• Send page
  • Print page

Humanitarian action in times of armed conflict and other disasters


Reference Document – 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva, 31 October to 6 November 1999

 Final Goal 2.1.   

 Effective response in disaster situations through improved national and international preparedness  


 1&2  The importance of States ensuring that their countries have up-to-date and comprehensive disaster preparedness plans needs little introduction. All countries may be struck by disasters of one form or another, and it is vital that national contingency plans are drawn up so that an adequate response can be made to cope with the humanitarian consequences arising from such events.

Disaster types will vary according to the geographic situation of the country. Cyclones, earthquakes and droughts, for example, are usually region specific, even if the timing of their occurrence may be less unpredictable. In today's world, technological disasters and major accidents can strike any country in the world, and recent trends in weather patterns have shown that extreme flooding can affect the most unlikely areas within and between countries. Furthermore, political tensions and civil unrest are phenomena that can affect countries in the North and South alike.

However, a good disaster preparedness plan should not be judged by its ability to forecast likely disaster events alone. Another prime requirement is that the plan should outline the roles of the main actors in responding to the disasters foreseen in the national context. This would include the main emergency and assistance bodies of the government, but also the National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society. Disaster response is one of the core functions of National Societies and, in most countries, they have a long and creditable track record of providing disaster assistance. Their structures usually cover the whole country from the national to the grass-root levels. Their branches and volunteer network especially in remote and/or high-risk areas, constitute the first preparedness/response " defence " line. This can be particularly crucial in situations where governments may have a weak service-delivery infrastructure at the local level.

Their network and infrastructure is not only important for the Movement and governments but also for the international humanitarian system as a whole. The existence of a well-functioning local organisation is of potential benefit to UN and other international bodies which are looking for effective ways to channel their assistance to disaster victims, especially in remote areas. While being mindful to protect their own independence of action in some sensitive cases, there are numerous examples of National Societies fulfilling this role both in the emergency and follow-up phases of relief operations.

Another significant advantage of National Societies being closely associated with national disaster preparedness plans is the ready access they have to additional support at the international level. In times of disaster, both the International Federation and the ICRC stand ready to mobilise international assistance to come to the aid of the stricken country and support the National Society in its task of implementing relief operations. This assistance can take a variety of forms depending on the nature of the disaster, but societies in the North have extensive experience in mobilising material, financial and human resources very quickly in the immediate aftermath of major disasters. Furthermore, with their global experience in disaster preparedness and response, both institutions carry out programmes designed to provide co-ordinated technical support, experience and expertise to assist many National Societies. In addition, the International Federation also works to support governments in their disaster preparedness planning and training activities.

It has to be recognised that in many cases today the limited resources available to Societies can mean that they face problems in maintaining their preparedness capacities and responding in the most effective manner. Not only are national resources in these countries scarce, but also by international criteria, preparedness often falls between the budget lines of relief and development. Good preparedness needs to be seen also as the result of a consistent effort to build and maintain the society's programme and organisational capacity, and to seek ways to contribute most appropriately to the overall governmental preparedness efforts. Disaster preparedness programmes therefore deserve to be considered for government funding, both in the context of disaster response and sustainable development.

With this in mind, the International Federation has intensified efforts to lobby for the inclusion of disaster preparedness into international co-operation frameworks such as the Lomé Convention. This convention which is the legal framework covering trade and development between the European Union (EU) and 71 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries is currently being renegotiated. It also governs relations in areas like emergency assistance, rehabilitation and refugee assistance which are of concern to the Red Cross/Red Crescent. In the current convention, disaster preparedness is hardly mentioned, and the International Federation and National Societies in EU and ACP countries have been lobbying the EU Commission and national governments to give appropriate attention to disaster preparedness in the future convention. Further support f rom both EU and ACP governments will be needed to ensure that disaster preparedness is given proper attention   in   the new convention .  

