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

14-11-2005 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 60th session, Plenary, item 73 of the agenda. Address of Ms. Anne Petitpierre, Vice-President International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 14 November 2005.

Mr President,

It is a great pleasure to address the community of nations gathered here today on the occasion of the 60th General Assembly of the United Nations.

The topic of today’s session is both timely and of great importance. The ICRC is fully committed to humanitarian coordination. It strives to tie its activities to the real needs of people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence, but it cannot meet all such needs – and it does not claim to do so. The UN agencies are among the most important partners in this endeavour.

I would like to stress three areas where humanitarian coordination plays a crucial role: I will first comment on efforts to improve humanitarian coordination through reform of the UN humanitarian system. Secondly, I will examine the situations where internal displacement causes substantial humanitarian need, and finally, I will briefly mention situations of transition .

The ICRC has been following with interest the current proposals for UN reform in general and reform of the UN humanitarian system in particular. Although such reform is primarily a matter for the UN, it will have implications for humanitarian agencies outside the UN system. The ICRC welcomes this process, assuming that any serious reform will ultimately lead to more effective and more reliable humanitarian response where it counts most: in the field, for the people affected by disaster or conflict. This is true of the UN humanitarian system and it is true of hu manitarian networks as a whole. The ICRC will continue to participate in this process, notably as a standing invitee of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and, in situations of armed conflict and internal strife, in its role as Lead Agency for relief operations involving the other components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

The ICRC is willing to play an active role in efforts to improve complementarity and interoperability between the UN system, the Red Cross and Red Crescent network and the NGO community. Numerous forms of cooperation already exist between agencies belonging to these three circles, but there might be scope for more transparent and more efficient arrangements, always for the benefit of those in need of protection and assistance.

For instance, complementarity can be improved:

  • by developing common criteria for assessing needs and measuring impact, and;

  • by establishing clear arrangements among humanitarian organizations regarding the geographic and thematic division of roles and responsibilities in a given context, based on the capacity of each organization;

while interoperability can be improved:

  • by measures to facilitate cooperation between the joint UN Logistics Centre, the ICRC and other logistics centres.

The ICRC cooperates with the UN humanitarian system to the extent compatible with its responsibility to be able, at all times, to act as a neutral and independ ent intermediary and to carry out its strictly and exclusively humanitarian activities. For this reason, the ICRC does not take part in UN integrated missions, which combine military, political, economic and humanitarian activities to achieve peace . It has to remain in a position to respond to the most immediate needs at the onset of a crisis, and to maintain its autonomous operational capability to intervene anywhere within 48 hours of the outbreak of an emergency. Thus, the limits of cooperation are set by the fact that the ICRC is not part of the UN system, that it has its own modes of action, and that it has to assume the role of Lead Agency for relief operations involving other components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in situations of armed conflict and internal strife.

The ICRC is also participating in the discussions on clusters. It decided not to play a role in the   clusters as such but has stated its readiness to work with this new system when it materializes, mainly with the Lead clusters.

The ICRC firmly believes in complementarity between humanitarian organizations. It also believes in a pluralistic approach whereby various agencies perform various roles according to their respective comparative advantages. The ICRC's specific comparative advantages are its neutral and independent approach, its operational capacities in the field and its proximity to people in need. While genuinely engaging in a dialogue with humanitarian agencies, the ICRC will also preserve its confidential bilateral dialogue with State and non-State actors.

We must therefore combine the respective comparative advantages of humanitarian organizations to achieve the best results for people in need of protection and assistance. They should be seen not as competitive, but as complementary.

Mr President,

The fate of internally displaced persons – my second point – is one of the main topics addressed through this reform process. IDPs are protected by international humanitarian law, or IHL. Where they are living in a situation of armed conflict, they are primarily civilians, and as such are protected by IHL. The 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols provide extensive protection for civilians against displacement. Numerous and detailed provisions provide for civilian immunity from attack and abuse. IHL also sets forth the explicit right of civilians to receive the assistance essential to their survival.

Obviously, the primary responsibility to protect civilians from undue hardship – and that includes IDPs – lies with States. National and local authorities bear primary responsibility for ensuring that internally displaced persons are respected and protected and that their needs are met. Too often, however, authorities are unable or unwilling to give such protection and assistance, and humanitarian organizations must then provide for the survival of these displaced people.

Internally displaced persons have a broad range of needs, such as security, physical and psychological well-being, re-establishing family links, shelter, water, food, other essential items and health care. IDPs may include women who have been subjected to sexual violence, widows heading their households, or children who have been separated from their parents.

The ICRC is fully aware that responding to this wide range of needs demands the commitment of many bodies and organizations. The ICRC endeavours to address these problems and needs in the most appropriate way, according to the specific situation, giving priority to those most in need. The ICRC follows an “al l victims” approach, in other words it does not limit its action to pre-defined categories of person. This means, for instance, ensuring that efforts to help IDPs do not create disparities with the resident population.

Promoting the self-reliance of affected communities is one of the main aims of the ICRC’s humanitarian assistance programmes. One strategy for achieving this objective is to enhance the ability of host populations to absorb internally displaced persons. In parallel, the ICRC takes care to preserve existing coping mechanisms used by victims of displacement, to avoid aggravating the situation by increasing disparities between various segments of the population.

Again, close coordination with other agencies is the best, and indeed the only way to address the needs of all those who have been made to flee from their homes and forced to settle temporarily in makeshift dwellings, eagerly awaiting a chance to return home. The ICRC is of course aware that the term “temporarily” can mean anything from a few days or months to years, or even decades. Such drawn-out situations are all too frequent and situations of transition are today the rule rather than the exception.

 Transition is indeed the third area where coordination is crucial. This particularly sensitive phase following the signing of a peace agreement is characterized by a high level of uncertainty as to how the situation is going to develop: will there be lasting peace, or will conflict break out again? It may therefore be necessary to extend relief operations beyond the immediate “post war” situation, to ensure there is no gap between the phasing-out of humanitarian action and the phasing-in of development programmes. Development agencies may have to delay their activities for security reasons or because financial resources have not yet been committed or cannot be disbursed. It is the ICRC's hope that the planned Peace-building Commission will be able to remedy this situation and find lasting solutions, allowing communities who have suffered the scourge of war to recover in dignity and look to the future with confidence. Since many of the ICRC's humanitarian operations take place in such transitional periods or " post conflict " situations, regular contact and cooperation with the Commission will be useful and important for both sides. In particular, we expect the existence of this inter-governmental body to improve coordination between the exit strategies of humanitarian organizations and the entry strategies of development agencies.

 In conclusion, Mr President, I would like to stress the importance of this momentum, which comes almost fifteen years after the fundamental resolution adopted by the General Assembly on the Strengthening of the coordination of humanitarian emergency assistance of the United Nations. This year has brought many initiatives, from different sources, to improve the humanitarian system. The ICRC sees this debate as essential and will continue to play its part in it. Profoundly convinced of the continuing necessity to bring a better humanitarian response to those in need, the ICRC will do its utmost to pursue and deepen its privileged relationships with UN agencies. At the same time, it will constantly ensure to preserve its own identity, for the good of the victims whom we all strive to help.

Thank you, Mr President.