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Update on the second Wolfsberg Humanitarian Forum

18-06-1998

From 5 to 7 June, the ICRC convened a second Humanitarian Forum at the Wolfsberg  Centre, in Ermatingen, Switzerland. As in 1997, the objective of the Forum was to foster the dialogue between humanitarian and political players, by encouraging an informal exchange of views in a spirit of openness. No official conclusions were drawn from the debates.

On the agenda of this second Humanitarian Forum were two broad and interlinked topics:

- Political and humanitarian action: key issues and priorities;

- Frameworks and mechanisms for supportive strategies between political and humanitarian actors.

Governmental and supranational donors were represented at ministerial level or by high level officials in charge of humanitarian affairs. The main humanitarian agencies of the United Nations and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies were represented by senior staff members. Representatives from the World Bank, the OECD and NGO consortia were also present, as were a number of individuals with expertise in the topics discussed.

The forum commenced with a key note address from Ms Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Ms Ogata focused on the impact of conflict situations on humanitarian activities, both during conflicts and in the phase immediately following them. She stressed the fundamental differences between humanitarian action - the objective of which is to alleviate suffering and save lives - which focuses on people and is rights-based, and political action which focuses on states and is guid ed by national interests and respect for sovereignty. She underlined the importance of establishing a framework guiding political and humanitarian action early on in a crisis situation and referred to a ladder of options which should be borne in mind when examining various forms of intervention.

Introducing the general debate on political and humanitarian action, Professor Thomas Weiss of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in the United States, questioned whether politics and humanitarianism could be insulated from each other and how to embark on a process leading to a new concerted strategy.

At the ensuing debate, which was chaired by Mr Eric Roethlisberger, ICRC Vice-President, a large number of issues relating to the topic of the forum were raised. There was general consensus on Professor Weiss'point on the interdependence of humanitarian and political action and many participants commented on the practicalities of this. Some representatives stressed the need for better coordination within and among donor governments and several participants referred to the Code of Conduct and Sphere project (minimum standards in humanitarian aid) as important leaps forward. On the third day the debate focused on the definition of policy frameworks and possible new mechanisms required to allow humanitarian and political players to develop a supportive strategy. It was introduced by a panel discussion at which some participants were invited to make suggestions with respect to concerted actions.

The main points discussed at the forum were summarized by ICRC President Sommaruga in his concluding remarks. He stressed that greater emphasis should be placed on dissemination of ethical values enshrined in human rights and international humanitarian law as well as the necessity to develop and apply ethical and professional standards for humanitarian aid. He also un derlined that crisis management requires a holistic view of all the factors involved which emerge over time; thus humanitarian and political figures are called upon to establish and maintain relations of dialogue and complementarity, while taking due account of respective spheres of competence. President Sommaruga also referred to another key point of the discussions, namely the transition from emergency action to reconstruction in the post-conflict phase and the importance of forging better links with development specialists.

At the end of the meeting, President Sommaruga expressed the ICRC's willingness to organize " Wolfsberg III " next year with the assistance of a "Friends of Wolfsberg" group . Indeed, many participants encouraged the ICRC to continue the Wolfsberg process of informal, high-level consultations, next time possibly including more participants from the developing world as well as economic and military representatives. Quite apart from the debate itself, the forum was particularly appreciated for the opportunities it provided for bilateral contacts in an environment which was most conducive to building up friendship and mutual trust. A comprehensive report on the forum will be sent to all participants in July.