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Strengthening of the coordination of humanitarian and disaster relief assistance of the United Nations, including special economic assistance

24-11-1997 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly 52nd session, Plenary, Agenda item 20. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 24 November 1997

Mr. President,

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) over the past years has been closely following the debate on strengthening the coordination of humanitarian assistance in emergency situations and welcomes this renewed opportunity of sharing a few thoughts on this topic.

 The rationale for humanitarian coordination  and the ICRC's approach  

First of all we wish to express our conviction that strengthening coordination among the various humanitarian organizations involved in emergency response, in both the policy and operational areas, is essential for achieving their objectives.

The ICRC is particularly concerned with emergency situations due to armed conflict and internal violence, which are often marked by widespread and urgent needs among the civilian population and by the breakdown of political, economic and civic institutions. Such situations require humanitarian organizations to harmonize their responses and avoid any duplication of efforts. Coordination should aim at carefully orchestrating the conduct of different types of activity over time, in a frequently volatile and rapidly changing environment. It should be instrumental in broadening the impact of humanitarian efforts and in ensuring the best use of donor funding.

The ICRC believes that humanitarian action, on which the fate o f many thousands of people often depends, requires proper assessment and planning, professional management and constant evaluation. Humanitarian organizations involved in emergency response need to recognize their interdependence. Inappropriate behaviour or lack of professionalism on the part of some can adversely affect the efforts undertaken by others. It can, moreover, lead to a dangerous lowering of standards in humanitarian aid.

In this connection we shall refer briefly to the issue of security of humanitarian workers. The growing risks to which humanitarian organizations have been exposed in recent years are undoubtedly due to changing realities in the pattern and conduct of warfare, but they have been further compounded by the proliferation of aid agencies with divergent objectives and different working methods. Warring parties often view the humanitarian world as a whole, without distinguishing between the various organizations; in other words, if one agency offends them, all may be affected by the consequences. The security of all the organizations thus depends on the security of each one. The ICRC believes that proper coordination and compliance with common fundamental principles can help to improve the safety of humanitarian personnel.

Here we should like to highlight the importance of codes of conduct and terms of reference which seek to regulate the way in which humanitarian operations are carried out, specify the conditions attached to the provision of relief, and establish minimum standards that ought to be universally applied. In 1993 the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement adopted a code of conduct which has since been endorsed by over 100 non-governmental organizations and which was welcomed by consensus by the representatives of 142 governments at the latest International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 1995. This code is one attempt to set universal practical and professional standards in emergen cy operations and to address the issues of ethics and accountability.

Mr. President,

After these general considerations on humanitarian coordination, the ICRC would like to stress its full commitment to take part in the United Nations'coordination efforts. It recognizes the need to strengthen appropriate UN-led coordination mechanisms, such as the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. Its participation in these mechanisms is prompted on the one hand by its concern to achieve the greatest possible complementarity between its own efforts and those of the UN and humanitarian organizations and, on the other, conditioned by its determination to fulfil its special role as an independent and neutral intermediary in situations of armed conflict, which is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions.

Apart from its contribution to the work of UN coordination mechanisms, the ICRC has also been pursuing a bilateral dialogue with UN agencies and bodies, including UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, WHO, FAO and the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and with some of the major non-governmental organizations involved in emergency situations or humanitarian advocacy. The objective of this bilateral approach is to enhance mutual understanding and to strengthen in particular sectorial coordination and cooperation.

For many years now, the ICRC has played a major role in coordinating humanitarian endeavours in the field. It did so, for example, in Cambodia in the early eighties together with UNICEF, in Somalia in the early nineties, and more recently in Chechnya (Russian Federation), until the brutal murder of six of its field personnel, mostly medical staff from national Red Cross Societies, forced it to withdraw in December of last year. The ICRC currently plays a leading role in conflict areas in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, for instance, and in the domain of protection and emergency relief for internally displaced persons in Colombia and Sri Lanka.

The ICRC is willing and prepared to assume field coordination responsibilities, on a pragmatic and voluntary basis and without prejudice to its specific mandate, particularly in places where it is de facto the main humanitarian organization on the spot. Let's remember that the ICRC coordinates the relief efforts of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their Federation in conflict situations; this is done pursuant to the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement as well as to agreements within the Movement. In all the operations it coordinates, the ICRC consistently attempts to reach victims of the conflict on all sides, with the consent of the parties on the ground.