National disaster preparedness plans can serve as a key entry point for establishing and reinforcing relations between a National Society and its government. Beyond the general points made above, there are several practical mutual benefits to linking National Societies to the governmental disaster preparedness plans. These include:

  • giving the National Society, and its International Federation and ICRC partners, a clear formal status and a mandate to act, according to capacities, knowledge, expertise and experience;

  • the National Society will be able to play a stronger role in disaster preparedness and response co-ordination mechanisms set up at the national level, and will be able to bring its experience and expertise to strengthen such mechanisms;

  • a well-formulated disaster preparedness plan can be used as an effective fund-raising tool to mobilise support for the national programme; and

  • above all, it will facilitate, speed up and improve the response process.

Based on the roles and responsibilities given by its government, the National Society will in turn translate such co-operation into its own preparedness plan, spelling out the society's approach, focus and programmes to build its capacity in order to improve response.

Today, business continuity provides an extra dimension to disaster preparedness. The business community, governments and humanitarian agen cies have all become more aware of the importance of ensuring their own ability to continue operations following a disaster. A " disaster " here may be a major " external " event such as a flood, a conflict or a failure of power supply, or it may be " internal " such as a localised fire, or a failure of computer systems.

Business continuity is of particular importance to those sections of government, the Red Cross/Red Crescent and other humanitarian agencies which aim to provide assistance in case of disaster. A disaster agency itself disabled by disaster cannot presume to assist others efficiently. To be able to do so, they must ensure that their preparedness includes business continuity planning for their own critical systems. This has implications for design and maintenance of physical assets, computer and other systems and personnel planning.

Exploration of this area by the International Federation with a coalition of business, government, the UN's International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) and voluntary agencies has highlighted the importance and potential benefit of co-operation in disaster preparedness between public and private sectors. Indeed, the recovery of each sector depends to a significant extent on the action of the other. Thus, the business sector can provide advice and support on its business continuity experience as well as resources for disaster response. However, the rapid recovery of the business sector after a disaster itself depends on the complementary action of government and humanitarian agencies to assist the families of its employees affected by disaster to enable employees to return to work. This recovery of the business community is a significant factor in supporting the economic recovery of the wider community.

 3.  Predictions within the scientific and reinsurance communities, based upon t he respected work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggest that disasters triggered by natural phenomena will significantly increase in number and severity over the next decade. With almost a billion people living in unplanned urban shanty towns, deforestation seriously weakening ecological defences against extreme natural events, and global warming making such extreme events more frequent but harder to predict, humankind is increasingly threatened by, and is in turn altering, the forces of nature.

Global warming is already credited with generating stronger storms and rainfall in many coastal areas. Compared to the 1960s, the past decade has seen the number of significant natural catastrophes triple, costing the world's economies nine times as much.

Response data from the International Federation for the 1990s support concerns over an increasing threat from natural disasters. In 1998, the International Federation assisted some 5.8 million people caught up in so-called natural disasters. In 1997, the figure was 6.2 million, almost double the average for the preceding years, representing a significant increase of the proportion of the average 16.4 million people the International Federation has assisted annually.

In response to this threat, the Movement believes it must adjust both its disaster preparedness and response systems accordingly. National Societies need to advocate for, and participate in, better co-ordinated national disaster preparedness planning. Response systems to natural disasters need to be able to operate both at the local level within a National Society and at the international level, enabling a society to quickly call for assistance from the International Federation.

Many of the general predictions on climate and environment change have still to be properly examined from the perspective of their potential consequences on disaster occurrence and impact, pa rticularly when it comes to differentiating these consequences region by region. As part of its ongoing programme of disaster preparedness, the International Federation therefore proposes to foster a debate within the international community, in collaboration with leading climatic and environmental institutions, on the potential consequences of climatic change on disaster patterns and the implications of these consequences for disaster preparedness and response systems.

 Final Goal 2.2.   

 Strengthened mechanisms of co-operation and co-ordination amongst States, the Movement and other humanitarian actors  

 4.  The Council of Delegates held in Seville in November 1997, adopted an Agreement on the Organisation of the International Activities of the Components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The agreement aims to foster a spirit of co-operation based upon shared principles and a commitment to the alleviation of suffering and the protection of war and disaster victims.

