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Strengthening coordination of UN humanitarian and disaster relief assistance: ICRC statement to the United Nations, 2011

14-12-2011 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 66th session, Plenary, Item70(a) of the agenda, statement by the ICRC, New York, 14 December 2011.

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


Mr President,
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The International Committee of the Red Cross welcomes the opportunity to address this Assembly on the important subject of humanitarian coordination.

The past year has been particularly eventful, highlighting the growing complexity of the humanitarian environment in which the ICRC works. Protracted conflicts and crises coexist with outbreaks of violence and natural disasters. This regularly tests the ability of humanitarian organizations to anticipate, act and coordinate their efforts.  In this unpredictable environment, the ICRC has repeatedly managed to mobilize its resources to continue providing timely assistance and contributing to protect those in need. We have therefore been able to carry out or scale up operations in armed conflict and other situations of violence such as those in Côte d'Ivoire, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Somalia, to cite just a few of our main challenges this year.
The principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence observed by the ICRC underpin its ability to act. They constitute the framework for its interaction with other entities.

Mr President,

The diversity of situations of humanitarian concern encompasses natural disasters, armed conflicts and other situations of violence, growing vulnerability and displacement resulting from global challenges such as urban concentration, major economic inequalities, fluctuating food prices, environmental degradation, and growing crime in some parts of the world.

The scope of use of the label "humanitarian" has expanded, ranging from emergency relief to disaster-preparedness, early recovery, capacity building, judicial action, institutional reconstruction, with greater stress placed on the causes and structural consequences of crises.

Actors are manifold: alongside organizations engaged in relief and assistance, there are others whose raison d'être is not strictly humanitarian action, but whose action can in some cases have a significant impact. We are referring here to private actors, whether acting on their own initiative or contracted to do so, and to deployment of military or civil defence means. As for the use of such assets, compliance to internationally agreed guidelines and to the principle of last resort is paramount.

In this environment, the ICRC, on the basis of its experience and mandate, would like to point out two fundamental aspects of its approach. The first one is that the ability to act is not given; it needs to be built and depends on many factors.  Experience shows that ICRC’s access and ability to act rely on its constant and strict observance of the aforementioned guiding principles, but also on knowledge of the realities on the ground, on direct access to affected populations and on local partnerships. The second aspect lies in tirelessly reaffirming that the responsibility for protecting the civilian population from serious violations of International Humanitarian Law lies primarily with the States in question as well as any other parties to the armed conflict. Hence, the ICRC calls for the rules prescribing protection of civilians to be respected by all parties to armed conflicts, basing this call on strictly humanitarian grounds and on International Humanitarian law.

Mr President,

When armed conflicts and other situations of violence break out, humanitarian action endeavours to protect the physical integrity and dignity of those affected. The recipients of humanitarian action are the men, women and children who are placed in a vulnerable situation and who have every right to expect a swift response free of any political agenda. For the ICRC, therefore, the objectives of humanitarian action in situations of armed conflicts and other situations of violence must be kept distinct from any objectives of a military, political or judicial nature. Similarly, such action should not be conditional with the link with longer-term objectives of good governance or institutional reconstruction, however legitimate and desirable these may be.

Regarding the relation between humanitarian action and development, the ICRC is confronted with this challenge in most of its operations and activities. More often than not it needs to mix the two approaches to adequately address the needs of people and communities affected in the same country. This depends on the humanitarian needs, but also on existing capacities and resilience that we seek to identify and support rather than substitute.  The ICRC largely shares the ambition to make better and more efficient the work carried out by all international, regional, national and local stakeholders. It sees it as part of a holistic, comprehensive approach, with the threefold objective of tackling poverty, fostering development and achieving political stability.  However, although humanitarian action should naturally aspire to accommodate and facilitate wider efforts aimed at reducing vulnerability and promoting lasting development, such a broad perspective is not always feasible. The reality is that it depends on circumstances, on needs and on capacities.

The ICRC's humanitarian work is strictly and exclusively humanitarian and civilian in nature. It is founded on the principles of humanity and impartiality, i.e. without discrimination and according to the most urgent needs. The ICRC relies on its neutrality and independence in order to gain access to affected populations and achieve its objectives of assistance and protection. Independence means that if the ICRC develops a regular dialogue with relevant authorities, it formulates and implements its policies and activities independently of governments' policies and actions. By being neutral, the ICRC – focusing on its exclusively humanitarian mission – deliberately abstains from any action or declaration that could be interpreted as taking sides for one party or the other. Concerning those principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence, the ICRC calls for close attention to be paid to the operational use of these principles and the need for clarity about whether the reality matches the discourse.

