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150 years of humanitarian action in the midst of armed conflict

14-02-2013 News Release 13/16

Geneva (ICRC) – On 17 February, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will mark its 150th anniversary and commemorate the beginning of its efforts to bring relief to millions and improve the lives of countless people adversely affected by armed conflict.

At a time when people are suffering the agonies of war in Syria, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere, the ICRC is more determined than ever to carry on with its humanitarian mission.

"This anniversary provides us with an opportunity to look critically at our past, and also to develop awareness of the strengths that have helped us in our activities carried out for millions of victims of armed conflict and other violence," said Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC. "Now more than ever, we must not only remain true to our principles but also search for new ways to better serve the people who need help. We must redouble our efforts to make sure that the neutral, impartial and independent nature of our humanitarian activities is understood by all."

The ICRC continues to adapt to new forms of armed conflict and to a number of challenges confronting humanitarian activities. "We are carrying on with our work in an environment that is being shaped by the use of new weapons and technologies, the proliferation of armed groups, the difficulty of obtaining access to people requiring aid, and a plethora of NGOs and other humanitarian organizations endeavouring to serve communities with competing approaches," said the ICRC president.

"Together with our partners within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the broader humanitarian community, we must seek ways of meeting these challenges," said the ICRC president. "We have to better coordinate humanitarian efforts, and pay very careful attention to the opinions of those we are seeking to help – and give them the opportunity to play an active role in these efforts, the ultimate aim of which is to enable people in need to achieve a lasting recovery.''

The biggest challenge facing the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations is a lack of respect for international humanitarian law, which prohibits violence directed against people who are not involved in armed conflict, like children, the wounded or sick, or detainees. "The need for a strong political will to spare civilians and otherwise comply with international humanitarian law, whether on the part of States or of non-State armed groups, has never been greater," said Mr Maurer.

Many of the ICRC's everyday activities now have far-reaching effects. "When ICRC delegates visit detainees in Guantanamo, or facilitate the release of hostages in Colombia, or help people in Afghanistan obtain health care in safe conditions, or provide the maintenance and technical know-how that keep the water and electricity networks up and running in Goma, a city of half a million people, or push for a binding international treaty on cluster munitions, they have a direct and lasting impact on the lives of many people," said Mr Maurer.

"The vision of Henry Dunant – the Red Cross idea – has not only survived but flourished through all these long years," said Mr Maurer. "Over the past century and a half, the ICRC has overcome political adversity, financial difficulty, cultural barriers and countless other obstacles, even attacks on its own staff to bring vitally needed humanitarian assistance and protection to people in need." Once quite small with an entirely Swiss staff, the ICRC now performs its humanitarian tasks in over 90 countries all over the world, and has a workforce of almost 13,000 men and women of over 100 different nationalities.

For further information, please contact:
Marie-Servane Desjonquères, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 31 60 or +41 79 536 92 58
Carla Haddad Mardini, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 24 05 or +41 79 217 32 26