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"Protecting the Protectors"

28-01-1998 Statement

International Committee of the Red Cross delegation to the United Nations and New York University School of Law, Fifteenth annual seminar for diplomats on international humanitarian law. Address by Paul Grossrieder, Director for General Affairs, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Geneva.


The subject of my talk today – " protecting the protectors " – may seem somewhat ambiguous. There is no denying that this is a highly topical issue, but focusing on it too closely might distract us from the heart of the matter: humanitarian action itself. It would be disastrous to give the impression that the main concern of the ICRC, the UN agencies and the various non-governmental organizations working in conflict situations will henceforth be to protect their own staff. The question of how best to prevent humanitarian workers from coming to harm should not be dealt with in isolation, but only as it impinges on the ultimate aim of organizations such as ours: to relieve the mental and physical suffering of the victims of armed conflict. We, the humanitarian agencies, are but the instruments of humanitarian endeavour. Obviously, however, a reasonable measure of security is essential to that endeavour, and it is clear that security conditions have deteriorated considerably since the end of the Cold War.

Between June 1996 and January 1997, ten ICRC staff members were killed in the field – in Burundi, in Chechnya (Russian Federation) and Cambodia. A number of people working for National Red Cross Societies in Africa were also killed in the course of their duties. In Rwanda, three members of Médecins du Monde and four United Nations human rights monitors were murdered in early 1997.

Over the past nine years, the ICRC has noted the following tendencies:

l the number of incidents involving a physical threat to our staff has increased from about 20 a year to over 100 (153 in 1996);

l banditry and threats of various kinds were involved in 10% of incidents in 1990 and as many as 50% in 1996;

l cases in which the ICRC has been deliberately targeted have increased steadily, from 3% to 20%;

l the number of expatriates killed as a result of acts of war remained stable during the same period (two per year at most), with the grim exception of 1996 (nine deaths).

Those who bring aid to the victims of conflict inevitably face risks; the death of staff in the field is, alas, a tragic reality for all the humanitarian agencies. Nevertheless, as the figures quoted make clear, there has been an alarming increase in the number of such incidents. The fact that in all these cases the humanitarian organizations were deliberately targeted makes them particularly shocking.

Though deeply traumatized by the murder of our colleagues in Novye Atagi and Cibitoké, we at the ICRC firmly believe that our work must go on. Our task remains, and we could not possibly consider abandoning those who rely on us for assistance and protection. That being said, as we approach the end of a century stained with the blood of countless victims of war and genocide, we cannot help but observe that the basis for the ICRC's work – that is, its mandate from the international community, international humanitarian law and the humanitarian principles – is being eroded by a number of external factors, including changes in the nature of conflict, which we must try to analyse and understand.

Today we are torn between the necessity to pursue an indispensable humanitarian mission and conditions in the field so unsafe that they make that mission, in places like Burundi and Chechnya, quite simply unfeasible. At the same time, we must preserve the basic integrity of humanitarian action – that is, its independence, impartiality and neutrality – and resist the temptation to become humanitarian crusaders.

1. Analysis and observations  

A. In the years since the end of the Cold War, the international scene has become increasingly difficult to comprehend. Some even described the collapse of the great ideological confrontation as " the end of history " , but, on the contrary, it unleashed a host of nationalistic claims and clan rivalries. The result has been an upsurge of diffuse and disparate conflicts marked by sporadic fighting among various factions. The " world order " is made up of a conglomerate of States and tribes whose relations depend not only on economic factors but also on their ability to understand each other.

 The type of warfare with which we have to deal today takes place in a legal vacuum. In the world's hot spots the nature of conflict has changed and indirect strategies are gaining ground. The " enemy " is not necessarily a State but often networks of individuals organized to promote their interests by any means at their disposal. The general trend towards the assertion of individual or group identity degenerates into tribalism or clan struggles. And governments are increasingly beset by the corrosive infiltration into society of organized crime.

