Strengthening coordination of UN humanitarian and disaster relief assistance: ICRC statement to the United Nations, 2017

Strengthening of the coordination of humanitarian and disaster relief assistance of the UN, including special economic assistance, United Nations General Assembly, 72nd Session, Agenda item 73 (a). Statement by the ICRC.

This year the new United Nations Secretary General has begun sharing his vision for a renewed United Nations. He has made it clear that the United Nations is reforming to focus on three strategic priorities – prevention, development, and peace.

The simplicity of the new approach is refreshing, and means all UN agencies must pull together towards collective outcomes.

This year has also seen important diplomatic work get underway around the world on the Global Compact on Migration and the Compact on Refugees. The ICRC has been actively involved in both. We view the increasing needs and numbers of people forced to leave their homes and cross international borders as a global humanitarian crisis.

2017 has also seen two important humanitarian anniversaries – the 40th anniversary of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, and the 20th anniversary of the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Both continue to be essential instruments to protect some of the world’s most vulnerable people during armed conflict.

This year has also seen significant developments in the UN’s approach to counter-terrorism – a global policy that will continue to intersect with armed conflict and humanitarian action in several ways.

We expect 2018 to be a consolidation of the Secretary General’s reforms. We also anticipate that it will be another demanding year for humanitarian action.

So, today, we will focus on three key policy areas.

First, we will comment on the Secretary General’s vision of UN reform and what it means for humanitarian action. Second, we will remind States of the particular importance of the Additional Protocols in today’s armed conflicts. Thirdly, we will repeat our position on counter-terrorism and humanitarian action.

UN reform and the risk of a protection gap

The Secretary General’s reform is based on a firm belief in the indivisibility of prevention, development and peace. This indivisibility is embraced in several emerging UN policies.

The ICRC understands the important connections between humanitarian action, development and peace, especially in protracted conflicts.

Our humanitarian work shares many intermediate objectives of the SDGs, like reducing violence, malnutrition and disease, and increasing people’s access to clean water, livelihoods and education.

We work with those left furthest behind in armed conflict and urban violence. Our humanitarian work often acts as “development holds”, which maintain people’s basic services and prevent further development reversals.

Humanitarian action complements broader efforts towards the SDGs, which is why we are pleased to work in partnership with the World Bank in Somalia. Development finance should lean into countries struggling with protracted conflict and violence, where SDGs are weakest.

Our humanitarian dialogues with all parties sometimes serve as confidence-building measures between warring parties that are valuable to peace.

But the ICRC sees two worrying gaps in the UN’s indivisible policy on prevention, development and peace.

First, is a protection gap. Current UN policy focus rests too simply on development and peace without recognizing that protection is essential to both.

People’s protection is the pre-condition for development and peace.

If people, including groups in need of special protection, such as women and children, are being attacked, forcibly displaced, looted, impoverished, besieged, unlawfully detained or are too afraid to go to hospitals and schools, then they cannot get close to development or peace.

Protection is also indivisible from development and peace.

For example, many thousands of people are missing because of armed conflict – their families in the agony of an ambiguous loss. The pain and anger around missing people is a wound that threatens peace. Governments must work together to find answers about missing people and support their families. States must make the missing and their families a humanitarian priority.

Inadequate detention policies also pose a risk to development and peace because inhumane detention practices may increase political grievances.

The second gap is neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action.

Neutral humanitarian action risks being lost from view in the UN’s new integrated vision of prevention, development and peace.

This essential humanitarian practice – rooted in the Geneva Conventions - must be respected and facilitated by States so that vulnerable people - whether under the control of the State or beyond its control - can be protected and assisted impartially on the basis of need.

It is essential that impartial humanitarian organizations, like the ICRC, are able to work with all parties to conflict and reach all populations in need.

Today, the ICRC calls on States to ensure that protection and impartial humanitarian action keep their rightful place in policy-making on armed conflict and violence.

Because if there is no protection, there is no healthcare, no food, no livelihood, no education, no home, no family, no development and no peace.

The Additional Protocols

The fortieth anniversary of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions coincided with renewed interest by States in humanitarian issues at the heart of these two vital instruments of IHL:

  • the distinction between military and civilian populations
  • conflict-related hunger and starvation
  • sexual violence
  • attacks against infrastructure and services that are indispensable to the survival of the civilian population – not least healthcare, water, electricity and education facilities.

Respecting international humanitarian law is the best way to ensure people’s protection in armed conflict. IHL sets clear standards for the protection of individuals and the natural resources, infrastructure and services indispensable to their survival.

Counter-terrorism and the criminalization of humanitarian action

The Additional Protocols also entail clear obligations for States and parties to conflict to facilitate the delivery of principled humanitarian assistance, even in areas where listed terrorist groups are active.

The ICRC has repeatedly underscored the potential adverse effects on humanitarian action of counter-terrorism measures taken by States, both internationally and nationally.

Activities that are exclusively humanitarian and impartial should be excluded from the scope of application of criminal laws dealing with terrorism.

Failure to do this implies a rejection of neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian action. This could jeopardize the mission of impartial humanitarian organizations to protect and assist people affected by armed conflict, particularly in areas controlled by non-State armed groups.