Humanitarian values and response to crisis


A presentation of the two main topics addressed by Commission II of the 1995 International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, namely, principles to be respected in international humanitarian action (Code of Conduct) and strengthening of the capacity of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to assist and protect the most vulnerable.

The Conference

The XXVIth International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, to be held in Geneva from 3 to 7 December 1995, will bring together over 160 recognized National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and over 180 governments party to the Geneva Conventions. The United Nations and numerous other governmental and non-governmental organizations will attend the Conference as observers.

Discussions about crucial issues of the day will take place in two Commissions. Each Commission may propose resolutions for the Conference as a whole to adopt. These resolutions determine the States and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements approach to current humanitarian issues and often influence the response to these and future crises. Commission I will concentrate on specific means of improving the plight of war victims and respect for implementation of international humanitarian law (topics to be discussed by Commission I are presented in the brochure Civilians in War). Commission II will focus on incorporating specific universal values and principles into the humanitarian community's daily work, improving the quality of humanitarian assistance and protection in crises, and reinforcing to governments the crucial role of the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in upholding these values and the capacity to respond (which this publication aims to introduce).

Commission II: Humanitarian Values and Response to Crisis

Commission II on Humanitarian values and Response to Crisis will address two main subjects. The first, Principles and Response in International Humanitarian Assistance and Protection, will focus on the core principles and values on which the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement was founded. These principles and values, which include humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, influence its work, both in time of crisis and during routine tasks. The Movement was born to alleviate human suffering worldwide, without discrimination, based solely on need. It has carried through its commitment to these values and firmly believes that they can guide humanitarian organizations, communities and governments as they readjust their social, economic and political systems to cope with a world in transition.

The second item on the agenda, Strengthening Capacity to Assist and Protect the Most Vulnerable, will focus on strengthening the global network of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Their role must be clearly understood and their integrity safeguarded. In addition, institutional and resource development are crucial links to building the networks capacity to help the most vulnerable people of the world.

This brochure presents the main subjects to be addressed by Commission II, briefly describes how these subjects apply to daily work in the field, and outlines the proposals that will be submitted to the Conference for consideration.

Putting principles into practice

Faced with today's atrocities and global problems, the Movement has re-evaluated its approach. Its evaluation, however, brought it full circle, with a renewed belief and focus on ensuring that its value system is carried through from vision to reality. The principles of humanitarian work bring balance to a world out of kilter. They bring an element of reason and equity to turmoil.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent fundamental principles are not lofty ideals. They are working principles meant to be practised always. It is easier to understand these principles if one sees them in action: as workers search for buried families after an earthquake, as they listen to refugees who wait patiently to return home or as they risk their own lives to protect civilians caught in crossfire. These principles need to be the mind, soul and conscience of humanitarian workers, every day.

They can make a profound difference to people around the world and close to home. Yet few understand their full significance. Building awareness and adopting national measures that create a workable environment for humanitarian operations enhance respect for humanitarian work and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of that work. The time has come to bring the Movements fundamental principles down from their pedestal, make them real, let them live.

The Movement has worked through the 1990s to improve the situation of the most vulnerable people of the world. It believes that the only way this can be accomplished is by reviving the principles, enhancing respect for human dignity and humanitarian values, improving peoples ability to cope with crisis, strengthening the capacity of vulnerable people worldwide and building a global network that capitalizes on the capacities, skills and resources of its members.

It therefore encourages governments to recognize the capacity of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies as their auxiliaries while giving National Societies autonomy of action to fulfil their mandate in accordance with the principles that they stand for. The Movement has taken its commitment to humanitarian values one step further, leading the way in creating a code of conduct for humanitarian organizations and agencies. It believes that applying these ethical principles and professional standards to today's humanitarian challenges will help solve some of tomorrow's problems.

New beginnings

This International Conference, at the close of a century, appropriately brings together all members of the Movement in Geneva, the place of its origins and cradle of the Geneva Conventions. The Conference participants will not miss this important opportunity to re-examine the effectiveness of methods and practices of a world that holds the future of humanity in its hands. It is not a time to rest on past laurels, but to act to ensure the survival of multitudes of people. Yet the past has been a great teacher. When the world has veered away from the principles of humanity, it has suffered. Now is the time to adapt time-honoured ethics to a modern, burdened world where misery calls out for comfort.

Code of conduct

From vision to action

A few decades ago, many people thought of charity as a one-way street. Help was given, no questions asked. Happily, that attitude is changing. Humanitarian organizations think of people in need of help as partners, not "victims". They are consulting them. They are learning from them.

