Is the military donning a new kind of camouflage, one that puts civilians and humanitarians at risk?

That is the question that surfaced in recent discourses on the 2014 Defence Review which envisages the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) involving itself in providing humanitarian assistance, and additionally reconstruction and development during complex crises under a peace-keeping remit.

The debate centres on a critique by academic Savo Heleta of a small yet important part of the Defence Review involving the SANDF’s role in “regional and continental peacekeeping” and “development and other ordered tasks”.

There is a real danger among South African policy makers and the public to disregard the vital distinction between civilian humanitarian action and military action – specifically during and after conflicts when well-intentioned political objectives can run amok.

Some may ask: Well, what’s wrong with the military doing humanitarian work? In conflict settings it corrodes the fragile safe operating space civilian humanitarians have to work in and it endangers lives when people caught in the fighting are forced to take great risks when seeking help.

SANDF members load boxes of ammunitions on an army truck waiting on the airport tarmac April 27 2003, in Bujumbura, Burundi. (AFP / Marco Longari)
SANDF members load boxes of ammunitions on an army truck waiting on the airport tarmac April 27 2003, in Bujumbura, Burundi. (AFP / Marco Longari)

The world over humanitarianism is understood as the immediate act of saving lives and alleviating suffering by strictly adhering to the principles of humanity, independence, impartiality and neutrality. To meet the needs of people caught in conflict civilian humanitarian organisations seek to work across frontlines by adhering to those values – and crucially by distinguishing themselves as separate from state interests. These values enable humanitarians to help people who fall outside the narrow confines of foreign policy or military objectives and the interests of states.

The notion that a military undertakes humanitarian tasks as part of deployment duties, is not new, nor is it unique to the SANDF. There is a common contemporary narrative that the processes of peace keeping and peace building, and in some cases state building, requires more than guns and involves socio-economic political and developmental factors.

In the view of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) humanitarianism is not a tool to end war or to create peace. It is a civilian response to political failure. It is an immediate, short-term act that cannot erase the long term necessity of political responsibility. We do not claim non-governmental organisations to be virtuous relative to the powers of states. We merely seek to emphasise their crucial distinction.

To be clear: building peace or state building, is not a bad thing per se and it is not something the MSF is against. However, it is, and can never be a neutral process – and this is where the dangerous contradiction lies. When the SANDF and other militaries intervene during peace keeping, and subsequent “post-conflict reconstruction and development” it often happens in a context of intra-state conflict. This occurs during civil war, or a within a frame of counter-terrorism, when peace keepers fight armed groups opposed to the order of the state controlling the territory. On the African continent we find numerous examples in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, South Sudan, Mali, and Nigeria.

Building peace and building a state, seeks to develop institutions and structures that are implicated in these conflicts. A peace-keeping mission may have interests and intentions to support the DRC government in quelling rebellions in the east of the country, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, or the government in South Sudan – but none of these are neutral.

So, when militaries or peace-keeping forces provide humanitarian assistance in conflict settings it’s certainly not done with “no strings attached” purely for the sake of humanity. By definition militaries serve a state or political agendas which by their nature cannot follow humanitarian principles. By including humanitarian action in the set of tools a military utilises during a conflict, relief and medical care are deployed according to military objectives and not impartial assessments of humanitarian needs.

Every time that armed forces mimic civilian humanitarian actors – donning it as a sort of camouflage – they create a dangerous confusion that exposes independent and impartial humanitarian action to suspicion and erodes its neutrality. They alter the perception of the civilian character of our action and the independence from political agendas – framing it as being part of the belligerent action in the conflict. They endanger the safety of aid workers in conflict zones, worse still the safety of patients and people seeking aid. Ultimately this denies some people aid, by providing assistance selectively to only one group in a conflict.

Contemporary history is littered with examples clearly demonstrating the human disaster when acts of saving lives and alleviating suffering are used as military and political tools. Most South Africans know that in recent years western governments’ foreign policies included structural approaches where humanitarian aid has been used as a tool to link relief to development, security and stabilisation agendas. What they don’t know is that it frequently actually led to a deadly denial of aid.

A prime example is the way in which the US and Nato pursued political stabilisation in Afghanistan where humanitarian aid has been used as part of a military and political strategy of state building. Consequently, sick or wounded Afghans face a cruel reality where, going to a Nato-run clinic or receiving assistance from groups affiliated with the Nato counterinsurgency strategy risks retaliation from the opposition, be they Taliban or other militant groups. Civilians face the same risks from international and Afghan forces if they turn to the opposition for assistance. In this environment, seeking help amounts to choosing sides in the war. The result is a tragically absurd catch-22: People put off seeking assistance because doing so can endanger their lives.

We have to reject the idea that humanitarian assistance becomes another weapon of war or a tool for peace at the service of the military that can condition, deny or reward the ones who fall in or out of their political agenda. It is through education and engagement that we must protect the universality of the humanitarian responsibility which knows no frontiers precisely because the political enforces borders that regularly exclude people in the greatest of need.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) provides independent, impartial and neutral life-saving medical humanitarian assistance in 65 countries around the world. We are able to do this because our medical action is independently funded by South Africans and millions of individual private donors around the world who support our work. MSF refuses donor government funds for our work in conflict environments so that our choices remain directed solely by medical needs and not the political agendas of nation states.


  • Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation committed to medical care to people affected by crises including conflict, epidemics and disasters. MSF has been working in South Africa since 1999.


Doctors Without Borders (MSF)

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation committed to medical care to people affected by crises including conflict, epidemics and disasters. MSF...

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