In 1998, the agreement was put to the test. Two devastating earthquakes hit north-east Afghanistan four months apart in 1998. Under the Seville Agreement, ICRC was recognised as the " lead agency " within the Movement for these operations, with the International Federation providing its expertise in natural disaster response and National Society development. This co-ordinated action was an important part of the implementation of the agreement, allowing ICRC to take advantage of the International Federation's expertise, while retaining the overall co-ordination of relief efforts in a conflict situation.

A few months later, in Central America, the roles were reversed with the International Federation playing its role as lead agency in response to Hurricane Mitch.

This year with the Movement’s response to the Balkan crisis in April, the implementation of the agreement has gone a stage further with an integrated Movement appeal being put in place allowing National Societies, the International Federation and ICRC operations to be better co-ordinated and to act in mutual support of each other. It is, however, too early to draw definitive lessons from this operation.

Whilst the Seville Agreement is a co-operation mechanism internal to the Movement, it demonstrates how it is possible to both capitalise upon the diversity of the humanitarian community by co-ordinating activities appropriately to improve the service to disaster and conflict victims.

Similar initiatives are possible within the wider response community, whether at the national level through effective national disaster preparedness planning or internationally through agreement on operating norms and principles and the timely sharing of information and analysis. The Movement has the possibility to foster better co-operation within both national and international humanitarian response communities and looks to both its internal components and States to help it promote better humanitarian co-operation.

 5 .   Building on the experiences of formulating the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in disaster relief and the expressed wish from many agencies to see a clearer formulation of the practical implications of the Code, the International Federation, with the co-operation of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, InterAction, the ICRC, the International Council for Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) an d VOICE set out, in 1997, to collectively draw together a set of minimum standards to guide operational humanitarian work. The resulting product, the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response (printed in December 1998 by the Sphere Project), aims to tackle system-wide problems in protecting the life and dignity of disaster-affected people by providing a framework for rights-based humanitarian assistance and accountability. Over 200 agencies (governmental, UN agencies and programmes, components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, NGOs) have collaborated to improve practices based on agreed core principles and actions.

The Sphere Project, which continues to develop, aims to link humanitarian principles and basic human rights with minimum standards in water supply and sanitation, nutrition, food aid, shelter and site planning, and health services. 

The elaboration, through the Sphere Project or similar initiatives, of standards for humanitarian norms is premised on the assumption that access to the victims, security and availability of resources for humanitarian assistance are limiting factors whose control lies primarily with states. In this regard, the setting of such minimum standards or their recognition by governments can never relieve these governments of their obligations under international humanitarian law.

The Movement is looking to States to support efforts to develop minimum standards for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and take note of the standards developed in the Sphere Project.

 6.  The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has consistently sought to develop appropriate mechanisms and activities to meet the evolving needs arising from conflict. 

The 1949 Geneva Conventions have provisions aimed at protecting victims of war even aft er active hostilities end. The ICRC is engaged in a wide range of activities such as working for the release and repatriation of prisoners of war and civilian detainees, tracing people who have disappeared and reuniting families separated by conflict, returning displaced people to their homes, and contributing to the demobilisation and resettlement of armed forces. Dissemination of international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles do not cease when hostilities come to an end; educational activities in these fields can, and must, build or strengthen the foundation for lasting peace.

Many National Societies are actively involved in programmes which fall within the rubric of conflict reduction and post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction, such as:

  •  Peace-building (strengthening civil society): Ranging from development programmes which enhance National Society capacity to function more effectively as a community-based – i.e., civil society – organisation, to service delivery programmes which focus on deprived people from specific socio-economic categories or ethnic backgrounds, to the provision of basic public health services.

  •  Reconciliation and tolerance: National Society development programmes and post-conflict rehabilitation programmes involve the reinforcement of a nation-wide network of branches. This, in turn, requires a continued commitment to reconciliation and tolerance of diversity within society. This active and daily practical demonstration of the values of tolerance and reconciliation acts as a living example of the potential for reconciliation in post-conflict situations.

As lead agency for the Movement in post-conflict relief and rehabilitation programming, the International Federation plays a special role in support of National Societies in post-conflict situations. In this regard, the International Federation has initiated a programme of action-research within the framework of the Local Capacities for Peace Project (LCPP), a collaborative action with other humanitarian agencies, research bodies and donor governments. The project seeks to find practical ways in which programming in post-conflict, but still potentially unstable, situations can be adjusted to minimise the chances of inadvertently leading to violence whilst maximising the support given to those institutions and systems which promote normalcy.

