Report on the Use of Armed Protection for Humanitarian Assistance

01-12-1995 Report

Extract from Working Paper, ICRC and International Federation, Council of delegates,Geneva, 1-2 December 1995


In 1993, the Council of Delegates, in its resolution V, called upon the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to form a joint working group to study the issue of armed protection for humanitarian assistance and for that working group to report back to the ICRC and the International Federation, as well as to the Advisory Commission.

The working group formed by the ICRC and the International Federation transmitted its report as requested by the above mentioned resolution V in August 1995. The present report is based up the findings and recommendations of the working group. It is divided into four main sections: I. Background; II. Methods and procedures matters; III. Findings and principles; IV. Conclusions.


Violence, in all its forms, is on the increase. With the end of the Cold War, the world registered many major changes. The collapse of social structures, the fragmentation of power, the weakening of States, the development of ethnic intolerance and tensions, the widespread availability and trade of weapons, the continuing rural exodus, increasing economic turmoil, the rise in illegal trading - such as raw material or drugs - are examples of the pressures being exerted upon people and society in the 1990s. As a result, war, social unrest and indeed all forms of violence, organised or otherwise, are on the increase. The number of victims and other people being affected by violence is increasing.

Armed conflicts have proliferated from Afghanistan, Liberia, Somalia, Rwanda, Angola and Sudan in the South to the former Yugoslavia and parts of the former Soviet Union in the North. There are today more than 31   armed conflicts ongoing. The tactics and means employed in many of the conflicts are deliberately intended to destroy the very fabric of human dignity, the family and other social structures. The disappearance of any form of authority except that of the gun, the denial of basic human values and increasing chaos and anarchy are making conflicts ever more complex, the suffering of civilians ever more cruel, humanitarian workers and the international community generally ever more helpless.

The work of the components of the Movement and other humanitarian organisations has become more difficult and more dangerous. Instead of having to deal with two parties to a conflict, as was previously the case when the Cold War patrons invariably stood in the background, one nowadays often has to negotiate with groups, clans, bandits, militias and weekend fighters. Humanitarian workers are more and more victims of attacks and the emblem of the Red Cross and Red Crescent no longer always provides the necessary protection.

Of equal concern is the rapid rise in other forms of violence. Armed robbery and other criminal violence combined with a growing world-wide contempt for basic human and traditional values is in many cases jeopardising the use of any item having commercial value, even those intended solely for humanitarian purposes and relief. Much of this violence is unorganised and opportunistic in nature, reflecting the easy availability of small arms in many parts of the world and the increased levels of social unrest and poverty in many countries. Coupled with this is a worrying increase in the incidence of organised criminal violence, with a predilection for extortion and protection of illegal activities of all sorts.

In carrying out their duty to provide assistance and protection to those most vulnerable, whether it be in times of conflict, natural disaster or chronic need, Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies acting within the framework of their domestic programmes or through the International Federation, or the ICRC (working with national societies or by itself in times of armed conflict or internal violence) have increasingly become targets of violence and face growing difficulties in commanding respect for the emblem.

In recent years, the ICRC and the Somali Red Crescent faced major challenges and security risks in addressing the tremendous needs amidst the anarchy reigning in that country. The International Federation was particularly concerned by the security situation in the refugee camps in Tanzania and Zaire, that contain those, both civilian and former military, who had fled from war. Several National Societies have faced harsh dilemmas when delivering financially valuable assistance in communities and shanty towns where economic and social systems are breaking down.

In all these situations, access to the victims and other persons in need is placed in jeopardy and the security of the operation and the safety of the staff and volunteers remains a paramount concern.

Any component of the Movement that works under armed protection, particularly an armed escort, may endanger the neutrality and ultimate safety of other components and must therefore always be aware of its general responsibility in that regard. The different components of the Movement must adopt the same approach and behaviour.

