Strengthening the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations, 2015

17 December 2015

United Nations, General Assembly, 70th session, Plenary, statement by the ICRC, New York, 10 December 2015.

First, in an exceptional joint press conference held on 30 October, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and ICRC President Peter Maurer underscored the importance of recognizing that much of the human suffering we are witnessing today is the result of a blatant lack of compliance with international humanitarian law by both State and non-State parties to armed conflict. It is they – not humanitarian organizations – who bear primary legal responsibility for protecting civilians under their control and ensuring that their basic needs are met. It is also urgent for other States, both individually and collectively, to impress upon the parties to a conflict the need to abide by their legal obligations, including those governing access by impartial humanitarian organizations.

Second, further efforts must be made to improve the impact of humanitarian action. In spite of important initiatives taken among humanitarian actors in recent years, notably in regard to coordination, the lack of access and security remains an important obstacle to the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance and protection. This owes mainly to frequent problems of acceptance among parties to a conflict. For this reason, governments should make every effort to reach a renewed consensus on apolitical humanitarian action, including by not sponsoring or limiting humanitarian action for ulterior motives. This will help bring about a working environment in which humanitarian action can reach its full potential. It is also incumbent on humanitarian organizations to live by humanitarian principles in public debates as well as in their operations. Organizations should refrain from espousing humanitarian principles that they are not willing or able to adhere to in practice, at the cost of fuelling distrust towards the entire humanitarian sector.

Third, greater attention and understanding should be devoted to the question of how to better include and promote local action in the overall humanitarian response. The ICRC's approach in this regard is to further develop the capacities of National Societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, support local medical services and provide the armed forces with IHL training. However, in highly polarized situations such as armed conflict, local humanitarian actors may be viewed with suspicion for a number of reasons, including a perceived or alleged ethnic, religious or political affiliation. In such cases, they may be prevented from providing humanitarian assistance to victims across enemy lines and from actively engaging in protection activities with all parties to the armed conflict.

Experience shows that, in such situations, international humanitarian organizations may subject to fewer restrictions and be more effective. The ICRC therefore believes that, in the interest of the victims, we must take full advantage of the respective strengths of both local and international organizations rather than favouring one over the other. The best approach will be based on prevailing circumstances and in a logic of complementarity and responsible partnership.

Fourth, the links between humanitarian and development planning and financing need to be closer. Because many conflicts go on for years or even decades, the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations increasingly engage in development-related work, supporting basic services and critical infrastructure in areas such as health care, water and sanitation, electricity, veterinary care and agriculture. Owing to insufficient development spending, millions of people come to depend on these services to survive. Although these are long-term commitments for the humanitarian organizations – particularly when carried out in urban areas – they are subject to the constraints of short-term, annual humanitarian budgets. Existing financing models thus need to be adapted to allow humanitarian organizations to plan and budget this type of work over several years.

Humanitarian and development organizations must also learn to work together in a way that better serves the needs of their beneficiaries. The ICRC, for its part, is actively seeking to strengthen its cooperation with development organizations and work with them more systematically. The ICRC's commitment to independence and neutrality, which are critical to its ability to reach victims on all sides, may sometimes limit the situations and areas in which such cooperation can take place. There are nevertheless many ways in which cooperation is both possible and desirable.

It is the ICRC's view that real progress will hinge on the ability to address these various challenges. Key to this is the recognition that the international humanitarian system is based on three distinct pillars, namely the UN system, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs, each of which possesses its particular strengths and weaknesses. The approach should not be geared towards fusing the three – encouraging them to work the same way and on the same issues – but rather towards capitalizing on the strengths of each of them. The ICRC hopes that your deliberations and the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit will help bring about tangible improvements in the lives of the many millions of people who fall victim to armed conflict every year, and we stand ready to share our views and experience in this regard.