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Challenges to humanitarian action at the turn of the century

31-01-1997 Statement

Norwegian Red Cross Conference, Lecture by the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dr Cornelio Sommaruga, Oslo, 31 January 1997.

Allow me to begin by thanking you and all your staff most warmly for having taken the initiative of organizing this conference to mark the inauguration of your magnificent conference centre. Over and above its functional aspect, the installation of such a centre in this new building, which houses your National Society's governing and executive bodies, has to my mind a deeper significance. Indeed, for over a century, the mission of the Red Cross has constantly expanded and been pursued in a dual approach combining action with reflection. In holding this conference the Norwegian Red Cross, whose remarkable energy and operational commitment at both the national and the international levels are well known, has demonstrated its determination to promote the expression of humanitarian purpose in the most effective way possible, through reflection and action alike.

You have invited me here to share with you my concerns about the challenges facing humanitarian action at the turn of the century. I am most grateful to you for giving me this opportunity to move forward with you in an analysis whose urgency we all recognize, at a time when our work in conflict situations is surrounded by dangers so extreme that it is sometimes reduced to impotence despite all the efforts, motivation and courage of those involved. We face these challenges daily. Their tragic dimension was brought home to us most cruelly only a few weeks ago by the terrible events in Novye Atagi, Chechnya, on 17 December last, at the field hospital placed at the ICRC's disposal by the Norwegian Red Cross and Government: five nurses and a delegate were murdered as they slept, in a cowardly attack by a commando of armed and masked men. The ICRC staff were working in that war-torn country in pursuance of the most time-honoured vocation of the Red Cross, namely, to afford impartial relief to the wounded. Their work and presence there brought a message of hope and solidarity to the victims of the conflict on behalf of the entire Red Cross Movement. The assassins sought to crush that hope by taking death into what had been a haven of peace and compassion. This appalling tragedy forced us to suspend our activities, but the Red Cross spirit which those five nurses and their colleague were seeking to propagate through their work will, I assure you, endure in Chechnya. Even the population demonstrated its support for us: as soon as news of the crime broke, hundreds of local people gathered spontaneously in the hospital compound and outside our Grozny offices to condemn the attack and express their revulsion and their solidarity. The population of Chechnya, which has suffered so much for so long, is now deprived  -for how long, we do not know-  of both our protection and the hope which it was our duty to bring them.

I should like to say once again to all our friends at the Norwegian Red Cross, and particularly to the families of Ingeborg and Gunnhild, how deeply shocked and saddened I was by this tragedy, and to tell them that all ICRC staff and certainly also all members of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement feel their pain and share their grief. I also want to confirm that the ICRC will relentlessly pursue the representations it immediately made to the Chechen and the Russian authorities, both of which condemned this vile act and undertook to open an inquiry, so as to ensure that those who ordered and carried out the massacre are identified and called to justice for a crime which has brought infamy upon them for evermore.

Remembrance of the victims of the tragedy will forever remain painfully engraved in our hearts and in the history of the Red Cross. I honour their memory.

Sadly, this incident which has caused so much anguish is not the only one of its kind. On 4 June last, three ICRC delegates in Burundi also lost their lives in an ambush by armed men in uniform, even though their vehicle was clearly marked with the Red Cross emblem and the warring parties had been duly notified that they would be travelling in the area. Over the past few years, in other dramatic circumstances, ICRC delegates have been killed in deliberate attacks in Sarajevo, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Sierra  Leone and Somalia, while the wanton violence of armed bands in Liberia forced us last year to suspend the permanent deployment of expatriate staff there. Three months ago, three of our staff were held hostage in southern Sudan for several weeks and were released only after lengthy and difficult negotiations.

Admittedly, the men and women who serve the Red Cross cause are aware that in providing relief to the victims of conflicts they may, despite the protection afforded by their emblem and although they comply strictly with the security instructions given them, find themselves exposed to all sorts of hazards inherent in combat situations. Yet they courageously accept such dangers as stray bullets, bombing and shelling, and roads that may be mined. The circumstances of the tragic events I have just mentioned, however, tell us that we are no longer dealing with inevitable accidents. The threats hanging over humanitarian action today are, alas, of quite a different order.