In addition, in the context of post-conflict situations in Africa, National Societies, in collaboration with the International Federation, seek to better understand and define their role in rebuilding public health systems and knowledge appropriate to the post-conflict environment.

 7 .   The 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (Geneva 1995) welcomed the updated and revised Principles and Rules for Disaster Relief which provide the framework for co-ordinating the work of National Societies during international relief operations as well as the Code of Conduct for NGOs and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in Disaster Relief, which has proved an essential tool in co-ordinating humanitarian action more generally. The International Federation's 1997 General Assembly adopted a policy on Emergency Response, laying out guidance on the purpose, nature and longevity of National Society and International Federation relief actions. The " Seville Agreement " referred to in paragraph 4 of this section has provided the basis for strengthened co-operation and more effective response by the Movement.

These policy initiatives have lead to significant improvements in the efficiency and effect iveness of relief actions. However, co-ordination still remains a challenge within such a diverse and global community .

 (a)  The need for specialised professional services within relief operations – the operation of field clinics, water supply systems, telecommunications systems – has lead to the development by the International Federation of National Society-based Emergency Response Units, operating to standardised procedures and specifications and ready at short notice to mobilise for international operations within the framework of an International Federation appeal. Advances have been made in standardising reporting and financial systems. The challenge now is to implement these systems more universally within the International Federation and test their applicability to the full range of disaster situations within which the International Federation works.

The International Federation proposes to continue developing relevant co-ordinating mechanisms and systems for improving the effectiveness and timeliness of disaster response in a manner which promotes, where appropriate, the lead role of the operating National Society, whilst making the most effective use of the diversity and resources of the rest of the International Federation.

The philosophy driving these initiatives within the Federation should be extended to the wider disaster response community. Making the most of modern technology, valuing timelines and flexibility of action and emphasising professionalism are all attributes which states can promote in their co-operation with the Movement and other humanitarian organisations in order to ensure that the overall international disaster response system maximises its ability to deliver rapid, flexible and effective support to disaster victims.

 (b)  From 55.4 billion US do llars in 1996, global aid from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Assistance Committee's (DAC) donors fell by US$ 7.9 billion to a 1997 total of US$ 47.6 billion – down 7.1 per cent in real terms. Official development assistance (ODA) has consistently declined over the last six years.

Emergency aid continues to fall from its 1994 peak (US$ 3.5 billion) to just US$ 2.1 billion in 1997 – over a third of which came from the European Commission. Mid-1990s demand for emergency aid came mainly from'complex emergencies'. But more than 700 major natural catastrophes in 1998 caused over US$ 90 billion in economic losses world-wide. Hurricane Mitch prompted agency appeals totalling over US$ 200 million.

Operational data from the Federation and the ICRC suggest that a significant proportion of their humanitarian response work load carries over from one year to the next, as operations in support of refugees, war victims, the destitute or those facing food insecurity continue to be necessary whilst communities and states seek longer term solutions to the chronic problems underlying such crises. At the same time, there is no evidence of any decrease in the number of disaster or conflict victims the Movement will be called upon to assist in the future.

Given this situation the efficiency of financing disaster response through reactive funding systems - including both the public and multilateral private sectors - needs to be examined. Aid agencies are primarily reliant on a few Northern government donors for the vast majority of their funding.

Funding of humanitarian operations remains an ever present preoccupation, in this regard components of the Movement would like to look more closely at funding issues and mechanisms and invite States to examine their long-term commitment to funding humanitarian assistance.

 Final Goal 2.3

 Provision for the rights and needs of the most vulnerable people as the first priority for humanitarian action  

 8.  The growing concern over the plight of the displaced persons which has been demonstrated by the international community has to some extent been provoked by the end of the Cold War, which has led to a proliferation of armed conflicts and a resulting sharp increase in the numbers of those displaced. At the same time, the improved international political climate has allowed for an enhanced assertiveness in addressing problems which, in the past, had been considered as falling within the internal affairs of states, and thus often precluded international involvement on grounds of national sovereignty. The international community has gradually gained an improved understanding of the conditions generating displacement and the serious problems experienced by those affected, be it the displaced themselves, those left behind in the home areas or host communities. The multiple challenges facing governments and humanitarian organisations have also been better identified.

