Annual report 2011: operational highlights

25-06-2012 Annual Report

Operational highlights by Pierre Krähenbühl, director of operations.

Conflict environments and challenges for humanitarian action

Close analysis of the primary characteristics of the armed conflicts and other situations of violence in which the ICRC operated in 2011 reveals a number of key features.

First, there were the multiple consequences of the major crises that marked the past 12 months, in particular those that occurred in the context of what have become known as the “Arab Spring” and the “Fukushima disaster”. These situations underlined that, despite all efforts to analyse, plan and prepare for such eventualities, the challenges of dealing with the unexpected will continue to play a key role in crisis management, including in terms of providing a humanitarian response.

While sharing some common features, the events that took place in several North African and Middle Eastern countries clearly differed in a number of respects. The situation in Libya, for instance, amounted to a full-fledged armed conflict, with both international and non-international dimensions. Several other situations of violence resulted in serious repression by State security services in response to popular uprisings or civil unrest.

It is too early to predict the medium- to longer-term outcomes of these events. Some countries appeared to be on track to peacefully determine a different constitutional, political and social future for their people. Others seemed likely to experience longer phases of instability, unrest and conflict.

Secondly, 10 years after the attacks of 11 September 2001, the nature of the “fight against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates” continued to evolve, with the larger conventional deployments of forces by the United States of America and NATO in Afghanistan or Iraq gradually giving way to new strategies, involving the use of drones and lighter direct military engagements.

Thirdly, the world continued to experience a significant number of protracted armed conflicts. Few conflicts were driven by clearly ideological motives. The majority were internal conflicts characterized by economic, often outright criminal, rationales. The long duration of such confrontations – often over two, three or four decades – had led to the spread of lawlessness. Entire regions were not only beyond the control of State security services but also beyond the reach of State social and health institutions. Such regions harboured hugely diverse, fragmented and ruthless groups, including official and unofficial, State-based and frequently non-State armed groups. Pursuing illicit economic interests rather than ideological or political agendas, they imposed their control over the territory and population with extreme brutality and violence.

Situations in which large parts of a country’s institutional fabric had been taken over by structured war economies were immensely complex to address in political or mediation terms. Where many of the players involved saw little incentive in trading lucrative conflict-related business opportunities for a future ministerial or parliamentary position, the logics of predation dominated those of social conscience and political vision.

In some contexts, the impact of transnational organized crime started to be acknowledged as a genuine strategic threat, in view of the levels of organization of the groups involved and their ability to infiltrate State institutions, to secure control over swathes of national territory, and to act beyond national borders. The confrontation between State security forces, on the one hand, and criminal gangs and cartels, on the other, exposed both local and migrant populations to a frightening pattern of abuse and brutality, with devastating humanitarian consequences.

The world was further beset by the combined effects of the economic and financial crises. International food price indexes peaked in early 2011, compounding the situation of countless people already suffering from armed conflict, social exclusion, lack of employment or other pressures. Declining remittances from abroad weakened the resilience of populations heavily dependent on such income in several contexts. These trends, triggered by increased food demand in several parts of the world and by the consequences of drought and floods, continued to fuel unrest and conflict, with no end in sight.

Operations: review, approach and thematic challenges

In 2011, the ICRC was able to respond effectively to several unfolding crises, including a number of unforeseen conflicts. In Côte d’Ivoire, its longstanding relations with all sides and presence in the country’s crisis-prone regions enabled it to adjust swiftly to the anticipated post-election conflict. In Libya, the ICRC had first to establish a presence and forge relations to gain access to affected populations, first in the east working out of Benghazi and rapidly also from Tripoli. The ICRC also managed to develop activities in response to events in Egypt, the Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia and Yemen.

The ICRC was able to adapt to sudden-onset crises thanks to recent improvements in its rapid deployment systems, its commitment to emergency response and its essential partnerships with National Societies. Other factors enabling the ICRC to act in protracted armed conflicts and other situations of violence included its widespread presence, its proximity to populations, and its neutrality, independence and impartiality.

The ICRC sought to live up to the responsibilities and pressures resulting from a solid initial field budget (CHF 1,047 million), from budget extensions amounting to CHF 159 million for the crises in Côte d’Ivoire (and consequences in Liberia), Libya and Somalia, and from a range of other demanding operations in contexts such as Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Iraq, Israel and the occupied territories, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Sudan and Sudan. As a result of lower-than-expected initial income forecasts in early 2011, the ICRC cut planned field activities to the value of CHF 79 million1, which affected programmes in some countries.

Throughout 2011, ICRC field staff and staff of National Societies worked to address the multiple vulnerabilities and suffering endured by men, women and children in conflict zones worldwide.

Regardless of the context, it remained crucial to address the risks and needs of individuals and communities in the light of their specific circumstances, including gender. In responding to needs in both acute and protracted crises, the ICRC sought to diversify its activities according to people’s vulnerabilities and to build on their resilience, actively involving them in coping with, improving or transforming their situation.

Addressing vulnerability in acute crises such as Côte d’Ivoire and Libya meant focusing primarily on people directly affected by fighting: the weapon-wounded, endangered civilians, IDPs fleeing the battle zone and detainees at risk of ill-treatment or disappearance.

