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Strengthening of the coordination of humanitarian assistance

28-11-1995 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly 50th session (1995), Plenary Meeting, Agenda item 20. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Tuesday, 28 November 1995

Mr President,

On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), I welcome this opportunity to share with you some of our views and concerns regarding humanitarian operations and coordination in emergency situations.

 The nature of current conflicts  

Let me first briefly refer to the nature of armed conflicts in the world today. Most current conflicts have little in common with classic warfare in which the belligerents were easily identifiable and each side was organized into a structured chain of political and military command. In the present environment, conflict situations are far less clear-cut and hostilities are often spurred by the abundant supply and easy availability of small arms, landmines and other weapons. The disintegration of the social fabric, the sometimes complete collapse of any form of authority except that which issues from the barrel of a gun, the flouting of the most basic human values and the slide into chaos and anarchy which characterize hostilities today have rendered conflict situations in the last few years more complex and protracted. As a result, the plight of civilians is more agonizing and humanitarian workers are exposed to increasing security risks.

Often there is a lack of will, commitment, responsibility or consensus among political powers which further jeopardizes prospects for an early settlement of conflicts. Where political forces are absent or withdraw, chances are that other actors will step in, and this may lead to a " privatization of warfare "  without any clear ideological foundation.

Fortunately, there also is some hope. We are particularly encouraged by recent positive developments in Angola, Mozambique and South Africa, where efforts to create a climate of peace and stability appear to have largely succeeded. In some of the former Soviet Republics as well, we sense a growing spirit of reconciliation. There is also reason to hope that the peace accord negotiated for the former Yugoslavia will put an end to four years of horrible suffering and immense loss of life.

 The nature of humanitarian action  

Mr President,

In certain conflicts today humanitarian action appears to provide a welcome sense of purpose and an excuse for States to evade their political responsibilities. Conversely, there have been attempts to use humanitarian assistance to bolster or add credibility to political and/or military designs. It has also been suggested that political, military and humanitarian action be lumped together in one all-encompassing basket.

The ICRC, weary of seeing the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian work undermined if no clear and common understanding or agreement exists with respect to the specific nature of humanitarian operations, has repeatedly called for the preservation of a humanitarian space in situations of conflict. Indeed, for the ICRC it is crucial that humanitarian action neither replace nor be directly linked to political or military intervention. A clear distinction must be drawn between peace enforcement, political action and humanitarian work as experience in recent years, notably in the former Yugoslavia, has confirmed.

If the delivery of humanitarian aid becomes, or is perceived as being, conditional on the behaviour of warring parties, we will begin to see situations in which some victims'' deserve'' aid more than others. This would, of course, be intolerable. Let us remember that humanitarian action does not set out to judge whether the causes for which belligerents have taken up arms are well founded or justified. Its sole purpose is to ensure that victims are assisted and protected. This is why the ICRC deems it vital that political or military action, including any action undertaken under the banner of the United Nations, must be conceived in such a way as not to erode the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian operations.

 The ICRC and the strengthening of humanitarian coordination  

Mr President,

The magnitude of the humanitarian work to be accomplished remains daunting at a time when financial resources for this purpose appear to be dwindling. Against this backdrop, concerted humanitarian action is of paramount importance and the further strengthening of humanitarian coordination is an obvious necessity in order to prevent the duplication of efforts and, thus, to achieve greater effectiveness.

Two separate aspects of this coordination effort, in which the Department for Humanitarian Affairs plays an important role, merit closer consideration: the coordination and consultation mechanisms which have been set up, and the harmonization of humanitarian approaches.

Regarding the first aspect , we consider the establishment of coordination mechanisms, which has become a regular practice, a welcome and positive development. As a standing invitee of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and its working group, and as a participant in numerous operational or project-related fora for coordination, the ICRC explains its perspective, voices its opinions on humanitarian issues and shares information on its operations. At field level, it contributes actively to inter-agency coordination efforts and supports ad hoc arrangements designed to take into account rapidly changing circumstances.

The factor which limits the ICRC's involvement in these mechanisms is its independence, which it must preserve in every context, in order to perform its recognized role as a neutral humanitarian intermediary. Only by taking decisions independently and by retaining its independent financial structure can the ICRC continue to fulfil the mandate conferred on it by the international community. This is the reason why, for instance, the ICRC cannot be part of the Central Emergency Revolving Fund (CERF). 

Generally, we feel that coordination mechanisms should remain as flexible as possible. They should not be so time-consuming as to impede more essential operational duties of field staff. Nor should they slow down the decision-making process or render cooperation more difficult. We must bear in mind that the prime objective of humanitarian coordination in an emergency context is to enhance response to the most pressing needs. Let us therefore strive to ensure that coordination efforts serve the best interests of victims rather than simply lead to the bureaucratization of humanitarian action.