As regards internal displacement, co-ordination mechanisms have been established to promote a clearer division of tasks between relevant human rights, humanitarian and development organisations. Important achievements have also been made to clarify the legal status of the internally displaced, although it has long been clear they are entitled to the protection provided by human rights and humanitarian law. In the past, it was sometimes difficult for governments, organisations and the displaced themselves to identify applicable guarantees in specific situations. The " Compilation and Analysis of Legal Norms " , undertaken by Dr. Francis M. Deng, the UN Secretary-General's representative on internally displaced people, and the set of " Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement " which he presented to the Commission on Human Rights in 1998, have considerably helped reduce this uncertainty. Although not altering or replacing international humanitarian law, these principles provide useful guidance on how international standards are to be interpreted. The ICRC and the International Federation therefore support their dissemination and use at the operational level.

The UN General Assembly, in its 1998 resolution (53/125) on the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, noted the relevance of the principles on internal displacement. At its March 1998 meeting, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee welcomed the Guiding Principles, encouraged its members to share them with their executive boards and with their staff, especially those in the field, and to apply them in their activities on behalf of the internally displaced.

Among the hardships experienced by internally displaced persons and refugees, the problem of insecurity in camps may at times be particularly acute. A major reason for this insecurity is that camps may be perceived as constituting a security threat to one of the parties to a conflict, for instance because it suspects that armed elements from the enemy side hide among the civilians, or undertake recruitment and training in the camps. In such cases, there may be a serious risk that the camps are attacked or forcibly dismantled. There may also be considerable insecurity within the camps, in particular when armed elements are present. This problem may affect the entire camp population, but can be particularly serious for vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied minors or women-headed households, due to the separation from their m ale adult relatives or community leaders.

While these problems are common to many camps housing internally displaced persons, they may also be acute in cases where the refugee camps are located close to the border or in a hostile environment. It is therefore important that all parties to an armed conflict abstain from jeopardising the civilian character of camps. Other States, in accordance with their obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law, should impress upon the parties their duties in this respect, and otherwise take all appropriate measures to ensure that the humanitarian and civilian character of camps can be preserved.

 9.  Forced displacement is frequently associated with loss of sources of livelihood and acute threats to the security of those concerned. This is particularly true for the internally displaced, who have been uprooted but remained within the borders of their country, but is also all too often the case for refugees.

Patterns of displacement have changed over the last decade, as the number of internally displaced people has caught up with, and today even exceeds, that of refugees. While this phenomenon may to some extent be explained by factors such as distance from borders or perceptions that security is available in familiar surroundings, it is likely that it also reflects a new alarming trend: the unavailability of other alternatives due to the increased reluctance of states to open their borders to those fleeing wars and persecution.

Notwithstanding the protection responsibilities of international organisations mandated for this purpose, it has been generally acknowledged that all humanitarian organisations should give due regard to the protection needs of displaced persons when carrying out their activities. As a result, all components of the Movement, including National Soc ieties and the International Federation, must ensure that they understand their roles and responsibilities with respect to the protection function.

While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has the primary mandate to ensure protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers, National Societies and the International Federation have also been recognised as having a special responsibility for these groups. In line with their task to assist and protect the most vulnerable in society, National Societies and the International Federation have for decades carried out important activities on their behalf. Apart from humanitarian assistance programmes, these activities have traditionally included advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers, both towards national authorities and society at large.

Several recent cases, in which refugees and asylum seekers have experienced serious problems, testify to the continued relevance of these efforts and demonstrate the need to reinforce and further develop relevant activities. It is, therefore, necessary not only to continuously remind states of their legal obligations towards refugees and asylum seekers, but also to promote an understanding and solidarity with these vulnerable groups among the general public. National Societies are particularly well placed to carry out this task. Given that refugee problems are inherently also of an international character, the International Federation has an important role to play, supporting the work of National Societies and providing a channel through which the efforts of National Societies can be shared and co-ordinated.

