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Second World War, 1939-1945. Germany. An ICRC delegate visits a prisoner-of-war camp. The ICRC made more than 11,000 such visits during and immediately following the war.

The ICRC: 150 years of humanitarian action

PHOTOS - For 150 years the ICRC has been striving to alleviate the suffering of victims of war and violence, wherever they may be. Initially restricted to caring for sick and wounded soldiers on the battlefield, the scope of the ICRC's work quickly grew to include other groups caught up in war and its consequences. ... read more

150 years ago, an ambitious idea became reality with the establishment of the ICRC and Relief Societies, known today as National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.  Shortly afterwards, a major breakthrough for the protection of victims of armed conflict occurred with the adoption of the first international treaty of modern humanitarian law. To mark these cornerstones, we are highlighting the richness of our past and engaging our stakeholders in a global conversation about today's humanitarian challenges and how to make a real difference for people affected by ongoing and emerging humanitarian crises. 

History

Challenges

Reaching people in need

We believe that it’s essential to be on-the-ground and in close proximity to the people we help. This way we can better understand their needs and respond appropriately and efficiently. Our partnerships with national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are key to this proximity.

Staying close to the people we serve while also ensuring the safety of our staff is a serious challenge in many parts of the world, such as Afghanistan, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria or Somalia. Fighting and insecurity often prevent aid workers from reaching people caught up in armed conflict. In some cases, the authorities or rebel groups hinder the delivery of aid or simply refuse access to vulnerable communities. In rare but nonetheless distressing cases, we have had to face the difficult choice of suspending our vital humanitarian work because of insecurity or political barriers.

For us, ensuring that fighting parties understand that we do not take sides and are only interested in helping impartially those suffering the consequences of conflict or violence is the key for reaching the people that so desperately need help.

Empowering people and communities

We believe that people affected by conflict and armed violence should play a central role in deciding their aid. They know their environment and what they need. After all, they’re the ones concerned.

Today, people can convey their needs and ask for help thanks to new technologies. SMS or social media for example permits beneficiaries in certain situations to communicate with aid organizations from anywhere. Technology can support the humanitarian response, ensuring a two-way dialogue between people affected by conflict and those trying to help them. But technology should not replace vital face-to-face discussions.

With reliable, first-hand information, we tailor our activities according to people’s needs and vulnerabilities and seek to strengthen their ability to rebuild their lives and cope with future crises. We also seek their feedback on whether their needs are met.

But empowering people and communities is easier said than done. It requires the capacity to listen to all those involved, to understand the culture and mores and to carefully consider local dynamics. If we can achieve this then we can truly partner with beneficiaries and know that our help is what will provide the greatest, long lasting benefit. 

Ensuring IHL does what it’s meant to do – protect

If international humanitarian law (IHL) was better respected, there would be less suffering. The rules are comprehensive, but often arms carriers do not abide by them with disastrous consequences for civilians. Getting to the root of the problem has been a priority for the ICRC.

We undertook a major study of IHL. The results confirmed the law’s relevance, but it also identified some significant weaknesses in the legal protection provided by it. We are addressing those weaknesses through our Strengthening IHL initiative, with a view toward enhancing the protection of detainees in non-international armed conflicts and the effectiveness of mechanisms to ensure compliance with IHL.

Some of today’s armed conflicts are characterized by the emergence of new means and methods of warfare. Advanced weapons including drones, robots or cyber-warfare test the current legal framework specifically designed to protect civilians. In addition, the use of certain explosive weapons in densely populated areas and the unregulated access to conventional weapons (such as small arms) in many more conflicts also raise concerns.

In response, we strive to ensure that IHL continues to be relevant to today’s conflicts and protects the most vulnerable. The true test, however, is whether fighters and those who command them abide by the rules. We therefore actively seek to achieve better respect for IHL throughout the world by engaging with fighters and those who influence their behaviour.

Making the most of the diverse humanitarian landscape

Substantial growth has characterized the humanitarian world over the last twenty years. The humanitarian landscape is increasingly global and geographically diverse with a plethora of NGOs, private companies, governments and armed forces all playing a role. These organizations sometimes have differing perceptions of the needs and priorities of the communities they seek to serve and take different approaches.

As a result, in certain highly mediatized crises, coordination can be a major challenge, while in others, too few organizations are alone struggling to meet enormous needs away from the spotlight.

We partner with national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies and other local organizations, and seek to improve our coordination with all organizations that are on the ground delivering aid impartially.

We believe that the diversity of the humanitarian response makes it possible to better meet the needs of vulnerable people. We should capitalize on this diversity, agreeing on core common values and principles while respecting each other's particular mandates, approaches and expertise. This will allow us to have the greatest humanitarian impact for those in need.

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