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An ICRC perspective on integrated missions

31-05-2005 Statement

A speech delivered in Oslo by the ICRC's Vice-President, Jacques Forster, at an event hosted by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. It gives an ICRC perspective on integrated missions to help countries in transition from war to peace.Conference on Integrated Missions, Oslo, 30-31 May 2005

It is a great pleasure to be here today to address such an impressive audience and I would like to thank the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs for hosting this event, which is of great interest to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

I have been asked to provide you with " an ICRC perspective on integrated missions. " The ICRC has various questions with regard to the integrated approaches, and thus is very keen to enter into a dialogue with those, in political and military circles, who promote such integration. I imagine that many of my remarks might be relevant to the debate on the UN integrated crisis management system, but I shall not be focusing on the UN, as the challenge goes beyond that organization.

For the purposes of my talk, I shall use the general definition proposed by the Study Team in its valuable Report on Integrated Missions , that is: " an instrument with which the UN seeks to help countries in the transition from war to lasting peace, or to address a similarly complex situation that requires a system-wide UN response, through subsuming actors and approaches within an overall political-strategic crisis management framework. " Such integration is generally presented as involving the following four components in particular:

  • Comprehensive mission planning, i.e. defining the outcome that political, military, humanitarian and development actors wish to achieve.

  • Strategies to achieve that outcome, with well-defined t asks for all the key participants, including the humanitarian activities the military could be entrusted with.

  • Evaluation of the humanitarian impact of decisions taken by all key participants.

  • Joint assessment of operations as they unfold, taking corrective action where necessary.

In practical terms there are many different models of integration, a point reflected in ICRC delegation reports to Geneva. The Study Team also notes this point. " Integration " varies from country to country and from region to region within the same country. For instance, the oft-quoted provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan view the humanitarian role of the military in different ways. The view taken depends on the policies of the country in charge of the PRT, on the security conditions in the area where it operates, on the attitude of local Afghan authorities and on the mandate given to the team. We often say that talking about " humanitarian actors " in general is a bit simplistic given the heterogeneity of those who claim to be humanitarian. Talking about the military – not to mention the police – as a unified concept is also simplistic.

My second point is that there are evident merits, indeed, in an integrated approach. Three of them stand out:

  • Firstly, it reminds all of us that dealing with the various problems in a country at war is primarily the responsibility of the parties to the conflict. Humanitarian actors come in to promote respect for the law, provisionally substitute for the national authorities when they are not willing or able to respond to the most pressing needs, and mobilize outside help when needed. But humanitarian actors should not fall into the trap of thinking that they, and they alone, can help the population in the long run. Humanitarian action is not, and should not be used as, a substitute for sustainable political action.

  • Secondl y, the integrated approach, by its very nature, promotes a coordinated dialogue among all those involved in reconstruction. This is essential to avoid conflicts of interest between those who are trying to maintain law and order, those who are bringing aid, those who are fighting for justice, and those who are concerned with setting up good governance.

  • Thirdly, the involvement of the military in relief operations is sometimes welcome. When needs arise on a large scale and insecurity prevails in areas where vulnerable communities are in need of immediate assistance, it may be that only the armed forces have the capacity to do the task at hand until others are able to step in.

Now let us turn to my third point, the misunderstandings that can arise between political, military and humanitarian actors, based on the belief that all are pursuing the same goal. Armed forces operating in a third country are usually trying to pacify it. They pursue the political objectives set by the authorities of their country of origin, the UN Security Council or other intergovernmental organizations. Peace-making or peace-building are not, however, the primary aims of humanitarian agencies. Of course, they consider the impact of their humanitarian work on reconciliation between adversaries; they refrain from any activity which might inadvertently fuel violence; they even consider setting up projects which could ease tensions at the local level. But their primary aims are to save lives and alleviate human suffering.

This issue leads me to my fourth point, relating to the risks that integrated approaches might involve for humanitarian action. I shall, however, make two preliminary remarks on the concept of humanitarian action:

  • First, in a pluralistic world, and in the complexity of conflict situations in particular, there cannot be one and only one approach to humanitarian action. Nobody has a monopoly on humanitarian concerns and goals.

  • In making my second point I would emphasize that I speak here for the ICRC, which enjoys a special status under international law and has a specific mode of humanitarian action – independent and non-partisan action. We fully recognize and appreciate other modes of action, but believe that there is, in the wide " landscape " of humanitarian action, a need for such an independent way of working. Vis-à-vis other humanitarian actors, the ICRC does not see its own action as competitive, but as complementary. There are times when one mode of action is more effective than another, but the ICRC believes that preserving the comparative advantage conferred by its neutral and independent approach and its proximity to the victims in the field is in the best interests of the victims of armed conflict.