Wars have always magnified the profound forces which shape, build or tear apart human societies. I think, therefore, that the major challenges now facing our protection and assistance operations should be analysed in a broader social and political context. We have to take a different approach in identifying our priorities and devise a new humanitarian strategy which is not reduced to tactical reflexes imposed by the diversity of situations and crises. Seen from that ang le, the permanent insecurity which marks virtually every conflict nowadays appears to be a direct reflection of two profound crises which, to varying extents, are unsettling contemporary society as a whole. The first of these is of a moral nature and is expressed by a rejection of the values of tolerance and solidarity. The second, more structural in nature, is political: it is the crisis of the State.

These observations give a better understanding of why international humanitarian law, on which Red Cross action is based, is so often ignored and flouted in present-day conflicts. It is not, as some think, because the law is a thing of the past; it is because the two essential foundations on which respect for it rests are now being challenged. The first of these consists of the values indissociably attaching to respect for the individual. Nowadays such values are being abandoned. The second foundation  -a political one- consists of the State, whose only real legitimacy lies in its commitment and its ability to ensure respect for those values and therefore to fulfil the obligations it assumed by ratifying the Geneva Conventions. In the majority of present-day conflicts the State itself is falling apart. To convince ourselves of this we have only to look at the discrepancy between the conduct of belligerents and respect for the most basic human values in a situation where, as a result of the identity-related, ethnic, nationalistic, religious and cultural claims that have taken over from the now defunct Cold War ideologies, nations are being torn apart and States are breaking up and collapsing. This process of fragmentation, triggered in the international arena by the implosion of the former Soviet empire, has not stopped at the frontiers of the former USSR. By a series of chain reactions, it has spread to many Third World States which, although geographically remote, relied heavily on the political, financial or economic support they received from the great powers during the East-West co nfrontation. That development is having particularly devastating repercussions in many countries of Africa, where the dogma of the inviolability of borders drawn during the colonial era, a dogma that the Cold War helped to perpetuate, is now being called into question.

I see these two interlocking crises as both the cause and the effect of most post-Cold War internal conflicts, which are generally known as wars in failed States. In such civil-war situations, where central authority has broken down or disappeared altogether and armed gangs have taken over from traditional armies, humanitarian action can no longer rely on its traditional methods. To begin with, there are scarcely any authorities left which share its ideals or can even be regarded as credible or reliable. If the civil war in Lebanon taught the ICRC what a nightmare it is to conduct humanitarian operations and negotiations in an inter-factional war, in many of today's conflicts  -and those in Somalia and Liberia are prime examples-  the " Lebanization " of warfare is aggravated by generalized criminal behaviour on the part of the protagonists, behaviour which rejects even the principle of the immunity of humanitarian action under the protection of the Red Cross emblem. Denied the economic and military support guaranteed by East-West confrontation, combatants now organize for survival in war economies based on looting. The civilian population is their first victim and, once civilians have been stripped of all they own, the combatants turn on the humanitarian organizations, looting their relief supplies and taking over the logistic facilities they have set up for operational purposes. The Liberian conflict is typical of that development in warfare, but the same scenario occurred in Burundi, for instance, and in the huge camps for Rwandan refugees set up in Zaire's Kivu province.

In that sort of anarchic situation, do the humanitarian organizations have any choice but to place t heir operations under military protection? Faced with the urgent needs of hundreds of thousands of starving civilians in Somalia, we took the exceptional decision to place our convoys under the protection of armed militias. That experience taught us that such arrangements could hardly be regarded as a practicable option in the long term; we are now more familiar with all their adverse effects. Indeed, were we to resort to such measures on a more general scale, we would surely forfeit all hope of persuading the belligerents in future conflicts not only to respect humanitarian action but, above all, to respect the civilian population, the wounded and prisoners, who are always defenceless. Moreover, resorting to military protection has its limits. For instance, did the United Nations humanitarian operation conducted in Bosnia under the protection of UNPROFOR prevent massacres, or the ravages of ethnic cleansing? Alas, it obviously did not. The only real course open to humanitarian action, and it is the option we have chosen, is to work tirelessly and resolutely to restore and demand respect for the protective Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems. That is the price of ensuring that humanitarian action loses neither the impartiality it must preserve if it is to operate efficiently on behalf of all victims, nor the corollary of necessary independence from the belligerents. That is one of the major challenges to humanitarian action that we must take up today. I certainly do not include in this reasonment the protection by armed guards of our premises and warehouses, what has been done in the past and may be intensified as a measure against banditry.

