Overview of the ICRC's operations in 2012: message from the president, Jakob Kellenberger

08-12-2011 Report

Events in the first few months of 2011 confirmed at least one important objective for the ICRC in 2012 and beyond – that it must be ready and able to respond quickly to complex humanitarian needs in increasingly diverse and unexpected situations. Armed conflicts, internal disturbances or strife, and natural and technological disasters – from Africa to the Middle East and the Far East – caused many thousands of deaths, massive destruction and immeasurable suffering, most of it unexpected and much of it at almost the same time.

These events also again underscored the critical importance of the ICRC’s neutral, impartial and independent approach in being able to access and make a difference to the most vulnerable. Within just a few days of violent unrest erupting in Libya in February, an ICRC team was deployed to the eastern city of Benghazi, which was crucial in facilitating further dialogue and access. The ICRC was also the first international humanitarian organization to establish a delegation and carry out activities in Tripoli. At the same time, the ICRC provided vital assistance to the victims of Côte d’Ivoire’s rapidly escalating post-election violence, in Abidjan and in the west of the country, where it was one of the only humanitarian organizations on the ground. Just as the situation in these two countries spiralled into full-fledged armed conflict in March, Japan was confronted with a major crisis: the tsunami and nuclear disaster. While this would not, strictly speaking, fall within the ICRC’s mandate, the scale of the disaster nevertheless prompted the organization to intervene in support of the Japanese Red Cross in areas of particular ICRC expertise (restoring family links and monitoring and advice related to its nuclear, radiological, biological and chemical response capacity).  

All of these crises came in addition to what had been planned for in the 2011 Appeal, which had already set an all-time high based on the humanitarian needs in ongoing major operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan, among others – nearly all of them protracted armed conflicts. In Somalia, for example, the population has been suffering from multiple pressures for many years – armed conflict and regular natural disasters in particular – without any real prospects of peace and development. There, the ICRC – together with the Somali Red Crescent Society – responded to the worsening situation in 2011 principally by significantly expanding its therapeutic feeding centres and health care facilities in areas controlled by Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahedin (al-Shabaab), boosting an already major relief operation that included food distribution to 1 million people.

While Somalia and other major operations in situations of armed conflict will continue to be priorities for the ICRC in 2012, we clearly must retain the flexibility necessary to respond to the unexpected.

One crucial factor towards achieving this is the institution’s rapid deployment and rapid response capacity.  The events in Côte d’Ivoire, and moreover in Libya (where the ICRC had no pre-existing operational structure to build upon), further confirmed this as one of the institution’s main strengths, one that will remain a priority in the years ahead.

The tumultuous groundswell of violent disturbances in North Africa and the Middle East, from Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen and the Syrian Arab Republic, consolidated the ICRC’s approach to the increasingly serious humanitarian consequences of situations of violence other than armed conflicts. The ICRC aims unequivocally to strengthen its scope of action in such situations – including by means of the pilot project on urban violence in cities such as Rio de Janeiro – while increasing its relevance and effectiveness, as set out in the ICRC Strategy 2011–2014. One of the main challenges in this domain is striking a balance between operational considerations and the various legal and political sensitivities surrounding situations characterized by the use of force, such as organized armed violence and violent crime, where IHL does not apply but humanitarian initiatives come within ICRC’s role as a specifically neutral and independent institution and intermediary.

Events in North Africa and the Middle East also confirmed that violence against health care facilities and personnel represents one of the most serious albeit neglected humanitarian issues of today. The ICRC is so concerned by the far-reaching and profound humanitarian consequences of threats to the provision of health care – in armed conflicts and other situations of violence – that it has launched a major multiyear project and communication campaign on the issue.

Another priority for the ICRC now and in the coming years is the issue of “early recovery” in the wake of an armed conflict or other situation of violence. The aim is to promote the resilience and self-sufficiency of affected people or communities, and to protect their dignity in a way that food aid or other emergency relief alone cannot. The ICRC has for many years been carrying out “early recovery” activities that go beyond helping people with their short-term needs only, but it now aims to be much more assertive, structured and coherent in its approach, as set out in the Strategy 2011–2014.

In the domain of IHL, the ICRC will pursue its dialogue with States and other important stakeholders on the conclusions of its study on strengthening legal protection for victims of armed conflicts. The study had concluded that while IHL remains, overall, an appropriate framework for regulating the conduct of parties to armed conflicts, whether international or non-international, there is nevertheless a need to reinforce the law in four specific areas: the protection of people deprived of their freedom; implementation of IHL and reparations for victims of violations; protection of the natural environment; and protection of IDPs. While all these remain valid, the outcome of the first round of consultations with States was that – for now – priority should be given to addressing weaknesses in the law in the first area, and to ensuring better implementation of IHL.  

The 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, to be held in Geneva in late 2011, will offer an important opportunity to that end. The ICRC will present its report on the main findings of the study as well as the outcome of the consultations, which will allow for further debate among participants. It will also submit a draft resolution to the Conference, proposing substantive discussions as well as further research and consultation in close cooperation with States. The aim is to identify the most appropriate form of addressing humanitarian issues in the two proposed areas.

The issue of “health care in danger” – how to ensure respect for and protection of health care in armed conflicts and other situations of violence, and how to address barriers to health care – will be another priority for the International Conference, as will strengthening disaster laws and reinforcing local humanitarian action.

The importance of the ICRC’s partnerships with National Societies will be prominent at the International Conference. It remains essential to continue strengthening and developing these and other partnerships, particularly on a local level, in order to obtain the best possible understanding of communities and local situations.

The year 2012 and beyond will also see the ICRC pursue its ambition to shape the humanitarian debate on a range of legal and policy issues related to its mission – including the future of humanitarian action and coordination issues. On the latter, the goal is clearly to move beyond general debates towards field-focused coordination between actors who are present and active, ensuring the best possible protection and assistance for the people who need it.

Finally, I would like to sincerely thank the donors for their continued support at such a financially challenging time for many of us. Despite considerable financial pressures – which required us to reduce the initial 2011 field budget by 79 million Swiss francs – we have been able to respond to unprecedented humanitarian needs in a diverse range of situations. With the help of donors, we will continue to do so in the years ahead. The lives of ever more men, women and children depend on it.


Jakob Kellenberger 

Jakob Kellenberger

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