Then there were the indirect effects resulting from: prolonged restrictions on movement; diverse forms of humiliation; the steady deterioration in health and sanitation conditions for the wider population in and around conflict zones; lack of access to safe water, arable land, basic services or humanitarian assistance; and even death caused by largely preventable illnesses. In recent years, the ICRC has enhanced its understanding of such indirect effects, and adapted its response accordingly.

In contexts such as Afghanistan, the DRC or Iraq, both the direct and indirect effects required attention. For example, in Kandahar (Afghanistan), the ICRC provided the hospital with support for both war surgery and gynaecological and obstetric services.

In recent years, greater efforts have been made to respond to the needs of families of missing persons and victims of sexual violence. In 2011, the ICRC worked to integrate mental health concerns more effectively into its activities for detainees and civilians traumatized by the particularly brutal behaviour patterns of certain armed groups.

Given that armed conflicts affect people differently depending on their gender and age, the ICRC markedly sharpened its analysis of and response to the specific needs of women and girls.

In 2011, the ICRC engaged in numerous effective operational partnerships with National Societies. In contexts such as Afghanistan, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Israel and the occupied territories, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen, these partnerships helped significantly widen the scope of action and heighten the impact of activities, particularly regarding assistance programmes and the restoration of family links.

ICRC teams continued to actively participate in various coordination mechanisms at field level, be they cluster meetings or others, seeking to identify unmet needs and avoid duplication.

The above-mentioned trends and needs presented the humanitarian community with significant challenges. The crises in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya appeared to confirm that some key humanitarian actors had lost the ability to respond during emergency phases in armed conflicts. This may have resulted in part from the security-related concerns and constraints placed on the UN humanitarian agencies during UN-sanctioned military interventions. More worryingly, some of the larger international NGOs failed to deploy meaningful activities in either context.

While the new forms of rejection and instrumentalization of humanitarian action following 11 September 2001 are well known, the self-imposed constraints of humanitarian agencies were sometimes underestimated. Once again in 2011, humanitarian agencies called on foreign military contingents in several contexts to provide protection for access to regions in which other agencies were working without escorts. These contradictory approaches and standards served to blur perceptions of the wider humanitarian community.

The growing diversity of the humanitarian sector was another important factor, with profound changes resulting from the increasing presence and assertiveness of agencies and charities from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. In Somalia and Libya, two distinct humanitarian communities were working side by side without interacting.


In addition to the emergency operations in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya, the ICRC maintained operations in several other African contexts. The ICRC operation in Somalia turned out to be the organization’s largest worldwide, after a significant budget extension that sought to address the consequences of drought and the serious nutritional status of up to 1 million people in central and southern regions of the country.

While the ICRC continued to be well perceived by the various actors on the ground, operating in the high-risk Somali context was extremely challenging, both in terms of security and of ensuring proper accountability for the distribution of assistance. Although tens of thousands of children, nursing mothers and other particularly affected people were assisted by the Somali Red Crescent Society and the ICRC, food distributions were slower than planned and thus continued into 2012.

East Africa experienced significant change resulting from the independence of South Sudan. Building on its long standing presence, the ICRC established a full-fledged delegation in the new Republic of South Sudan. It continued to operate in Sudan, with substantial activities in Darfur (livelihood support). Access to South Kordofan proved impossible for the ICRC and was limited in the Blue Nile region.

The ICRC sought to expand its operational range in parts of Nigeria affected by inter-communal violence, working in close partnership with the Nigerian Red Cross Society. It maintained a large operation in the DRC, addressing a range of assistance and protection issues, particularly in the east of the country.


South Asia was once again the operational focus of activity for the ICRC. Activities in Afghanistan centred on visits to people detained either by international or Afghan forces. The issue of the gradual handover of responsibility for detention to Afghan authorities was discussed on a regular basis. The ICRC continued to provide several hospitals and clinics with significant support and training. Physical rehabilitation activities for thousands of disabled people in Afghanistan represented a sizeable component of the operation, as did cooperation with the Afghan Red Crescent Society, a crucial partner.

Activities in Pakistan faced multiple challenges and constraints. ICRC medical work, notably in the context of its hospital in Peshawar and its war-surgery programme in Quetta, was effective and appreciated. However, access to some violence-affected regions was severely limited, restricting the ICRC’s ability to help the civilian population there.

Elsewhere in Asia, the ICRC carried out diverse activities in India, the Philippines and Thailand. Its operations in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka were small or downsized. In Myanmar, dialogue on the ICRC’s operational range resumed.

The ICRC delegations in China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, and offices in Sydney (Australia) and Tokyo (Japan), played an important role in deepening the organization’s dialogue with key governmental stakeholders and institutions regarding its humanitarian priorities and approaches.

Europe and the Amercias

The ICRC’s main operational focus in the Americas remained Colombia, with multifaceted activities for detainees, hostages, civilians affected by weapon contamination, women exposed to sexual violence and IDPs. The ICRC continued to adapt its presence in the country to the changing pattern of the conflict. Cooperation with the Colombian Red Cross proved vital in a range of situations.