At the same time, the humanitarian world is growing. In Bangladesh, more than 1,000 non-governmental organizations are registered with the government. In Kigali, Rwanda's capital, over 120 NGOs registered in 1994. Throughout the past two decades, the number of international humanitarian organizations has grown rapidly. So has the number of people that need their help - 250 to 300 million people a year are affected by disasters. Yet little guidance has been available, until now, to establish standards for these humanitarian organizations.

The pressure and expanding nature of disaster relief can often lead humanitarian organizations into short-sighted, inappropriate work. As organizations are asked to do more with less, the need for a basic professional code has become an imperative.

To set universal standards for professionalism and practice, the International Federation and the ICRC, and a group of experienced NGOs, in 1993 created a ten-point Code of Conduct for disaster response organizations. The Code is now being used by 52 of these organizations in 19 countries worldwide to evaluate and monitor their relief delivery.

The Code is voluntary, self-policing and open to all organizations who offer help during crisis. It is hoped that organizations will want to commit themselves publicly to abiding by it. They may want to use the Code as a self-monitoring tool. Governments and donor bodies may want to use it as a measurement against which they can judge the conduct of those agencies with which they work. Communities have a right to expect that those who seek to assist them measure up to these standards.

Proposals for the Conference
At the Conference, States and National Societies will be asked to:

Adopt the revised Principles and Rules for Red Cross and Red Crescent Disaster Relief.
These standards promote the highest degree of coordination, professionalism and practice throughout the Movement.

Take note of the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organizations in Disaster Relief.

Encourage the adoption of the Code by other humanitarian organizations.
Governments will be asked to request humanitarian organizations based in, or working in, their countries to abide by the spirit and principles of the Code.

Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief Principal Commitments

1. The humanitarian imperative comes first.
2. Aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind. Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone.
3. Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.
4. We shall endeavour not to act as instruments of government foreign policy.
5. We shall respect culture and custom.
6. We shall attempt to build disaster response on local capacities.
7. Ways shall be found to involve programme beneficiaries in the management of relief aid.
8. Relief aid must strive to reduce future vulnerabilities to disaster as well as meeting basic needs.
9. We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources.
10. In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognize disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects.

Security of personnel

Above all, those we serve

The 1990s have brought a flood of changes and challenges. Today's situations on the African continent and in the former Soviet Union combine outright conflict with pernicious insecurity in a shifting sea of alliances. Somalia endured years of crippling war and conflict-induced famine. Rwanda saw up to one million people killed and half its population displaced, with many fleeing people dying from thirst and disease. Tragedy once again struck in Zaire with the outbreak of the Ebola virus, even as the country was trying to cope with camp unrest in Goma. Bosnians continue to face insurmountable odds as they struggle to keep alive. Iraqis, facing imposed sanctions, frequently must make the choice between purchasing food or medicine with what little money they have.

The Movement has been hard pressed to define its operational responsibilities in situations like these. And it has been in constant danger, as more and more people fail to respect its mission and its emblem. In the past year alone, Red Cross and Red Crescent workers have died performing their jobs in Colombia, Rwanda, Turkey and Zaire.

These may have been the first cases where the Movement found itself operating in a situation defying categorization, but they are certainly not the last. Such a change in the nature of these humanitarian tragedies demands a creative response from humanitarian organizations.

How should humanitarian organizations work efficiently in totally unpredictable environments? How do they avoid undermining their integrity and humanity? How can the Movement adapt to the changing nature of conflict, disaster and insecurity today while maintaining its neutrality and independence? These are not easy questions, but they must be answered. Lives depend on the solutions.

The Movement makes a point of constantly reassessing its operations. It is ready to adapt to new conditions fast. Its work continues until solutions are found. It nonetheless needs to be able to rely on humanitarian respect and security enforcement to do its work effectively.

The Movement needs governments and the United Nations to cooperate with it, to engage in the necessary measures to address the causes of crisis and to uphold the strictly neutral and impartial space in which humanitarian action must take place.

Proposals for the Conference
At the Conference, States and National Societies will be asked to:

Uphold neutrality and impartiality.
The Movement needs governments and the United Nations to engage in the necessary political and other measures to uphold the strictly neutral and impartial space in which humanitarian action should take place.

Recognize the Movements independence.
The International Conference will be requested to recognize the Movements right to operate independently from political, military and economic actions in humanitarian emergencies.