 The ICRC, whose mission was conceived in a century in which the international community basically functioned according to the rule of law, now has to operate in a world in which chaos prevails because governments are powerless to curb the spiral of violence.

 Like other humanitarian organizations, the ICRC also falls prey to the material needs of armed groups which have to fend for themselves now that outside support has dwindled. With all the relief supplies they handle and the resources at their disposal, humanitarian agencies make particularly tempting targets.

 The warring parties in a growing number of conflicts have no clear political or military objectives. They have no easily definable or comprehensible structure; they may well represent economic interests or organized crime; and they care nothing for international rules. The challenge in this complex environment is to perceive who is actually in charge, what their motives and intentions are, and what makes them target the humanitarian organizations.

B. In contexts where the objective is to get rid of a particular ethnic group or even to exterminate it completely (genocide), impartial humanitarian action is perceived as running counter to that objective or as an obstacle to its achievement. Humanitarian workers may be attacked simply because they are inconvenient witnesses of massacres or " ethnic cleansing " . In any event, their efforts to bring assistance and protection to all victims of violence are in direct contradiction to attempts to drive out or eliminate a section of the population. The result is a level of hostility and aggression which forces the humanitarian agencies to withdraw.

C. In some parts of the world humanitarian action in general - and that of the Red Cross in particular - is perceived as promoting undesirable Western values. It is therefore either rejected out of hand or accepted with the greatest reluctance.

D. Civilians, once merely collateral casualties, have in today's wars become a political and military objective. Studies show that up to 90% of the victims of modern conflicts are civilians, as compared with only 1% during the First World War. The same studies estimate that between 1985 and 1995 some two million children were killed in conflict and f our to five million people were permanently disabled. During the same period, 12 million people were left homeless, over a million children were orphaned or separated from their parents, and 10 million children were left with lasting emotional trauma. To illustrate these figures with just a few examples, in early 1994 some 1,200 artillery shells were pounding Sarajevo every day, while in the first three months of the same year, in Rwanda, about one million men, women and children were murdered and three million driven from their homes. That is out of a total population of nine million. The events that occur in conflict zones are thus having ever-wider repercussions.

 The main task of humanitarian workers is to help civilian victims; and as the civilian population itself often becomes the target of military operations, humanitarian workers are inevitably more exposed to danger than in the past.

E. Other factors that have had a major impact on the security of organizations bringing assistance and protection to conflict victims are the changing nature of humanitarian action and of the role played in such action by States. Up until the early 1980s, when Médecins sans frontières began working in countries affected by conflict, the ICRC was often the only humanitarian agency on the spot. Then other organizations followed. Since the end of the Cold War, States have gradually encroached on the humanitarian sphere by launching operations with combined military and humanitarian objectives, as was the case in northern Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. As a result, the image of humanitarian action has become blurred in the eyes of the warring parties and even the victims. This distorted perception is due partly to the amalgamation of military and humanitarian objectives in United Nations peace-keeping operations. The confusion between military, political and humanitarian agendas is creating severe difficulties for organizations whose action is exclusively humanitarian, neutral and independent.

F. No thorough study on the security of relief agencies can afford to disregard the internal factors involved. Here we shall just look at a few of the questions the humanitarian organizations have to ask about their own operations. What impression does the public have of the way such organizations in general and the ICRC in particular go about their business? Are the right decisions made as regards communication with the outside world? To what extent do media coverage and the resulting high profile of humanitarian work shape the way in which the warring parties and civilians affected by conflict perceive the humanitarian organizations? Do we have the analytical skills demanded by the complexity of present-day conflicts? Are our staff sufficiently well-trained and prepared for their task? Are we taking all feasible security precautions?

