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A step in the right direction

19-11-1999 Statement

The ICRC President, Cornelio Sommaruga, reviews the outcome of the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has just finished its last Conference of the second millennium; a conference that has made a difference and will continue to do so for the next four years. Of that, the Movement can be proud.

I am sure you will agree with me when I say that there are too many international gatherings consisting of little but empty rhetoric which all too often fades into oblivion as soon as the participants leave.  We in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement decided that the 27th Conference would be one of affirmation, commitment and, above all, action. That is why the centrepieces of the Conference were the Plan of Action and the Pledges by States and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The first draft of the Plan of Action was ambitious and rightly so. It is, at times, the role of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to point out to governments where it thinks they should be heading and to push its agenda in support of the victims of armed conflict. After four days of frequently intense debate a remarkable consensus was established. It goes without saying that when more than one hundred States -- some with very strong views -- are involved in a drafting process, some compromises are inevitable. But remarkable in that, as delegations pored over and argued over each word and each comma, an acceptable consensus was eventually found on every point. The intensity that the States brought to the debates on the drafting of the Plan of Action and other texts was encouraging in itself. It showed how seriously they took the exercise. Although the Plan is not legally binding on States, it does morally and politically oblige them to abide by what has been decided.

I believe that this Conference in particular has shown the maturity of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. We could have had a conference that sought cheap headlines in the media condemning this and condemning that. And the temptation was strong, given the grave violations committed during the proceedings in Chechnya and elsewhere. But, ultimately, what effect would that have had? Very little. No, one of the strengths of the Movement and the Conference is the ability to carry governments along with us; government and vibrant civil society working hand in hand. The progress might be slower but it is far more meaningful and sustained. The decisions to start the Conference with a public concert and show and, for the first time, to open the plenary sessions to the media reflected a confident, outgoing Movement engaging with society.

So what did the Conference decide, what did it achieve? The Plan of Action starts by taking a comprehensive look at the protection of conflict victims through greater respect for international humanitarian law. It then moves on to humanitarian action in times of armed conflict and other forms of disaster, and concludes with activities aimed at strengthening the strategic partnership between States and National Societies to improve the lives of vulnerable people. The Plan calls for an increased commitment to teaching combatants, in peacetime, how they are expected to behave during conflicts.

The wide-ranging Plan of Action was supplemented by more than 380pledges made by States and National Societies during the Conference. The pledges draw inspiration from the Plan of Action, and each constitutes a clear, practical promise to improve one or more key aspects of concern. But what gives these pledges added weight and importance is the undertaking by States and National Societies to report back at the next Conference in four years'time on the progress made in putting words into action. This is v ital.

When learning that so many pledges had been made -- far more than the organizers had expected -- I had the vision of a huge crowd of people each representing a National Society or State, each taking a decisive step forward in pursuit of a common goal. I hope that in reading this you will share that vision and that you will contribute, together with the whole Movement, to building a world in which war is made less horrific and the most vulnerable in our societies receive protection and support.

In conclusion, I should like to quote from the Declaration which was adopted by acclamation at the end of the Conference and which for me encapsulates its spirit: " The'power of humanity'is the strength of individual commitment and the force of collective action. Both must be mobilized to relieve suffering, ensure respect for human dignity and ultimately create a more humane society. "

Words and pledges are a prelude to action. They prepare us and they galvanize us into moving ahead. But more than that they set challenges. The challenge for the Movement is to follow up on plans and pledges with all the energy and dedication that the victims of conflict hope, expect and demand of this Movement as it enters the third millennium.

Ref. EXSO 99.11.19-ENG