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Humanitarian action in armed conflicts: basic principles

10-05-1995 Statement

Seminar on "International Humanitarian Assistance in Conflict Situations", Swedish Red Cross Folk College, Gripsholm, Sweden, May 10-11, 1995. Address by Dr Peter Fuchs, Director General, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The main lesson that the ICRC has learnt in its long experience of bringing assistance and protection to the victims of conflicts is that assistance in a conflict situation cannot be compared with assistance in natural or technological disasters or with development aid in times of peace.

Considering the nature of the political, military and security constraints surrounding humanitarian action in conflict situations, the   rules and mechanisms which apply during a war are completely different from those which apply in peacetime. Particular sensitivities, tactical motivations and psycho-pathological reflexes appear in times of conflict and may influence decision-makers much more than the humanitarian needs of civilians, the plight of wounded soldiers or the wish of humanitarian agencies to take action.

In such a context,   experience has clearly shown that humanitarian assistance must be provided in accordance with five principles if it is to be effective, sustainable and as safe as possible for the victims and the humanitarian field workers in the conflict zone.

These five principles are:

- impartiality, neutrality, independence, the consent of the parties to the conflict, and the basing of assistance on evaluated needs.

Impartiality means helping without discrimination as to ethnical or national criteria, religious beliefs or political opinion. Efforts made to relieve the suffering of individuals are guided solely by t he victims needs, and priority is given to the most urgent cases of distress.

Neutrality signifies not taking sides in hostilities or engaging at any time in controversies linked to the conflict. Neutrality in a conflict excludes advocacy in favour of a party to the conflict, and public accusation.   But neutrality does not mean keeping silent in the defence of the victims'rights when those rights are grossly disregarded by the belligerents.

Independence means to act without having in mind ulterior, mainly political or military motives and instructions not based on humanitarian considerations.

Respect for these three principles is a prerequisite for humanitarian organizations to gain access to the victims without hindrance and with the consent of the parties concerned. That consent is the fourth principle to which I referred earlier. It needs to be correctly understood. Consent is not left to the entire and unilateral discretion of the belligerents but is a principle enshrined and spelled out in the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, under which the parties have the obligation to allow the passage of relief consignments, equipment and personnel. To be clear, let me quote from Article 70 of Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions : "[If the civilian population of any territory under the control of a Party to the conflict, other than occupied territory, is not adequately provided with the supplies mentioned in Article 69, relief actions which are humanitarian and impartial in character and conducted without any adverse distinction shall be undertaken, subject to the agreement of the Parties concerned in such relief actions. Offers of such relief shall not be regarded as interference in the armed conflict or as unfriendly acts.]... [The Parties to the conflict shall allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of all relief consignments, equipment and personnel provided in accordance with this Section, even if such assistance is destined for the civilian population of the adverse Party.]". This principle of free access to the victims based   on the consent of the parties is of tremendous importance. It is indeed the only guarantee for sustainable humanitarian action and for the safety of all involved in humanitarian relief operations.

Finally, the principle that assistance must be based on evaluated needs means to engage in a credible and transparent operation which is not subject to pressure from parties to the conflict, donors or the media as to the beneficiaries of the assistance to be provided.

I agree that it is not easy to work according to these principles. This approach is based on permanent negotiation and confidence-building contacts, even before the conflict breaks out, and it needs patience, and hard and sustained work. It is often not spectacular for the media, which are sometimes excluded from an operation in order not to jeopardize it.

Certainly, there are many temptations not to comply fully with the five criteria. Let me give a few examples:

- the donors need a quick humanitarian reaction that meets certain conditions, and are willing to pay for it;

- the media are spotlighting a situation in which public opinion wants to assign responsibility for violations of international law, and they would like the humanitarian agencies to take a stance;

- a party to a conflict may give a humanitarian organization some advantages if that organization is willing to work according to certain conditions, etc.

But any violation of the five principles in fact reduces the credibility of humanitarian action in general and jeopardizes its long-term effectiveness - in spite of the short-term success it may seem to produce.

