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Now is the time to work together for humanity

22-11-2007 Interview

Complex humanitarian challenges, such as climate change and armed violence, will be on the agenda of the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent being held in Geneva from 26 to 30 November.

Around 1,500 people are expected to attend the event, which brings together the components of the worldwide Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the States party to the Geneva Conventions, and international organizations and leading experts in the fields of health, climate change, migration and violence.

Ahead of this important forum, the International Committee of the Red Cross's deputy director of operations for global affairs and policy,   Balthasar Staehelin, explains why it is crucial for the Movement and the community of States to come together and take action.

 Question: The Conference will discuss a wide range of challenges, including environmental degradation, the spread of disease, the humanitarian consequences of international migration, access to health care, and violence in urban settings. Why does the ICRC feel it's so important to discuss these particular issues?  

 Balthasar Staehelin: The complexity and scale of these problems exceeds the coping ability of individual States and organizations, so we need to respond collectively and as partners.

These are global threats that are manifesting themselves at a local level. As one of the principal humanitarian networks dealing with the consequences of these challenges, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has a responsibility to raise these issues, propose new solutions, and call for action.

Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers working on the ground know that these iss ues are already a harsh reality for many poor people around the world. The poorest of the poor are particularly affected. It's time to redouble of our efforts and help vulnerable communities become better prepared for an uncertain future.

 Question: Can damage to the environment lead to armed conflict and violence?  

Environmental degradation takes different forms, such as deforestation, desertification and pollution. Climate change is often referred to as a " threat multiplier " because it can make a difficult situation even worse. It also endangers sustainable development by creating new sources of inequality.

In the situations where the ICRC is active, we have observed that these types of problem increase the vulnerability of society as a whole, and can exacerbate the impact of political and social unrest. So environmental degradation can sometimes push hard-pressed communities over the edge into violence.

And warfare itself can also trigger environmental degradation by starting fires, setting off refinery explosions, causing various forms of pollution, etc. To take a different example, populations caught up in fighting might not be able to cultivate or irrigate their land, which may well force people to exhaust limited resources or move away. Sometimes, in camps for the displaced, people have no choice but to cut down all nearby trees for firewood.

During armed conflicts, water and sanitation systems are often damaged or destroyed, which places additional stress on societies and further fuels fighting. When there's not enough land, food, water or access to basic goods, tensions can flare, while community resilience is eroded. Of course, we have to be careful not to automatically establish causal links between these factors, but environmental degradation does play a big part in setting th e stage for humanitarian crises.

 Question: What can individuals and communities do to protect themselves from such threats?  

They can adapt and become more resilient. We need to work together to help them minimize and prepare for the risks. This requires a grassroots approach and communities therefore have a very important role to play. Although we are talking about global challenges, they require a local response.

Learning first aid is a good example of how individuals can protect themselves and help others. Knowing how to bandage a wound or stabilize the condition of an injured person can save a life. It doesn't matter whether first aid is practised during a conflict, following an earthquake or after a car crash – it's a tool that has saved countless lives.

National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies play a vital role in helping communities function better. That's why, within its own areas of expertise, the ICRC invests a great deal of energy in strengthening the capacities of those Societies. For example, National Societies in many countries strive to reunite families separated by conflict and to trace people who have gone missing as the result of violence. Both these activities require intensive work by individuals and communities, including Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers.

 One of the topics on the Conference agenda is violence in urban settings. What's the ICRC's role in this domain?  

This is actually quite a complex phenomenon. A lot of people might think of muggings or carjackings when they hear the term " violence in urban settings " , but the problem is much broader than that.

Armed violence in cities often shares many of the same chara cteristics as armed conflict. Even where violence in such a setting doesn't amount to war as defined by international humanitarian law, it can cause similar suffering. For example, we're starting to see weapons used in urban violence that are traditionally associated with war. Some of the humanitarian problems that are provoked by this type of violence are similar to those we might encounter in war zones. They include how to aid and evacuate the wounded and how to ensure that medical personnel are spared and respected.

Because of our long experience dealing with armed conflict, the ICRC is interested in exploring how to respond to this phenomenon, in concert with the National Societies. We also want to help ensure that police and armed forces in urban areas incorporate human rights standards and general humanitarian principles into their operations.

At the Conference we will also raise the challenges posed by armed conflicts in urban environments. Accelerating worldwide urbanization – today more than half of the planet's population is living in an urban setting – means that the ICRC is increasingly confronted with wars taking place in major cities. This presents various challenges such as the sheer density of the population affected by hostilities and the complexity of vital infrastructure (water, electricity, hospitals) that needs to be kept running. But also the relative anonymity of the urban environment, a factor that increases the risk of social cohesion breaking down.

 How is the ICRC adapting its outlook and activities to these new challenges?  

We need to further strengthen our analysis of how these issues are interrelated in order to better anticipate armed conflicts and other violence and to better prepare our response.

The ICRC is also increasingly called upon to respond to natural dis asters, especially when these occur in conflict-affected areas, such as flooding in Afghanistan and severe drought in Somalia.

The ICRC has a proven track record of operating in conflict environments, usually together with the National Societies concerned, and often in places where other agencies cannot or do not want to go. Responding to a natural disaster that occurs in a conflict zones places an additional burden on the ICRC and the local National Society.

The meaning of true partnership becomes evident in such situations. That's why we put ever greater emphasis on our relationship with National Societies as strategic partners who share our humanitarian ambitions.