ICRC president to UN Security Council: Space for impartial humanitarian action under threat

Security Council briefing on the promotion and strengthening of the rule of law – International humanitarian law: "Safeguarding Humanitarian Space"

Mr. President, thanks for the opportunity to be with you today.

Ministers, dear colleagues, the shape of conflict has undergone rapid transformation in recent years. And the result is a heavy price being paid by tens of millions of women, men and children around the world.

They are suffering the immediate impacts – death, injury, displacement – as well as often the invisible harms: psychological trauma, sexual violence, the loss of missing family members.

In today's wars, a vast array of armed forces, Special Forces, armed groups, terrorist groups and criminal gangs now fight – directly or by proxy, openly or secretly.

Conflicts and protagonists cross state borders. Battles are fought in populated areas, risking thousands of civilian lives and destroying critical infrastructure.

Wars often involve partners and allies – leading to a dilution of responsibility, fragmentation of command chains and an unchecked flow of weapons. This only increases the climate of impunity and ultimately causes yet more suffering.

With the absence of political solutions, wars are increasingly protracted with year after year of violence and turmoil, embedding resentments and deepening fragility.

When I speak with families who are living through the realities of war and violence today, they often ask, 'Why has this happened? How has this been allowed to happen?'

In these miserable situations, humanitarian action is often desperately needed.

Throughout the ICRC's operations we see that neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian action has the best chance to reach those most in need. It is also a tried and tested formula to prevent humanitarian action being appropriated for larger and more controversial political agendas.

Yet in many places across the world, the space for impartial humanitarian action is under threat.

Human dignity is disregarded, the applicability of the law is questioned, humanitarian aid is politicized and deliberately hijacked for political gain or the control of populations. Terrorist attacks, indiscriminate by nature, are destroying the very notion of proportionality, precaution and distinction, which are at the core of behaviour in combat. Neutral and impartial humanitarian action moreover is hindered by elaborate sanctions regimes and counter-terrorism measures.

Humanitarian organizations are increasingly placed under pressure as both States and non-State armed groups hold civilian populations and humanitarian actors to ransom in order to achieve their goals.

But humanitarian organizations do not exist to endorse, to legitimize, or to help authorities further their political objectives. The ICRC works to help States live up to the obligations they have signed, not to help them circumnavigate them.

When the principles of impartiality are breached and humanitarian action is curtailed, families – like the ones I meet – go hungry, they fall sick, they are left vulnerable to abuse. No wonder they are asking 'why?'.

Today we are also witnessing a shift in the perception of international humanitarian law and protection work. IHL, international humanitarian law, does not rely on reciprocity. It applies even if an opponent fails to comply.

It relies on a consensual understanding amongst belligerents that there are limits to war and there must be a neutral and impartial humanitarian space in which those not participating in hostilities are protected. Those who deny the space, deny the very essence of the Law.

The Geneva Conventions are not up for negotiation; they reflect in normative language the tested practice of societies over time; they are customary law and must guide practical action.

They are a tool, and a reliable basis on which to facilitate trust and dialogue, allowing for consensus-building amongst belligerents.

For example, agreements have been brokered on those who have gone missing during war, bringing news to traumatized families on each side, or to exchange remains of the dead.

These agreements, facilitated throughout a neutral and independent space, can be first steps to build trust and to form other arrangements to lessen people's suffering, such as exchanges of detainees, family contact across frontlines, and more.

With political actors increasingly occupying the humanitarian space, humanitarians must find practical ways to fulfil our mission in this more complex environment of today. Frontline humanitarian negotiators are rapidly becoming more critical in building support for humanitarian action.

Through the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation, the ICRC has been building systemic knowledge and networks of professional negotiators to develop more adaptive strategies and practices in field operations today.

Dear colleagues, it is the task of the international community to fiercely defend and protect principled humanitarian action. We ask that you take the following very practical steps:

That you fight any attempt to instrumentalise, manipulate or politicize principled humanitarian action. Humanitarian access must not be unlawfully denied or withheld, especially when people's basic needs are going unmet.

While neutral and impartial organizations, such as the ICRC, according to the Geneva Conventions, have a right to propose humanitarian action to States, States have an obligation to facilitate such action, unless constrained by valid security concerns.

We ask that you fight double standards which delegitimize law and weaken its protective force. Politics is about different priorities that you have as States and we understand well how difficult it is in today's international arena to harmonize your positions. The humanitarian space is about respecting the law to which you have already agreed consensually: not about abusing the law to make a political point.

We ask therefore that you lead by example and steadfastly respect your obligations under international humanitarian law. Individually or in partnered military operations this means that you use your positive influence to ensure the proper application of the rules on the conduct of hostilities, the protection of civilians and medical facilities and the humane treatment of detainees.

We ask that you train and instruct your own troops and the troops of your partners so that they know the law and how to respect it; that you vet and oversee with appropriate structures, processes and mechanisms in combat operations in which you and your partners are involved; and that you put accountability mechanisms in place which ensure respect for the Law.

With regard to the proliferation of arms, we urge you that safeguards and precautions are in place, and that no weapon is transferred if there is a clear risk they would be used to violate international humanitarian law.

We ask that hostilities are conducted to protect civilians and with respect for the basic principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality and that your operational guidance and those of your partners concretize these principles for combat operations.

Of particular concern is the use of explosive weapons: the ICRC sees the enormous civilian costs of bombing and shelling including death, physical injury, but also the long-term damage to critical civilian infrastructure.

We ask all parties to an armed conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effect in populated areas, due to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects.

To support these efforts of leadership on international humanitarian law, the ICRC is preparing an IHL roadmap to be adopted at the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in November. We are looking forward to working with States and National Societies on pledges for respect and implementation of IHL.

Ministers, dear colleagues, the noose is tightening on humanitarian action.

We have seen some positive steps including consistent increases to humanitarian funding levels, and the recognition that counter-terrorism measures must be compliant with international humanitarian law obligations.

The recent UNSC resolution 2462 is a case in point. Its implementation at domestic level will be a crucial step to preserve a humanitarian space in domestic counter-terrorism regulations.

But our license to operate should not be up for debate: it has already been guaranteed.

The mission to protect and aid civilians during times of armed conflict was universally agreed 70 years ago in the Geneva Conventions. We call on States to step forward and reaffirm this mission – not only in words but through urgent and concrete actions.

Thank you very much.