Annual report 2012: operational highlights

27-06-2013 Annual Report

Operational highlights by Pierre Krähenbühl, director of operations.

Conflict environments and challenges for humanitarian action

Pierre Krähenbühl 

Pierre Krähenbühl

 A number of key features emerge on close analysis of the primary characteristics of the armed conflicts and other situations of violence in which the ICRC operated in 2012. First, in relation to the instability resulting from the “Arab Spring”, some countries managed smooth political transitions while others faced significant levels of social violence or armed conflict. The Syrian Arab Republic (hereafter Syria) saw the most dramatic rise in armed confrontation and humanitarian consequences: tens of thousands of people killed or injured, hundreds of thousands displaced or seeking refuge abroad, and thousands detained. The regional consequences of the situation and the absence of a solution in the short term were matters of grave concern.

Second, the deteriorating situation in the Sahel region, particularly the de facto split of Mali, generated new humanitarian needs and concern among neighbouring countries about the possible spread of violence. Occurring in a region already beleaguered by rampant food insecurity, the increased tension raised the level of vulnerability of large parts of the northern Malian population, disrupting local markets and basic services. Uncertainty remained high at year-end about the prospects and timing of a possible military intervention.


Third, the accelerated handover of security responsibilities from international forces to Afghan authorities raised serious questions about the future of Afghanistan’s population, which has undergone three decades of daily insecurity and widespread abuse. In the wider realm of the fight against “terrorism”, several contexts saw a shift from conventional military engagement to operations relying on special forces and drones.

Fourth, people affected by protracted armed conflicts suffered the consequences of high instability. In Somalia, confrontations between forces supporting the government, including troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia, and the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen intensified, leaving many Somalis, particularly in central and southern parts of the country, facing multiple risks and needs. Widespread displacement and refugee crises resulted from hostilities between South Sudan and Sudan and their respective non-international armed conflicts, a year after South Sudan became independent. In Iraq, the population remained much affected by continued violence, which saw higher weekly casu­alty levels mid-year than in many other conflict-affected countries. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (hereafter DRC), an intensification of fighting between government forces and the M23 group led to numerous abuses against the civilian population, with no immediate prospect for a political solution in sight. In Colombia, fighting continued even as the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia initiated talks to end their decades-long conflict.

Fifth, diverse and often acute humanitarian consequences also arose from other situations of violence, such as intercommunal violence in parts of Asia, tribal clashes in several African countries, and organized national and trans-national armed violence in primarily urban environments.

Lastly, the effects of the economic crisis continued to be felt, with rising debt and unemployment in Europe and the likelihood of declining remittances from migrant workers to their conflict-affected home countries. After the food price crises of recent years, there were renewed concerns that price hikes in several commodi­ties would lead to further instability and unrest in economically and socially fragile countries.

Operations: review, approach and thematic challenges

In 2012, the ICRC assisted and helped protect millions of people in critical situations, including in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Israel and the occupied territories, Mali, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Despite challenges to its neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action, it gained access to and built or sustained relations with multiple actors – government or insurgent. It responded rapidly to the needs of people affected by emergencies, including towards year-end in the DRC, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory (Gaza Strip) and the Philippines.

In 2012, the ICRC assisted and helped protect millions of people in critical situations, including in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Israel and the occupied territories, Mali, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

Key features of ICRC action were systematic, structured operational partnerships with National Societies, the adaptability of its operational procedures and team compositions, and readiness to assume significant security risks. Indeed, 2012 was the most deeply challenging for the ICRC in security terms since 2003 and 2005, with three separate hostage crises during the first semester (the tragic murder of the colleague taken hostage in Pakistan led to a significant downsizing of ICRC operations in that country), a staff member killed while on duty in Yemen, and serious security incidents in Afghanistan, the DRC, Libya and Somalia. National Society staff were also affected, for example in Syria, where seven members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent lost their lives in 2012.

Despite these challenges, the ICRC achieved strong results in terms of the objectives set out in its initial 2012 field budget (CHF 969.5 million) and three separate extensions amounting to CHF 62.1 million (Syria with CHF 24.6 million and Niamey regional with a total of CHF 37.5 million from two extensions)[1]. The downsizing of activities in Pakistan resulted in a budget reduction of CHF 37.3 million (from an initial budget of CHF 66.2 million).