Now, the main risk I see for humanitarian action in general is its integration – willing or otherwise – into a political and military strategy to defeat the enemy. In other words, the subordination of humanitarian activities to political goals, using aid as a tool for local or foreign policy. The danger is real if insurgents, or parts of the population, perceive the humanitarian agencies as instruments of a foreign agenda. In some countries, they may even perceive such agencies are part of a Western conspiracy against Islam. What does such a perception entail?

  • Security risks, not only for expatriates but also for locals working with international organizations; a blurring of the lines between political/military action and humanitarian/development action might thus have severe consequences for the lives and safety of many groups and individuals.

  • Scepticism about the accountability of humanitarian actors if they are no longer setting their own objectives and have become, as it were, " second class citizens " in a broader political framework over which their influence is limited.

These elements are high on the list of ICRC concerns, partly because mixing roles and perceptions can be detrimental to all those – including the ICRC – who aim to bring impartial and independent aid in a conflict situation. For the ICRC, and other organizations within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the Fundamental Principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality – to mention only the principles most relevant in this context – cannot be abandoned and reinstated at will. Building trust and acceptance by all parties to a conflict takes a long time and demands much patience. Such trust always remains fragile. Misperceptions, misunderstandings and confusion with other actors can rapidly destroy this capital of trust and endanger humanitarian action for a long time.

Let me now turn to a few thoughts on the ways forward. I would point out that my remarks do not include specific comments on the Report on Integrated Missions that we are going to discuss, but rather tackle the issue in a more general sense.

First, humanitarian agencies – and this includes the ICRC – should accept the idea that the integrated approach is not going to fade away, but rather the opposite. They should also listen to the voices of the people, who are often grateful for help from a range of sources, including at times the military. They also should recognize the merits of integrated missions I mentioned earlier in my talk. After all, good political action, good government as it were, involves an integrated approach. Pertinent integration and good coordination are key elements in achieving the best results for the populations in need of protection and assistance.

Secondly, armed and police forces engaged in a peace support operation should refrain from publicly saying that all actors, whether political, military or humanitarian, share the same goals, when their missions are fundamentally different; they should not claim that humanitarian action will " win the war " – by winning hearts and minds – when some humanitarian actors want to remain distinct from the political process of peace-building.

Thirdly, the military, when they engage in activities of a humanitarian nature, should clearly identify themselves as military. They should not wear civilian clothes and, if possible, should refrain from using vehicles similar to those used by humanitarian agencies – often white Land Cruisers. It is important to avoid any confusion in the minds of the civilian population between soldiers and, say, Red Cross and Red Crescent workers. The fact that the medical services of the armed forces are entitled to use the Red Cross or the Red Crescent emblems as protective signs, under the Geneva Conventions, is already a potential source of confusion.

Fourthly, political and military actors should understand that humanitarian action – I refer here specifically to the work of the ICRC – involves not only assistance, but also protection, and that the two are closely connected. Visiting prisoners to monitor their treatment and conditions of detention or making representations to the parties to the conflict on behalf of individuals or communities who have been ill treated, in violation of humanitarian law, also comes under the heading of humanitarian action. ICRC delegates need to be present in the field, close to those who are affected by the conflict, to answer their needs and modify the behaviour and attitudes of those who are often at the origin of those needs. They do not limit themselves to bringing relief.

Fifthly, the training of the military in humanitarian law is a key component to a better understanding of the key players in the field. It gives them, among other things, a better understanding of what humanitarian action is all about.

Sixthly, if w e agree 1) that integrated approaches can bring positive results, and 2) that the diversity of situations calls for a diversity of responses, building upon the comparative advantages of different actors, then our main task is to put forward adequate and pertinent coordination mechanisms, both action-based and reality-based. The ICRC is actively engaged in, and committed to, a wide range of humanitarian coordination mechanisms through which it endeavours to contribute to joint efforts to achieve better humanitarian action. It thus seeks to maximize the impact and effectiveness of its own work while making sure that all the needs of the affected populations are met.

This leads me to a final remark on the perspective of a UN crisis-management system. UN agencies working in the humanitarian field belong to a worldwide intergovernmental organization which has a mandate encompassing security, development and human rights. The desire for harmonization of activities in those different fields is understandable. However, one should keep in mind that UN humanitarian agencies in conflict-stricken countries may encounter problems similar to those affecting the ICRC, should their activities be subordinated to a political agenda and integrated into a structure where they are no longer able to define their objectives in humanitarian terms. The effect this would have on the work of other humanitarian actors from the NGO community and of ICRC delegates remains to be assessed.

I am confident that constructive dialogue is possible on all those issues, bearing in mind that States, UN organizations, NGOs and the ICRC are not the only interested parties. Non-state actors and, above all, the civilian population affected by warfare, also have a say. So let me end by thanking once again the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NUPI for giving us this very welcome opportunity to share our experiences and thoughts on a most topical theme.