World Peace Forum: IHL and principled humanitarian action creates conditions for peace in the Middle East
Allow me first to give sincere thanks to the World Peace Forum for inviting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to this distinguished panel, and for allowing me to raise reflections on peace in the Middle East from the perspective of a humanitarian organization.
For 160 years, operating neutrally, independently, and impartially on the frontline of major conflicts across the world, the ICRC has amassed key insights and experiences as a principled actor in favor of humanitarian space and as a neutral intermediary between belligerents.
In the Middle East, the ICRC's earliest operation started in Egypt at the beginning of the First World War. In Israel and the Occupied Territories and in Syria, the ICRC has been working since 1967, and in Yemen since 1962.
In 2023, 23% of the ICRC's field budget goes to its operations in the Middle East.
Urbanization of warfare, increasingly fragmented actors, unrestrained strategies in the use of force, obvious imbalance in pondering military necessities and the protection needs of civilians, and as a result the systemic impacts on whole societies... These long-term impacts increase the fragility of an entire region.
Since 1967, the ICRC has been providing secure access to clean water and essential services for more than 12 million Syrians, ensuring economic security for over 3 million of them by facilitating access to food and working to mitigate the dire consequences of weapon contamination in heavily affected communities.
Over more than a decade, Syria has endured a devastating conflict and had to deal with meaningful related humanitarian consequences that reverberate throughout the region. That includes large-scale displacement, and a dire economic situation, with millions pushed deeper into poverty. An entire generation in Syria has lived and grown in conflict, distress, and confinement. Syria is today ICRC's third-largest operation globally.
The devastating earthquake in February has added more complexity to already demanding needs. In partnership with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the ICRC has stepped up its response to respond to these renewed needs by providing essential relief items, health care, water, and mental health support, and by rehabilitating facilities, mostly schools used as shelters.
In recent years, as the conflict has shifted into new phases, the ICRC has adopted a two-track approach – providing emergency food, and shelter to displaced populations; and working in areas with greater stability to repair water, sanitation, and electricity infrastructure. We have adjusted our response with the goal to prepare the ground for a return to regular life and to support market creation and income-generating activities.
In Yemen, the ICRC has been operating since the civil war in 1962. The context has gone through different levels of violence since then. Given its long-lasting presence, the ICRC has an in-depth understanding of the challenges faced by the population and has tirelessly mobilized the attention of the international community at the high-level pledging conference for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen throughout these years.
The ICRC at times serves as a specifically neutral and independent intermediary between two or several parties in dispute. In April 2023, the ICRC facilitated the release and transfer of 973 people detained in relation to the conflict in Yemen. To successfully do that, the ICRC has engaged in sustained dialogue with all relevant parties to ensure that the release operations were carried out in accordance with International Humanitarian Law and with the plan finalized by the Parties during meetings in Switzerland in March 2023.
In Israel and the occupied territories, the ICRC strives to bring about a difference in people's lives. We visit detainees, reunite families, support livelihood projects, and help improve access to essential services, like water and electricity. Above all, we stand up for people and promote their rights and care about their dignity.
In May 2023, armed hostilities broke out in Gaza. The violence left dozens of people dead, and hundreds injured and displaced. It also damaged property and traumatized many others who have already survived previous rounds of hostilities. The ICRC is doing everything in its power to help in responding to the urgent needs of those who are most affected in Gaza – be it during an emergency/active hostilities or after. We worked closely with local authorities and service providers to respond to the most urgent needs promptly.
We support healthcare, water and wastewater service providers, first responders, persons with disability, and also detention authorities and detainees. We help farmers access their land in the border area between Gaza and Israel. However, the needs are far beyond the capacity of humanitarian organizations. What people need more than ever is the prospect of a real and long-term solution.
In Iraq, where the ICRC has been operating since 1980, it has helped displaced people, refugees, and civilians in places affected by fighting during times of crisis. Today, communities still face exceptional humanitarian challenges resulting from the long-lasting impact of past conflicts on infrastructure and services, environmental degradation, and climate change.
When we think about the geopolitical transformation of the region, one has to acknowledge the moment of hope felt last March with the announcement that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran had agreed to restore diplomatic relations, following China's mediation. The world watches how the next steps continue to unfold. The situation in the Middle East demands a committed engagement of all actors, to put forth durable solutions that respond at scale, are adapted to protracted crises and provide direct benefits to the civilian populations.
When I look at the neutral intermediary role played by the ICRC, I feel compelled to state that neutral, impartial, and independent humanitarian action, when well upheld and designed, creates the conditions necessary for sustaining peace by reducing tensions, creating a space for dialogue, providing basic services and putting people's humanity at the center of operations.
The ICRC pursues actions to reach the most vulnerable people because reducing suffering in times of armed conflict is a fundamental human imperative, and a vital foundation for confidence-building and the preservation of dialogue.
As our President Mirjana Spoljaric put it, should war break out along the fault lines we are seeing today, the ramifications and humanitarian consequences would be beyond overwhelming. And there is nothing that International Humanitarian Law, the ICRC, or the whole of the world's humanitarian movement could do to make it bearable.
"It's time to elevate the laws of war to a political priority". The ICRC firmly believes that international humanitarian law is an incredibly useful, and potentially powerful, tool. The law provides a basis to win the peace and to set the foundations for community acceptance.