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Strengthening coordination of UN humanitarian and disaster relief assistance

13-12-2012 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 67th session, Plenary, Item70(a) of the agenda, statement by the ICRC, New York, 13 December 2012.

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


The International Committee of the Red Cross is pleased to address this assembly on the important subject of humanitarian coordination.

The global context in which humanitarian action takes place has evolved significantly over the years, and will continue to do so as that action faces new challenges in the years ahead. The scope of the label "humanitarian" has expanded, and today the word refers to everything from emergency relief to disaster-preparedness, early recovery, capacity-building, judicial action, restoring the rule of law, and institutional reconstruction. Increasingly, humanitarian action is moving beyond immediate response and placing more emphasis on the causes and consequences of crises, as demonstrated by current initiatives to enhance the resilience of vulnerable populations. The way in which we work is also changing, thanks in part to new technologies that enable a greater scope of action and shape the way in which humanitarian actors engage with vulnerable populations. The ICRC has always striven to adapt  continuously to the changing realities confronting it while scrupulously adhering to its fundamental principles. It will continue to do so in the future.

humanitarian action is moving beyond immediate response and placing more emphasis on the causes and consequences of crises,(...)

Partnership is a key aspect of the ICRC's activity. The organization works with a wide variety of partners, as demonstrated by the support it provides to government and public programmes, public facilities – including hospitals and places of detention – and public services. Many of its activities involve joint action with various components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, reflecting the ICRC's belief that strong partnerships at the local level are vital to acquiring a thorough understanding of the situation on the ground and the needs of various communities.

In all, the ICRC has active partnerships with 107 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. These partnerships take different forms: some are primarily operational and concentrate on emergency response, while others focus on capacity building in specific areas such as conflict-preparedness.

Examples of the first type of partnership can be found in the close cooperation forged during major operations this past year with the National Societies of Syria, Mali, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to cite just a few.

An important related topic is coordination with various actors involved in contexts where humanitarian action takes place. The growing number and diversity of these actors is making it ever harder to ensure a consistent, coordinated and effective humanitarian response, and thus to meet the needs of the people affected. It is of paramount importance that this diversity does not lead to any confusion that would ultimately harm the people we have a duty to help.

The ICRC is committed to reaching out and engaging with everyone involved in the provision of humanitarian aid on the ground. It strives to do this in a spirit of aid-effectiveness and pragmatism in terms of coordination. A successful approach must be action-oriented and reflect reality in the field. This was reaffirmed during the meeting of all the Movement's components prior to the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2011.

The ICRC's determination to work closely with and learn from our partners and with newly emerging actors cannot, however, be allowed to conflict with our adherence to core principles. These principles constitute the framework within which any interaction between our organization and others must occur.

The ICRC's humanitarian work is exclusively civilian in nature and guided solely by humanitarian considerations. It is primarily founded on the principles of humanity and impartiality, and is carried out according to the most urgent needs and without discrimination. The principles of neutrality and independence are also key elements of the ICRC approach, helping the organization to gain access to people in need and to carry out assistance and protection activities. The ICRC strives for constant dialogue with the authorities and with all the parties concerned. It is completely transparent about this. However, while taking into consideration the positions and concerns of all parties, we nevertheless formulate and implement our policies independently. Neutrality means that the ICRC focuses on its exclusively humanitarian mission and is careful to abstain from any action or statement that could be interpreted as siding with one party or the other, or could be perceived as a political stance.

The principles of neutrality and independence are also key elements of the ICRC approach, helping the organization to gain access to people in need and to carry out assistance and protection activities.

ICRC operational experience has demonstrated repeatedly that in order to ensure access and acceptance, the goals of humanitarian action in response to armed conflicts and other situations of violence should remain distinct from goals of a military or political nature.

Of fundamental concern to the ICRC today are the threats affecting the delivery of health care and the safety of those who deliver it. Violence against health-care workers, facilities and beneficiaries is one of the most serious yet neglected humanitarian concerns today. That violence is impeding access to health care in many countries. The shelling of hospitals, attacks on ambulances, and the fact that wounded people can remain in agony for hours in vehicles held up at checkpoints all demonstrate a blatant disrespect for the neutral status of health-care facilities, transport and personnel. This disrespect is being shown in many countries throughout the world.

In response to this reality, the ICRC launched a four-year initiative in 2011 entitled "Health Care in Danger". The idea is to work together with States and other stakeholders to take practical steps to improve security for, and guarantee access to, health care in armed conflicts and other emergencies.

This issue was raised at the 31st International Conference, held in Geneva in 2011. The conference brought together the various components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement as well as the States. It adopted a far-reaching resolution on Health Care in Danger which demanded an effective response from the States, from National Societies, and from the health-care community at large. The ICRC welcomes the substantial discussions amongst States on the protection of medical personnel and medical units, in the framework of negotiations regarding the resolutions on today's agenda item entitled "Strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations".  “Health Care in Danger” being a dynamic process, the ICRC trusts that during upcoming sessions of the General Assembly and the ECOSOC, this critical topic will enjoy the States' continuous interest and support.

Another challenge for the ICRC lies in the growing gap between the need for protection and assistance in today’s most acute crises and what seems to be diminishing access by humanitarian organizations to vulnerable groups of people.

The ICRC is involved in various initiatives to narrow this gap. For example, last year States joined the Red Cross and Red Crescent at the International Conference to adopt a four-year action plan for the implementation of international humanitarian law. This action  plan read, in part, as follows: "Components of the Movement must be able to deliver humanitarian assistance at all times in conformity with the Fundamental Principles of Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality and Independence. States will respect the adherence by all components of the Movement to these Fundamental Principles. (...) The ICRC and the host National Society concerned will establish and maintain a constructive dialogue with all parties to armed conflicts in order to obtain access to victims and the necessary security guarantees for its staff. States respect the need for such dialogue and reaffirm the unique position and contribution of the ICRC and National Societies in this regard."

Looking ahead, the ICRC shares the goal of bolstering the effectiveness and efficiency of work carried out by all international, regional, national and local entities engaged in humanitarian action. Anyone involved in such action should naturally aspire to accommodate and facilitate wider efforts aimed at reducing vulnerability and promoting sustainable recovery and development.

However, wider action is not always feasible. Any action must always be realistic when weighed against the circumstances, the needs and the capacity for effective action.

The ICRC seeks to meet the needs and lessen the vulnerability of people affected by crisis, regardless of the scale. It keeps those people firmly at the forefront of its work, striving to strengthen their resilience and to facilitate their involvement in identifying both the needs and the action required to meet those needs. We welcome initiatives to bolster the accountability of humanitarian agencies towards their beneficiaries. These complement the accountability of humanitarian organizations vis-à-vis the authorities of the States on whose territory they work.

In the complex and highly unpredictable environment in which it works, the ICRC will continue honing its ability to carry out assistance- and protection-based activities that are strictly humanitarian in nature. These efforts will focus on the speed and quality of its operational response, on promoting suitable laws and regulations and monitoring their implementation. The ICRC will also continue its contribution to improving coordination (to the extent allowed by the imperatives of its fundamental principles, adherence to which sustains its access and operational capacity).  

It is only by respecting the principles of humanitarian action and engaging in dialogue with all concerned that the best response to urgent needs can be found, and that a lasting improvement in people's welfare can be achieved.