 10.  In its first 45 years, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolutions on economic sanctions in only two cases: Rhodesia (1966) and South Africa (1977). Since the end of the Cold War, the UN Security Council has increasingly resorted to c ollective economic sanctions, in times of both peace and armed conflict.

Although sanctions are permitted under the UN Charter, as a statement of general principle it is clear that there are limits to the extent of suffering which sanctions may legitimately cause and that States and the UN are bound to observe the principles of international humanitarian law, human rights law and elementary considerations of humanity when designing, monitoring and reviewing a sanctions regime. In assessing a particular sanctions regime, it is necessary to look at the humanitarian consequences of the sanctions – which will depend on such factors as their nature, the suffering caused by them and the provision which they make for the humanitarian needs of the population in the target State.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is concerned about sanctions, particularly comprehensive trade sanctions, because of their humanitarian consequences. Through its field operations, the Movement has been able to observe the severe humanitarian consequences of some of the sanctions regimes. Sanctions may adversely affect not only the humanitarian situation of the population of the target State but also the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

The Movement, together with States, expressed concern over the effect of sanctions through Resolution 4.F of the 26th International Conference. This resolution encouraged States, when designing, imposing and reviewing economic sanctions, to take into account their possible negative impact on the civilian population and on third States, to assess and monitor the short- and long-term consequences on the most vulnerable, to provide relief to the most vulnerable groups in their territories. The resolution called upon States to permit humanitarian relief operations, and it called upon the ICRC, the International Federation and National Societies to contribute to the reduction of the undes irable side-effects of sanctions on the humanitarian situation of the civilian population, through assessing the impact of the sanctions and providing relief to the most vulnerable groups, in accordance with their mandates.

The Movement has taken action to respond to economic sanctions on a number of occasions over the past years. The ICRC and the International Federation, through their operations in target countries, have contributed directly to alleviating the suffering of the civilian populations by providing humanitarian assistance. National Societies in sanctions-affected countries have often acted as the conduit through which such assistance is targeted.

In its dealings with States, the Movement has consistently called for the inclusion of adequate humanitarian exemptions to the sanctions regime, in terms of the needs of the population and the requirements of international humanitarian law, human rights law and elementary considerations of humanity.

In its contacts with those involved in a particular sanctions regime – the sender states, the target state, the UN Security Council, the sanctions committee – the Movement provides detailed information regarding the humanitarian situation of the population in the target state, including the difficulties caused or exacerbated by the imposition of economic sanctions and enters into discussions with the bodies responsible for the implementation of the sanctions to ensure that the humanitarian exemption procedures function satisfactorily, enabling humanitarian organisations to provide assistance to the population in the target state.

The ICRC also reminds the international community that sanctions imposed during a time of armed conflict must comply with the relevant provisions of international humanitarian law (the prohibition of starvation of civilians, the obligation on parties to a conflict and States party to the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols to permit the supply of certain goods and to allow relief assistance).

In recent years, the international community, UN, States, NGOs and academic scholars have become increasingly aware of the negative impact of comprehensive economic sanctions on the civilian population of the target state, and there is a wide consensus that these consequences should be avoided or limited as much as possible.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement welcomes this increasing awareness and supports all efforts and measures aimed at alleviating the suffering of the civilian population under comprehensive economic sanctions regimes. It stresses the necessity that sanctions regimes include humanitarian exceptions appropriate in terms of the needs of the civilian population and in conformity with international humanitarian law and other relevant instruments, and that the humanitarian impact of a sanctions regime be closely monitored and necessary adjustments made.


 Final Goal 2.4.   

 Understanding of the respective roles of political, military and humanitarian actors, and protection of humanitarian personnel .

 11. Saving lives and protecting victims are fundamental objectives of humanitarian organisations. When these are to be compromised or made subject to political interests, the humanitarian action will fall short. At the same time, valid State interests and potential political effects of humanitarian activities upon players on the political scenes must be correctly taken into consideration. Humanitarian action by itself cannot resolve the fundamental and political root causes of conflicts. When humanitarian agencies are l eft alone with problems requiring political and military responses, they might even unwittingly compound such problems. They risk being identified as party to a conflict, and eventually becoming scapegoats for political inaction.

