Annual Report 2013: Principled humanitarian action in a difficult environment

14-05-2014 Annual Report

ICRC president Peter Maurer's message for the 2013 Annual Report.

Peter Maurer 

Peter Maurer

As the ICRC marked its 150th anniversary in 2013, the ideals on which it was created upholding human dignity in armed conflicts and other situations of violence, through principled humanitarian action rooted in IHL – were severely tested in various parts of the world. Throughout the year, the situation in many of the diverse contexts in which the ICRC worked starkly illustrated the complexity of the humanitarian landscape – the often disastrous human cost of violence, compounded by natural disasters and underlying socio-economic crises, and the difficulties faced by humanitarian organizations in addressing the multiple needs of the people affected. Confronted by these challenges, the ICRC focused its efforts on expanding access to populations in need and on finding new ways and means to overcome constraints to neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action.

The ICRC’s largest operation in terms of budget size was in the Syrian Arab Republic (hereafter Syria). As the armed conflict there continued unabated, with far-reaching regional repercussions, the resulting humanitarian crisis became yet more entrenched, and gaining access to people in need and ensuring the security of humanitarian workers became all the more problematic. This conflict has not only illustrated the importance of principled humanitarian action; it has also underlined the need for innovation in surmounting some of the most difficult obstacles.

In the Philippines, the sheer extent of the destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan – coming on top of earlier disasters and protracted armed conflict in some of the areas affected – resulted in massive humanitarian needs on an overwhelming scale. The ICRC’s emergency response, which it provided in close cooperation with the Philippine Red Cross, focused on areas where it already had a longstanding presence in relation to the conflict. Through the ICRC’s rapid deployment mechanism, scores of surge-capacity personnel were deployed, as were experts from different National Societies, to boost existing ICRC structures. They included specialists in health, water and habitat, economic security, logistics and the restoration of family links.

Northern Mali and Somalia continued to provide striking examples of the heavy humanitarian consequences of food crisis combined with chronic insecurity and fighting, and of constrained humanitarian access. The regional implications were also apparent, with instability and tensions spreading beyond borders. At year’s end, the alarming situations in the Central African Republic and South Sudan also posed risks to fragile neighbouring countries, some of which were still suffering or struggling to recover from armed conflict.

For the ICRC, the bedrock of its efforts to protect and assist vulnerable people in such diverse contexts (...) is its neutral, impartial and independent approach to humanitarian action.

For the ICRC, the bedrock of its efforts to protect and assist vulnerable people in such diverse contexts – one it has upheld for over 150 years despite the changing landscape – is its neutral, impartial and independent approach to humanitarian action. Building trust and acceptance among all stakeholders – based primarily on bilateral, confidential dialogue – remains crucial to its work. It was in this way, for example, that the ICRC was able, in 2013, to resume visits to people detained in Myanmar. In its role as a neutral intermediary, it also facilitated the release of several civilians and members of security forces held by armed groups in Colombia and Sudan.

Yet the challenges inherent in this approach, which requires proximity to people in need, were ever-present, not least in terms of the security risks. The attack on the Jalalabad sub-delegation in Afghanistan in May, which killed one staff member and wounded another, was one example. Another was the killing of yet more volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent – a key partner of the ICRC – bringing to 33 the number of volunteers killed since the beginning of the conflict there (as at 31 December).

Health-related activities have always been – and will continue to be – a central feature of the ICRC’s institutional and operational identity. Some 8.2 million people benefited from these activities in 2013. For example, in Jonglei, South Sudan, the ICRC deployed three surgical teams to help treat the hundreds of people wounded in violence on different occasions. In Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, it continued providing support to Mirwais hospital, the only large-scale surgical facility in the region, serving over 5 million people. In Mali, Niger and elsewhere, health practitioners attended war-surgery training provided by the ICRC. At the same time, the organization sought to balance the expansion of its traditional medical services with the need to address broader public health concerns regarding communicable and non-communicable diseases.

Working at all levels to address the serious yet under-reported problem of violence against health care remained a key priority. 