Let me make some more general remarks as to the overall context of today's humanitarian operations in conflict situations in order to underline the importance of the five criteria I have just mentioned.

It is true that the changing environment of conflicts has become much more complex. The new conflicts often have little to do with the classic international or civil wars of the Cold War period, where a clearly defined number of parties were involved and a certain political and military chain of command existed on each side. The new phenomena of destruction of any social fabric, the complete disappearance of any form of authority excepting that of guns, the denial of basic values, and the increasing chaos and anarchy are making conflicts more complex, the suffering of civilians ever more cruel, humanitarian workers and the international community more helpless. Instead of having to deal with the usual two parties to a conflict, each with their own strategic Cold War patron in the background, the ICRC today often has to negotiate with groups, clans, bandits, militias and weekend fighters. The international regulating mechanisms have not yet been adapted to these new situations.

The disappearance of the direct or indirect influence exerted by the superpowers during the bipolarity of the Cold War leaves humanitarian agencies, but also politicians and generals, often without clear points of reference. And it seems to be difficult, or sometimes even impossible, for governments to reach a realistic consensus on political and military options and action. Even though UN resolutions are no longer blocked by the veto mechanism so often applied during the Cold War, they are frequently unrealistic and reflect a verbal consensus rather than a genuine readiness to intervene in a truly efficient manner.

In the increasing aimlessness that stems from the failure to reach a consensus on appropriate political or military action, humanitarian action provides a welcome focal point, a sense of purpose. The resultant activism helps to decrease the pressure exerted on governments not only by the national and international media, but also by public opinion, which tend more and more to dictate today's agenda of political priorities and create a political need to act immediately. Since nobody contests the need for humanitarian aid in the same way as political or military interventions, humanitarian action may serve to give the impression that something is being done.

But humanitarian action should be parallel to political or military action, not replace it. If humanitarian action is misused as an alternative means of politics, as an opportunistic extension of foreign policy, as a means of decreasing internal political pressure in one's own country, this same humanitarian action loses its " innocence " , is no longer neutral and free of ulterior political motives. It will finally lose its very identity and even become a target for armed attacks.

As experience shows, this is the key problem of the so-called integrated approach.

Let us have a look at this integrated approach, which is the guiding principle of the Agenda for Peace, the very stimulating and valid document by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The Agenda  for Peace advocates a comprehensive approach to political, military and humanitarian activities which seems to make sense in complex emergencies such as today's conflicts. Creating synergies between the different possibilities for action could indeed enhance the efficiency of the international community wi thout considerably increasing the resources which have to be invested.

Such an approach is certainly correct in situations of conflict prevention. Preventive diplomacy, economic support, development, humanitarian aid and the deployment of military observers can indeed stabilize a given situation. Greater means should be invested in such preventive efforts, which are in any case cheaper than all the investments required to contain a conflict that has already broken out, not to mention the subsequent reconstruction and rehabilitation.

The same synergies can be created in the post-conflict phase where emphasis must be placed on the consolidation of peace, reconstruction and, if necessary, interim humanitarian action in favour of the most needy.

But I think that the plan contained in the Agenda for Peace cannot be applied without difficulty during the acute phase of a conflict. In such a situation, humanitarian work concentrates on the acute symptoms produced by the crisis and may not tackle political or military problems. There is a clear need for an independent, neutral and impartial approach without any ulterior political motives in order to reach all the victims of the conflict on all sides, and with the consent of all the parties, for often only really independent, neutral and impartial organizations like the ICRC can then reach those in need. The States were completely aware of this necessity when they drew up and signed the Geneva Conventions which stipulate this neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian assistance.

" Neutral and impartial " - in the meantime, most of the humanitarian agencies use these words in order to define their identity. But the important question is not whether an organization really is or declares itself to be neutral and impartial. What counts is how the organization is perceived by the various protagonists in the conflict. UN agencies such as UNHCR are certainly neutral and their action is impartial. But operating under the same blue emblem as the UN blue helmets, using the same white cars with the blue flag and protected by white armoured vehicles with the blue emblem, they are not necessarily perceived as being   politically independent and neutral. If UN troops are seen as enemies by one or another protagonist, all those who work under the same flag and emblem, even implementing agencies, risk falling into the same category and being mentally associated with a party to the conflict. This perception of dependence and partiality jeopardizes humanitarian work in general and the safety of all humanitarian field workers.