The question of the link between political, including its military component, and humanitarian action gave rise in the past years to numerous seminars, conferences and publications. The International Conference is also an important forum for such a discussion. Effective response to crisis demands that all players in the humanitarian, political or, even, development spheres manage each situation in a comprehensive manner, taking due account of their respective responsibilities, mandates and specific competencies. The relations of dialogue and complementarity which the different goal actors should seek to establish and maintain with each other will stem from their determination to adopt such an approach. At the height of a conflict, this interaction should focus primarily on access to the victims and on their protection. Humanitarian action intervenes in a political environment, but it must never lose sight of the victims, whose protection and assistance represent its only objective.

Although everything is inter linked, although everything has political implications and although the different spheres overlap, the different players cannot act as substitutes for each other. The different spheres have boundaries, even if those boundaries are changing. The central question is how to enhance coherence at the policy level and the co-ordination in the field. The overall objective must be to strike a balance between the requirements for coherence on the one hand, and more effective action on the other. It is of paramount importance that any new system to be set up should remain squarely victim-oriented, without being politicised, and that it should not hamper speedy reaction in the face of sudden emergency or the necessary flexibility all owing humanitarian organisations to adapt their action to changing circumstances.

 12.  There has been a marked increase in violent situations, which are destabilising traditional methods of action and posing a greater danger than in the past to the physical and mental stability of relief workers (for example, disintegration of state structures, lawlessness or anarchy, banditry, criminality, Mafia groups). Field approaches based on the agreement of the parties to the conflicts are becoming less effective. In situations in which the lowest possible profile must be adopted, even the use of the protective red cross or red crescent emblem is questioned. It is, therefore, vital for the community of States to tackle this issue and take all possible measures at the national and international levels to further facilitate the access of humanitarian organisations to the victims of conflicts with adequate security.

The possible causes for the present insecurity are many, from the disintegration of the state to the lack of respect for humanitarian principles. State disintegration appears to occur when a government no longer maintains real control over a given territory or over the population. This disintegration can also occur at various levels of intensity and its geographical extent may vary. In circumstances where the government is no longer able to exercise its authority or any monopoly of the use of force, anyone can acquire light and heavy weapons, leading to a proliferation of real " private armies”. Chaos and crime become widespread, factions do not have any real control over their members and their chains of command are often parallel and not readily identifiable instead of being clearly laid down. There are no more representative and valid negotiators. Lack of security is then a serious problem.

In many contexts, humanitarian principles are not recognised; instead, they are seen as running counter to the reasons for the war. Like other organisations working to the same end, the Red Cross or Red Crescent is regarded as an enemy because it seeks to provide aid and protection to the other side, which has been demonised and which has not – or not yet – been possible to destroy. This helping actor is in danger of being regarded as an unwelcome witness of events in the field, because it can report what it has seen, and everything possible will be done to prevent it from working.

Likewise, new forms of conflict present greater security hazards. Lawful recourse to force and its use by established entities is tending to shift to an increasingly private sphere, evading the control of structures set up to exercise it within a constitutional framework. For example, in the case of conflicts surrounding drug trafficking and drug cartels, extreme caution is required when working in areas controlled by these groups; activities related to protection or to assistance following military or police operations are particularly dangerous, as they may be seen as a threat to certain interests and therefore risky from the standpoint of security.

There is also a very strong and very regular trend towards an increase in acts of pure banditry including threats, ransom and extortion, which can also affect humanitarian workers. They are carried out by heavily armed groups whose only purpose is enrichment – or survival. The danger takes the form of attacks on moving targets, or hold-ups, and kidnappings. Banditry often emerges from a badly-handled peace process which leaves the combatants without any context or resources other than their weapons, which are not taken away from them despite commitments to disarm.

Finally, the hidden power of private security companies and the possible ambiguities between their security measures and the regular armed or police forces must be mentioned. Private companies and their secur ity personnel (evidently lacking any knowledge of humanitarian law or principles) represent a form of privatisation of war for economic reasons; for them, humanitarian activities might appear contrary to their own interests.

