Indo-Pacific crisis response center adapts to evolving civil-military environment
Aiyana Paschal/Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance
Since its inception in 1994, the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance (CFE-DM) has built crisis response capacity, enhanced coordination and collaboration, and strengthened relationships to improve the performance of United States and partner militaries during disasters. In addition to these core areas, CFE-DM has undertaken initiatives to meet emerging guidance from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). Examples include facilitating a major peacekeeping operations seminar program for international senior leaders; initiating an HIV/AIDs education program for international forces and pandemic-influenza capacity-building training for Indo-Pacific security forces; assisting a U.S. Agency for International Development program focused on USINDOPACOM and U.S. Africa Command; and supporting counterterrorism fellowship programs.
CFE-DM continues to hone its focus in a dynamic geopolitical and environmental context, and a major part of its mission is training and engaging with civilian and military partners. This has typically been conducted with a natural disaster focus through support to regional organization and USINDOPACOM exercises, and the center’s Humanitarian Assistance Response Training (HART) course. However, conflict is increasingly occurring in heavily populated urban areas. In cases such as Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, authoritarian regimes are targeting civilians to attain political or nationalist objectives by any means. Consequently, CFE-DM is focusing more on conflict scenarios in its training, research and planning.
For the past 25 years, CFE-DM has collaborated with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the University of Hawaii at Manoa to facilitate an annual Health Emergencies in Large Populations (HELP) course. The ICRC developed the HELP framework for humanitarian responders during conflicts and supports its facilitation by partner organizations worldwide. The CFE-DM course, held over two weeks in Hawaii, includes civilian and military participants, a balance of backgrounds that ensures a quality educational experience and a valuable networking opportunity among professionals whose paths may cross again during a humanitarian emergency. The center’s HELP course now has more than 600 graduates.
The center also has a new HART in Conflict (HART-C) course that introduces U.S. joint forces and partners to the complexities of conducting humanitarian assistance in a conflict zone. Topics include the humanitarian notification system, civil-military coordination mechanisms, preparation for large-scale civilian displacement, humanitarian conflict analysis, access and security, and the consequences of armed conflict and war.
The center’s other responsibilities include integrating disaster management planning into USINDOPACOM functions and contributing to Office of the Secretary of Defense policies and guidelines. CFE-DM also conducts research and creates informational products such as disaster management reference handbooks, fact sheets and best practices pamphlets, all of which are publicly available online at cfe-dmha.org/publications. Also, CFE-DM promotes initiatives to ease the flow of critical information among civil-military partners during relief efforts. The center’s researchers collaborate with academic institutions and partner organizations on projects and proposals to ensure their findings are available to practitioners and experts in the field and to provide comprehensive analysis of civil-military coordination in disaster environments.
‘A moral imperative’
CFE-DM continues adapting to the changing landscape of natural and manmade disasters, including conflict. Recent initiatives include the Protection of Civilians (POC) and Climate Change Impacts (CCI) programs. The POC program seeks to mitigate and respond to harm suffered by civilians during military operations. There are three main avenues for the effort: supporting USINDOPACOM in adopting and implementing new DOD policies and practices for protecting civilians; identifying and promoting best practices; and fostering dialogue on key challenges and effective practices among regional partners. To define best practices, CFE-DM works with humanitarian agencies and maintains a close dialogue with the ICRC, which, like CFE-DM, recently released a handbook on best practices for civilian harm mitigation.
These efforts coincide with DOD’s new Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, released in late August 2022 at the direction of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Among the plan’s measures:
Establish a civilian protection center of excellence to facilitate departmentwide analysis, learning and training.
Develop standardized civilian harm operational reporting and data management processes.
Provide more information to help commanders and operators better understand the civilian environment, including incorporating guidance for addressing civilian harm into military doctrine and operational plans.
“Protecting civilians from harm in connection with military operations is not only a moral imperative, it is also critical to achieving long-term success on the battlefield. Hard-earned tactical and operational successes may ultimately end in strategic failure if care is not taken to protect the civilian environment as much as the situation allows,” a DOD news release noted.
“What had been missing is an overarching DOD approach,” said Jenny McAvoy, advisor and team lead for the POC program. McAvoy, who has worked on civilian protection issues for decades, noted the need for “an investment in the types of capabilities that would enable commanders to adapt to the challenges of their specific operation.”
In part, the urgency is driven by the growing number of conflicts in urban environments and their devastating impact on civilians. Humanitarian organizations and U.S. government agencies are seeking to address this harm. Beyond the casualties and destruction, the increase in conflicts in densely populated areas has caused a spike in the number of displaced people. At the end of 2021, 89.3 million individuals worldwide were forcibly displaced because of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or major disturbances, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In Myanmar alone, about 1 million people have been forced to flee their homes and communities amid the ongoing violence sparked by the February 2021 military coup.
As refugees cross borders to flee conflict zones, there is debate over sovereignty — a nation’s ability to control what happens within its borders. Some nations have rejected refugees, while others require them to meet certain entrance criteria. Such policies raise important ethical and practical questions on how to safely accommodate refugee populations given the international principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits forcibly returning refugees to their country of origin if they have a well-founded fear of persecution.
McAvoy highlighted the importance of CFE-DM’s engagement with regional partners in addressing these issues, given the centrality of security partnerships in the U.S.’s overall military strategy. The center also works with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), which focuses on synchronizing global humanitarian response and relief efforts, advocacy, policy development, provision of information management services, and mobilization of financial resources.
