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Protection of civilians in conflict - the ICRC perspective

09-05-2007 Statement

Address by Angelo Gnaedinger, ICRC Director-General, Humanitarian and Resident Coordinators' Retreat, Geneva, 9 May 2007

Mr Chairman, dear colleagues and friends,

Allow me to begin by saying how pleased I am to be here with you this afternoon, and by thanking OCHA for having invited the ICRC to address your eminent gathering. This is an important opportunity for us to gain a better understanding of each other’s methods, so that we can work together more effectively on behalf of people at risk. I wish also to thank you, Humanitarian and Resident Coordinators, on a more personal basis.

I know that in the large majority of countries where we have delegations, excellent relations have been established between you, the UN country team and the ICRC. I have many examples in mind of how the Humanitarian or Resident Coordinator's understanding of the ICRC's mandate and its special nature, its capacities and its constraints have really helped us make a difference for victims in need. This has indeed become the rule – only confirmed by certain exceptions where such an understanding was lacking or where our communication was " lost in translation " .

The topic we are discussing today, protection, has been at the core of the ICRC's identity since the organization was founded some 145 years ago. Protection and assistance are two interlocking aspects of our operational approach which cannot be separated. Of the two activities, protection is often the more challenging and sensitive.

In my presentation I would like to outline the ICRC’s approach to the protection of civilian populations affected by armed conflict and other situations of vio lence. I will add some thoughts on the complementarity between the ICRC and the humanitarian system of the UN, in the hope that this will give rise to some discussion.

Over the past decade we have noted increased interest in and commitment to protection issues within the international community. We definitely welcome this development, as there is of course no need for me, at such a gathering, to emphasize how critical the issue of the protection of civilians is in the current global context, and how often those bearing weapons deliberately disregard the obligations incumbent on them. Moreover, as you all well know, being at the heart of this process, we are going through a period of quite dramatic change in the humanitarian environment. In this dynamic phase, it is ever more important that we be familiar with each other’s mandates and approaches. We must actively seek ways of making our efforts complementary in order to maximize the positive impact for the people we are working for. A sound awareness of our respective strengths and weaknesses, and of the added value we can offer, is primordial in this regard.

OCHA and the Secretary-General are playing a central role in raising the profile of protection. This is evidenced by the various exhaustive reports of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict which are regularly delivered by the Emergency Relief Coordinator to the Security Council. These efforts have given rise to considerable political support for protection concerns, as seen in a number of milestone resolutions adopted by the Security Council and the General Assembly.

Dear colleagues,

Any protection activity is based on the concept of the rule of law, and aims to give that concept practical relevance. Here we understand the expression in a broad sense which also encompasses local, traditions and customs. Reference to legal obligations and knowledge of the applicable normative framework, most notably international humanitarian law, human rights law and national legislation, are key in this endeavour.

Thus protection work is first and foremost a sustained and multifaceted effort to develop an environment conducive to the rule of law. We need to proactively encourage adhesion to the relevant international treaties, adoption of national laws, establishment of reliable institutions, internal control, education and information concerning compulsory norms and prohibited practices, sanctions in the event of abuses, and assistance and compensation for victims.

Primary responsibility for providing individuals with direct protection falls unequivocally upon the authorities concerned. Again, I use here the word " authorities " in a very broad sense which encompasses all sorts of authorities, be they governments, de facto authorities, armed groups or any other bodies exercising control over a given territory. This includes international forces be it the multinational forces in Irak, ISAF/NATO in Afghanistan or UN PK forces in Congo. Discharging such a responsibility requires, as a minimum, political will and some degree of capacity. Protection work conducted by humanitarian organizations, can have no meaningful impact without the corresponding political will on the part of the relevant authorities or bearers of weapons. In fact, it is this political will that we test and try to foster through our protection activities.

I will now try to outline the specific contribution made by the ICRC to this comprehensive protection effort in which a large variety of actors are involved.

Dear colleagues,

As I am sure you are all aware, the ICRC has a duty to take action on behalf of all persons affected by armed conflict and other forms of violence, without distinction. Our mandate and our mission statement define the ICRC as an impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and the dignity of victims of war and internal violence and to provide them with assistance. I should like to take a closer look at the component parts of this statement.

 1. First of all, the fundamental principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence  

Today, in an increasingly polarized global environment, some question the value of neutral and independent humanitarian action. We, however, remain convinced that these principles are absolutely crucial in enabling the ICRC to gain access to many conflict zones, to develop a dialogue with all armed groups and to offer its services as a neutral intermediary (as we saw recently in eastern Ethiopia with the release of the Chinese oil workers in the hands of the ONLF).

