IRC President and CEO David Miliband’s West Point Class of 1983





Thank you for the invitation to be with you today. My deepest engagement with the US military came during my time as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the UK. I got the chance to see first-hand the bravery, can-do, intelligence and scale of the US military effort. I saw extraordinary responsibility amidst situations of great risk, and fidelity to ideals of service and honor that was striking. So please accept my respect.

As well as immense bravery on the battlefield from your colleagues, I saw the premium the US military places on careful thought and open discussion. So thank you for inviting me today and offering this platform. My hope is that we can share critical lessons about the changing nature of conflict and learn from the perspectives and approaches of one another. This is not about blurring the differences between our work. It is about refusing to accept the trend to ignore, at best, and deride, at worst, each other’s work.

At a time of unusual geopolitical change, with the hierarchy of the post-Cold War War order being overturned by shifts in economic power and political sentiment, the world looks more turbulent and unstable than in many years. This risk draws in military and humanitarian actors to complicated foreign lands where risks are high and successes elusive. My message today is simple: conflict is changing, power is shifting, so we both need to change the way we work if we are to fulfill our distinctive missions.

Most American troops are stationed to protect American national interest by preventing inter-state conflict. In Europe, in Korea, in the Gulf. Strategy is being updated to account for a world of more rivalrous and equal players. But my focus is not there. It is on the places where there are fewer American troops, but many more American casualties. The places where there is conflict not where it is being prevented. The places where humanitarian organizations like mine and military organizations like yours find themselves in the same country and sometimes in the same locality.

There are significant differences between our different professions. You carry arms. We don’t. You answer to national interest and elected politicians. We emphasize neutrality, independence and impartiality. Your definitions of victory and ours are different. And while you shape the battlefield, we adapt to it.

But as a colleague who previously served as a US Army officer noted to me, the surface-level differences mask some deeper commonalities. We are both driven by a sense of purpose greater than ourselves. On the front line our colleagues do a risky job in a challenging environment. Our ethos is to take personal responsibility for engaging a problem that others take for granted. The Army’s notion of “selfless service” tracks closely with humanitarian core values.

The International Rescue Committee was founded by Albert Einstein in New York in the late 1930s. We honor that history as the largest refugee resettlement organization in the US, supporting refugees and Iraqi and Afghan SIVs who risked their lives supporting American troops. We are also one of the world’s largest international aid organizations, helping people whose lives are shattered by conflict or disaster survive, recover and gain control of their lives. We have more than 30,000 workers – employees and volunteers – in nearly 200 field sites in over forty countries around the world. The vast majority of these staff, over 95 per cent, are locally hired.

On our plate at the moment are a growing number of crises. For example the fallout from the invasion of North East Syria by Turkey. The fight against Ebola in Eastern DRC, complicated by years of conflict. The complex interplay of ideology, economic interest and power struggles in the Sahel. These are new emergencies layered on top of longer-term problems: the destabilization by extremist non-state actors in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Nigeria; the civil wars in Syria, Myanmar, and South Sudan.


IRC’s mission statement commits us to help people whose lives are shattered by conflict and disaster. Primarily that means people displaced as refugees or internally displaced. Today there are more than 70 million of them around the world, including 29 million refugees and asylum-seekers, more than at any time since the end of World War II.

Increasing numbers of people are on the run because of the changing nature of conflict. The war in Syria is a good example. In conflicts since 1945, an average of 5 people were displaced for every one person killed. In the Syrian war, that ratio has been 25 to 1.

Compared with the Cold War period, the number of battle deaths is down, but the threats to civilians and aid workers are up. Last year there were nearly a thousand attacks on health workers, hospitals, ambulances and patients in conflict zones, including multiple IRC-supported facilities in Syria. 120 aid workers are killed on average each year, more than double the average 15 years ago. Ethnic cleansing is on the rise – 11 cases last year compared to 3 in 2005. And of course the greatest harm is to the most vulnerable – children. Today 140 million children are living in areas of high-intensity conflict. Twice the number of children who live in the United States or Europe.

