Humanitarian principles - the importance of their preservation during humanitarian crises

12-10-2007 Statement

The text of a speech delivered by the director-general of the ICRC, Mr Angelo Gnaedinger, at the conference Humanitarian Aid in the Spotlight: upcoming challenges for European actors held in Lisbon on 12 October 2007.

  check against delivery  


Madam President, Mr Director General, 

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends,

I have been asked to talk to you about the humanitarian principles and why they are still relevant today. With such an informed public I don't need to expand on the principles themselves. Humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence have become household names in the humanitarian community. While humanity and impartiality are principles that most, if not all, humanitarian actors adhere to, independence and neutrality are more complex. I will therefore focus my argument on these two : independence and neutrality.

You are well aware that the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC, indeed strongly believes in the importance of these principles. They were developed - and later formalized - during the first century of the existence of the Red Cross, in the context of the devastating wars of the first half of the 20th century, mostly fought between States. You could think that they are therefore a thing of the past and have no relevance in today's world of internal conflicts between governments and rebel forces like in Sri Lanka or Colombia; of conflicts taking place in countries where the State has all but collapsed like in Somalia; or conflicts characterised by a highly fragmented list of belligerents like in Darfur. Since 2001 we have also heard the argument that, what some call the " Global war on terrorism " launched in the wake of 9/11 would make these principles obsolete.

This is not how we see it. We maintain that these principles are still relevant and that it is imperative – more than ever - to preserve space for neutral and independent humanitarian action. These principles are not primarily moral values, but rather a means to secure access to those who suffer the brunt of conflict and violence and to enhance the effectiveness of aid. Sudan and Afghanistan are a case in point: 

Amidst repeated debates on how to resolve the ongoing conflicts in Darfur, often mixing humanitarian advocacy with political and military choices, the number of attacks on humanitarian organizations on the ground increased, while the fragmentations and the in- fighting among different belligerent groups created a highly complex and dangerous environment for all of us. The ICRC – focusing on its exclusively humanitarian mission – deliberately abstained from any action or declaration that could be interpreted as taking sides for one party or the other. Observing strict political neutrality, the ICRC has sought and established dialogue with all of the many armed groups in Darfur. We contend that this way of seeking dialogue will all parties to a conflict is what makes our presence possible in the long run because it offers the best likelihood of being accepted by all parties. It is therefore an important aspect of our policy on staff security. We are convinced that it is this strictly neutral approach that allows us to continue our work in Darfur, where we provide assistance to hundreds of thousands of IDPs and isolated civilians in Gereida and many other places.

Likewise, the recent developments in Afghanistan are further proof how important and relevant the principle of independence still is in today's conflicts. After the removal from power of the Taliban in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the risk was real for the ICRC to be rejected outright by local forces actively resisting the US led coalition and the new governmental forces. Drawing on its long standing track record as a reliable humanitarian actor and its proven independent way of operating in the many conflicts in the Middle East and in Afghanistan during the past decades, the ICRC found new ways of operating and renewed its commitment to remain clearly distinct from all political and military actors in the area. Today, we feel that our identity as a truly independent actor in this complex post 9/11 environment is well recognized by all major stakeholders in Afghanistan – as confirmed by our facilitating role in recent releases of hostages. The same is true for the wider region of the Middle East still torn apart by tension and violence.

From our experience in this part of the world we should perhaps add an additional humanitarian principle: perseverance. From 1948 to the war in Lebanon in 2006, the ICRC has been active in all conflicts between Israel and its neighbours, as much as it has remained operational in the Palestinian occupied territories ever since 1967 and throughout many troubled events and periods stretching from the Black September in 1970 to the second Intifada and the present critical situation in Gaza. In Iraq too, we have been present during the Iran-Iraq war that lasted 8 years, the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, and then the period of international sanctions. Today, despite very difficult circumstances, we continue to do our utmost to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi population.

It is the strict and predictable adherence to the humanitarian principles by several generations of ICRC delegates that has made this possible. Projecting credible independence and neutrality requires maintaining a sustained dialogue with all actors involved in armed conflicts – however they may be qualified by the international community. This obviously only works if belligerents and armed groups can trust that the ICR C is pursuing an exclusively humanitarian mission.

This trust is increasingly difficult to build as the foundations of humanitarian aid are being called into question by various stakeholders. What's more, various non-humanitarian actors use the label humanitarian to describe their activities. States have a very important political role to play in preventing and solving conflicts and creating the political conditions so that populations can recover from disaster. Armed forces also have a very important military role to play in providing security. They should devote their efforts to these key responsibilities and avoid blurring the line between military, political, and humanitarian action by labelling all of them as humanitarian . For the same reasons, they should also avoid fully integrating humanitarian action into their political, military, or economic response to crises. Let me assure you: the ICRC is not overlooking the fact that there can be situations where humanitarian organizations are not in a position to carry out their activities, and the military might be compelled to build a bridge, drill a well, or otherwise provide logistical means to bring urgent assistance to those in need.