Split-second decisions on the road

Mid-April in Goma. The Federation delegate leaves the quiet evening of the main compound. Suddenly, three silhouettes appear in the road making signs for the car to stop. A drunken man carrying arms and wearing a military uniform needs to be transported out of town. "Juste un lift", one of them says, while the others try to climb into the car. Fortunately, one of the Movements most basic security rules is respected. All doors are locked.

These three men have never heard of the Red Cross, never heard about this "strange" rule about not allowing soldiers to climb, armed or unarmed, into a Federation vehicle. "We are not soldiers. We are just a patrol," they insist.

Although he knows that at the end of February an expatriate was kidnapped for several hours by armed men in a similar situation, the delegate shows no emotion. He is disarming the men politely through self-assurance, while he calls in about his situation on his radio.
As soon as a colleague replies, saying that other cars will be there shortly, the three drunken men apologize and let the car go. The delegate can breathe a sigh of relief until tomorrow, or the day after.

National Societies

Universality in action

National Societies are the foundation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Their programmes combine the Movements fundamental principles with local, voluntary action. National Society programmes vary depending on community need. They offer services mainly in the fields of community development, social welfare and public health. Their programmes can range from community first aid and AIDS education programmes to social and psychological support programmes.

Societies are auxiliaries of their governments in the humanitarian field, and they support their national public authorities according to the needs of their countries citizens. National Societies also work closely with their governments to increase knowledge of international humanitarian law, the emblem and the fundamental principles of the Movement. However, they are also autonomous national organizations, and their auxiliary role does not limit their initiative to undertake any humanitarian activity.

The Federation recently developed self-assessment guidelines for National Societies. Although they differ greatly in terms of size, resources and culture, they all need to possess certain basic characteristics. A National Society's mission needs to be clear. It needs to be guided by the fundamental principles. It needs strong statutes and leadership. It needs a constituency. It needs sufficient human and financial resources. A National Society's performance is defined by its activities, their relevance and effectiveness, and how well they improve the state of the worlds most vulnerable people.

Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies are best able to fulfil the needs of citizens in their own communities. Because different National Societies have different strengths and weaknesses, the Red Cross and Red Crescent network provides a unique opportunity for idea and resource sharing. It strengthens the Movement as a whole. Through mutual cooperation, these programmes are both effective and tailor-made for their communities. Increased international cooperation is needed to enhance this networks role.

Proposals for the Conference
At the Conference, States and National Societies will be asked to:

Recognize the importance of and support the development of National Societies.
Development of the existing global network of National Societies is a means to address the growing number of the worlds most vulnerable populations.

Reaffirm the role of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The International Conference will be invited to reaffirm the mandate of National Societies in their auxiliary role and as institutions for enhancing respect for human dignity and humanitarian values.

Respect National Societies right to independence in their governance and in their programming.

Affirm the need for National Societies autonomy of action.

Making ready

National Societies often cooperate in ventures that in the long-term increase the capacity of the entire Movement. One such project has its headquarters in San José, Costa Rica, but its roots extend throughout the Americas and across the ocean to Europe.

This disaster preparedness projects origins lie in the regions need to cope with numerous recurrent disasters. The project began in 1993, when the Canadian Red Cross, with government support, sponsored a Costa Rica Red Cross proposal to promote community disaster preparedness. The Canadian Red Cross also funded a disaster preparedness delegate. The Costa Rica Red Cross offered 101 disaster education sessions in 1994.

Later, as part of a Swedish Red Cross-funded programme to assist the Guatemalan Red Cross, the delegate, assisted by the Mexican Red Cross and the Colombian Red Cross, designed and implemented two training modules to improve disaster response capacity and promote Red Cross disaster preparedness, prevention and response within communities.

Experience gained from this initial phase allowed a regional programme to be developed. The programme will provide two training sessions for directors and disaster relief operators from Red Cross branches in the Latin American region. It will also provide one training session for branch members who will work as community facilitators for disaster preparedness education.

The training works through the domino approach. National Society staff and members receive training. They, in turn, organize community training.

Disaster preparedness training will continue throughout 1995 in 50 communities in Guatemala, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Argentina, funded by the European Union.

Twelve branches in the Dominican Republic will be trained this year, and each branch will be asked to hold four community sessions. Two sessions were also held in Chile, the second of which was funded by the American Red Cross. The American Red Cross has also repeatedly offered resources to the region, helping to tailor its own disaster response system to Latin America.

Disaster preparedness training gives volunteers a new role, provides exposure of the branch to the community and proves its long-term worth in time of disaster.

Although the Americas region has not experienced "a big one" in the past few years, they expect to soon. In Chile, for example, predictions call for a major earthquake every 10 years. The decade is up. People there are ready, with a disaster preparedness plan in place.


