International Conference: Opening address by ICRC president

08 December 2015

Speech given by Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, at the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

Ms Chair,

Excellencies,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear colleagues and friends,

It is an honour to welcome you to this 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, a truly unique platform for our Movement and the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions to come together and shape the future of humanitarian action.

We have entered an era in which armed conflicts are greater in complexity and numbers of actors, longer in duration, wider in their regional impact, broader in tactics and weapons used and, above all, more atrocious in the human suffering they cause. It is an era of protracted armed conflicts, which add up to a world at war.

Their impact is systemic and all-encompassing: from the implosion of essential public services like health, electricity, water and sanitation, to the eradication of what keeps a society growing: education for its children, jobs for its adults, security for its most vulnerable. The human suffering that today's conflicts create comes in many forms: people killed, people injured, people left hopeless, aimless, with physical and psychological trauma that will not heal by themselves. Violence, practically always exacerbated by poverty, exclusion, discrimination or injustice, is affecting too many individuals, and dominating too many societies. Chronic fragility on a global scale is the result: of individuals, communities, systems and entire regions.

In light of this, we must do two things: we must scale up our response to existing needs and we must make our response even more relevant. Stronger cooperation and coordination within the Movement, tailored to the realities of each context and mindful of each component's mandate, competences and skills, will allow us to do so.

Yesterday, the Council of Delegates adopted texts that will substantively influence the Movement's functioning, perception and reach in the near future. The resolution on strengthening Movement coordination and cooperation will improve how we work together, to better serve people in need; the Movement branding initiative will increase visibility and understanding of our mission; and the message to next year's World Humanitarian Summit will set the agenda for our peers in the wider humanitarian environment.

Beyond that, political agendas dominate the world, and we have a valuable contribution to make, notably on two critical humanitarian issues of our time: migration and terrorism.

Global migration has reached unprecedented dimensions, with around 60 million people currently displaced owing to violence and war, more than at any time since the Second World War. We have to remember that nobody leaves their home, their family, their entire life behind, on a whim. People flee for a reason, and these reasons will not disappear anytime soon. This crisis is far from over.

Our 2011 Movement migration strategy remains as relevant as four years ago, and needs further, comprehensive implementation. Two points are crucial: vulnerability alongside status, and pragmatism over navel-gazing. The first driver for humanitarian assistance and protection for migrants must be their vulnerability, while their legal status determines their rights. Vulnerabilities and rights must not be pitted against each other. And: States cannot focus on what happens inside their borders alone. Migration routes go across borders, and so must our joint response.

States and Movement components must develop innovative partnerships, to support and empower displaced people, from their country of origin to their country of destination. Sticking them in camps is not a solution. We must give migrants the capacity and opportunity to lead normal lives. I call on States to make resources available in line with the existing, dramatic needs.

As a Movement we will continue to provide health and other material assistance to vulnerable migrants, to reach out to their families where possible, and to support those detained, particularly minors. The ICRC will continue to support communities in the countries of origin and neighbouring regions, close to the front lines of the conflicts which are the sources of first displacement, so that fewer people will be forced to flee their homes. We will also scale up our support to Movement partners along migration routes.

Meanwhile, indiscriminate violence in the form of terrorist attacks around the world – the latest tragic events in Yola, Bamako, Paris and Beirut come to mind – has created a widespread feeling of insecurity and led to increasingly robust State responses. It is important to note in this context that all intentional attacks against non-combatants and all attacks aimed at spreading terror are prohibited in International Humanitarian Law.

The ICRC and the Movement will continue to loudly remind all parties of the need to preserve humanity and to apply international humanitarian law (IHL) and other relevant frameworks, such as human rights law, as a means of preventing and dealing with such unacceptable acts of violence. We will have to redouble our efforts to ensure that the law is known, understood and respected. We will also have to demonstrate that the use of force must be within the boundaries of the law, and that the treatment of detainees according to international standards has a clear role to play in the quest to reduce acts of terrorism and other forms of extreme violence.

Our engagement worldwide with those who carry the weapons, and our experience in visiting hundreds of thousands of detainees every year, place us in a strong position to guide governments on how best to abide by the rules of war. I call on States to uphold the standards of humanity when making the difficult choices surrounding military and security action.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

This conference is not a celebration of ourselves, and so I will not dwell on the extraordinary efforts that the 15,000 ICRC staff, and up to 17 million National Society and International Federation volunteers and staff around the world make every day, with the aim of helping and protecting people affected by conflict, violence and disaster. Let me take a moment though to remember our friends and colleagues who have lost their lives while working to save others.

As you know all too well after spending four years working towards today, this conference is above all an opportunity to come together, show our commitment to improving compliance with IHL, and strengthen our resolve to protect the medical mission, prevent sexual violence, defend humane treatment in detention, and push for greater responsibility in the use and transfer of weapons.

