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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 28, July 1998

The Humanitarian Dimension
By Lorna Richardson

George Robertson claims in the introduction to the SDR that the British are "by instinct, an internationalist people", unwilling to stand aside while humanitarian disasters and aggressive dictators go unchecked. Bypassing, for the moment, the quite substantial debate about whether British foreign policy is aimed at giving Britain a status in the world quite out of keeping with her true position, the military manifestation of this can be seen in the SDR with the idea that Britain must be prepared to go to the crisis rather than wait for the crisis to come to her. The force structures themselves, from the cuts in the Reserve Forces to the increased focus on joint operations, reflect this change in emphasis from defending a home territory against one large enemy, to preparing to send a number of expeditionary forces elsewhere in the world.

As part of this declared emphasis on being a 'force for good' in the world, Peace Support and Humanitarian Operations, defined as ranging from logistical and medical support to disaster relief, are included in the list of the eight defence Missions. Within this, the enhancement of UN operations takes priority. However, notwithstanding some recent television recruitment campaigns which present the work of the forces as a particularly tough form of disaster relief ('Their Country Needs You'), or, indeed, the cover of the SDR itself, depicting a soldier feeding a baby in Rwanda, military involvement in humanitarian aid needs to be very carefully thought out.

The work performed by the military in protecting humanitarian aid delivery, monitoring demobilisation, arresting war criminals and protecting civilians has been welcomed by many development agencies and civilians alike. Yet normalising the role of the military in relief work brings with it inherent problems. Military training and structures are designed primarily to support military operations, not humanitarian work, and whatever skills that armed forces personnel display in relief work may well be despite, not because of, their training. Even in areas such as logistics, where military skills and experience may seem supremely applicable to the needs of large-scale relief work, the use of military equipment and procedures can be entirely inappropriate to the task. In the worst case, the unconsidered involvement of the military in humanitarian aid may not only fail to do the job they were sent in to do, but, by politicising the delivery of aid, actually endanger the relief effort in the long term.

Moving from crisis response to long-term strategy, the SDR identifies Defence Diplomacy for the first time as a separate Mission. This covers arms control, non-proliferation and security-building measures, but also takes into its brief military assistance and training for overseas countries. While military assistance abroad has long been a part of 'daily military business', the rationale for formulating it as a discrete Mission appears to be to give these tasks more status and a higher profile.

The purpose of military training is set forth in the SDR as assisting in the development of democratically accountable armed forces. One major branch of this training is in the 'Outreach' programme, which focuses on Central and Eastern Europe, while other programmes assist with overseas defence forces elsewhere. One of the ways, of course, in which the UK can promote the democratic accountability of other armed forces is by setting a good example. The MoD, together with the FCO, should expand on the transparency measures outlined in the SDR by publishing the details, including purpose, size, cost and who is paying, of every instance of British military assistance. It would also be necessary to release details of any human rights audit conducted on the armed forces of the recipient country. Only then can the assistance programmes be given the kind of informed scrutiny they need if they are to be measured against the guidelines dictated by an ethical foreign policy.

Where ethical foreign policy guidelines are strictly adhered to - and seen to be adhered to - timely, thoughtful, military assistance abroad can have an effect which is beneficial both to the host country and to Britain. These benefits can be disproportionately large compared to the resources placed in it, with the primary task supplemented by the establishment of relationships of trust, with an effect on subsequent bilateral relationships. The British Military Assistance Training Teams in Southern Africa, for example, which assisted with the integration of former adversaries into professional national defence forces, have rightly been regarded by both Britain and the host States as successful. Part of the success has to be attributable to the fact that the training was done in support of definable foreign policy objectives, and was flexible enough to build upon its own strengths. The first training programme in 1980 led to the host country, Zimbabwe, taking a 'satisfied customer' role later on in recommending British training to Namibia, and then to Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa.

Where the benefits to the host countries of military assistance are lost is when assistance is used as a vehicle for promoting arms sales abroad. This is connected more to the defence industry's desire to achieve economies of scale than to the genuine security needs of potential customers.

One eminently sensible point noted in the submission to the SDR from the Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, was that military assistance teams could rather use their involvement and influence to encourage their host States to restrict their military spending to what was absolutely necessary for their security. (In this, too, Britain would have to follow its own advice.) This would support the work of the Department for International Development and the humanitarian aid agencies in promoting development above military spending, and so on a number of levels help to avert possible causes of conflict. By giving advice not to buy arms, rather than merely refraining from selling them ours, would also begin to address the usual cry of the defence industry that "if we didn't sell them, someone else would". While the remit of the SDR clearly does not extend to examining interdepartmental relationships, the potential for conflicts of interest between the different government departments does have to be addressed. Britain, if it truly does want to be a 'force for good' in the world, could do worse than to use the military to help prioritise development.

Lorna Richardson has just graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. She is a former Chair of the Namibia Support Committee and currently works as a part-time administrator for the Acronym Institute.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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