“Protection of civilians is the core of everything we do as humanitarian actors to alleviate suffering, reduce risks and prevent violence against crisis-affected populations, which can take many different forms in disasters and conflicts and requires a multisectoral and comprehensive response,” said Helene Skaardal, a humanitarian affairs officer with UNOCHA’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
Mandated military role
Coordination among humanitarian and military actors can vary significantly based on whether the response relates to a natural disaster, armed conflict or another complex emergency. In the Indo-Pacific, many militaries play a mandated role in responding to natural disasters, providing capabilities that often exceed resources available to civilian agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Therefore, in a natural disaster response, “it is important that we have clearly established civil-military coordination mechanisms so that we can divide tasks, share information and jointly plan operations,” Skaardal said.
“In complex emergencies and armed conflicts, however, militaries are often a party to the conflict,” she noted. “So, as a starting point, humanitarian engagement with military actors is not based on a cooperation model but rather on coexistence and humanitarian diplomacy.” That’s because humanitarian efforts must always remain independent from political or military objectives, making it crucial for humanitarian actors to remain neutral and impartial while, at the same time, promoting and advocating for protection outcomes. “What we try to do is essentially negotiate humanitarian access to reach conflict-affected people with lifesaving humanitarian assistance and advocate for the protection of civilians and the respect for international humanitarian law,” Skaardal said.
The evolving landscape of warfare, including increasing urbanization and deliberate targeting of civilians, presents substantial challenges for humanitarian efforts to mitigate risk and offer protection. “What we often find in armed conflicts today is that restrictions on movement of humanitarian personnel is directly imposed by armed actors to reduce our access to the populations that are affected,” said Skaardal, who deployed to Ukraine to help improve humanitarian access in conflict zones after Russia’s invasion. “On the one hand, we are unable to reach conflict-affected populations with much needed humanitarian assistance and, on the other, human rights abuses and violence that may take place goes under the radar.”
Negotiating humanitarian access is often slow because of the hierarchical nature of armed actors, which can delay delivery of lifesaving assistance and hinder localized solutions. Providing assistance without engagement with parties to the conflict, however, can place humanitarian personnel at heightened risk. These obstacles have been evident in Myanmar, where the junta in September 2022 ordered U.N. agencies and NGOs to stop providing humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State, where access to communities was blocked by clashes between military forces and ethnic armed groups, The Irrawaddy news website reported.
Despite such challenges, UNOCHA and other organizations are working to protect civilians, alongside efforts to codify the protection of civilians into military practices, such as the DOD’s new Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan. Still, Skaardal said, accountability mechanisms must be bolstered for violations of international humanitarian law. “Working in the U.N. system and working in the humanitarian sector, the centrality of protection has been there for a long time,” she said. “There has been a process in humanitarian institutions for several years to strengthen the centrality of protection, but it is perhaps garnering a new momentum now because of the war in Ukraine, but also the recognition that Ukraine is only one high-profile context out of many, many examples where the civilian populations are suffering the most.”
Climate of change
The destabilizing impacts of climate change threaten human security. Heatwaves and droughts reduce food production. Floods, storms and wildfires damage and destroy lives, livelihoods and infrastructure. Climate change can render vulnerable lands uninhabitable via inundation or desertification, driving human migration as people escape these threats.
“We have witnessed these impacts that will continue to happen,” said Steve Frano, program manager for CFE-DM’s new Climate Change Impacts program. “A clear example in the Pacific Islands is sea-level rise. It is not just going to be water moving up and just basically forcing a community out. It’s going to be the slow onset example, where there has now been enough sea-level rise and enough storm surge that saltwater intrusion has impacted their ability to live and grow food. If they can’t adapt to survive on their land anymore, they have to move … so where can they go? For many of these countries, their community, their family, their history, everything ties to the land, so the idea of leaving the land is, in some cases, an untenable solution.”
The CCI program supports building awareness and exchanging knowledge to emphasize climate change’s impact on regional security initiatives that advance a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. A key focus is to facilitate a comprehensive regional network of climate security experts and provide a forum to exchange information and discuss cooperative plans and programs to respond to the security impacts of climate change. By engaging with regional partners, experts can share their country’s approach to climate change and security and highlight priorities. “We talk with our allies and partners, we develop programs and initiatives, and we incorporate it in our own planning,” Frano said.
Understanding the potential for changes to the natural environment — as well as their effect on people, communities and countries — is also vital for regional military entities such as USINDOPACOM because the issues affect the military’s ability to maintain security and stability. As nations turn to others for relief in the face of more frequent and severe natural disasters, there may be worries about diminishing sovereignty. For some Pacific Island Countries, for example, rising seas already are washing away some of the very borders that define their sovereignty — an erosion that may eventually prompt large-scale human relocation and, in turn, undermine the foundations of regional security. “When we look at sovereignty and HADR [humanitarian assistance and disaster response], it’s not always going to be the earthquake scenario: something happens; we go and respond to it,” Frano said. “But it’s these other changes that are going to push us in a direction that will stress countries’ abilities to provide services for their people.”
Thus, CFE-DM’s programs and branches will remain engaged with partners in the region and beyond to ensure that climate change concerns and the protection of civilians are integrated into HADR planning and execution. As it nears its 30th anniversary, CFE-DM remains a rich resource for U.S. and partner militaries, civilian agencies and humanitarian organizations that seek to improve civil-military response to natural and manmade disasters — its core functional areas of training and engagement, research, information-sharing and operational planning are as relevant today as they were when the center was established. At the same time, CFE-DM continues to pivot and evolve to address emerging requirements of the DOD and USINDOPACOM, with the Protection of Civilians and Climate Change Impacts programs just two of the new initiatives to respond to a changing Indo-Pacific and global strategic landscape.