Generally speaking, four aspects of security need to be considered:

* security for the Movement's staff and volunteers;

* security of relief consignments in transit;

* security of relief while in storage and at distribution sites;

* security of the Movement's fixed assets, offices and accommodation.

 The issue of the Fundamental Principles  

In the Movement's experience the necessary security and protection from violence is mainly the product of conduct strictly adhering to the Fundamental Principles , of the reliability of that behaviour, and of the credibility and reputation of the Movement and of the component concerned.

 Security, the ability to deliver humanitarian assistance and to carry out humanitarian activities in violent situations is a product first and foremost of our ethical and professional standards and the way we conduct ourselves. It is not a function of armed escorts and flak-jackets .

At the heart of the problem is the practice of neutrality . Understanding neutrality and putting it into practice is the very basis of good security. The experience of the ICRC and the International Federation demonstrates that if one acts in a neutral fashion and is perceived as being neutral by those involved in the violence and those fighting, one has a far better chance of carrying through a humanitarian mission.

Closely linked to neutrality is independence . There is today a proliferation of humanitarian actors, be they non-governmental organisations (NGOs), intergovernmental organisations or governmental bodies. The mandates of the traditional humanitarian institutions are being questioned. New strategies and broad mandates are being developed favouring an interdi sciplinary approach which includes political, military and humanitarian aspects. This integrated approach being taken by the United Nations Organisation (UNO) in particular, plus the pressure being placed on NGOs and components of the Movement to act as implementing agents of donor policy and to concentrate on activities which are rewarded by a high media profile, highlights the importance for each component of the Movement of respecting its specificity and for the Movement to maintain a highly independent and autonomous stance in its decisions and action. More than declarations, our behaviour and the perception of that behaviour is critical. If we fail to uphold this independence, the components of the Movement risk being held responsible for the acts of others and for the effects of their political manoeuvring and other strategies.

 The issue of behaviour  

Simply respecting the Fundamental Principles is not enough; the way humanitarian workers behave also plays an essential role in determining security. Several key elements must be stressed here:

First, open and continuous dialogue with all concerned, including the beneficiaries and the local population. When humanitarian workers take the time painstakingly to explain their mandate and their role, what they are doing, how they must behave and what the persons affected and the beneficiaries will get, the probability of confrontation and misunderstanding diminish.

Second, feeling and understanding for the culture, traditions and uniqueness of the different peoples . One way to achieve this is to involve local people in the operations, when feasible, including beneficiaries and Red Cross or Red Crescent volunteers.

Third, the predictable character of the action and respect for the declared programmes and objectives . The humanitarian operation must be conducted, if requested on a long-term basis, only according to the identified needs and must not be implemented or changed for fund-raising or any other reasons not directly arising from the needs, or unexpected changes in the security situation.

Fourth, professionalism and experience of the Movement's staff .

 The issue of the Emblem  

Another important element in security is the protective value of the emblem . This depends on efforts made by the States to protect the use of the emblem, on respect for the Fundamental Principles and on the conduct of the Movement's components and their staff. The emblem has for years been the symbol of humanitarian activities carried out in a neutral, impartial and independent manner. Parties to the Geneva Conventions have exclusively reserved the emblem for identification of medical relief in armed conflict and of humanitarian activities by the components of the Movement.

The protective effect of the emblem comes from the reflex of respect it creates. The necessary knowledge comes from the action of the Movement's components and large scale information campaigns and dissemination carried out by States and by the Movement.

For the Movement, the presence of weapons may jeopardise the emblem's confidence value and could give rise to the idea that it harbours hostile and perfidious intentions.

In extreme situations, when the safety of the Movement's staff is endangered and the protective value of the emblem is no longer respected , the question of armed protection or use of deterrent force against those tempted to use violence against the components of the Movement must be considered. Any decision regarding the possible use of armed protection, particularly armed escort, has to pay primary attention and concern to the interests of the victims and persons to be assisted. In particular, one has to be sure that the use of armed protection will not have a detrimental effect upon the security of the intended beneficiaries. The dangers and the possible long-term negative consequences of such a step make it necessary to establish principles and guidelines and broadly disseminate them within the Movement.