On a daily basis, we see a widespread failure to respect IHL, and we see a failure to ensure respect for IHL, as is the duty of all States and non-State actors, according to the Geneva Conventions. These rules are too often ignored and violated, while they are the only thing that can protect people during war. We must be honest with ourselves: collectively, we are failing to protect the most vulnerable from the impact of armed conflict and violence.

A striking example of this failure is the frequency of attacks on health-care facilities and personnel, globally, despite their specific protection under IHL. We need a renewed commitment to respect the law, the spirit of the law and its intent: maximum precautions in attack and zero tolerance for mistakes.

Another example is the widespread availability and misuse of weapons, which can only be thwarted if responsible arms transfers and their adequate use become standard practice. I have myself seen the impact of explosive weapons, used in densely populated areas, in Yemen, Syria, and Somalia, to name but a few. I renew here the calls of the ICRC and the Movement on all parties to avoid using explosive weapons in populated areas. We also urge all States to join and faithfully implement the Arms Trade Treaty.

Compliance with international humanitarian law is the single most important method to ensure better protection in times of armed conflict. But IHL is before all an achievement of States, which came together and decided to make history by creating these laws, and which often go to great lengths to ensure respect for them. You have a unique opportunity at this Conference to bring forth a mechanism that could meaningfully contribute to this critical goal, to make history again.

The consultation process on the resolution has been long and detailed. It now reflects the widest convergence of the range of views expressed over four years. The draft resolution that is before you recognizes that a regular and dedicated inter-governmental platform for exchanges on key IHL issues, including voluntary reporting and thematic debates, represents the best opportunity to further strengthen respect for IHL.

We should be clear that further diluting the text will erode the current support base for the resolution, while further strengthening the mechanism will alienate those who still remain to be convinced.

We are not here to decide on hopes and fears, or to decide for the future forever. We are not deciding on a perfect mechanism. But our text, in front of you, is the best compromise we will get.

I therefore urge you all to make every effort to agree on this mechanism.

We are here to take a pragmatic but necessary step in the continuous challenge of enhancing respect for IHL; now is the time to work together.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

The chronic dilemma of humanitarian action is, and will continue to be, the dependence on political solutions.

Again here today, I call on States to work for political solutions to today's armed conflicts. The one way to end the suffering of people in war is to end wars.

After all, we have seen that determined diplomacy can pave the way for peaceful agreements. I believe in the capacity of the international community to invest its efforts, and the necessary resources, in producing more success stories as proof that peaceful conclusions are preferable to embargoes, sanctions and violence.

Meanwhile, our ambition as humanitarians is to respond meaningfully to people's needs in both quantity and quality, through principled humanitarian action. Despite unprecedented generosity, especially from our long-standing donors, we are experiencing difficulties with financing a growing budget that combines both emergency relief in short-term crises and long-term stabilization efforts in protracted conflicts. The components of the Movement must continue to work together to demonstrate the added value of principled humanitarian action.

The Fundamental Principles adopted in Vienna 50 years ago – humanity, neutrality, impartiality, independence, unity, universality and voluntary service – are as relevant today as half a century ago.

There is no better way to ensure our response is truly meaningful than to involve the people we aim to serve, every step of the way. Our Voices to Action campaign is leading the way in promoting a new form of interactive beneficiary and community communication, with the real involvement of real people on the ground.

By no means do we want to isolate ourselves from the larger humanitarian environment. Next year's World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul will be an opportunity to highlight how complementarity rather than uniformity creates innovation and delivers results.

Closer cooperation between local and international actors, within and beyond our Movement, can add further experience, insight and knowledge to our operations. We often hear that aid must be local. Yet in the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, we know for a fact that the complementarity of local and international is what allows us to work and to ensure we respond – to short-term emergencies and protracted conflicts, to natural and man-made disasters, to chronic fragility and raging conflicts alike – to the best of our ability.

Beyond our Movement, dynamic cooperation with the wider humanitarian community, with States and the private sector, will enlarge and enrich the humanitarian response, and make it more efficient and more meaningful for people in need. We must all come together to engage with our interlocutors, to encourage respect, to ultimately influence and change behaviour: because the current protection failure is a reality, and a grave concern.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

International power competition, unilateral action and protracted paralysis have become the new normal in the international system, taking a heavy toll on millions of people who suffer the consequences.

Let me therefore conclude by urging you to play your part in empowering humanity, by making pledges, by supporting resolutions, by making this International Conference your own through your own commitments.

What will be most useful in the next two days is an ability to compromise: substance must win over suspicion, and progress must win over politicking. Let us decide on what is on the table, not on what some may fear is hiding beneath it.

As heads of States and governments meet in Paris on another life-threatening crisis – climate change – we too have a unique opportunity to join forces, with States, National Societies and others, to unite behind our shared humanity, behind respect for international humanitarian law and behind the millions of people who are suffering from armed conflict, disasters and violence.

Thank you.

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