Working at all levels to address the serious yet under-reported problem of violence against health care remained a key priority. An ongoing series of consultations among experts, National Societies and the ICRC as part of the Health Care in Danger project continued. One workshop, held in Mexico in May, dealt specifically with ambulance services and pre-hospital care in risky situations; a report on the same topic, written by the Norwegian Red Cross with support from the Mexican Red Cross and the ICRC, was released later in the year. Both took stock of IHL, international human rights law and medical ethics in armed conflicts or other situations of violence.

Throughout 2013, the ICRC distributed food to 6.8 million people, mainly IDPs and residents, and essential household and hygiene items to some 3.5 million people. For example, 3.5 million people in Syria received food distributed in conjunction with the National Society. Around 4.6 million people benefited from productive inputs, mostly for sustainable food production or as livelihood support. They included thousands of farmers in areas of western Côte d’Ivoire still recovering from the 2012 violence, who received seed and tools. In addition, around 3.5 million people benefited from work, service and training initiatives; 1 million received cash, including as capital for launching small businesses; and some 44,000 received vouchers for basic commodities. Worldwide, over 28.7 million people benefited from ICRC water, sanitation and construction projects. These activities helped vulnerable people meet their basic needs, undertake recovery efforts and build their resilience to recurrent shocks.

The ICRC visited 756,158 detainees, of whom 23,473 were monitored individually, in 1,728 places of detention. Such visits aimed to ensure that detainees were treated humanely and held in decent conditions and could exchange family news, in line with IHL or internationally recognized standards. While carrying out multi-disciplinary activities in favour of detainees, the ICRC engaged in dialogue with prison authorities to encourage broader improvements in prison-sector management.

Positive news in the domain of IHL came with the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty in April. Having consistently highlighted the unacceptable human cost of the widespread availability of conventional arms and called for a strong treaty, the ICRC was pleased to see an outcome that effectively prohibits the transfer of weapons where these would be used to commit or facilitate serious IHL violations, among other grave crimes. In parallel, it continued to advocate, at the highest level, a complete ban on and the elimination of nuclear weapons, including at an international conference on the issue convened in Oslo, Norway, and the complete elimination of chemical weapons absolutely prohibited under IHL. It also closely followed rapid developments in new weapons technologies – particularly remotely controlled, automated or autonomous weapons – and debates on the conduct of hostilities in cyberspace.

the joint Swiss-ICRC initiative to strengthen compliance with IHL gained momentum, with over 70 States participating in constructive discussions held in Geneva, Switzerland

Ensuring better compliance with IHL – at operational, legal and policy levels – is one of the ICRC’s perennial goals. In that respect, the joint Swiss-ICRC initiative to strengthen compliance with IHL gained momentum, with over 70 States participating in constructive discussions held in Geneva, Switzerland, affirming strong support for regular dialogue among States on IHL and exploring the possible functions of an IHL compliance system. As requested, Switzerland and the ICRC will formulate concrete proposals on specific aspects of this initiative.

Ultimately, the ICRC’s aim in all these efforts was to make a difference where it mattered most: in the field, to better protect and assist victims of armed conflicts and other situations of violence. Its partnerships with National Societies were a key aspect of that goal. The importance of partnership within the Movement was reaffirmed at the Council of Delegates in Sydney, Australia, where, under the banner “150 years of humanitarian action”, representatives of the ICRC, the International Federation and 189 National Societies discussed humanitarian challenges and the Movement’s future. Nine thematic resolutions were adopted, including one on working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons and one on strengthening legal protection for victims of armed conflict.

At year’s end, the ICRC was already looking ahead to its 2015–2018 institutional strategy, with consultations and discussions taking place with internal and external stakeholders to enable an inclusive development process. The strategy – which the ICRC Assembly is scheduled to adopt in June 2014 – will essentially serve as an institutional “compass” to guide and inform choices and decisions in a volatile humanitarian landscape. The overall goal remains the same as it is today: to ensure the ICRC’s relevant and effective operational presence in armed conflicts and other situations of violence around the world, keeping people’s needs at the centre of its work and building on their resilience in fulfilling its mission.