Mr President,

The ICRC always acts in complete transparency with the State in question, building a relationship of trust through dialogue with States and taking a purely humanitarian approach based on the principles set out earlier in this statement. To accomplish its mission and humanitarian objectives, the ICRC also engages with non-State actors who have a de facto influence on the territories where communities in need live. This is essential for gaining  acceptance for ICRC’s presence and activities, but also to ensure access to the people affected.  

The ICRC acts on the analysis of needs, based on assessments combining direct observations from its staff and partners and information collected from the affected people. In all stages of the action, it seeks to consult and involve the populations themselves and the authorities in charge. Among other concerns, humanitarian actors have a duty to avoid jeopardizing a lasting improvement of the situation or bringing about any other negative effects. In other words, the ICRC embraces the principle of "do no harm".

The ICRC strives to respond to emergencies and is also focused on prevention of IHL violations, disaster-preparedness and early recovery. The decision to take action, based on the principles set out above, is always determined by an evaluation of the ICRC's capacity to make a significant contribution, whether in the form of emergency relief or longer-term initiatives, by adapting its know-how to the specific local situation.

The ICRC is also committed to promoting humanitarian endeavours more generally. This is the purpose of the campaign launched recently to raise awareness of health care in danger. Recent crises have once again illustrated the extent to which violence disrupts health care precisely when it is needed most. Combatants and civilians die of injuries that they ought to survive, because they are prevented from receiving the timely medical assistance to which they have right.

Lastly, the ICRC places partnerships at the heart of its practices, as demonstrated by its support to many governmental structures and services such as hospitals, but also the joint operations it carries out in cooperation with components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. This has been the case with the close partnerships forged, for example, for crucially important operations in the course of this year in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Colombia and Afghanistan with the National Societies in each of those countries. Close partnerships are the key to successfully reaching people in need. It is also a vehicle for sustained capacity building aimed at governmental structures and personnel but also at the National Societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in the countries in which the ICRC operates.

Mr President,

The ICRC upholds the principle of cooperating with all operational actors in a spirit of complementary mandates and action aimed solely at meeting humanitarian needs. The ICRC's approach to coordination is pragmatic, reality-based and action-oriented.  

For the ICRC, coordination is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end. Coordination as practised by the ICRC is based on an analysis of the organizations present on the ground. Coordination should enable the ICRC and other organizations to better meet their responsibilities. Coordination for the ICRC is meant to be tailored to the context, taking different forms depending on whether the ICRC is among the few actors able to respond in a given emergency or if it operates in a broader context in a complementary manner with multiple organizations.

The principles underpinning the ICRC's involvement in humanitarian coordination are as follows: victims' needs should be met by those organizations best placed to do so in operational terms. Coordination with partners from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, first and foremost with the National Societies of affected countries, is a priority. In all situations, the ICRC takes care to ensure that it balances commitment to the coordination process with preserving the independence of its decision-making. Lastly, the ICRC promotes coordination that fully acknowledges the role of the authorities concerned, in keeping with the spirit of international humanitarian law and resolution 46/182 of the United Nations General Assembly. It is on this basis that the ICRC has participated in the discussions and work of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee for the past 20 years. It is also on this basis that ICRC field teams interact with existing coordination mechanisms, including those of the United Nations.

Mr President,

The increasing number of actors involved makes it ever harder to guarantee the effectiveness of the humanitarian response and to pursue coordination efforts that maintain the quality of the assistance provided. The challenge here is to avoid any confusion that would ultimately harm the people who we have a duty to help. The current complexity means that only effective coordination can mould the diversity of approaches into a suitable response. It is by respecting the principles of humanitarian action and holding dialogue with all those concerned that the best response to urgent needs can be found and a sustained improvement in the welfare of the affected populations can be achieved.

In this increasingly complex and highly unpredictable environment, the ICRC will continue to develop its capacity to pursue a strictly and exclusively humanitarian assistance and protection-based action. These efforts will also focus on the speed and quality of its operational response, the promotion of suitable laws and regulations through its monitoring of international humanitarian law, and its commitment together with other actors to improve interaction and coordination mechanisms, insofar as the ICRC's independence will allow.

Thank you.