Throughout 2012, conflict and violence tore apart communities around the world – men, women and children faced enormous suffering and were forced to flee their homes, losing their belongings and livelihoods. Thousands went missing or were detained. Widespread media coverage highlighted some situations and their humanitarian consequences, but in numerous protracted armed conflicts, in which acute and chronic needs coexisted, people’s suffering went relatively unnoticed. Where present, ICRC field staff, often with National Society volunteers, worked to address the vulnerabilities and suffering of those affected, keeping them and the needs expressed by them at the heart of their analysis and response. Through an all-victims approach, they sought to systematically understand the specific circumstances of people and their communities, the risks and violations they were exposed to, and their gender and age, in order to ensure a meaningful and multidisciplinary response integrating protection, assistance, prevention and cooperation.

Throughout 2012, conflict and violence tore apart communities around the world – men, women and children faced enormous suffering and were forced to flee their homes, losing their belongings and livelihoods. Thousands went missing or were detained. 

Situations in which fighting and restrictions on movement prevented communities from accessing basic commodities or services like health care, education, water and sanitation were among the most pressing. This happened in places where hostilities had damaged or destroyed buildings and infrastructure, and areas were cordoned off by one side or the other, leaving civilians trapped and unable to approach soldiers or fighters for fear of being harassed or arrested. The main violations recorded by the ICRC were summary executions, targeted killings, death threats, disappearances, forced displacement, recruitment of minors, attacks against medical personnel, and sexual violence.

Armed conflicts and other situations of violence also provoked massive and often multiple displacement patterns, both internally and to neighbouring countries. Limited control over parts of the country, insufficient capacity, or reluctance to recognize the scale of the phenomenon often rendered the State response to internal displacement inadequate.

In many conflicts, insecurity and the proliferation of checkpoints cut off neighbourhoods from medical care and caused delays when evacuating patients in need of life-saving care, endangering their chances of survival. The same occurred when front lines prevented rural populations from reaching local health posts, or when armed security forces were deployed near or inside hospitals, threatening and in some cases arresting the wounded. Some weapon bearers also attacked, occupied and/or looted hospitals and kidnapped patients. Further to its confidential dialogue with its contacts on IHL/international human rights law and their violation, and in the scope of the Health Care in Danger project, the ICRC mobilized its delegations, Movement partners and the health community to find ways to strengthen the protection of health care providers and their patients.

The organization continued to deal with the widespread physical and psychological consequences of ill-treatment, including torture, and sexual violence. Detainees suffered the residual effects of ill-treatment during interrogation long after their eventual release from detention. Rape was a recurrent nightmare for many people – mainly women, but also men – in conflict- or violence-affected areas, usually occurring with other traumatic events involving looting, destruction of property or murder. Often, stigmatization hindered the victims and their children from returning home. The effects of such patterns were deeply traumatic for the affected populations and immensely challenging to address.

In many conflicts, insecurity and the proliferation of checkpoints cut off neighbourhoods from medical care and caused delays when evacuating patients in need of life-saving care, endangering their chances of survival. 

Events year-round also underlined the difficulties faced by many aid agencies in accessing conflict zones, achieving proximity to people in need and carrying out their operations directly rather than through implementing partners. Illustrative of this were northern Mali and Syria, where few agencies managed to carry out structured and sustained activities. Many humanitarian organizations faced threats and rejection by armed groups. Indeed, studies indicated that more aid workers were killed, injured or kidnapped in 2011 than ever before – a reality that undoubtedly had an impact on many agencies’ operational decisions. Some struggled or were unable to sufficiently and clearly distinguish themselves from political or military actors, for example by using armed escorts to reach affected populations and thus blurring the line separating political and military agendas from the humanitarian imperative.

As the trend towards national responses to crises continued, the question of partnership development with national NGOs or State institutions became more important. The UN humanitarian community engaged in the next stage of reform with the Transformative Agenda, while several African, Asian and Latin American countries became more directly involved in humanitar­ian aid and development cooperation. While some long-standing NGOs appeared to have lost their ability to deploy in acute conflict situations, agencies from the Islamic world became increasingly operational in environments like northern Mali and Somalia. These changes in the humanitarian landscape contributed to a diversification of humanitarian approaches and policies, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.



Central African Republic, Bangassou.  A mother is reunited with her son one year to the day since they were separated.
© ICRC/C. Herby

Millions of people affected by extensive violence stretching from the Sahel all the way to Somalia received critical support from National Societies and the ICRC. In northern Mali, where people’s access to water, health and livelihood suffered serious disruptions, the ICRC restored some crucial services, such as the capacity of the Gao hospital to operate, by providing means, material and staff. Food distributions carried out together with the Mali Red Cross also made a difference for over half a million people.

Violence related to intercommunal fighting and confrontations between national security forces and Boko Haram caused serious suffering in Nigeria’s northern regions. The ICRC accessed these regions, initiated dialogue on humanitarian issues with authorities and others and, with the Nigerian Red Cross Society, provided medical assistance.