Moreover, in specific situations - in the case of occupation, for example -, armed forces have a legal obligation   (under international humanitarian law) to provide the essential goods and services for the survival of the civilian population under their control. Still, the primary duty of the armed forces is to preserve the safety and security of the civilian population during military operations and - as the law says – to " grant to the ICRC all facilities within their power so as to enable it to carry out the humanitarian functions assigned to it (…) " . Although the ICRC is mentioned specifi cally, the same article also says that these facilities shall as well be granted to other humanitarian organisations which are acting on the same basis.

We argue that entrusting the military with humanitarian tasks should occur only exceptionally and only in order to meet urgent needs beyond the immediate capacities of humanitarian organizations. In such cases, a clear and unambiguous separation from military objectives must of course be ensured.

We understand that the proposed European Consensus calls on the European Union to adhere to and promote the Military and Civil Defence Assets and Oslo guidelines, which state that Military and Civil Defence or Protection capabilities should be employed by humanitarian agencies as a last resort; that is - only in the absence of any other available civilian alternative. This is a welcome reminder of how important it is to preserve space for neutral and independent humanitarian action as practiced by the ICRC.

It is encouraging to see that EU members and other states increasingly refer to the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, independence, and impartiality. This welcome development should not overlook the fact that these principles apply mainly - if not exclusively - to the activities of humanitarian organisations. It cannot be expected that States and donors governments be neutral and independent. What is expected of them is that they respect the organisations'need to apply these principles. Donors should retain their identity as donor and not pretend to be humanitarian organisations. A clear division of labour and complementarity between government donors and humanitarian organisations only enhances the effectiveness of humanitarian action.

The Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative is an expression of the donors'commitment to a set of very important guiding principles for the funding of humanitarian agencies, such as to ensure pred ictability and flexibility in funding, explore the possibility of reducing earmarking, introduce longer-term funding arrangements, and encourage the development of standardized formats for reporting. The EU Member States have in general demonstrated a firm commitment to these principles. The ICRC participated in the discussions with donors and other humanitarian agencies which eventually led to the endorsement of the principles and good practices of Good Humanitarian Donorship by a large number of donors. There is a broad consensus on the pertinence and utility of these principles among our main governmental donors, which include the European Commission and 11 EU Member States.

The Portuguese Ambassador, at the ECOSOC Humanitarian Segment this summer, speaking on behalf of the European Union, confirmed the EU's firm commitment to providing aid, respecting humanitarian principles, as they are taken up in the principles and practice of Good Humanitarian Donorship, which – as he reminded the audience - allocate funding on the basis of, and in proportion to, need. We hope that the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid will reiterate this stand, and that it will also set out a commitment to advocating strongly and consistently for the respect of international humanitarian law. The ICRC will of course welcome such a commitment.

Taking into account the complexity of the environment in which humanitarian action has to be carried out, the ICRC believes that the diversity of humanitarian agencies can be an asset if they are seen as complementary to each others. We hope that the European Consensus will recognise this by encouraging all humanitarian actors to document their distinctive comparative advantages in responding to particular situations and needs.

However, this response has to be coordinated towards effective action and based on the real capacities of the various organizations; this includes their effective and timely access to the persons in need of assista nce, and the appropriate human resources and logistical capacities. The choice of criteria for the selection of partners put forward by the European Consensus as proposed by the Commission - professionalism, capacity to respond to identified needs (including presence and access); and adherence to the humanitarian principles – is addressing precisely that issue.

It is impossible to talk about humanitarian action today without mentioning the reform of the UN humanitarian system. The ICRC, while supporting efforts to strengthen the UN humanitarian response and participating in this process in a constructive manner, has explained from the onset that it will not take part in the cluster system as it cannot be accountable to the UN system through the Emergency Relief Coordinator, or the Humanitarian Coordinator at the country level. Upon clarifying this role, the ICRC participated at the global level in the discussions and attended all the meetings relating to this new approach. In the field, the ICRC coordinates with all humanitarian actors which are effectively delivering protection and assistance - whether they are engaged in the cluster approach or not. The ICRC's main donor governments recognized the need to maintain the ICRC's independence. We also welcome strong indications by our donor that the ICRC shall not be penalized by new financing mechanisms, such as the CERF and pooled funding, which are targeting UN agencies and, potentially, their respective NGO implementing partners. We trust that the EU's further efforts and initiatives will not change this position.

As it stands, the European Consensus on humanitarian aid states at the outset that " collectively the EU is the leading humanitarian donor in the world and Europeans are strongly committed to supporting humanitarian action " . This support will indeed be crucial in our collective efforts to preserve space for impartial, neutral and independent humanitarian action. 

Thank you.