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Speaking out or remaining silent in humanitarian work

30-09-2004 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 855, by Jakob Kellenberger

The ICRC's position regarding public statements is often controversial and has sometimes given rise to fierce debate. In this article, the President of the ICRC points out the ICRC's absolute commitment to remaining in close proximity to the victims of armed conflict and to uphold every possibility for constructive dialogue with governmental authorities. Only under exceptional circumstances, when all other efforts have failed, does the ICRC consider going public and only if it considers this step to be in the interest of the people concerned. The author emphasizes the need for consistency and predictability in the ICRC's public statements and argues, that the very purpose of discretion is to achieve the largest possible access to victims on a world-wide basis.

   

Jakob Kellenberger
The author is the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. 
 
Abstract 
 

The ICRC's position with regard to public statements and appeals is often controversial and has sometimes given rise to fierce debate. In this article, the President of the ICRC sets out how the organization operates in the complex world of tension between humanitarian action and concerns on the one hand, and denunciation and testimony in the public space on the other hand. He underlines the ICRC's absolute commitment to remaining in close proximity to the victims of armed conflict and constructive dialogue with the authorities in order to protect and help the victims. All other considerations - with the exception of security - are strictly subordinated to this goal. The organisation prefers to adopt a confidential approach even when conditions in places of detention or in conflict areas constitute violations of international humanitarian law. Only when repeated confidential approaches fail to put an end to those violations or at least to improve the situation, does the ICRC consider going public, provided it considers this step as being in the interes t of the people concerned. The ICRC is sometimes criticized for giving absolute priority to carrying out its humanitarian task rather than providing the public with as much information as possible. The author argues that the very purpose of discretion is to achieve the largest possible access to victims on a world-wide basis. Only if it should fail to do that, it would need to be thoroughly reviewed. He finally emphasizes the need for consistency and predictability in the ICRC's public statements in order to ensure the organization's credibility.

 

   
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