In several contexts of Central and South America, the ICRC provided support to National Societies for dealing with the consequences of extreme forms of organized armed violence in urban settings. These situations, while not amounting to armed conflicts, have resulted in tens of thousands of victims, attacks against medical infrastructure and personnel, and other serious problems requiring humanitarian action

The ICRC continued to visit detainees held by the United States at the US internment facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station (Cuba).

While streamlining its activities and set-up in the Western Balkans, the ICRC continued to focus on the issue of missing persons and their families.

In Central Asia, the ICRC reduced its presence in Kyrgyzstan, established after the 2010 inter-communal violence. It maintained an active presence in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The delegations in Brussels (Belgium) and Moscow (Russian Federation) provided essential fora for dialogue and engagement with institutions of the European Union, NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Russian governmental institutions in relation to major crises in 2011, notably Libya and the Syrian Arab Republic.

Middle East

As the events of the “Arab Spring” unfolded, the ICRC widened its response in contexts such as the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen. In the Syrian context this included mainly new activities in response to the violence affecting the country (efforts to visit detainees; support for hospitals and Syrian Arab Red Crescent branches assisting affected civilians and the wounded). In Yemen, the ICRC added activities in towns affected by civil unrest to its ongoing conflict-related work (e.g. visiting detainees, assisting IDPs in the north and south of the country, and providing medical and physical rehabilitation support).

Iraq remained a major operational endeavour. Tens of thousands of detainees under the responsibility of the Iraqi authorities were visited, reflecting a positive trend over the past two years. The ICRC scaled down its direct assistance to medical institutions, given the government’s commitment to assume its responsibility in addressing those needs. Instead, the ICRC focused on segments of the population facing particular pressures, such as households headed by women. It maintained a range of services in the regions most affected by violence north of the capital. Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory experienced some major developments, with the release of an Israeli soldier and hundreds of Palestinian detainees and with various Palestinian Authority initiatives to achieve recognition of statehood at the UN in New York (United States of America). ICRC activities continued to focus on monitoring the welfare of people detained in Israel and in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, emergency preparedness with the Palestine Red Crescent Society, and livelihood support and water and sanitation projects, mainly in the Gaza Strip.


1. Although the ICRC made cuts to many of its operations, there was no formal revision of the initial budgets. The cuts were decided on following a review of the 2011 plans of action, which enabled the organization to identify direct and indirect costs that could be reduced or removed completely owing to: a change of situation; the possibility of postponing an activity; or, in exceptional cases, a decision to cancel an objective. Expenditure ceilings were also imposed on delegations and headquarters.


Pierre Krähenbühl 

Pierre Krähenbühl

Afghanistan, Kandahar, Mirwais Regional Hospital. A member of the medical staff examines a child. 

Afghanistan, Kandahar, Mirwais Regional Hospital. A member of the medical staff examines a child.
© ICRC / S. Lenelle / v-p-af-e-01828

Central African Republic, Bria. The ICRC and the Central African Red Cross Society distribute essential relief supplies to approximately a thousand families whose houses were destroyed or seriously damaged in clashes between two armed groups. 

Central African Republic, Bria. The ICRC and the Central African Red Cross Society distribute essential relief supplies to approximately a thousand families whose houses were destroyed or seriously damaged in clashes between two armed groups.
© ICRC / P. Proelleochs / v-p-cf-e-00679

Republic of the Congo, Owando. A woman receives cassava cuttings, agricultural equipment and fishing supplies from the ICRC. 

Republic of the Congo. A woman from the village of Owando receives cassava cuttings, agricultural equipment and fishing supplies from the ICRC.
© ICRC / J. Torgovnik / v-p-cg-e-00123

Côte d'Ivoire, Zouan-Hounien department, Ligaleu. A girl is reunited with her family. 

Côte d'Ivoire, Zouan-Hounien department, Ligaleu. A girl is reunited with her family.
© ICRC / G. Van Hoever / v-p-ci-e-00252

Syria, village of Al-Hambushiyah. Distribution of food rations by the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. 

Syria, village of Al-Hambushiyah. Distribution of food rations by the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
© ICRC / I. Malla / v-p-sy-e-00082

Libya, Ajdabiya. An ICRC delegate and a Libyan Red Crescent volunteer talking with Bangladeshi workers stranded in the country; they were working for a road-sweeping firm when the fighting broke out in Libya.  

Libya, Ajdabiya. An ICRC delegate and a Libyan Red Crescent volunteer talking with Bangladeshi workers stranded in the country; they were working for a road-sweeping firm when the fighting broke out in Libya.
© ICRC / J. Björgvinsson / v-p-ly-e-00046

Colombia, village of Chuapal. An ICRC field officer chats with local people in a cacao tree nursery set up by the ICRC, part of a project to develop alternate sources of income. 

Colombia, village of Chuapal. An ICRC field officer chats with local people in a cacao tree nursery set up by the ICRC, part of a project to develop alternate sources of income.
© ICRC / B. Heger / v-p-co-e-02114