However, it is also clear that humanitarian agencies are reaching the outer limits of their operational capacity in the face of anarchy, chaos, and  racist and genocidal policies. We saw that in Bosnia, in Liberia, in Rwanda during the genocide, and we see it in Burundi today. Humanitarian action has certainly helped save lives  in those situation s, but its effectiveness is bound to be limited when it is confronted with policies which are the very negation of every principle of humanity. When violence, as the expression of deliberate policy, reaches such a pitch and the survival of entire populations is at stake, the response to crises can no longer be defined solely in terms of humanitarian action; unless, of course, such action is merely an alibi, a means of keeping a clear conscience. Massacres and genocide, which are first and foremost political crimes, can be effectively combated only through political and if necessary military action, so it is in the United Nations Charter that the international community must seek solutions without delay. Moreover, humanitarian law makes provision for such a course: Article  89 of Protocol  I additional to the Geneva Conventions states that, in situations of serious violations of humanitarian law, States " undertake to act, jointly or individually, in co-operation with the United Nations and in conformity with the United Nations Charter " . Despite the existence of such legal provisions, what transpired in Bosnia, in Rwanda and again recently in the Kivu province of Zaire? In Rwanda, although alerted by the humanitarian organizations, the international community chose not to see the danger looming and, when the irrevocable happened before the eyes of the whole world, was still not spurred into action. On the contrary, the Security Council withdrew almost all the United Nations forces deployed in Rwanda, leaving behind only a symbolic contingent which had no orders to intervene, so whose role was confined to passive observation of the genocide. That failure to act will remain a dark chapter in the history of mankind. Yet Bosnia had already taught us the cost, in terms of human lives, of lack of cohesion and political resolve on the part of the international community. For there too, equivocation, sudden changes of policy, endlessly postponed ultimatums and countless contradictory negotiations enabled the inst igators of ethnic cleansing to pursue their plans to the bitter end. We had to await the fall of the enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa  -which the United Nations had declared protected zones-  and the atrocities committed there before we saw the genuine military action that has since proved so effective. Disarray, or deliberate political will?

These reflections take me on to another challenge: the United Nations and the impartial and independent humanitarian organizations have not yet succeeded in defining the framework and the terms of effective cooperation between political action and humanitarian endeavour which will enable them, when the vital interests of conflict victims so require, to be mutually supportive without becoming entangled. The humanitarian role of the ICRC, the National Societies and their Federation is clearly defined in the Statutes of the Movement and in international humanitarian law. The humanitarian responsibility of States, however, being subject to political considerations, is more ambiguous and indecisive. Only when States establish common and predictable policies in this area will they form a genuine international community and will the United Nations be able to take effective preventive, deterrent and, in the last resort, repressive political action in the event of serious violations of humanitarian law, massacres, genocide and the other major challenges facing us. Nothing acts as a deterrent unless it entails predictable consequences. In recent history, Rwanda is a particularly striking precedent in that respect.

All this signals a very serious danger which every individual and every State, as well as the international community, must recognize as a matter of urgency. Individual responsibility and the credibility of the international community are on the line as never before, as is respect for humanitarian law and the values on which it is based. Let us reflect for a moment: what sort of world do we want to build for tomorrow ? Can we pass from one epoch to another, from the world of the Cold War in which solidarity was imposed on States by ideological considerations and geostrategic interests, to this fragile new world in which all those checks and balances have disappeared? Is the new world to be one of extreme nationalism, of fanaticism which sees the future in the past? Will it be a globalized economy dominated entirely by the laws of competition and its most dangerous by-product, the code of the survival of the fittest, with everyone for himself? Will it be another bipolar world, with the deprived majority dominated by a privileged few? Surely the present-day indifference to serious violations of humanitarian law and the policy of not rendering assistance to persons in danger, as in the Security Council's failure to react during the Rwandan genocide, are manifestations of a dangerous tendency which it is vital we resist. Beyond their tragic immediacy, the crises in Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, the former Yugoslavia and Chechnya demand a response from us. What do we make of a world that allows thousands of women and children to die but rushes into Kuwait, by perfect consensus, to prevent its oil being stolen? In that context, and bearing in mind the particularly serious nature of the events mentioned above, humanitarian action and the debate on its underlying values have clearly moved to the very centre of the major concerns of our time. The National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, individually and within their Federation, the International Committee of the Red Cross within the framework of its own mandate, and all of us in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement must show solidarity and feel that it is our duty to help make this world, now seeking its destiny, a more peaceful and humane place. It is also in that perspective that the objectives of Red Cross and Red Crescent humanitarian action are being defined as we approach the millennium. It is no longer enough to simply react to the tragic consequences of war.

