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Strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations

07-12-2009 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 64th session, Third Committee, Items 70(a) of the agenda, Statement by the ICRC, New York, 7 December 2009

Mr. President,

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The ICRC appreciates the opportunity once again to address the General Assembly on strengthening coordination of humanitarian action and, in particular, in the context of armed conflict and other situations of violence.

Mr. President,

Throughout 2009, armed violence and political instability have continued to torment far too many people across the globe. As ICRC delegates observe day in and day out, one of the main features of current conflict situations is the coexistence of a range of risks with combined effects on the population affected. A weak State, a debilitated economy, collapsing infrastructure and armed hostilities carried out by a variety of politically driven actors and criminal groups, as well as environmental degradation, drought, floods or pandemics, increase the vulnerability of entire populations. The inherent complexity of such situations makes it particularly difficult to determine an appropriate humanitarian response.

Humanitarian agencies face steadily growing needs as a result of these multiple risks. At the same time their operating environment has become ever more diverse and challenging . Limited access to the people in need – for political or security reasons, or owing to a lack of acceptance – remains a frequent problem. Repeated attacks against humanitarian workers show how hard it is to ensure adequate safety for both beneficiaries and hu manitarian personnel. ICRC operations have not been spared these security challenges – we have experienced several serious incidents lately. While several host governments have been duly shouldering their primary responsibility for coordinating humanitarian aid, they have in some cases been subjecting the work of humanitarian organizations to strict conditions, to the point of sometimes impeding sorely needed and purely humanitarian services.

In many situations, a growing number and variety of actors – political, military, development, humanitarian – with distinct objectives and different approaches coexist. We also observe that armed forces, be they national or international, tend to become increasingly involved in humanitarian action, which is sometimes exploited for political purposes. UN peace-support operations increasingly combine widely different activities. This is problematic in situations of conflict, when these operations appear to support only one party to the conflict. All of this has sometimes blurred the lines between roles and objectives, reducing the acceptance of humanitarian action by the warring parties and potential beneficiaries.

Each entity – political, economic, military, humanitarian - has an important role to play. Nevertheless, the ICRC feels it is essential that in all circumstances – especially armed conflict – a clear and visible distinction be preserved between the different roles and activities of political, economic, military, development actors and humanitarian organizations. Humanitarian action in particular must be kept clearly separate from political and military agendas, including those of international actors. This is equally important for comprehensive or integrated approaches to crisis management.

Mr. President,

On the basis of the role assigned to it by the States, the ICRC has continued to strive to help people where the needs are most pressing. Working with the consent and acceptance of host States, it tried hard during 2009 to maintain, and where possible enhance, its operational coverage in difficult contexts such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Sudan/Darfur, Somalia, DRC and more recently in Yemen and Pakistan. At the same time, it also continued to work tirelessly in those countries to enhance compliance with international humanitarian law by all parties to conflict. It will strive to continue demonstrating in practice both the value of its neutral, impartial, independent and exclusively  humanitarian approach and the relevance of humanitarian law.

Critical in this endeavour is proximity to the people we seek to help. We understand proximity as both physical closeness and genuine understanding of realities and vulnerabilities. The ICRC’s protection and assistance work can be carried out only with direct access to the people in distress. Such direct access enables our staff to identify the most urgent needs and to respond to them in a meaningful way . However, access to conflict zones often depends on the safety risks involved, as well as on a positive acceptance of our staff's presence by the people we seek to help and by other parties concerned. Demonstrating the neutrality, independence and impartiality of its work and its ability to deliver relevant and purely humanitarian aid and services is how the ICRC goes about seeking this acceptance. Our many years of experience have taught us th at achieving this aim in armed conflict and other situations of violence requires engaging in a sustained confidential dialogue with all actors .

For the ICRC, today as in the past, engaging not only with the host State but with all parties involved in a given situation is an essential and established practice. These include State authorities – military and civilian – and non-State actors, whether or not they are recognized by the community of States, be they formal authorities or informal groups, and no matter how they are described by others. This inclusiveness enables our organization to conduct its humanitarian activities in a transparent and predictable manner. Building relations and sustained dialogue with all concerned, including other international actors, is intended to generate understanding and thus acceptance for the ICRC's mission in order to obtain access to people on all sides who are in need of protection and assistance, including detainees and wounded people on both sides of the frontline. And it is the best way of promoting compliance with humanitarian law and principles by all parties, including non-State armed groups, which are also bound by that law. Acceptance of its mission and presence is also important for the safety of its staff.

