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Millions of internally displaced people remain largely beyond the reach of humanitarian aid

25-06-2014 Statement

United Nations, Economic and Social Council, Humanitarian Affairs Segment, session 2014, statement by the ICRC, New York, New York, 23-25 June 2014.

The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide has grown dramatically over the last two decades. Meanwhile, humanitarian actors have found it increasingly difficult to respond effectively to those in most urgent need. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would like to share its views on the collective response towards the internally displaced and on some of the obstacles that compromise our ability to carry out humanitarian activities to respond to the needs of all victims of armed conflict.

The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide has grown dramatically over the last two decades.

With regard to IDPs, there has been progress, notably through the adoption of the Kampala Convention and greater incorporation of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement into national legislation and policy. On the operational side, progress has also been made towards a more coherent response, notably by stepping up coordination between relevant stakeholders.

Yet, despite this normative and operational progress, millions of internally displaced people remain largely beyond the reach of humanitarian aid, receiving only minimal, if any, protection and assistance. They are often left to cope on their own without adequate food and water, forced to undertake perilous journeys in search of safety, with sometimes life-threatening consequences for younger children as a result of exhaustion and illness. They are more likely to be exposed to attacks by armed actors, separation, exploitation and abuse, such as forced recruitment or rape.

The collective response of the international community has fallen short, having neither been able to reduce the number of those who find themselves in the most life-threatening circumstances, nor to adequately respond to their plight.
Governments need to be more effective at preventing and resolving armed conflicts, and lend their support to improving protection of the civilian population in general, in order to stem the rising numbers of IDPs. This requires greater compliance with international humanitarian law, which explicitly prohibits arbitrary displacement, requires that civilians and their property be respected, protects civilians from the dangers of military operations, and sets out rules governing relief and protection for those in need. Humanitarian actors can play only a subsidiary role in achieving this.

Mr Chair, the ICRC would like to remind this Assembly that, while the primary responsibility for complying with humanitarian law rests with the parties to a conflict, all States have responsibilities in this regard, as set forth in Article 1 common to the four Geneva Conventions, whereby States have undertaken not only to respect, but also to ensure respect for, the Conventions in all circumstances.

For the ICRC to be able to effectively carry out its protection and assistance activities, it must have direct contact with all victims in order to get a clear understanding of prevailing humanitarian problems and operational contexts. Furthermore, it must be able to engage in sustained and confidential dialogue with the relevant armed groups and authorities in order to share its humanitarian concerns and make recommendations on how to improve the situation of vulnerable people.

While the principle of impartiality dictates that priority be given to those in most urgent need, national and international humanitarian actors are too often unable to reach those most at risk, notably due to a lack of security or acceptance from authorities and armed groups. The basic conditions for humanitarian actors to remain relevant and be in a position to respond to humanitarian needs are therefore often not being met. Yet, we tend to emphasize our achievements and numbers of beneficiaries while downplaying our shortcomings and limitations, thus conveying a sense of normalcy when we are in fact faced with the unacceptable. To better highlight where there are gaps, we should be more explicit about our inability to reach all those in need and about the reasons for this.

We also believe that, in order to ensure a relevant humanitarian response, it is necessary to promote and improve the operational capacities of local actors, as a complement to the work of international humanitarian organizations.

As humanitarian actors, we also need to reflect carefully on whether we have done everything possible to overcome the prevailing obstacles. Among these obstacles is the fact that humanitarian action is too often politicized, because humanitarian actors are being linked to wider political or military agendas. In polarized settings, we are convinced of the need for principled humanitarian action that is strictly neutral, independent and impartial.

We also believe that, in order to ensure a relevant humanitarian response, it is necessary to promote and improve the operational capacities of local actors, as a complement to the work of international humanitarian organizations. For the ICRC, this implies first and foremost National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, who often enjoy local acceptance, have a significant network of volunteers, and possess an intimate knowledge of local conditions and dynamics. When other entities cooperate with National Societies, care should be taken not to compromise the National Societies’ neutrality and independence, which is paramount to their access to all those in need.

In conclusion, it is our hope that this ECOSOC session will help address some of the factors that lead to diminishing licence to operate being granted to principled humanitarian organizations. While the humanitarian response should match, qualitatively, the needs of internally displaced persons, it is primarily the role and the duty of all States to ensure greater respect for civilians affected by armed conflict, and to help create the conditions required to enable humanitarian actors to protect and assist those affected. For its part, the ICRC will, in keeping with its Fundamental Principles, seek tirelessly to pursue and deepen its confidential dialogue with national authorities and non-State armed groups that can determine people’s fate, with a view to improving the treatment and the protection of all affected civilians, including IDPs, who are vulnerable to the risks and abuses described or are simply left to their own devices.