• Send page
  • Print page

Journey – 150 years of humanitarian action in the midst of armed conflict


On 17 February this year, the ICRC marked its 150th anniversary commemorating the beginning of its efforts to improve the lives of countless people adversely affected by armed conflict. At a time when thousands continue to suffer the consequences of war in various places such as Syria, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the ICRC is more determined than ever to carry on with its humanitarian mission. Flagging off the 150 years celebrations, Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC spoke about the present and future humanitarian challenges faced by the organisation.

“This anniversary provides us with an opportunity to look critically at our past, and also to develop awareness of the strengths that have helped us in our activities carried out for millions of victims of armed conflict and other violence. Now more than ever, we must not only remain true to our principles but also search for new ways to better serve the people who need help. We must redouble our efforts to make sure that the neutral, impartial and independent nature of our humanitarian activities is understood by all.”

The ICRC continues to adapt to new forms of armed conflict and to a number of challenges confronting humanitarian activities. “We are carrying on with our work in an environment that is being shaped by the use of new weapons and technologies, the proliferation of armed groups, the difficulty of obtaining access to people requiring aid, and a plethora of NGOs and other humanitarian organizations endeavouring to serve communities with competing approaches,” said the ICRC president.

“Together with our partners within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the broader humanitarian community, we must seek ways of meeting these challenges,” he continued. “We have to better coordinate humanitarian efforts, and pay very careful attention to the opinions of those we are seeking to help – and give them the opportunity to play an active role in these efforts, the ultimate aim of which is to enable people in need to achieve a lasting recovery.’’

The biggest challenge facing the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations is a lack of respect for international humanitarian law, which prohibits violence directed against people who are not involved in armed conflict, such as children, the wounded or sick, or detainees. “The need for a strong political will to spare civilians and otherwise comply with international humanitarian law, whether on the part of States or of non-State armed groups, has never been greater,” said Mr Maurer.

Many of ICRC’s everyday activities now have far-reaching effects. “When ICRC delegates visit detainees in Guantanamo, or facilitate the release of hostages in Colombia, or help people in Afghanistan obtain health care in safe conditions, or provide the maintenance and technical know-how that keep the water and electricity networks up and running in Goma, a city of half a million people, or push for a binding international treaty on cluster munitions, they have a direct and lasting impact on the lives of many people,” said Mr Maurer.

“The vision of Henry Dunant – the Red Cross idea – has not only survived but flourished through all these long years,” said Mr Maurer. “Over the past century and a half, the ICRC has overcome political adversity, financial difficulty, cultural barriers and countless other obstacles, even attacks on its own staff to bring vitally needed humanitarian assistance and protection to people in need.” Once quite small with an entirely Swiss staff, the ICRC now performs its humanitarian tasks in over 90 countries all over the world, and has a workforce of almost 13,000 men and women of over 100 different nationalities.


After the Battle of Solferino, 1859 

After the Battle of Solferino, 1859

Volunteers from the Haitian Red Cross Society attending to residents of a camp in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince in 2010. 

Volunteers from the Haitian Red Cross Society attending to residents of a camp in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince in 2010.
© ICRC / Marko Kokic