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

21-11-1996 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly 51st session, Plenary, Agenda item 21 – Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) New York, 21 November 1996

Mr. President,

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been closely following the ongoing debate on Strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations in emergency situations and welcomes the opportunity of again sharing a few observations on this topic.

In our opinion, the main issues at stake with regard to humanitarian coordination are how best to serve the interests of victims in an effective and coherent way and how to make the best use of donor funding. Accordingly, the ICRC's practical approach to humanitarian coordination is primarily guided by its focus on victims and by its own accountability to donors.

In our experience, effective humanitarian coordination has mostly occurred at field level and has usually been a process initiated by the humanitarian organization which has been the first and/or the prime operational actor in an emergency. During the current year, the ICRC has played this role in such places as Chechnya, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka and certain areas of Somalia, Sudan and Sierra Leone. It has also continued to perform its leading role in tracing missing people and re-establishing family links, coordinating its large-scale operations in this domain in places such as the Great Lakes region of Africa and the former Yugoslavia with those of other organizations which have been concerned with such matters.

The ICRC feels that field coordination works best when humanitarian organizations accept a common set of ethical and operational standards, such as those laid down in the Code of conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and when they aim at achieving true complementarity with due respect for each other's mandates and roles. A good example of effective field coordination has been set in Angola, where humanitarian organizations have established sound coordination mechanisms and mutually complement their respective activities. Such efforts, aimed at pragmatic cooperation in the field and founded on a common humanitarian approach, deserve to be pursued and developed in all emergency or post-conflict situations where a multitude of humanitarian agencies are responding to the needs of victims.

Parallel to operational coordination in the field, the ICRC is also paying increasing attention to coordination and consultations at headquarters level. In the course of this year, it has held several very useful senior management meetings with some of its main operational humanitarian partners. In addition to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, such meetings took place with UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as some major international NGOs.

In early September, an exchange of correspondence took place between ICRC President Sommaruga and Ms Bertini, Executive Director of WFP, on the terms of cooperation between the two organizations and on guiding principles for relief operations in emergency situations due to conflict. Earlier in the year, the ICRC delegation in Rwanda signed a field-level agreement with the country office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, defining the respective responsibilities of the two institutions with regard to protection and visits to detainees in that country.

This bilateral approach has not only served to enhance mutual understanding, but has also been instrumental in paving the way for closer institutional relations and sectorial coordination and cooperation. The ICRC will pursue this approach with its operational partners as an important component of its coordination efforts.

At the multilateral level, the ICRC's prime focus lies in assuming its role and responsibilities within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and in closely liaising and coordinating with the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their Federation. It also participates actively in the United Nations coordination mechanisms with a view to contributing to synergy and coherence amongst the wider humanitarian community.

At this juncture we should like to touch briefly on the important role assigned to the DHA as the UN humanitarian advocate and facilitator of UN operational coordination. Its efforts in bringing forward within the United Nations system such issues as the humanitarian impact of economic sanctions or respect for humanitarian mandates, and its activities in areas such as demining or information-gathering and sharing on humanitarian operations and issues, are examples of DHA functions that deserve special recognition.

We also wish to refer to the issue of anti-personnel landmines as an example of commendable inter-agency cooperation. The ICRC has indeed been greatly encouraged to see that its worldwide campaign for a total ban of these dreadful weapons has contributed to increased and concerted humanitarian advocacy and mobilization on this issue on the part of a large number of organizations.

Mr. President,

Some of the recent emergencies, such as those in Liberia, Burundi or currently in eastern Zaire, have underscored the importance of the relationship and clearly-defined allocation of tasks between humanitarian organizations and international or regional political bodies. In this area, the international community sometimes appears to be at a loss, trying to push humanitarian agencies to the forefront rather than seeking political solutions.

The ICRC feels that it is urgent today to go beyond coordination among humanitarian partners in emergency situations and particularly to enhance consultation with the appropriate political bodies as well as with other bodies in pre- or post-conflict situations. The ICRC thus maintains regular bilateral contacts with the UN Security Council and with major regional political and security organizations, such as the Organization for African Unity (OAU), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAC) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

The aforesaid examples of recent emergencies have again unmistakably demonstrated that in many instances the respective responsibilities and operations of humanitarian agencies on the one hand and political bodies on the other need to be defined more clearly, and that the necessary political and financial support for both sets of activities should be better ensured.

In this same context we should like to reiterate that humanitarian operations cannot take the place of political action. Humanitarian agencies can neither address the underlying root causes of conflict nor bring about peace settlements nor establish law and order and the kind of security environment essential for humanitarian activities to be carried out successfully and without undue risks to beneficiaries and to personnel of humanitarian organizations. Humanitarian work in such situations therefore largely depends on determined and decisive action undertaken on the political front.

Thank you, Mr. President.

 Ref. UN(1996)37,b