Developing a substantial, constructive and cooperative dialogue with relevant authorities and parties – possibly through time – has also helped us to better understand values, customs and socio-cultural rules prevailing in the contexts in which we operate. This dialogue has ultimately enabled us to benefit from the support of those entities in resolving often sensitive matters of humanitarian concern and coordinating protection and relief activities.

Mr. President,

Coordin ation is vital in order to avoid gaps and duplication, and thus optimizing the response to ever-increasing needs. The ICRC therefore remains fully committed to coordinating with all relevant entities including other humanitarian actors – in particular those with major operational capacity – and to doing this in a spirit of complementarity.

The ICRC’s approach to coordination is driven by its operational requirements and the need to preserve our independence. In the field, other components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – in particular the National Societies of countries where we conduct operations – are our primary operational partners.

Our focus on operational needs and on reality-based action as well as preserving our neutral, independent and strictly humanitarian approach is also essential to how we coordinate with UN agencies and NGOs. This is why we favour interaction with operational agencies in our field work and have always refrained from being associated with any approach that combines objectives of a different nature. This approach has proved particularly useful in situations where the UN plays a strong political role or is engaged in peace operations along with its humanitarian work, and particularly where there is an integrated UN presence.

The ICRC has continued to actively participate as an observer in inter-agency coordination mechanisms, at both the global and field level. Within those mechanisms it has never hesitated to share, to the extent compatible with its independent status, its experience and technical expertise. It remains strongly committed to continuing to do so, helping in this way to further strengthen humanitarian response.

Mr. President,

This year the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has remembered two important dates: the Battle of Solferino, which was fought 150 years ago, and 60 years since the adoption of the Geneva Conventions.

The principles that prompted Henry Dunant to act when faced with the horrors of the Battle of Solferino and that eventually led to the Geneva Conventions is that all those who suffer in wartime – whether friend or foe – must be aided without distinction. We call those principles " humanity " and " impartiality " , and they remain the bedrock of humanitarian action. Since then, we have identified " neutrality " and " independence " as additional, and particularly valuable, principles for guiding our work in conflicts and other situations of violence and forming ICRC's identity.

Warfare has evolved enormously over the past 150 years. Historians say that 40,000 soldiers were wounded or killed at Solferino but that only one civilian died. Today, civilians have become the main victims of hostilities, even though they are clearly protected by the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional Protocols.

To better understand the most pressing concerns of people directly affected by armed conflict, the ICRC carried out a worldwide opinion poll entitled "Our world. Views from the field". It revealed that millions of people live in constant fear that they or someone they love will be killed, wounded or disappear and that millions are struggling to provide for their children or simply to survive. On average, half of those interviewed had experienced war first hand, and many said they had been displaced or had lost contact with a close relative. Wounds, humiliation, ill-treatment, and limited access to essential goods and services such as water, e lectricity and health care also emerged as widespread problems. Displacement ranked as the most traumatic experience, just behind losing a loved one and economic hardship. Significantly, the poll also showed that people most often turn for help to those " closest " to home, in other words their families, neighbors and broader communities.

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols have proved essential to saving lives, allowing thousands of separated families to be reunited and bringing comfort to large numbers of prisoners of war. If the rules were better complied with, much suffering could be avoided. The ICRC therefore appeals to all States and all parties to armed conflict to renew their efforts and take all the measures needed to make these legal provisions a reality on the ground.

Mr. President,

The present operational environment for humanitarian organizations is a challenging one and the humanitarian needs often immense. The ICRC strongly believes that respecting complementarity between different humanitarian organizations and the distinction that must be drawn between different types of approaches and interventions by various types of actors is the best way to guarantee an adequate overall response, one that makes a real difference in the lives of the men, women and children we strive to assist and for whose protection and dignity we work.

Thank you.