We should also point out that in some countries, such as Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies play an invaluable role particularly in strengthening local coping mechanisms. Furthermore, in a transition period such as we are currently experiencing in the former Yugoslavia, the ICRC has, within the framework of its operational objectives, increasingly involved foreign National Societies which have shown an interest in rehabilitation projects and have the capacity to manage them.

 The rationale for enhanced consultation and cooperation between humanitarian organizations and political bodies  

Mr. President,

Besides recognizing the need to strengthen coordination between aid agencies, the ICRC considers it essential to further enhance consultation and cooperation between humanitarian organizations and political bodies. Such interaction should lead to a more precise division of tasks and responsibilities between the humanitarian or ganizations that are working to alleviate human suffering and the political entities whose primary duty it is to tackle the root causes of conflict and to restore conditions for peace and stability.

The ICRC finds it encouraging to see that over the past few years humanitarian issues have been given greater prominence on the agendas of political bodies such as the United Nations Security Council, the Organization for African Unity (OAU), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). This is clearly reflected in the increasing openness of these bodies and their interest in direct interaction with humanitarian organizations. We should also mention the useful contribution in fostering dialogue and exchanges of views made by the Humanitarian Liaison Working Group in both Geneva and New York, as well as the tripartite meetings organized by the OSCE.

Despite the constructive dialogue which has taken place in many fora bringing together humanitarian and political bodies, the ICRC notes with growing concern that there is a tendency, particularly in central Africa, to resort to humanitarian action as a substitute for political and military action. But let us be quite clear on this point: when violence, as the expression of a deliberate policy, reaches such a pitch that the survival of entire populations is at stake, the response to crises can no longer be defined solely in terms of humanitarian action. Massacres and genocide, which are first and foremost political crimes, can be effectively combated only through political and, if need be, military action.

The ICRC can only hope for the States and the United Nations not to concentrate in certain areas of the world on humanitarian action while neglecting the need to work on political responses to conflict. It is convinced that humanitarian action should complement, rather than replace, political and where needed peace-keeping or pe ace-enforcement operations.

Conversely, if the provision of humanitarian aid becomes - or is perceived as being - conditional on the behaviour of warring parties, or if it is entirely linked to political objectives, it will trigger situations in which some victims'' deserve'' protection and assistance more than others. For the ICRC this would, of course, be intolerable and would call into question the very essence of its humanitarian approach.

Incidentally, if humanitarian aid is used to foster foreign policy objectives, it may become one of the contributing factors in the increasing vulnerability of aid workers referred to earlier. We know that the security of humanitarian personnel depends, to some extent at least, on the way in which combatants perceive humanitarian action. In practical terms, if combatants see a humanitarian organization as a factor likely to influence the course of the conflict or if they view such an organization as a symbol of what they are fighting against, they may try to harm it in some way - its personnel thus becoming one of the possible " soft " targets.

 The challenges ahead  

Mr. President,

The ICRC is convinced that humanitarian agencies and political leaders should engage even more than in the past in a regular and far-reaching dialogue. It is thus paying increasing attention to its interaction with regional and global political bodies and recognizes the need to be proactive in matters involving humanitarian diplomacy.

Here we should like to mention that the ICRC convened a Humanitarian Forum in Wolfsberg, Switzerland, earlier this year to discuss growing challenges in the humanitarian field. The Forum was attended by some 70 high-level representatives of donor governments and humanitarian organization s. It came as a follow-up to the Humanitarian Summit organized by the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) in Madrid in December 1995. The ICRC intends to pursue this dialogue and will be convening a further Humanitarian Forum in the course of next year.

The ICRC would like to mention here the symposium on humanitarian action and peacekeeping operations organized by UNITAR in Singapore last February. The ICRC has also responded favourably to the invitation of the Belgian Government to prepare the substance of an international symposium focusing on the relationship between humanitarian action and political-military action, which is scheduled to take place in Brussels in February 1998.

Yet another important event will be the first periodic meeting on international humanitarian law which the Swiss Government, as the depositary of the Geneva Conventions, is convening in Geneva from 19 to 23 January 1998. The meeting will essentially deal with armed conflicts linked to the disintegration of State structures and the issue of respect for and protection of humanitarian personnel.

Mr. President,

The challenges ahead lie in the international community's ability and will to reach comprehensive solutions to humanitarian problems. Such solutions must incorporate the political, social and economic elements without which humanitarian aid can accomplish little of lasting value. What we are seeking to achieve is not only better coordination between humanitarian organizations but also a clearly defined framework and the terms of effective cooperation between humanitarian endeavour and political actions.

Thank you, Mr. President.

 Ref. LG 1997-128-ENG