What the Military Can Do to Better Protect Civilians in Conflict Countries Affected by COVID-19

From China to Italy, from France to South Africa, and from Burkina Faso to Iraq, military forces are being called upon by their governments to support them in the domestic ‘fight’ against COVID-19, e.g., by helping to provide medical support as well as enforcing prevention and mitigation measures. The presence of soldiers, deployed to back up overwhelmed national governments and health systems amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, reminds us that beyond defending the nation’s strategic interests, the raison d’être of the military is to protect civilian populations against threats to their security, whether pandemics or wars. Populations living in conflict-affected areas, who are already suffering from years of war, will become even more vulnerable due to the consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak.

As COVID-19 spreads across conflict countries and becomes a global health security crisis, local, national, and international military forces should adopt a strong, robust approach to human security in order to better protect civilian populations faced with this combination of threats. To do so, military forces should consider integrating guidance on protection of civilians (POC) and civilian harm mitigation (CHM) when shaping and operationalizing their emergency support and coronavirus response mechanisms. When engaged in domestic responses to the COVID-19 crisis, armed actors must respect applicable international and national laws. Their efforts to support health service responses or maintain law and order should not cause more harm than good to the affected communities. This includes exercising maximum restraint on the use of force. Security forces will not be successful containing the virus and slowing its spread if they are working at cross-purposes with the civilian population. As such, they must redouble their commitment to engaging with communities, civilian agencies (national and international), and civil society in order to address protection gaps and further mitigate harm to civilians arising from this new paradigm.

Military Deployments in Complex Health Emergencies: Supporting Response Mechanisms with Military Assets while Exercising Maximum Restraint

Deploying the military to respond to large scale outbreaks or natural disasters is not new, and has grown over the past decade. In 2010, in the aftermath of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 316,000 people and injured 300,000 others in Haiti, the United States (US) deployed 17,000 civilian disaster relief and recovery experts, 10,000 Marines, 17 ships, and 48 helicopters in and around the country through Operation Unified Response to assist the Government of Haiti. A few years later, during the West Africa Ebola outbreak, more than 5,000 military personnel were deployed from the US, the UK, China, Canada, France, and Germany. These forces were seen by many as a “game changer” in helping control the outbreak and save lives. Military involvement goes, of course, beyond international forces; in recent years, national armed forces have been regularly involved in responding to health crises, either directly or indirectly.

When called into action, the military can play a variety of roles:

  1. Direct support to the medical response, through adding capacity in case management, epidemiological surveillance, and vaccination campaigns;
  2. Logistics support, mobilizing military assets (such as air assets) in support to the medical response, including to transport patients and medical equipment; and
  3. Support of national law enforcement, by helping operationalize measures used to slow down transmission, including restriction of movement, lockdowns, and quarantines.

In addition to supporting the outbreak response itself, armed forces are also expected to be extremely diligent about following preventive measures to protect themselves (force protection), while ensuring that their presence and activities do not cause any further harm to the civilian population (observance of the “do no harm” principle). As during the Ebola outbreak, the right balance needs to be found between the risk aversion of militaries deployed in such environments and the need to act fast to fight the disease and constantly anticipate and adapt to new developments.

Double Danger: Addressing Health Security Threats in Contexts where Human Security is at Risk

Exposure to COVID-19 and its health-related consequences does not replace conflict-related threats, but rather adds to them.

A 25-year-old concept created by the United Nations (UN) in response to profound changes in the global environment, “human security” has recently made a comeback in security and defense circles as a mechanism to address growing threats to the safety of those (individuals and communities) faced with violence and instability. Through the adoption of human security approaches, governments and armed forces increase their capacity to understand the protection needs of a whole population, while taking into consideration specific needs of sub-groups such as women, boys, and girls, the elderly, and persons with disabilities. Using a human security framework, governments have a new way to link military operations to a broader civilian security agenda, encouraging them to center their foreign and defense policies around civilian populations, in addition to states and territories.

