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The ICRC Regional Delegation in Budapest: winning friends, exerting influence

12-01-2005 Feature

Budapest is one of more than 20 ICRC regional delegations situated in key locations around the world, with a mission to promote international humanitarian law and ensure contacts with governments, armed forces, the academic world and the media.

Any mention of the ICRC usually conjures up images of massive relief operations, Darfur-style, of visits to forbidding detention camps, of the tragedy of separated families – in general, of the debris of war.

Yet, away from the glare of television cameras more than 20 ICRC regional delegations worldwide play a role that is crucial to the organization's mandate: promoting international humanitarian law (IHL) and helping to build up the capacities of national Red Cross societies.

“In a sense, a regional delegation is the extension of the ICRC’s headquarters in a given region,” says Patrick Zahnd, head of the regional delegation in Budapest. “The priorities and the means might vary from one area to another, but the overall aim is to help achieve the ICRC’s institutional objectives.”

 Network of contacts  

Opened in 1997, the regional delegation in Budapest covers Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The delegation's mission is to develop an extensive network of contacts with the region's governments, armed forces, civil society, academic circles, the media and other international organizations, and through these contacts, to promote humanitarian law.

Another essential task is to support the national Red Cross societies in the region and promote their role as auxiliaries to the authorities, particularly in the field of humanitarian law.

 NATO and EU membership  

Whatever their individual characteristics, these countries are similar in that they are all in transition to a market economy and multiparty political democracy. Their foreign policies have been dominated for over a decade by the pursuit of membership to the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, culminating in the admission of ten of them into NATO and eight into the EU.

These developments, which entail political, legal and military reforms, also imply new and global responsibilities for the countries, such as peacekeeping. Most of the region's armies are involved in peace support operations run by either NATO or the European Union; they are also present in Iraq as members of the Coalition forces.

Landmines: dealing with war's legacy 
  In Croatia today, the aftermath of the conflicts in the 1990s continue to be felt. Over 2,300 missing people have still to be accounted for; parts of the country remain contaminated by mines, hindering reconstruction of the country and the return of civilians to their pre-war homes. The regional delegation seeks to provide the families of missing people with answers, by collecting data on the missing, supporting the authorities and other interested parties in exhuming and identifying human remains. The delegation also supports initiatives of the Croatian Red Cross to alert civilians to the danger posed by mines.    

The reforms imposed on the region's armed forces have presented the ICRC with an opportunity to encourage these forces to include IHL in their doctrine, training and practice. The regional delegation, therefore, maintains contact with them, through both bilateral and regional training activities and financially supporting the production of material used in the promotion of IHL and human rights law.

 Urging governments to ratify laws  

At the he art of the delegation's strategy are efforts to encourage the governments of the region to ratify humanitarian law treaties, and to incorporate them into national law. Crucial to these efforts is the creation of national commissions, which play a pivotal role in translating states'political will into initiatives to integrate humanitarian law into domestic legislation.

The delegation supports national commissions by carrying out studies on the compatibility of domestic laws with IHL, and providing legal advice and the relevant documentation. In turn, the commissions provide the delegation with a forum to broaden its dialogue on humanitarian issues with its contacts within governments and parliaments.

The delegation regularly organizes or attends bilateral and regional courses and meetings on legal and other issues, and keeps the authorities informed about developments in IHL. In 2004 one such seminar was organized in cooperation with the Slovak foreign ministry in Bratislava for representatives of the national IHL committees of a number of countries, providing for a useful exchange of experience.

 Centres of excellence  

“Besides those classic activities, we try to influence states'humanitarian policies by developing new programmes with civil society,” says Zahnd. “These include cooperating with universities to ensure that IHL is taught at Master’s level and encouraging research so that they may become influential centres of excellence in IHL. "

He adds: " The regional delegation has been successful in facilitating the introduction of IHL in some of the most prestigious law faculties in the region. A growing number of them now undertake research in humanitarian law. "

IHL programmes devised to reach out to university students constitute an important com ponent of ICRC activities. Providing technical and material support to universities to bolster ongoing studies or efforts to launch them is one way the regional delegation helps bring humanitarian law to young people; organizing moot-court competitions is another. 

 Schools not forgotten  

Younger audiences are not overlooked: the ICRC’s educational programme, "Exploring Humanitarian Law" is tailor-made for teenagers and is one key area where the ICRC works closely with the national Red Cross societies in the region. (Read article : " Polish students begin exploring humanitarian law " )

“Other networks are being created with journalists, influential think-tanks and research institutes in the fields of security and international relations so as to know their agenda and positions, " says Zahnd. " This is also useful for the ICRC’s humanitarian watching brief, our ability to analyse the regional and global environment and to be in a better position to influence it.”

How difficult is it to get authorities to see this aspect of ICRC work – taking place against the splendid backdrop of some of Europe’s oldest cities – as relevant to what happens on faraway battlefields? According to Patrick Zahnd, this poses no problem at all: “I would even say that this dimension – what you could call humanitarian diplomacy – helps us to get access at the political level, where we stress the political importance of the humanitarian dimension, especially with the Iraq situation so close to them.”