Stopping the vicious cycle

Relief is much more than providing tents and blankets. The Movement believes that as much or more emphasis should be placed on prevention and preparedness as on cure. Unless the problems that have led to a people's vulnerability are corrected or at least prepared for, disasters and other crises will never be "one-offs". They are part of a recurring and evolving cycle.

Based on its fundamental principles, the Movement supports development actions that promote respect for all human beings and that prevent and alleviate suffering. The Movements concept of development emphasizes improving quality of life, full community participation, sharing resources and conserving the environment.

The most significant difference can be made by strengthening National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Education about such issues as humanitarian law and environmental protection is key, and people in the community, of whom the staff of National Societies are included, are in the best place to devise plans to help themselves. National Societies, as auxiliaries to public authorities, are required to establish their own development plans, with an emphasis on broad and effective implementation. National Societies in need of assistance call on their fellow Societies, providing them with a coherent picture of the situation, the need and the priorities.

On the international level, the development of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is the primary responsibility of the International Federation. However, the ICRC has, in recent years, devoted increasing resources to this aim, particularly in the following fields: technical and legal assistance, support of National Society programmes for dissemination of international humanitarian law and fundamental principles, preparation of the National Societies for their activities in the event of conflict, as well as training of National Society leadership and staff.

The grassroots approach to development is often successful. Aid that enables people to keep their livestock, tools and seed will help with today's morale and tomorrow's coping ability. Keeping social structures intact is also critical. Programmes that involve village leadership are vital when adversity strikes.

The modern world may wonder why disaster repeatedly strikes the poor, ill and abused. It must look to itself for an answer. The world community has built a universal system in which the poor have no voice. The international community must give them the means to conquer their silence. Their voice may be the very one needed to solve today's mounting problems.

Proposals for the Conference
At the Conference, States and National Societies will be asked to:

Recognize and actively support the capacities of National Societies.
National Societies need the means to address the needs of the most vulnerable people in their communities on the basis of human dignity and humanitarian values.

Support a global network of National Societies.
Governments should recognize the importance of and support the development of the global network of National Societies as a way of addressing the needs of the growing number of the most vulnerable populations.

Provide financial and human resources.
Governments will be invited to support the capacity building of National Societies by providing support, and by creating a favourable environment for National Societies institutional development.

Utilize National Society potential to its fullest.
Recognizing the potential of National Societies as providers of social services, health care and emergency assistance for the worlds most vulnerable people, governments will be encouraged to recognize and make appropriate use of this potential. They will also be asked to recognize the need for a cost-support system when National Societies are taking on services that are complementary to the services of the state sector.


The ferocity of war left Laos one of the most crippled countries in the world. Its National Society, in existence since 1957, had been merged into the Ministry of Health and remained there until 1991, when a new National Society was formed. Because the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement was relatively unknown in Laos, it had to make itself known at both the central and provincial levels. In setting up its branches, the National Society has been hampered by the country's ethnic and geographic diversity.

The Lao Red Cross overcame these challenges, and now offers services from five branches. Its first branch in Luang Prabang, 200 km north of the country's capital, was formed in October 1993. Its priorities have been HIV/AIDS prevention, first aid, youth, relief and social activities, women and fund-raising.

The branch has had a productive year. With the help of a development delegate from the Swiss Red Cross, it first set about generating cash for a branch office. It targeted the commercial sector, with encouraging results. A dance-concert and a traditional Lao steambath have also added kips (the local currency) to the budget. In addition, collection boxes have been distributed to all hotels and restaurants.

Funds raised have been quickly recycled into community work. Victims of the many fires that occur in the dry season are major beneficiaries. Poor families are another priority, receiving blankets, mosquito nets, kitchen utensils, iodized salt, clothing and medicines. Some 8 million kips (about 10,400 US dollars) worth of goods was distributed among 3,500 vulnerable people in ten villages in 1994. The income from the steambath assists impoverished patients in the provincial and district hospitals, many of whom have travelled long distances and have no family members to care for them.

All signs point towards their speedy success. As the Federations representative in Laos remarked, "It just shows what a significant, rapid impact an experienced development delegate, some basic material and a reliable budget, along with the enthusiasm and dedication of the people of a National Society, can have."