Over 1.7 million Somalis benefited from Somali Red Crescent Society/ICRC food distributions, water projects and medical support for hospitals and clinics. The ICRC began visiting people detained by Somali authorities, while in Ethiopia, the government approved the resumption of such visits to people held in its federal prisons.

In Sudan, operations continued in Darfur, but the ICRC man­aged neither to access nor to carry out effective activities in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile region. It stepped up its operations in South Sudan, focusing on water activities, medical support and physical rehabilitation.

In the DRC, during the peak of violence opposing the armed forces and the M23, which led to the battle for Goma and the surrounding region, the ICRC remained present in Goma, where its surgical teams and widespread water distributions helped save lives.

In the Central African Republic, in response to the needs resulting from renewed conflict at the end of 2012, dialogue with all parties concerned enabled the ICRC to assist those displaced, visit detainees and support medical structures.

Dialogue with the African Union on its peacekeeping mission in Somalia and with the Economic Community of West African States on Mali sought to encourage both organizations to integrate IHL into their planning and operations.


Philippines, Davao Oriental. The ICRC, with help from Philippine Red Cross volunteers, distributes emergency food kits and basic household items. © ICRC/P. Roque

In Afghanistan, the ICRC focused on supporting hospitals, notably in the Kandahar region, and the Afghan Red Crescent Society’s network of clinics, and on serving thousands of people in physical rehabilitation centres across the country. It visited people detained either by Afghan authorities or international forces.

The killing of its medical delegate in Pakistan marked a negative turning point in the organization’s operations in the country. Discussions with the Pakistani authorities were still under way at the end of 2012 on an ICRC proposal for the future of its activities.

In Myanmar, in a significant development, the Myanmar Red Cross Society and the ICRC addressed medical needs resulting from inter­communal violence in Rakhine state. Dialogue with the authorities on other points developed in a constructive atmosphere.

Alongside the Philippine Red Cross, the ICRC launched a large emergency operation in eastern Mindanao in response to typhoon Bopha. It also continued its operations in India, Nepal and Thailand, while its regional delegations deepened and diversified relations with key contacts to foster wider understanding of and support for its humanitarian priorities and approaches.

Europe and the Amercias

Mexico, Etat de Guerrero. An ICRC employee delivers a Red Cross message to a detainee's wife. © ICRC/S. Silva

ICRC operations in Latin America focused on the needs of people affected by the conflict in Colombia, where ensuring the delivery of medical assistance to people in remote areas affected by fight­ing and responding to the effects of weapon contamination and sexual violence constituted major challenges. The ICRC played an intermediary role in the release of hostages.

In response to the acute consequences of armed violence in Central America, National Societies and the ICRC bolstered emergency medical capacities to treat the wounded and helped migrants re-establish contact with relatives.

Across Europe and the Americas, the ICRC visited people deprived of their freedom, including at the US internment facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba. In Latin America and Eastern Europe, it continued to act in favour of families of missing persons, encouraging the authorities and other actors to address the families’ needs and supporting them in this task.

Dialogue on IHL and worldwide humanitarian priorities developed in Brazil and Mexico, while the Brussels and Moscow regional delegations provided active fora to engage governmen­tal, regional and multilateral institutions on humanitarian issues, notably in relation to the situations in Mali and Syria.

Middle East

Iraq, Sulaimaniyah. Displaced people receive from the ICRC enough essential hygiene, household and basic food items for one month. © ICRC/M. Pawlak

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the ICRC’s field presence enabled the provision of emergency relief items and access to medical care and water to those most affected by the conflict in Syria – both in government-controlled regions and areas held by the armed opposition – despite severe security constraints. For example, over 1.5 million people benefited from food parcels and over 600,000 received hygiene kits. The ICRC’s lack of access to people detained in the country remained an issue of major concern. The ICRC worked with Movement partners in neighbouring countries, in particular Lebanon, to address some of the needs of refugees from Syria.

In Yemen, the ICRC provided extensive medical support to the wounded, assisted IDPs and visited detainees – activities that did not end following the hostage taking of an ICRC delegate and the tragic killing of a staff member while on duty. In Iraq, the ICRC spread its reach into so-called disputed areas and provided medical assistance following major acts of violence. Women-headed households and more detainees benefited from its support. In Bahrain, visits to detainees resumed at the beginning of the year.

In Israel and the occupied territories, the ICRC assisted people suffering the consequences of occupation and responded alongside the Palestine Red Crescent Society and the Magen David Adom to the emergency needs resulting from hostilities in the Gaza Strip and Israel.

1. A preliminary appeal amounting to CHF 10 million also contributed to covering ICRC operations in response to typhoon Bopha in the Philippines