I call this trend towards increased danger for civilians an “Age of Impunity.” Led by but not confined to authoritarian states, far too many militaries, militias, and mercenaries have learned the dangerous lesson that “the rules are for suckers.” The new normal in war zones around the world is one where civilians are seen as fair game for armed combatants, humanitarians are viewed as an impediment to military tactics and therefore unfortunate but expendable collateral, and investigations of and accountability for war crimes are considered an optional extra for state as well as non-state actors.

Here are six dimensions of change in conflict where we work today:

– The Rise of Non-State Actors: Some non-state actors focus on global jihad, others on local control, still others on both. Many of these groups emphasize replacement of the local state as a consequence of the armed struggle. Others are commercial or criminal actors like MS-13 in El Salvador or the various extortionary groups operating in Libya. For many of these groups, their goal is not security on their terms, but instead chronic insecurity that creates governance voids they can exploit. All this raises the risks for us, as we seek to navigate shifting alliances and shifting front lines.

– The Use of Proxies and Partner Forces: From the Sahel to Yemen to Libya to Syria, the use of proxies and local partner forces is also on the rise. The increase in proxy forces also means a much more crowded conflict environment. One-fifth of conflicts today involve more than 10 parties and two-thirds involve at least 3 parties. Traveling between Aden and Sanaa in Yemen – a distance of 300 miles – takes our teams through 70 checkpoints set up by the various armed groups operating along the road. And the proxy forces reflect the values as well as the tactics of those who sponsor them.

– Urban Conflict: From Aleppo to Mosul to Kabul, war is an increasingly urban phenomenon, putting more civilians at risk, not just from the direct harms of bullets and shrapnel, but from the indirect impacts of war on health facilities, water and sanitation systems, and housing. Today 85 percent of armed conflict takes place in population centers. In Iraq and Syria, urban offensives accounted for eight times the number of civilian casualties compared to fighting in non-urban areas. This is what our teams in Idlib, Syria, are dealing with today: brutal siege tactics designed to trap, isolate, starve, and force the surrender of civilians in cities, while non-state actors are using the tight quarters of urban environments to neutralize the technological advantages of state militaries, daring militaries to make the choice between risking dangerous combat in narrow city streets or risking widespread civilian casualties in airstrikes.

– Protracted Conflict: Every year the IRC releases a watchlist of the top 20 countries most at risk of humanitarian crisis, from Yemen to South Sudan to the Central African Republic. Among the 20 countries on the list, the IRC has been deployed for an average of 15 years in each country. In six of them we’ve been there for over 20 years. It highlights the fact that conflicts are becoming longer and more protracted. The danger is that conflicts never truly end, but simply evolve from one form to another, one civil war giving rise to another.

– Diversifying Types of Conflict: IRC’s crisis watchlist shows the different types of conflict. There are large-scale, internationalized civil wars like Yemen and Syria. There is state violence against unorganized civilians like in Myanmar. There is violence between community defense groups such as the farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria, which has caused as many deaths last year as the Boko Haram conflict. There is pervasive gang violence driven by commercial and criminal motives rather than political goals, like in El Salvador. There is violence by state-aligned militias acting as proxies of the government, such as the youth militia in Burundi. And there is of course terrorist violence in places like Mali. The increasingly blurry lines between war and peace, between violence and conflict, require us to reimagine what constitutes a crisis meriting humanitarian intervention and what a realistic end goal looks like for displaced communities who may never be truly safe enough to go home.

– Contagion of Conflict: Finally, what happens in one country does not usually stay in that country. There are no Las Vegas rules. Conflicts today draw in more and more countries, whether they’re looking to leverage a civil war for geopolitical advantage or simply concerned about the emergence of terrorist groups capitalizing on the chaos created by warfare. The number of countries participating in armed conflict today has more than tripled over the past 15 years to more than 70. The result is that among the 48 civil wars happening around the world, 40 percent of them involve foreign troops from at least one other country.


These changes create and reflect a more multipolar world, in which geopolitics is a much more complex chess match than the polarities of the Cold War. They create enormous uncertainty about the role of the UN institutions created seventy-five years ago to promote global peace and stability.

