University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Lisa Schirch and David Cortright

In recent decades, international peacekeeping missions have become more robust and multi-dimensional, involving diverse civilian and military actors. In many cases, civilian peacebuilding and development actors are on the ground throughout the conflict, sharing operational environments with military forces that increasingly engage in civilian activities.

In these complex environments, civil society and military actors often have competing or conflicting goals and approaches — or they may miss opportunities for coordinated action. The blurring of roles and responsibilities between civilian and military actors in conflict and post-conflict settings is an important dimension of peacebuilding and development policy.


Managing the sensitive relationship among civil society actors and military forces is especially important for security system reform and for enhancing military accountability to civilian government. Problems arise when military units take on traditionally civilian development missions, such as the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, or when security forces view humanitarian missions as a way of gathering military intelligence. The challenges of civil-military interaction also surface during disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration in the wake of armed conflict.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution argues that security cooperation and training programs should include support for democracy and human rights. But military officers do not have expertise in these areas and often fail to address them in security assistance programs. Civil society actors have the necessary expertise, and in some regions they are helping military officers understand democratic principles and human rights practices. These examples are rare, however, and international military training programs too often ignore civil society perspectives.

A growing number of policymakers and scholars are recognizing the urgent need for standards, guidelines, and best practices for civil-military relations in peacebuilding and development activities. Civilian and military specialists share the goals of avoiding tensions and conflicting purposes and maximizing the potential for cooperation in order to achieve more effective and timely peacebuilding interventions.


The UN-mandated Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which includes the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs as well as nongovernmental organizations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, already provides guidance for civil-military interaction in humanitarian operations. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and InterAction, the humanitarian organization network, offer country-level humanitarian civil-military guidelines in the U.S. These guidelines call on military forces and civilian agencies to respect the integrity of humanitarian assistance programs and to avoid actions that conflate military operations and humanitarian efforts and jeopardize aid workers and civilian populations. They are based on International Humanitarian Law and the Law of Armed Conflict, which require military actors to discriminate between combatants and civilians and to avoid actions that endanger civilian populations.

The guidance documents provide aspirational principles for how civilian and military actors should interact. They can serve as a template for the development of similar principles to guide civil-military relations in peacebuilding and development policy.


Standards for civil-military interaction in peacebuilding and development missions should be based on support for democracy, human rights, and accountability to local populations. The following principles could serve as the basis for designing missions that meet those standards:

  1. Protection of civilians. Recognize that when military units provide direct assistance and engage in civilian activities they blur the lines between civilians and military targets and can place civilians at risk.
  1. Integrity of civilian activities. Do no harm, and avoid duplicating development and peacebuilding activities that are best performed by local civilians.
  1. Coordination. Assure channels of communication between military and civilian agencies and provide accessible and timely information to affected populations, with opportunities for feedback.
  1. Participation. Enable affected local populations to play an active role in conflict assessment and decision-making; guarantee that the most marginalized and affected populations are represented and heard.

Policymakers and scholars increasingly recognize that security cannot be achieved through military means alone and that sustainable peace depends on good governance, economic development, and the protection of human rights. These are tasks that require the involvement of civil society and principled standards to guide civil-military interaction in peacebuilding.

Lisa Schirch is Director of Human Security at the Alliance for Peacebuilding. David Cortright is Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute.