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Humanitarian protection: The International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

30-09-2001 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 843, by David P. Forsythe


David P. Forsythe
is Charles J. Mach Distinguished Professor for Political Science, University of Nebraska, USA. — The author has followed the work of the ICRC closely since the 1970s when he was a consultant to the Committee on the Reappraisal of the Red Cross (which issued the 1975 Tansley Report or “Big Study”). More recently he has been a consultant to UNHCR. This article derives from a report done for UNHCR, “The mandate of the UNHCR: The politics of being non-political”. The author would like to thank those who made that report possible, particularly Jeffery Crisp and Stephane Jaquemet, from UNHCR. 

Humanitarian protection — the effort to protect the fundamental well-being of individuals caught up in certain conflicts or “man-made” emergencies — has moved from the periphery of world affairs to centre stage over the past few decades. This is both good and bad. It is good in the sense that the welfare of persons in dire straits because of war and forced displacement is receiving more attention from various actors. It is bad in the sense that many millions of persons each year continue to wind up in dire straits from these and similar emergencies.
Many actors can be involved in humanitarian protection. Two organizations a bove all symbolize long-standing efforts to provide humanitarian protection on an international basis: the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The two exhibit several fundamental differences. As is well known, the former focused historically on victims of war, and the latter on refugees. Also, the ICRC is private at its core. It is legally incorporated as a private body under the laws of Switzerland, where it is headquartered. Its top policy-making body, the Assembly, which is all-Swiss and maintained by co-optation, formally answers to no other entity [1 ] . UNHCR is clearly public, being part of the extended UN system. It was created by the UN General Assembly, from which it takes instructions and to which it reports, and its head is approved by that same General Assembly upon nomination by the UN Secretary-General. A small portion of its budget is derived from the UN regular or administrative budget, but like the ICRC it operates mostly on the basis of voluntary contributions from (western) States. [2 ]
Regardless of differences concerning focal points and public/private character, the ICRC and UNHCR share many similarities in their efforts to provide humanitarian protection. It is the purpose of this brief essay to highlight these similarities, as well as to note important differences.
1. The ICRC is recognized in international public law and has signed a headquarters agreement with Switzerland as if it were a public international organization. Nevertheless, the ICRC was formed as a voluntary private medical aid society. It has never taken formal instructions from, or officially reported to, any public authority. In truth the ICRC is sui generis with both public and private characteristics. The private aspects are fundamental.
2. Both the ICRC and UNHCR depend for their operations on the voluntary contributions of the wealthy liberal demo cracies. These governments contribute more than 85% of the ICRC’s total operating expenses, and more than 95% of UNHCR’s. The public/private distinction does not matter very much in this regard.  

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