The changes affect us deeply. But they also affect you. How you think, how you plan and how you train. Just as the tools of diplomacy developed for conflict between states are inadequate for wars within states, the humanitarian and military strategies for wars within states need a rethink as well. The experience of both soldiers and humanitarians in Afghanistan or Congo or Somalia – where US or UN forces have been for decades, and humanitarians have also been for decades – pose difficult questions for each of us about the very nature of our work. In all those countries there has been extraordinary valor and achievement. But on both sides of military-civilian divide there are hard lessons.

Some lessons are for us in our sector to sort out amongst ourselves. Getting the life-saving humanitarian aid and longer-term poverty alleviation systems to work together. Funding humanitarian aid through longer-term grants that recognize the prolonged nature of conflict. Buttressing the evidence base about what is best practice in humanitarian systems. Doing more to safeguard clients from abuse. Rebalancing the aid system to spend more on education.

But there are also big challenges that I think apply to both humanitarian and military organizations. I want to highlight five, where the changing nature of conflict has changed the context in which we work and demands fresh thinking about how we as humanitarians work. I think it would be valuable for us to talk through our perspectives and see where there are shared interests.

There is one point that overlays all the challenges. Our greatest strength and our greatest defense is that we are on the side of civilians in need without fear or favor – or the appearance of fear of favor. Even when we are funded by national governments, it is important for our mandate as neutral actors between the parties to the conflict to be sustained. This means that as a matter of effective aid delivery – as opposed to high principle – we have to be careful about how we structure our work and who we work with, guarding the tram lines that help us do our job. Historically your Department of Defense has helped develop guidance for US military forces about coordination with non-government agencies. The UN thinks about this a lot. Because there is a lot to be gained from getting it right.

First, there is the challenge of earning community trust in the places where we work. IRC works in some of the toughest and tensest places in the world. When we arrive, in small numbers, to assess needs and plan operations at the outset of a crisis, we are outsiders. Our number one task is to become insiders. That is the route to effective service delivery, to intelligence on risks, to acceptance by local people and power brokers alike. Arriving with the promise of aid and economic assistance attracts friends, but it also makes us an attractive target in resource-strapped environments.

What we do is hire locally. We do this well, and fast. Today 96 percent of our staff are locally hired. We are also increasingly bringing local communities into the decision-making process. What services to provide, how to design services to meet local needs. What we need to do much better is partner with local civil society organizations. This is one topic of our current strategy review. We know that local community groups start before we arrive and last beyond our departure. We need to make our expertise their ally in changing their community. Above all else, earning local trust requires us to treat community members with dignity and live up to our promises to them.

There is a parallel here to your world. You also hire locally. And those who work for the US military (or diplomats) have the prospect of resettlement to the US after their service is over through the SIV and P2 visa programs. This is what led 27 retired flag officers of all branches of the US military to write to the president in August beseeching that he not cut the refugee resettlement program that includes programs for Iraqis and Afghans who work as interpreters, advisors, engineers and other support roles. They wrote: “We have personally borne witness to how those programs ensure the safety of our service members and success of US missions.” But today that promise is being eroded. Only 48 Iraqi P2s arrived this year despite 100,000 eligible Iraqis on the waitlist, just as refugee resettlement to the US has dropped by more than 70 percent since 2016.

Second, we both face the challenge of how to operate in the face of conflict actors who disregard international humanitarian law. I know from my own time in government that when terrorist groups abuse international law there are calls for us to treat them the same. But the determination of military leaders in the US and across NATO to uphold commitments to international humanitarian law is strategic, it is not tactical. These commitments to morality, legality and discipline are part of a long game, and it is vital not to lose that focus.

I have no illusion, and the laws of war harbor no illusions, about your job on the battlefield. Soldiers have to protect each other and deliver on their mission. International law does not judge the military mission, but it demands that it be pursued with necessity, proportionality and distinction. This reflects the fact that your soldiers will be operating in and around people’s homes and communities, and they will take home all that they see. It is vital that they go home with their honor as well as their valor.

International humanitarian law provides you, their leadership, with a roadmap to maintaining that honor. That is the power of Secretary Mattis’ comment: “If in order to kill the enemy you have to kill an innocent, don’t take the shot. Don’t create more enemies than you take out by some immoral act.”