The same is true of the latest efforts of some governments which send armed military units into conflict zones to do purely humanitarian work. This blurring of assignments will also create risks for governmental emergency bodies operating under a national flag.

And it is even more important to avoid the growing tendency to label any political and military intervention as " humanitarian " , so that real humanitarian action, which must remain independent, neutral and impartial, is not dangerously weakened still further.

But there is, of course, an important place for clearly separated political and military action in a humanitarian emergency, especially in the anarchic and chaotic new conflicts. It would be impossible, and probably even undesirable, to dissociate humanitarian endeavour completely from political action.

Humanitarian work concentrates on the acute symptoms produced by crisis, but the crises themselves cannot be resolved without political or even military measures to tackle their underlying causes.

In chaotic situations of total insecurity, humanitarian work may depend on the creation of an environment which allows the deployment of humanitarian operations. Scope for humanitarian action must be created by deploying UN troops in an early phase of the conflict, replacing absent police authorities and ensuring a minimum of security for humanitarian organizations to fulfil their mandates. But in order to do this, the UN Secretary-General should have a rapid reaction force at his disposal. Are the States ready to coordinate their efforts to that effect?

Let me conclude by saying that all this means that we must redefine the various roles and put an end to the present confusion.

I do agree that in non-conflict situations synergic cooperation between NGOs and intergovernmental bodies, especially the UN system, is necessary. NGOs may even be implementing partners of the UN system.

However, the Red Cross system should keep away from any alliance with politically motivated and directed organizations in the international sphere. Joint ventures between National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other national bodies within the country are certainly useful. But they may, in times of tension and even more so in times of conflict, be interpreted as a lack of independence of the respective Red Cross or Red Crescent Society. Each Red Cross and Red Crescent Society should aim at being the number one independent humanitarian organization in its own country. At the international level, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement should have the ambition to be a worldwide independent humanitarian system recognised as such throughout the world. This means of course that it has to set up its own humanitarian operations so as not to be confused with governmental or intergovernmental efforts, which might be perceived as linked to non-humanitarian motives. The Red Cross must avoid becoming or being considered an implementing agency of a government or the UN sys tem. This is obviously even more important in the context of conflicts.

I strongly advocate a strict separation of roles and tasks. The governments and the UN should tackle those problems which come within their political mandate, namely conflict resolution by diplomacy and military action, prosecution and trial. Red Cross action in conflict situations is directed by the ICRC, which has been mandated accordingly, and which is recognized and generally perceived as neutral, impartial and independent by the parties to conflict. Outside the conflicts, in situations where the ICRC is not required to play its role of neutral intermediary,   Red Cross operations are coordinated by the Secretariat of the   Federation of National Red   Cross and Red Crescent Societies.   But even there, the Red Cross - Red Crescent organization   should adhere to a strict principle of independence and not represent UN or governmental intentions and activities. It should instead coordinate its own activities with those of others, in complete independence. Such a clear approach will eventually allow the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to become the worldwide system of reference in terms of independent humanitarian action.

I am convinced that a clear division of labour, taking into full account the special conditions which prevail in a conflict, will help all concerned to be more effective and efficient in the accomplishment of their respective tasks. I am also convinced that in today's often chaotic situations of conflict, strict compliance with and respect for the five principles I have   underlined in my talk is the only way to preserve the true nature of humanitarian assistance, to alleviate efficiently the suffering of the victims and to keep humanitarian action from disintegration into chaos in the midst of political and military turmoil. It was because it was aware of these dangers that the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement 30 years ago adopted the principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality as its fundamental principles of action and conduct and that, going beyond what could be perceived as a mere declaration of principles, it has organized the division of work between its three components, namely the ICRC, the National Societies and their Federation, in such a way that compliance with these principles can be ensured in all circumstances, even in the heat of battle.

(Ref.: Exp(1995)3)