As indicated in the previous chapter, the ICRC and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement as a whole intend to pursue their efforts to overcome the security problems and to continue to assist war victims in conformity with humanitarian norms. Bearing in mind and accepting the irreducible risks inherent in any field activity, Red Cross and Red Crescent organisations will nevertheless take all active protection measures (for individuals and structures), as well as passive environmental protection measures, to reduce risks to the maximum extent possible.

The Movement has laid down a clear policy of not relying on armed escort; this policy continues to serve as a guideline. It must be noted here that in some situations of conflict the ICRC is working alongside peace-keeping and peace-enforcement troops whose mandates often includes protection of humanitarian workers. Their frequently vague mandates, mixing the political goal and military resources under a humanitarian umbrella, create areas of confusion which have a negative impact on the acceptability and therefore the security of neutral and independent humanitarian activities. The use of force may nevertheless create a favourable environment for the conduct of humanitarian operations. It is important not to confuse a “safe environment” with “protection of humanitarian workers”. In some cases, humanitarian workers clearly need strong action to enable them to do their work. This action, however, must be carried out in such a way as to ensure acceptable working conditions, in the form of an environment that has been made safe and not in the form of providing escorts or guards.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement offers a g ood example of humanitarian networking, bringing together the local resources and knowledge of a National Society with the specific expertise of its international components. The diversification of local contacts, as well as an increased analytical capacity to assess external perceptions, will foster the acceptance of Red Cross and Red Crescent work, and in particular favour the operational involvement of the ICRC for victims of armed violence. In situations in which the nature of the risk results from a lack of understanding or a questioning of working methods, the ICRC, in co-operation with the local Red Cross or Red Crescent Society, will continue to advocate a continuing dialogue with all the parties. Such a dialogue is essential to obtain assurances regarding personnel and infrastructures.

It is, however, almost impossible to provide protection against deliberate attacks. That is an unacceptable risk that entails the setting of a limit: a response can be the suspension of activities or the withdrawal of the targeted personnel; at the same time, that departure or evacuation can also prove to be a temporary additional risk in some cases, while remaining may mean an even more violent attack. A decision to withdraw expatriate aid workers must therefore be offset by other ways of achieving efficiency, and the criteria and form of presence must be determined. Within the International Movement, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies can play here a important role. Left alone, without the support of, say, the ICRC, they may nevertheless be put under pressure or unacceptable risks. Dialogue between humanitarian organisations and the political and military leaders involved in a conflict situation should thus be maintained, or even intensified, so as to provide humanitarian workers, national and expatriate, with a satisfactory security environment enabling them to carry out their mission.

Under international humanitarian law, humanitarian workers hav e civilian status and thus enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations. The fact that they may not be the object of attack is a basic customary rule and violation thereof constitutes a war crime. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court includes as a war crime the fact of intentionally directing attacks against personnel, installations, material, units or vehicles involved in a humanitarian assistance or peace-keeping mission, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Furthermore, subject to certain conditions, several provisions of international law accord special protection. Thus, staff taking part in relief operations and civil defence personnel must be protected and respected. The latter are recognisable by an international distinctive sign (equilateral blue triangle on an orange ground). Protocol II to the 1980 UN Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons requires States to take specific measures to protect UN peace-keeping forces and missions, and missions of the ICRC, National Societies or their International Federation, as well as other humanitarian organisations from the effects of mines.

Finally, within the limits set by international humanitarian law and national legislation, the components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement enjoy special protection and may use the distinctive emblem of the red cross and red crescent. Perfidious use of the distinctive emblem of the red cross or red crescent or of other protective signs recognised by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols constitutes a war crime.

The Movement cannot expose its activities and its workers to risks beyond those considered acceptable; as indicated, continuing dialogue with field partners and effective analytical tools are inescapable and decisive factors in establishing this threshold. It is, however, the responsibil ity of States and parties to the conflict to respect and protect humanitarian activities. It is also essential to put an end to the impunity which prevails in this area by bringing those who commit violent acts against humanitarian workers before the competent courts.

go to top of page