As you who observe it daily all know, our world is profoundly riven by fratricidal conflicts and social inequalities, xenophobia, racism, the impoverishment of vast regions, the consequences of natural disasters, and damage to the natural environment. It is undergoing economic, social, scientific, technological and cultural transformations so radical that they fundamentally challenge political, national and international order, and man's place in a context that is constantly changing. During the Cold War the concepts of peace and security, which are at the very heart of humanitarian action, were defined  -in the most elementary manner and in the way most immediately vital to mankind-  as the absence of war between the major nuclear powers. Today, in order to build a more just and peaceful world, we need a broader concept encompassing three essential, interdependent and complex dimensions, namely military security, economic security and civic security, which might also be called democratic and human-rights security. The humanitarian organizations, and more particularly the universal Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, have a new and crucial role to play in those three domains.

While those areas of concern are by no means foreign to the Red Cross, the environment in which we have to operate has changed. On the question of arms control, for instance, the cautious attitude which our neutrality dictated during the Cold War is no longer valid; we are quite aware of this, as shown by our active campaigning for a total ban on anti-personnel mines. Major progress has been made towards that objective, but the effort will have to be relentlessly pursued. We also succeeded in alerting States to the potentially serious implications in humanitarian terms of producing new weapons, including blinding laser guns. Laser weapons, an area in which the technology was already highly developed, are now banned by a protocol adopted during the review of the United Nations Conventio nal Weapons Convention. I am gratified that the ICRC should have been the key artisan of that decision. However, I think it is urgent that we place another issue on our agenda of priorities, namely, the introduction of a system for controlling legal and illegal weapons transfers and markets. Such controls are essential not only in relation to security and anti-terrorist activities but also from the humanitarian standpoint: it is odious to see the starving populations of so many war-torn countries being held hostage by combatants who, fearing neither God nor man, have acquired abundant weaponry with impunity and use it in ways that are all too familiar.

In the context of economic security, solidarity among members of the Movement must be given fresh thought and considerably strengthened, particularly with a view to promoting the development of National Societies in the poorest countries through projects which meet the most crucial needs of their impoverished inhabitants. In defining our priorities, we must be careful not to focus all our energy on emergency aid in conflicts at the expense of peacetime development and implementation of post-conflict or post-natural disaster rehabilitation strategies mobilizing the different components of the Movement at successive stages. In both the industrialized countries and the former communist countries, whose economies are in serious crisis, the National Societies  -with the support of their Federation-  should perhaps include in their priorities assistance to those untouched by prosperity  -the homeless, displaced, refugees and minorities-  so as to protect them from exclusion, intolerance, xenophobia and racism. In expressing these thoughts it is in no way my intention to give the Red Cross economic responsibilities which are outside its mandate; but while humanitarian action cannot be expected to correct dysfunction in the economy, it must be there to ensure respect for and protection of human dignity under threat.

Lastly, democratic security implies respect for human rights, not only in the conduct of internal affairs and in relations between States, but also in day-to-day relations between all members of the human community. We must also play an active role in this context so as to promote, first among individuals and then collectively, a sharing of the values of solidarity, tolerance and brotherhood which inspire our action and lie at the heart of the fundamental principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and of international humanitarian law. In order to deal with all those issues, the members of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will obviously have to organize their activities in a more coherent, precise and efficient manner, in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation free from institutional ambition. The drafting, now under way, of a new agreement on the organization of the international activities of the Movement's members is one of our goals in this respect. Personally, I hope that the agreement will provide a new agenda for our Movement and that, by allowing for a clear and dynamic organization of the activities we are called upon to perform both in peacetime and in conflicts, it will establish an unbroken chain of humanitarian action and solidarity whose ultimate purpose, shared by all concerned, will be to protect the lives and dignity of all those in distress or under threat.

In conclusion, may I say that I trust we shall remain united and confident so that Henry Dunant's message of humanity, evolving through this turbulent century, will continue to be heard loud and clear. "Per humanitatem ad pacem" .