It is important to underline that the ICRC works on the basis of negotiated access. Establishing contact with all central and local authorities, warring parties, insurgents and armed groups involved in a given context is absolutely central to the ICRC's method of work. Furthermore, proximity to the affected population is a vital operating principle. Without first-hand knowledge of the specific humanitarian problems to be addressed there is no meaningful ICRC action. Engaging in and maintaining dialogue with every party to the conflict is therefore crucial. This ongoing dialogue is not only the basis for our access to the victims and for the safety of our staff in the field, it is also the indispensable prerequisite for engaging these authorities and groups on protection issues.

Based on our experience in the field, we argue today for commitment to and observance of the fundamental humanitaria n principles as strongly as Pictet did fifty years ago, when he said that these principles “give the Red Cross its essential character, for they express nothing less than the very reason for its existence.” He asserted that the Red Cross would not endure if it were not to remain true to those principles.

 2. Second: the definition of protection  

The essence of protection is captured in the definition now accepted by most agencies including the ICRC: “all efforts aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual and of the obligations of the authorities/arms bearers in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of law”.

Within the ICRC, we are making the following distinction:

  • on the one hand, efforts dealing with the causes and circumstances of violations and abuses (in other words preventing, putting an end to and avoiding the recurrence of violations and human suffering);

  • on the other hand, these are efforts addressing the consequences of violations and abuses (by mitigating human suffering and helping people overcome the consequences of abuses).

    

 3. Third: the ICRC’s endeavour to assist and protect  

ICRC operations include protection and assistance activities based on a solid legal frame of reference which has proved to be relevant throughout the organization’s long experience in the midst of armed conflict and v iolence. As a result, the ICRC has developed a multidisciplinary response capacity. We want to be able to respond to the full spectrum of essential needs of all categories of individuals affected in a given context. This ambition to acquire in a single organization the capacity to deliver relevant humanitarian services in just about all of your eleven " clusters " is indeed challenging, and therefore constitutes the top priority for the ICRC Management. We are convinced, however, that this multidimensional approach is a key element of the added value the ICRC can bring to the table.

Over the years, the ICRC has developed the capacity to conduct relief operations in many fields, ranging from health to economic security to rehabilitation of water supplies. It has also developed expertise and a unique methodology in detention work, in the restoration of family links, and more recently in programmes aimed at responding to the specific needs of girls and women who have been sexually abused and at facilitating the social reintegration of child soldiers. Furthermore, the ICRC has a strong legal department which works for the development of new protective legal instruments. It has also invested a great deal in the effort to promote and spread knowledge of international humanitarian law and other legal standards.

Speaking more specifically about the ICRC’s protection work, it is worth mentioning that in an effort to prevent or put an end to violations the ICRC engages in a wide range of activities which can be placed in two main categories:

1. Activities aimed at those responsible for violations: I am talking here first of all about the representations on behalf of people at risk with the authorities, in charge but also about the support we provide for the improvement of national legislat ion, incorporating international humanitarian law in the training given to the armed forces, and liaising with and between warring parties on specific humanitarian issues.

2. Activities aimed directly at reducing the vulnerability of individuals or their exposure to violence. These include registering the persons concerned, tracing those who have disappeared, occasionally arranging for the evacuation of individuals, organizing mine-awareness activities, and carrying out assistance programmes designed to reduce exposure to risk.

Dear colleagues,

I would now like to address in more concrete terms the strategies we use in our protection work. On the basis of its knowledge of the situation, the collection of information (in particular through interviews with witnesses and victims of abuse) and a comprehensive analysis, the ICRC defines its activities in each context according to a specific strategy. Each delegation has to decide how it wants to bring into play what we call our different modes of action, which are:

  • using persuasion to influence the authorities in charge;

  • supporting local structures;

  • substituting for the failure of authorities by providing direct services to beneficiaries;

  • mobilization of third parties;

  • and, as a last resort, denunciation.

The ICRC’s preferred mode of action is confidential bilateral dialogue designed to convince the person concerned to do what is needed. In fact, the ICRC may be the only humanitarian agency that bases its action systematically on persuasion as a starting point.

If we think this approach through, two elements quickly become apparent: the first is, as mentioned abo ve, that the approach is feasible only if we can mobilize a minimum of political will and if the interlocutors have the authority to actually bring about changes within their organization.

The second is the importance of being able rapidly to establish adequate levels of acceptance, rapport and trust. Over time the ICRC has consistently focused on developing its capacity to do this. In general, strong networking - intensive and structured professional contacts - are key elements. The element of trust is also influenced to a large extent by the ICRC's track record in respecting confidentiality and in being reliable in its intention and capacity to deliver. This explains why the ICRC strives so ardently to preserve its image as a neutral and independent humanitarian organization.