Regarding the second aspect , an extremely important part of coordination consists in fostering a sense of responsibility for humanitarian action, harmonizing humanitarian approaches, respecting each other's duties and tasks, acting in a coherent manner and achieving true complementarity. For the ICRC, it is crucial that the mandate and role which the international community has conferred on it be well understood and respected, not only by the parties to conflicts but also by governments and by other humanitarian agencies.

Humanitarian aid is now one of the freest markets in the world. And yet it is a ma rket that deals with life-and-death issues for millions of people. Governments therefore have a solemn duty to ensure that the current trend towards what might be called, " deregulation of humanitarian action " does not have a negative impact on the victims of conflict.

A common understanding and a concerted humanitarian approach are particularly vital for the protection of vulnerable groups, whether they are internally displaced people, refugees or detainees. There are now a growing number of agencies involved in this field, acting on the basis of different bodies of law and concepts of protection. In the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, for example, the ICRC feels that great care must be taken not to hasten the return of refugees and displaced people under adverse material or psychological conditions and at a time when uncertainty prevails regarding their resettlement in safety and in dignity.

Another source of particular concern for the ICRC are the overlapping efforts and divergent approaches which have recently affected its detention-related activities in some places. Every year the ICRC visits tens of thousands of prisoners and its experience and expertise in this area have been duly recognized by the international community. What we wish to avoid is a situation in which the activities of other agencies hamper or complicate the discharge of our specific tasks in this field, a situation which we fear could be detrimental to the detainees we are seeking to help.

To set universal standards for professionalism and practice in disaster-relief operations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement drew up, in 1993, a Code of Conduct which has so far been adopted by over 50 NGOs. The Code lays down ten principles governing disaster-response activities and describes the relationship that agencies working in such situations should seek with donor and recipient governments and the United Nations system. Its basic tenet is that humanitarian agencies have a duty towards those they seek to serve. The Code also sets out recommendations for the effective participation of governments in disaster response and reminds them that humanitarian agencies need their support in order to obtain rapid and impartial access to victims. The ICRC hopes that this Code will help bring about greater coherence and further enhance the effectiveness of humanitarian action.

A major challenge for humanitarian coordination, and one which merits special attention, is how to manage the transition from emergency relief to rehabilitation and development. In many instances, the gains made while stabilizing an emergency situation are not accompanied by the impetus necessary to nurture a recovery process. Yet the temptation remains strong among donors and humanitarian agencies to concentrate on the emergency phase without making proper provision for the rehabilitation and development phase. An acute underlying problem during the latter phase are landmines, which continue to kill and maim thousands of innocent civilians long after the cessation of hostilities. The ICRC has recently increased its efforts to press for a total ban on these dreadful weapons which cause " mass destruction in slow motion " . Indeed, landmines constitute a serious threat to a society's recovery process, when it is all-important to increase the capacity for action within communities still shattered by the effects of war.

Within the framework of this discussion on strengthening humanitarian coordination, I should finally like to touch briefly on the White Helmet Initiative. While the ICRC welcomes the intention behind this initiative, we believe, like the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, that several aspects of the implementation phase require careful consideration and further study to ensure that this new mechanism will not be in competition with and duplicate the efforts of existing humanitarian bodies, including Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. We therefore feel that the implementation of this initiative should be based on an in-depth understanding and analysis of existing institutional structures. Indeed, sound and effective coordination must be established right from the start, that is, long before the height of an emergency.

 The ICRC and international humanitarian law  

Mr President,

The grim reality of contemporary warfare is that more than 90 per cent of casualties are non-combatants who are often targeted because of their ethnic or religious affiliation. The enormous suffering caused by conflict situations is all too often a consequence of blatant disregard for international humanitarian law. We must remember that emergency response is not only, nor even primarily, aimed at providing relief. Humanitarian assistance must find its indispensable complement in respect for international humanitarian law.

Ensuring that practical steps are taken to fulfil the obligation to respect and ensure respect for humanitarian law remains an absolute priority for the ICRC and will be one of the principal goals of the forthcoming 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which is to be held in Geneva in a week's time, from 3 to 7 December. This Conference will provide a unique opportunity for the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, their International Federation, the ICRC and the 186 States party to the Geneva Conventions to meet in a non-political forum and discuss humanitarian issues which bring us face to face with our respective responsibilities.

In addition to focusing on war victims and respect for international humanitarian law, the Conference will discuss humanitarian values and response to crises. In particular, it will dea l with the principles of international humanitarian assistance and protection, and with various means of strengthening the Movement's capacity to assist and protect the most vulnerable groups. The ICRC is confident that this important Conference will give a new impetus to the Movement's humanitarian endeavours and provide the international community with the opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law. Such a commitment is more necessary and timely than ever before and should thus contribute to the strengthening of an effective humanitarian coordination.

Thank you, Mr President. 

(Ref.: UN(1995)22b)