Speech by ICRC president: Launch of professional standards for protection work

30 April 2018

Welcome and thank you for attending today's launch of the third edition of the Professional Standards for Protection Work.

This is a milestone moment and I would like to recognize the tremendous work of the Advisory Group and our partners. The production of these standards has been a collaborative effort, reflecting the way we hope to work to achieve protection outcomes on the ground.

Visiting different contexts in active conflict, I am alarmed by the abuses against civilians – wars that are being waged without any regard for life and law; and the increasing prevalence and severity of conflicts. Some of the key challenges include the:

  • The urbanization of conflict leading to heightened fragility and loss of life, injury and the destruction of health and other systems;
  • The protracted nature of conflict, which inscribes humanitarian actions increasingly in the long-term;And the internationalization of conflicts, which adds too often a strategic component of big power competition to local dynamics.

At the same time we are also witnessing severe protection needs of populations affected by crisis:

  • 2 billion people are affected by fragility, conflict or violence;
  • 65 million are displaced - the highest number since the Second World War;
  • It's thought that 26,000 civilians were killed or injured in attacks last year in just four countries: Afghanistan, Iraq; Somalia, Yemen;
  • The number of people reported missing in conflicts is huge: in Iraq, for instance, estimates are that there are between 250,000 to 1 million missing persons from past and current conflicts;
  • In recent years, in 16 countries alone, the ICRC has registered over 2000 attacks against patients, health workers, hospitals and ambulances, almost two incidents per day on average.

As a result, the protection response is changing:

  • The number of humanitarian personnel in conflict situations is quickly growing and diversifying:
  • More international and non-humanitarian actors, including the UN Security Council, the Human Rights Council, member states, peacekeeping operations as well as development, human rights and peace-building organizations, are involved in protection work, by design or by accident;
  • Other groups of professionals, including health personnel, lawyers, journalists, but also private actors are becoming part of the protection architecture.
  • Protection approaches are diversifying: today alongside traditional protection mechanisms based on legal obligations, there are other approaches such as protection by presence, "protection by projection" as the UNSG formulates it, protection by humanitarian diplomacy, public communication, military operations or economic sanctions.
  • Finally and increasingly, protection work is digitalizing and individualizing: connecting people in fragile conflicts with protection professionals anywhere, but also using big data analytics or satellite imagery.

In summary, protection is no longer the exclusive domain of humanitarian organizations. And how to strengthen protection has become a matter of growing debate not only among humanitarians but also in the political sphere.

One of the key challenges is the restriction placed on access. While proximity to people is always our goal, new ways are being found to reach affected populations:

  • National and local organizations are complementing international organizations by accessing areas and undertaking activities not covered by the State or by international actors;
  • Also, there is a shift in mentality in the humanitarian sector: from access to services to empowerment and enabled self-help. And so protection practice is increasingly reflecting the right, capacity and desire of affected people to engage in their protection.
  • Finally, "remote management" and the use of new technologies are taking a more important role.

Given this environment, there is a critical need for the professionalization of protection work, including the adherence to standards. I am a firm believer in the contribution of professional networks and the strength of communities of practice, especially in the area of protection.

Why are such communities important?

  • With the magnitude of needs, and the growing diversity of the humanitarian sector, more efficient coordination and collaboration among different actors is imperative;
  • There is a growing need to educate staff in the principles of humanitarian action;
  • While most actors endeavor to do good, they do not always do it well, and limited capacities can have an even greater detrimental impact on affected communities;
  • To maximize the effectiveness of protection (through better evidence-based advocacy, to stronger community based protection mechanisms) actors have to be "inter-operable", i.e., rely on common standards, regardless of the different mandates; and
  • The standards promote accountability to affected populations. The active involvement of affected populations, communities, and individuals affected helps ensure relevant programming that responds to their needs and protects their rights.

Protection actors have a double task:

  • First, to uphold their moral duty to do protection work to the best of their abilities and without causing harm.
  • Second, to ensure they work with, rather than replace or undermine States.

The third edition of the Protection Standards takes into account today's operating environment as well as the rapid developments in technology including information management and data protection, where these new standards can provide guidance:

  • Data sharing between actors can mean a more timely and relevant operational response, but this can be fraught with difficulties.
  • For example today, in Iraq and Syria, humanitarian agencies do not have access to the same parts of the country or same populations, which means information on specific cases and serious protection concerns may be incomplete and lead to gaps in the response. Responsible sharing of data could enhance both the response to beneficiaries and the overall analysis of causes and consequences.
  • Use of biometric data: Many agencies are collecting biometric data from affected people, for instance from hundreds of thousands of refugees in Bangladesh. But... Who should collect what data? Who has access to it? What processes are in place to review and make changes? What could be the unintended consequences of the databases? How could the data be abused?

The standards go a long way in helping to answer some of these questions so that people are not put at risk. The Professional Standards for Protection Work is a living document that has adapted to the evolution of conflict and to changes in the humanitarian and human rights sectors.

This edition comes after three years of thorough consultations among the main actors in protection. We can consider them as baseline for all humanitarian actors, helping them to inform their response.

The ICRC will continue to lead, alongside the fourteen advisory group members and interested stakeholders, the work of revising and updating the Standards so that they maintain their relevance and reflect practice.

Our partners have worked hard to bring their invaluable practitioner and expert insight to the development this living document and ensure its applicability in practice. Thank you to:

  • Amnesty International, Danish Refugee Council, Global Protection Cluster, Handicap International, Humanitarian Policy Group, Human Rights Watch, International Council of Voluntary Agencies, InterAction, Jesuit Refugee Service, MSF, OCHA, Oxfam, OHCHR, UNHCR;
  • And a special mention of ALNAP and DPKO who participated in selected discussions and for their support in the dissemination.

I'd also like to thank the Swiss MFA for its financial support for the revision, dissemination and promotion of Professional Standards; and my sincere thanks also to Ambassador Grau for her personal interest and involvement in the project, for championing issues of protection and for helping us launch the publication today.