I am convinced that it is in the interests of the people we serve that there be a massive international effort to reverse the trend of ignoring IHL and making excuses for flouting it. That requires all sectors of society to defend the laws and norms established after World War II. Those norms and laws protect soldiers as well as civilians. In preventing harm to others, there is a chance of limiting harm to those in uniform. So in this respect we are in this together.

Third, we both face the challenge of how to define success, and when and how to exit. IRC’s mission talks of helping people “survive, recover and gain control of their futures.” That goes beyond the original humanitarian imperative of preventing death. I make no apology for that. The duration of displacement means we have to think about helping people thrive not just survive.

But it does mean that we have to take seriously the criteria for entry and exit. We try and do that systematically, asking every year whether we should expand or contract each of our field sites according to criteria of the severity of crisis, degree of poverty and vulnerability, and presence of other actors who could do the job better. But this is an area where we need to do better, staying long enough to make a difference, but not suffering mission creep.

You know well the dangers of ill-defined missions. Leave too early, and you have to return. Stay too long, and you become a target at worst and a source of dependency at best. This requires both humanitarians and the military to be clear-eyed and honest about what we can accomplish, how long it will take, and what is beyond our control from the beginning.

Fourth, we both face the challenge of living in a world of weakened and fragmented diplomacy, which makes our jobs so much harder by leaving crises to fester and conflict to continue. This should worry us all. The phrase “the only solution is a political solution” has become a cliché because it is true. But it is in danger of losing meaning, because there are so few examples of effective diplomacy. The recent peace settlement between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a hopeful example of what leadership can do. But the weakness of the diplomatic and political imperative in places like Syria or Yemen – reflecting local and global fragmentation of power – drags us both in deeper.

This explains the increasing interest in how peacemaking, security and development fit together. In my experience stabilization without power-sharing is a misnomer. Security or development efforts are fundamentally weakened in the absence of a political process to which people can look to resolve disputes. Without all communities feeling like they have a stake in power, no amount of military effort can provide security and no amount of humanitarian or development effort can provide prosperity. That is why the UN Secretary General and his team has made it a priority to link peacekeeping missions to the search for political settlement. They need our help in that.

Fifth, we both face the challenge of public fatigue at home. If you join the armed forces or the humanitarian sector you are inevitably more tied into the rest of the world than the general population. But there is a paradox about the attitudes of our fellow citizens in the West. At a time when the world is becoming more interconnected, more interdependent, there is growing reluctance to think about problems beyond our own borders. This fatigue is the product of failures, perceived and real, on both our parts. And it represents a prioritization of problems at home.

There is no easy answer to this phenomenon. I come from a country that has voted for divorce from its nearest trading and political neighbors. But I do believe this: that if the Western countries that helped create this period of global integration are not part of solving the problems that have been created, then three things will follow. First, we will not be able to enjoy the blessings that globalization has brought, whether in terms of prosperity or stability. Second, the problems will not stay where they start. And third, because nature abhors a vacuum, as the West looks increasingly inward, others will take over, in diplomacy, in development and in the security realm. And the danger, or rather the likelihood, is that when countries that are bound by principles of human rights, accountable government and due process opt out of international engagement, there is a race to the bottom, undermining the progress that has been made, and reinforcing the dangerous trends of instability and impunity that led to the creation of the post-war institutions in the first place. That is one way that the places of conflict in the world link to the geopolitics with which I started. In the end, this is not just a world of competing interests. There are different values. And they matter.


The last time I talked to someone from a military organization about our work was in Beijing in November, when a representative of the PLA attended a speech I gave and told me that he thought there was need for discussion and joint working. That’s a good reminder that this conversation does not take place in a vacuum. The New York Times reported yesterday on 200 Russian mercenaries deploying in Mozambique, while Moscow was taking initial steps towards building a military port in the Horn of Africa. The US Defense Department, by contrast, is in the process of considering troop withdrawals from the region.

Thirty years after the end of the Cold War the evidence of a multipolar world, more brittle and complex, is all around us. That makes questions of mission and method all the more important. And silos all the more dangerous.

Your mission is defined by civilian leaders. But method takes expertise. And with the calls on duty changing, so must the methods. My guess is that while accountability for every answer needs to come from within our own communities, the substance will be enriched by perspectives from outside. That is what I have tried to provide today.

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About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at

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