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Strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations, 2013

12-12-2013 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 68th session, Plenary, Item70(a) of the agenda, statement by the ICRC, New York, 12 December 2013.

Thank you, Mr President, for giving the floor to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the ICRC; and next year, we will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the first Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. These anniversaries testify to the enduring commitment of States to respect humanitarian work in wartime, which aims only to alleviate human suffering without discrimination, and has no political objectives.

These two events of immense significance led to the development of international humanitarian law and to the creation of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (which consists of the ICRC, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies). Today, the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 have been ratified by every country in the world, and other key instruments are also making steady progress towards universal acceptance. Moreover, there are 189 National Societies throughout the world today, which together with the International Federation and the ICRC remain committed to alleviate and prevent human suffering.

These anniversaries, however, should not lead to complacency. Millions of lives are still disrupted by armed conflicts that often last years, even decades, and that are characterized by extreme violence, contempt for the lives of civilians and widespread disregard for humanitarian law. More has to be done, not only to prevent and resolve conflicts, but also to mitigate their consequences in humanitarian terms. Member States have an important role to play in these areas.

Mr President,

Like many other humanitarian actors, the ICRC is tackling a number of complex challenges, which will require the support of all the governments concerned.

As an organization mandated to protect and assist victims of armed conflict, access to people in need is essential for us to do our work properly. In a number of contexts, reaching the people affected is becoming increasingly difficult; in some places, impossible. Parties to armed conflicts sometimes explicitly deny access to certain areas, including places of detention. They might also implicitly deny access, by imposing unacceptable restrictions, or by putting various administrative obstacles in our way.

In other cases, the ICRC is prevented from doing its work by the absence of minimum conditions of security: for instance, direct threats and attacks against our staff in a given context hinder our ability to continue our humanitarian operation there.

In certain contexts, “whole of government”, comprehensive and integrated approaches may contribute to raise doubts about humanitarian actors’ genuine aims, and may complicate our ability to gain access despite our upholding of a distinct and strictly humanitarian identity. We are convinced that in contexts that are extremely polarized and politicized, the need for neutral and independent humanitarian action is even more crucial to reach people on all sides.

The ICRC is acutely aware of the political controversies surrounding the question of humanitarian access. Being a strictly neutral humanitarian organization, it has no intention of taking part in these controversies. It does, however, regularly raise the issue in its bilateral dialogue with authorities, to get their views on the matter and to find a political consensus on genuinely apolitical humanitarian action.

Mr President

Destruction of infrastructure, flight of skilled personnel, and disruption of trade are often among the main effects of armed conflict. When, in these circumstances, access to people in need is denied, it causes widespread suffering that can easily result in the loss of life. Essential supplies and basic services – potable water, food, shelter medical care, and so on – become unavailable. If the ICRC is unable to establish a confidential dialogue with military forces, armed groups and civil authorities, it will not be able to act when people are threatened or harassed, or put in harm’s way because of the hostilities. Because of the ICRC’s inability to act, detainees may also be at increased risk of ill-treatment or forced disappearance.

With regard to granting or denying access, it should be noted that parties to conflict do not have unrestricted discretion. Treaties of humanitarian law contain numerous provisions regulating the undertaking of relief for civilians in need. A common element of these provisions is that relief activities require the consent of the parties concerned. However, a State may refuse access to relief only for valid reasons, such as imperative considerations of military necessity, or if the relief being offered is not considered to be humanitarian or impartial, is not needed or is already being provided by others.

If the circumstances were such that refusing an offer of humanitarian assistance would lead to people starving, the refusal would be regarded as a method of warfare that violates the law. Refusals based on the concept of exclusive domestic jurisdiction, on the theory of belligerent reprisals or on the absence of reciprocity, would also violate the law.

Mr President,

The ICRC constantly negotiates with all parties and seeks to establish a confidential dialogue with each of them. It does that to secure acceptance for its presence, a relationship of trust and respect for humanitarian law. Our experience has shown us that strict adherence to the Movement’s Fundamental Principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence is the best way to discharge our mandate, help us gain access to people in need , serve the interests of the people affected and to carry out our assistance and protection activities. This is no less true for National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which also do their work in accordance with these Fundamental Principles. Our primary partners in the field are National Societies who, because of their intimate knowledge of local conditions, and the dedication of their volunteers, often have access where others do not. Such access is invaluable and has to be safeguarded; which is why it is crucial to preserve the neutrality and independence of National Societies.

For governments, this means enabling National Societies to work with the necessary degree of autonomy: National Societies must be free to decide how best to respond to prevailing humanitarian needs. For others active in the field, this means adapting coordination mechanisms and cooperation agreements in such a way that National Societies are not at risk of giving the impression of operating under their control, or of serving political or military ends.

The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement met in Sydney for its Council of Delegates this November, during which it discussed how to maximize the benefits of cooperating with external actors whilst preserving our ability to work in keeping with our Fundamental Principles. We acknowledge that many others are involved in the provision of humanitarian aid; and, of course, in the spirit of complementarity, we value their contribution. We have to broaden our dialogue in order to acquire a sounder understanding of the various approaches being used and to establish a coherent overall response.

Humanitarian action cannot however prevent or solve humanitarian problems by itself: it is parties to armed conflicts – States and non-State armed groups – that bear the legal obligation to respect humanitarian law and to spare civilians unnecessary suffering. We call on all governments and armed groups to grant and facilitate unhindered access to people in need, so that the ICRC and other impartial humanitarian organizations may deliver assistance and protection in a manner that is neutral, impartial and independent. 

Mr President

The ICRC is also greatly troubled by the blatant disregard for medical personnel and facilities that it has witnessed all too often. In 2012, the ICRC, with other components of the Movement, began the Health Care in Danger project. Non-exhaustive data from 23 countries revealed that from January 2012 to May 2013, there were more than 1200 incidents that affected the delivery of and access to health care: 112 medical personnel lost their lives, and approximately 250 of these incidents involved attacks on or denial of access to ambulances delivering emergency, often life-saving, aid. In most of these cases, it is local medical workers who were affected. In the places in question, medical personnel and wounded or sick people may be afraid to go to medical facilities, fearing arrest, intimidation, harassment, assault, or even death. The consequences for the entire population are severe and longlasting: destruction of infrastructure, departure of skilled personnel and disrupted health systems significantly add to indirect victims of armed conflict.

We call on governments to help improve the situation and to take decisive action to put an end to these violations of humanitarian law. The ICRC will contribute by raising the issue in multilateral fora and by engaging with all parties concerned.

In conclusion, Mr President, we should like to reiterate that responsibility for respecting humanitarian law rests primarily with States and other parties to armed conflicts. States, in particular, have committed to implementing in good faith the pertinent treaties, and to turning legal provisions into meaningful reality. The ICRC calls on them to show the requisite political will to initiate or actively support efforts to address the urgent humanitarian concerns mentioned above, and wherever possible to impress upon others to do the same.

We hope that the forthcoming World Humanitarian Summit will lead to tangible improvements in the lives of the many millions enduring the consequences of armed conflict throughout the world. Building on the emergency assistance system established more than 20 years ago in UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182, the Summit should provide impetus for close analysis of current developments in the globalization of humanitarian action and help to determine fruitful approaches for addressing the problems identified. Our common goal should remain to enhance respect for humanitarian law and effective protection for all victims of armed conflict.

Thank you, Mr President