Confidentiality is indeed a tool for the ICRC, it is definitely not an end in itself. What matters is the impact of our efforts. If no progress is made through confidential representations within a reasonable period of time, the ICRC may consider mobilizing others to act. In such cases, discreet approaches are made to third parties who wield some influence with the authorities concerned.

Finally, in certain particular circumstances the ICRC does resort to public denunciation. This, however, is seen as a last resort. In today’s humanitarian community there is a wide range of actors, many of them in a better position than the ICRC to exert effective public pressure. And this brings us to a discussion of our complementarity.

Dear colleagues,

As mentioned previously, the protection crisis affecting civilians caught up in armed conflict and other situations of violence today is due not to an inadequate legal framework but to poor compliance. If we want to effectively encourage those in power to discharge thei r responsibilities we must make sure that influence is exerted by a whole range of sources. The ICRC’s confidential and bilateral dialogue and its special expertise in that area is important, but cannot stand alone or be seen in isolation. When our interlocutors are inclined to listen to us and to implement our recommendations, this is often due to effective or potential action or pressure applied from other quarters on the same issues.

In that respect, the Humanitarian and Resident Coordinators have a substantial role to play. You have regular contact with diplomats and visiting missions and also with local authorities. Mandated to deal with a very broad range of areas of concern, you have a direct link to the UN Secretariat and are thus connected with the various UN bodies and mechanisms. You have the capacity to influence the political decisions made by the General Assembly and the Security Council. In addition, you enjoy the legitimacy and weight that can make a difference when an authority has to modify its policy. Indeed, we look to you in particular for effective reporting on protection issues to the international community and for mobilization of the necessary political support. To be frank, we think that Humanitarian and Resident coordinators speaking out on protection issues can significantly contribute to improving the overall protection environment. Of course, this should be done in a strategic, coordinated and relevant way. We therefore encourage ICRC staff in the field to maintain regular contacts with you for the exchange of views on major protection concerns.

On the other hand we want to make it clear that ICRC delegates will not ask you to speak on their behalf. We shall always make sure that representations and public declarations made in the name of the ICRC or referring to the ICRC remain under our direct and exclusive control.

Furthermore, we would like to encourage you to refer more of ten to “hard law”, particularly international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law, rather than limiting yourselves to “soft law”. We have observed in various fora a reluctance to refer to anything other than UN guiding principles (for example those relating to IDPs) or Security Council resolutions. In the long term such a trend may sideline treaty laws and, conversely, weaken existing normative protection. 

All these are points you will want to discuss further. But before we begin our discussions, I would like to touch briefly on the issue of the proliferation of actors in the area of protection. Indeed, we are witnessing a remarkable increase in the number of humanitarian actors engaging directly in protection activities. This in itself is a positive development, as it increases awareness of the plight of the persons concerned and tends to promote respect for international standards. However, we need to make sure that we all apply the same normative standards, and that we work with at least a minimum degree of professionalism. Finally, we should resist the illusion that protection problems can be resolved simply by dispatching a large number of protection officers or ICRC delegates to the field.

The challenge is to combine the strengths of these various actors in a complementary manner so as to amplify the positive effects for the people at risk, while avoiding negative results. On the basis of experience, we have identified several risks, such as:

  • risk of overlap and actual competition;

  • risk of concentrating on victims who can easily be reached, to the detriment of populations in remote areas;

  • risk of concentrating on certain groups of individuals, for example IDPs, sometimes to the detriment of other categories of vulnerable persons such as the resident population, or of de facto creating double standards in protection;

  • risk of overemphasizing certain issues, owing partly to lack of global understanding or the failure to design more complex and indeed more risky protection strategies to reach victims in areas actually exposed to high levels of violence;

  • risk that victims or authorities may turn away from our collective protection efforts after having discussed the same problems over and over again with different organizations without seeing any tangible input in terms of assistance or other services.

With that, I would like to open the floor to discussion. I hope we can explore the challenges of respecting our differences. How can we avoid overlap – or indeed competition? How can we avoid creating confusion, especially in the eyes of the victims and/or the authorities with whom we are working? And, returning to the matter mentioned above, how can we develop coordinated and complementary efforts? How can we make most of our respective potential, particularly in contexts where you are part of an integrated mission with a robust PK component (such as Congo)? How can we ensure that our efforts make a difference in the lives of people at risk? Thank you very much: the floor is yours.