Helping the most vulnerable

Building a road to recovery

The word vulnerability evokes interesting reactions today. Some feel that it is a term for those who can no longer help themselves, those who are repeatedly bashed against the rocks by the elements and so therefore have no resources left. They cite, for example, people who build inadequate housing on the banks of a river and return to build again and again after the river floods. Yet most vulnerable people today have the motivation and the fortitude to help themselves. After all, they have withstood much and survived it all. They merely need the tools and the training to make their lives secure once more. The same people who build on the river banks long for a break in their misfortune that will allow them to build on higher ground.

Even one persons pain is worth alleviating. If you stand face to face with someone in pain, you know this instinctively. Yet this pain may seem remote to someone who does not deal with it daily. Red Cross and Red Crescent operations may seem idealistic in a time that has lost its hope in happy endings.

Yet happy endings do occur. Refugees do return home. Parents do find their missing children. Lives are saved on the battlefield. First aid and precautions against AIDS, learned in National Society courses, save many more. Millions of people worldwide are right now receiving food, shelter and medical care that is life-saving.

The International Federations Strategic Work Plan for the Nineties focuses on the challenge of improving the daily lives of the worlds most vulnerable people with a gradual development approach building on its global community network to ultimately improve a persons ability to cope with crisis. It has embarked on a journey that begins with grassroots solutions. It believes that by focusing on local abilities, beginning with one person, one community, one region, that it will eventually reach out step by step to solve the plight of the worlds vulnerable millions.

Proposals for the Conference
At the Conference, States and National Societies will be asked to:

Support the Movements role in assisting and protecting refugees, displaced persons, asylum seekers and returnees.

Provide the necessary resources for the Movement's programmes.
The Conference will emphasize that the long-term nature of today's refugee situations should be kept in mind when planning for such an occurrence.

Respect their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect internally displaced persons when they are victims of conflict.

When the worst is over

Nada, a refugee from Bosnia-Herzegovina, has worked in a social welfare programme sponsored by the Federation and the Croatian Red Cross for two years now. When she first arrived in Zagreb from Bosnia, she was afraid to venture outside. Her oldest son was also traumatized by the family's experience in the war and required counselling at school. "It was difficult for all of us to adjust in the beginning. We had to start over, says Nada."

Her new circumstances and her family's needs motivated Nada to seek employment with the social welfare programme. Her first training session, which included personal accounts similar to her own, made her cry. Yet gradually her work helping other refugees and displaced persons helped her overcome her own grief and anxieties and restored her self-confidence.

A disaster leaves two forms of suffering in its wake. People suffer during the disaster, and they suffer after the disaster. A speedy recovery is critical to reducing a persons vulnerability. The best relief programmes are those that leave their beneficiaries best able to cope and regain their self-sufficiency and dignity.

Today, Nada knows all 157 of the residents by name in the collective centre where she works. She often brings them fresh fruit, letters and family messages. She has initiated a handiwork group, a children's dance group and other social activities. All group activities take place in three pre-fabricated structures. One structure is dedicated to children's activities, another to men who make various wicker crafts. Residents supply themselves and the common kitchen with vegetables using parcels of land around the centre that have been distributed to them.

Nada is grateful to be able to help others because she was recently in a similar position. It fulfils her to see other peoples tears stop flowing. She speaks of one 20-year-old refugee transformed from a mistrustful, weeping woman to a star volunteer at the centre." In the beginning, most of us cried, she says. Now we learn from each other."

Embodying the principles

Paul Lifetu is used to tough decisions. His career reads like a history of independent Zaire and its troubles. He left a safe job in local government to become Provincial Secretary of the Zaire Red Cross in his 20s. He has stayed with the National Society ever since. "There was something about the spirit of Red Cross - its spirit of service - that appealed to me," he says. Despite a string of jobs at headquarters in Kinshasa, Lifetu remains devoted to practical work in the field.

A different decade, a different war. Lifetu is back in Bukavu again, working with Zaire Red Cross volunteers and Federation delegates amid the torment of a country in flight. He remembers his previous mission in the town. He can point out the spot where a plane crashed in Lake Kivu in 1967. At that time, refugees from Bukavu fled into Rwanda; now it is the turn of the Rwandans to flee into Zaire.

But is there something that can be recouped out of the wreckage of war, genocide and social collapse? At the moment, the only significant resources available to the Zaire Red Cross are its people. Yet there is no doubt about the quality of its human resources, developed through the history of a country with real reason to need the spirit of the Red Cross values and principles. This spirit is evident in the spirit of the volunteers, in the pride with which Red Cross veterans will display their crumpled first aid certificates from courses taken 20 years ago. It is definitely part of the personality and the career of someone like Paul Lifetu. It is a spirit which will abide long after the war is over and the refugees return home.

The Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

Voluntary Service