International Committee of the Red Cross

My message to the Movement: It’s time to awaken the giant.

Article 06 November 2017

Welcome to the Statutory Meetings of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, a critical moment for us to come together and shape the future of humanitarian action. On behalf of the ICRC, I would like to thank the Turkish Red Crescent for hosting these meetings.

Our world is characterized by long and deadly wars and increasingly severe, more frequent natural disasters. We see famine and disease ravage communities and entrenched poverty spiral into hopelessness. We see ordinary men, women and children displaced in huge numbers, suffering needlessly.

We also see the Movement – through all its parts – National Societies, the IFRC and the ICRC – step up, and our dedicated staff and volunteers risk their own safety to bring aid to those in need. I have recently visited many of the major conflict theaters and centers of violence around the world, including in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, Myanmar and Ukraine.

I've met with many National Societies and I have seen the tremendous contribution to humanity that the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement makes. There is so much to be proud of in the principled action of the Movement; and there is so much more that we can achieve.

In a world where faith in institutions is rapidly evaporating, great trust is placed in our hands: in the symbols of the red cross and red crescent and in the neutral, impartial, independent humanitarian action that brings them to life.

We can never forget that the trust given to us is our license to operate. Trust means we can cross the frontlines and reach affected communities, it means we can act as a neutral intermediary to broker aid deliveries, it means faith that the donor dollar will be wisely used, and it means that we do everything to ensure the integrity of our institutions. Integrity needs skills and capacities, leadership, political will strong ethics, mechanisms and institutions and robust oversight. We will have to work fast and effectively on all these fronts within our Movement.

The Movement has an incredible capacity to be a powerful force in the world, to save lives, to change lives. But its potential is drastically untapped. It is, as others have described a 'Sleeping Giant'.

Today, I set a challenge for the Movement: it's time to awaken the giant.

The crises of the world demand this of us. The people of the world demand this of us. We must examine what is holding the Movement back, be it competition, unproductive positioning, false ambitions for leadership and control when real capacities are lacking, weak coordination, unexplored complementarities or political pressure from external authorities.

Together we must acknowledge where we are falling short, we must hold each part of the Movement to our shared standards, help others up when they need it, and learn from what we are doing right. Millions around the world are depending on us. Every time we fail, every time we fall short, we fail them. We must mutually strengthen, not hinder each other; coordinate and cooperate in order to engage not to prevent action.

Self-review is not easy work for institutions – it requires strength, facing up to difficulties, confronting evidence and departing from abstract or wishful thinking; but it is a crucial process if we are to deliver on our promises.

Dear colleagues,

Henry Dunant's words remain as true today as they ever were: "to help without asking whom". The guiding light illuminating all that we do must be based on people's needs: making "no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions".

Throughout our operations, in dangerous and unstable places, 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 becoming part of larger and more controversial political agendas.

But in many places across the world, the space for such impartial humanitarian action is under threat. Human dignity is disregarded, the applicability of the law is questioned, humanitarian aid is politicized and subject to motives other than needs-based humanitarian imperatives; too often we see an over-politization of humanitarian action and a lack of political support for neutral and impartial humanitarianism.

States and non-government authorities control and interpret ever more closely what is covered by the concept of humanitarian assistance, in order to advance their own national or political interests, or fearing that such measures may strengthen their opponents.

Humanitarian organizations are increasingly placed under pressure as States demand humanitarian action that will only benefit a specific group. To that end, both States and non-State armed groups hold civilian populations and humanitarian actors to ransom in order to achieve their goals. Humanitarian organizations do not exist to endorse, to legitimize, to help authorities further their political objectives. National Societies are auxiliaries to States to further humanitarian responses according to principles. The ICRC is here to help States live up to the obligations they have signed, not to help them circumnavigate them.

These trends have been accompanied by a major shift in how the law and protection work is perceived. International humanitarian law does not rely on reciprocity, and applies even if an opponent fails to comply with the law, as it defines the inviolable nature of the principle of humanity.

However, it is precisely this principle of non-reciprocity that is now being questioned in many places and by many belligerents. The Geneva Conventions are not up for negotiation; they reflect in normative language the tested practice of societies over time and space; they are customary law. They must guide practical action for people and not de-generate into a tool for prolonged 'lawfare' and accusations amongst high-contracting parties.

We cannot afford to let ourselves be politicized or prevented from carrying out our humanitarian mandate. Humanitarian action is not a bargaining chip.

At the ICRC and as the Movement overall, in highly polarized situations, we are inevitably drawn into political debates as others attempt to use humanitarian action for their own ends. It is frankly not straightforward. We know about the deep dilemmas we encounter when bringing the principles to life. But we must resist the pressure and find adequate safeguards to mitigate the risks.

We need to be able to navigate between our principled approach and our pragmatic response; we need to support States in fulfilling their obligations and be advocates for victims; we must remain professional in highly politicized environments; we need to make clear distinctions between compromise and false compromise. The threshold will always be the lasting benefit to victims.

Across the humanitarian ecosystem we need to play to our strengths. Humanitarian action needs all parts of the Movement: local, regional, international. The scale and intractability of the crises we face requires both:

  • local responders who know their communities, who can mobilize quickly and who can remain long after the crisis has passed; and
  • international responders with a network and legitimacy to connect with opposing parties in the context and beyond – who can act on issues that may be too sensitive for local actors, who can support local actors, strengthen their capacity and act as re-insurers and brokers of neutral, impartial actions for volatile situations.

We need to be able to respond to emergencies and to care for long-term needs in protracted crisis. We must transcend artificial silos of state and international bureaucracies and put people in need at the centre. Building on each other's' strengths must replace the mediocrity of the lowest common denominator.

There is perhaps no better argument on the need for principled, coordinated action than the global migration crisis. The scale and complexities of mixed migration flows – across borders and within countries – require the mobilization of the entire Movement. Within a highly politicised environment, we have seen punitive policies introduced which have adversely affected people's lives and created even greater harm. Evidence and principles speak against such direction.

The pressing questions I believe we must answer:

  • How do we protect and increase the space for neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian action, especially as national security policies and counter terrorism measures threaten to override humanitarian imperatives and co-opt humanitarian action?
  • How do we reconcile the legitimate desire of States to lead the response to humanitarian crises affecting their population with neutral, impartial, independent humanitarian action? And how do we demonstrate to States the value and necessity to preserve these fundamental principles?
  • How do we foster greater solidarity, complementarity and stricter compliance with the fundamental principles and internal rules within the Movement? How do we base principles in evidence and practice?
  • And finally: How do we embrace the technological revolution – violence moving to cyberspace, connectivity transforming our action and our organizations – in order to charter a way forward for our fundamental human experience? How do we weave deep past experience into a rapidly transforming environment?

These are difficult questions, but we will succeed if we adhere to our humanitarian agenda, if we remain strictly humanitarian in our thinking, principle-driven in our approach as well as practical and close to people and their needs.

As a Movement, we must rise to the challenge, ask the difficult questions, find the solutions. We must ensure our institutions live up to their promises. If we are to retain the trust placed in us, we have no choice but to start today to look for answers. As we search for solutions, we must always keep the people who seek our aid and protection at the heart of all our actions. We simply cannot fail them.

Speech given by Mr Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC, Joint Opening Ceremony - Statutory Meetings of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement 2017. Antalya, Monday 6 November.