As countries take urgent steps to protect civilian populations from COVID-19, governments and armed forces should reinforce their approach to human security to further mitigate civilian harm, and put the broader civilian agenda at the heart of their response priorities.

While undertaking military operations and/or security force assistance activities in the context of COVID-19, governments and armed forces should:

  • Create a clear understanding of how the operating environment and threats to civilians are evolving as a consequence of COVID-19, and how the pandemic is impacting conflict dynamics. This includes regular monitoring of threat analyses, with specific attention to 1) The evolution of protection needs of specific population groups such as women, children, persons with disabilities, and the elderly, and 2) The additional vulnerability that may result from COVID-19, e.g. due to increased restrictions on movement, security forces being re-deployed to other areas and thus less able to protect civilian populations, more limited access to basic services and assistance, loss of income, and tensions and/or violence between civilians and militaries as a result of the increased military presence;
  • Deepen commitments and practices aimed at preventing, mitigating, and responding to incidences of civilian harm;
  • Prioritize and integrate critical provisions on civilian harm mitigation in security force assistance activities undertaken in conflict and instable environments, and emphasize messages on restraint in the use of force and the need to abide by international law and obligations; and
  • Emphasize guidance, measures, and tools aimed at better protecting the medical mission (e.g., medical patients, staffs, and facilities) as requested in UNSC resolution 2286. In the past five years, medical and human rights organizations have warned over and over again about the short- and long-term consequences of attacks to the medical mission. Beyond the incidents themselves, which bring forth devastation and death, such attacks have disastrous consequences for health systems, including the deprivation of access to healthcare in entire regions and the destruction of significant portions of health systems now unable to face shocks such as major outbreaks.

While supporting the implementation of COVID-19 response measures, governments and military forces should:

  • Exercise restraint in the use of force wherever the military is being requested to enforce response measures, including restrictions on movement, quarantines, check-points, and crowd control;
  • Take all necessary precautionary measures to protect military personnel from COVID-19, and observe very strictly the “do no harm” principle so that the behavior and presence of military personnel does not contribute to further spreading the outbreak; failure to observe basic protective measures such as social distancing may further exacerbate tensions with communities in militarized environments; and
  • Balance natural risk aversion and force protection considerations with the necessity to act fast and be flexible. Response to outbreaks follows a different speed and requires a different type of mobility than response to a natural disaster.

Overall, military actors should reinforce their engagement with civilians and:

  • Prioritize, resource, and adjust the role of Civil-Military Units involved in Civil-Military Coordination (CM-COORD) in order to ensure respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and humanitarian principles as well as applicable International Human Rights (IHRL) standards, avoid competition with humanitarian agencies, discuss access issues, minimize inconsistency with humanitarian and public health agencies, and when appropriate pursue common goals as described in the UNOCH CM-COORD Guide for the Military 2.0;
  • Where restrictions on movement lead the military to substitute themselves for local authorities and humanitarian agencies in order to deliver basic humanitarian assistance, it is crucial for military personnel to engage with response coordination mechanisms (including national and international humanitarian ones) and receive training and guidance on needs assessments, identification of vulnerable groups, pre-registrations of beneficiaries, etc.; and
  • Engage with civil society and communities where/if possible, creating channels of communication to convey critical messages; monitor threats and protection needs as expressed by communities; explore local solutions to address protection gaps; mitigate tensions that may arise from increased militarization of the civilian space; and identify local civil society organizations with whom to partner if/where relevant. 

“We ignore the link between health security and international security at our peril.” These words from Bill Gates at the 2017 Munich Security Conference sound particularly prophetic in the current situation. Civilian populations affected by conflict face twice the challenge today: survive COVID-19 and survive the war. Establishing strong, robust links between health security responses and human security approaches can allow armed forces and military organizations to transform these challenging times into an opportunity for better civilian protection. Missing that link would undoubtedly have dramatic consequences on civilian populations’ safety and security and further erode trust between civilians and the militaries which are supposed to protect them.

Image courtesy of Graham Harrison/MOD
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