is committed to restoring hope, dignity and opportunity.

The International Rescue Committee has been providing humanitarian aid in Afghanistan for more than 20 years.  Today, our work focuses on providing returning refugees with shelter, water, sanitation and livelihoods, and on restoring the nation’s health, infrastructure and economy.