The working group formed to study the matter raised in paragraph 3 of resolution V of the 1993 Council of Delegates held its first session on 30 September 1994 and met regularly thereafter. The group was composed of three representatives from the ICRC and two from the Federation.

Bearing in mind recent operations conducted by components of the Movement in their respective statutory fields of activity, the deterioration of security conditions in several parts of the world and the international situation at the time when the resolution was passed, the working group decided to adopt the following goals:

- clarify the whole issue of armed protection, and more specifically armed escorts, for any component of the Movement, with special reference to situations in which the UNO or other international forces are operating;

- propose general guidelines for all the Movement's components in this respect;

- when necessary, define simple and specific criteria for each component of the Movement with regard to its respe ctive statutory fields of activity.

In relation to the issue of armed protection, the working group stressed the fact that the different components of the Movement have different tasks and mandates set out in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, the Movement's Statutes, the resolutions of the International Conferences and the components'own statutes. Concern over the use of armed protection can arise in many different types of situation, not only in armed conflicts. Consequently, it concerns all components of the Movement.

The working group therefore gave priority to consulting a number of National Societies which could provide it with information on their own experience in the sphere of armed protection and general observations, prior to drafting a report or issuing definitive guidelines.

In December 1994, the Federation Secretariat and the ICRC contacted 20 National Societies and submitted to them a number of priorities and general principles for consideration

Six National Societies have sent written replies. The National Societies that took part in the consultation broadly agreed with the priorities, the premise and the restrictive approach of the working group. Some comments and requests were made to further develop practical details, such as the composition of an escort. These have been integrated by the working group and are now part of the findings and principles drawn in Chapter III. 



As a general principle, any armed protection for any compone nt of the Movement is in conflict with the following Fundamental Principles:

- humanity;

- independence;

- impartiality; 

- neutrality.

As a rule, the different components of the Movement should not use armed protection or deterrent force against those tempted to use violence. This basic principle concerns above all the use of armed escorts.


There might be situations in which human lives may be saved only by accepting an armed escort because the refusal of such an escort would lead to the paralysis of humanitarian activities, and consequently the possibility that the victims would die. In such cases, the principle of humanity requires that the components of the Movement thoroughly assess the situation, attempt to find the best solution and, in certain circumstances, accept changes to their normal operating procedures.

However, the use of armed escorts may affect the image of all the components of the Movement, now and in the future, and place in jeopardy the acceptance of the emblem and the future possibility of access and action by other components of the Movement in that area. In other words, the armed protection may help get one aid convoy through but eventually jeopardise the operation as a whole. It is therefore important to have a minimum set of guidelines on the issue.

The case of protection of fixed assets and security at distribution sites will be dealt with in an appropriate section.


For those situations in which recourse to armed escort is the only means of c onducting humanitarian activities and ensuring the delivery of assistance to the victims, the component of the Movement considering the use of an armed escort should ensure before making its decision that the answers to the following questions are in the affirmative. These are the minimal conditions under which armed escorts might be used.

- Are the needs so pressing (e.g. saving lives on a large scale) as to justify an exceptional way of operating and can they be met only with the use of an armed escort?

- Is the Movement's component concerned sure that the use of an armed escort will not have a detrimental effect upon the security of the intended beneficiaries?

- Is the component concerned the most capable of covering the identified needs? Is there no other agency or body external to the Movement that is in a position to carry out the same activities or to cover the same needs?

- Is armed protection being considered primarily for its deterrent value and not for its fire-power, recognising the extreme reluctance with which the Movement would condone the use of violence and the threat of violence to deter attack?

- Has the party or authority controlling the territory through which the convoy will pass and in which the humanitarian assistance will be delivered given its full approval to the principle and modalities of an armed escort ? Remember that should this approval be withdrawn, the situation must be reassessed and negotiations must once again take place.

- Is the escort intended to provide protection against bandits and common criminals in situation of general law-and-order breakdown? Remember that there should be no risk of confrontation between the escort and the actual parties to the conflict or organised armed groups which control part of the area through which the humanitari an convoy has to travel.

Each component of the Movement should lay down clear instructions as to who in the organisation has authority to take decisions on the acceptability or otherwise of armed escorts in concordance with the responsibilities and procedures outlined in section 6 below.



In a normal situation, the authority controlling a territory ensures security and maintains law and order. When this is not possible and the use of an escort becomes necessary, it should be seen as a preventive measure, its main feature being the deterrent effect. In such a case, the concerned component of the Movement must find a contractor, who is able to provide the escort and agrees to work according to these general guidelines and the component's directives.

Depending on the situation, the escort may successively be provided for by:

1) a reputable private company;

2) the police;

3) military personnel. 

Members of the escort must not be Movement staff and are not allowed to display the emblem. They must travel in vehicles that are identifiably different from those of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and that are not marked with the emblem.

Members of the escort must receive strict instructions from their employers, who are under contract with a component of the Movement, particularly as regards the use of weapons and rules of engagement. These instructions must also be conveyed to the concerned component. That component must reserve the right at all times to give directions regarding matters such as schedule, itinerary or speed o f the convoy. Weapons must only be used in self-defence, i.e. when the convoy is under attack and there is no other way to save the lives of the people in the convoy. Those using weapons must strictly respect the principle of proportionality as laid down by the international standards on the use of force and firearms by law-enforcement officials.

Technical questions such as the type of weaponry to be used must be directly dealt with by the security organisation under contract, but with a view to avoiding any confusion as regards the humanitarian nature of the convoy.

 Armed escorts and the United Nations  

The concerned components of the Movement often have to work in situations in which peace-keeping or peace-enforcement operations are being carried out by or authorised by the UNO under either Chapter VI or Chapter VII of the UNO Charter. The reality today is that in many instances, and not only when clear enforcement actions under Chapter VII are under way, such forces are not perceived as neutral by the warring parties and may even be considered as hostile. As a result, the neutrality of other organisations associated with them is also called into question. Since the components of the Movement have to maintain their independence and their neutrality and to ensure that their operations are perceived as independent and neutral, any situation that could lead to confusion must be avoided.

Therefore, the concerned components of the Movement should not avail themselves of armed protection for their operations when this is offered by UN troops during an enforcement action under Chapter VII or when it is possible that the UNO sooner or later be considered as a party to the conflict by the local population or by the belligerents.


The general principles outlined above also apply to the armed protection of fixed assets and security of distribution sites. However, ensuring the security of fixed assets and distribution sites is easier than that of convoys. The components of the Movement should first look to the law-enforcement authorities of the country or area concerned to provide protection as part of their normal duties. In most instances this would be the local police force. If the local authority is not able to provide sufficient protection, then a reputable private security company should be approached and contracted to provide it.


Any component of the Movement working with an armed escort may endanger the other components and must therefore be aware of its responsibility in this regard.

ICRC and Federation delegations must obtain formal written approval from their respective headquarters prior to using armed escorts.

When the need for an armed escort is being discussed by National Societies, prior consultation with the Geneva-based institutions must be held before taking the final decision on using an armed escort in order to protect the neutrality and independence of the whole Movement. A thorough review of the responses to the questions raised in part 3 above must be submitted as part of this consultation.

Should the proposals contained in this report be adopted, the bodies concerned should agree on a mechanism for the transmission of information between the ICRC, the International Federation and the National Societies, each de signating a unit responsible for this matter. This mechanism should then be made widely known within the Movement.

(Extract from Working paper submitted jointly by the International Federation and the ICRC at the Council of delegates, Geneva, 1-2 December 1995, 95/CD/12/1)