2. Towards a security policy for humanitarian workers  

A.   Humanitarian policy

 (i) A fresh look at the humanitarian approach  

   In order to respond to the grave deterioration in security conditions facing humanitarian workers in the field, perhaps what is needed is a thoroughgoing reappraisal of the traditional approach, that is, the approach prescribed by international humanitarian law and strictly adhered to by the ICRC. To put it another way, are independence, neutrality and impartiality still effective operating principles? Some researchers refer to " a familiar synergy between relief and violence " , while others claim that " the age of innocence is over " . The well-known publicis t Thomas Weiss writes: " Crises have demonstrated that civilian humanitarians are deeply enmeshed in politics. Deals made at checkpoints in Bosnia, the hiring of technicals in Somalia, and the identification of humanitarian relief as partial (...) dramatically highlight new dilemmas at every level for humanitarian theory and practice " . Weiss concludes that the traditional principles of neutrality and impartiality must be abandoned and vigorously promotes the advantages of military involvement in humanitarian operations.

 Without going into the details of the argument in favour of the classic humanitarian approach, suffice it to look at the enormous practical difficulties – in particular the severe restrictions on the movements of the humanitarian organizations – created when peace-keeping forces are given mandates to carry out relief operations.

 Let it also be said that an operation combining military force with humanitarian relief tends to make humanitarian workers appear as " enemies " of both the belligerents and the civilian victims. If you are perceived as an enemy, the danger you face automatically increases. The solution therefore, is to do everything possible not to be perceived by the warring parties as a threat. " The threat comes from your enemy " , asserted an ICRC delegate with wide experience of high-risk situations. " No enemy, no threat; or at least much less threat. " This is why the ICRC's policy is to seek ways of building independence, neutrality and impartiality into its operations. If a relief agency is perceived by the belligerents as faithfully applying those principles, security conditions will improve.

 There are two prerequisites for translating this theory into reality. One is an intensive effort to alter the way in which the warring parties and the population groups they represent perceive the humanitaria n organizations. The other is the willingness to recognize that there are limits to humanitarian action which, however sorely it is needed, can never provide an adequate response to crisis or conflict. In legal terms, that means maintaining a clear distinction between jus in bello and jus ad bellum .

 (ii) Promoting a more concerted approach on the part of the aid agencies  

   Compliance on the part of the humanitarian agencies with the same basic rules of conduct would be a first step towards improving their image among belligerents. The main aim in promoting the Code of Conduct  for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organizations in Disaster Relief is to minimize the negative effects on field security of competition between humanitarian organizations. The Code's main guidelines recommend that these organizations:

 - observe the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality;

 - respect the culture and customs of the communities and countries in which they work;

 - make use of local skills;

 - involve the beneficiaries in relief programmes;

 - work with a view to the long term;

 - operate with complete openness;

 - treat the victims with due regard for their human dignity.

 The Code and its guidelines must be promoted as widely as possible among all humanitarian organizations.

 (iii) Promoting analysis and gaining a better understanding of new conflict situations  

   Humanitarian relief agencies must enhance their ability to analyse political, social, cultural and economic factors in order to tailor their activities to new conflict situations. Such studies are indispensable given the growing complexity of conflicts and the fact that we know so little about the origins, language, economic motivations, mentality and guiding principles of those involved in them.

 (iv) Enhancing the acceptability of humanitarian operations  

   One key to the safety of relief workers is ensuring that the various local leaders understand what they are trying to do and accept them for what they are. This can be achieved only through partners on the spot, so local contacts and networks must be developed to create the trust that will make such acceptance possible. In principle, the ICRC can count on the help of members of the local National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society in this regard. For example, in Somalia a vast network has been set up with the aid of the Somali Red Crescent Society. Working more closely with the National Society increases the chances that humanitarian operations will be accepted by the beneficiaries and the local authorities.

B. Practical security measures

 (i) Working against impunity  

   When serious security incidents do occur, the relevant authorities must be asked to conduct internal and external investigations. When relief workers are the victims of criminal acts, the organizations concerned should take the matter to the comp etent authorities in order to ensure that the culprits are identified and prosecuted and humanitarian work can thus proceed.

 (ii) Exit strategies and criteria for withdrawal  

l For the ICRC, the limit beyond which it is no longer willing to continue an operation is overstepped when the

team on the spot has proof, or at least is firmly convinced, that the ICRC as such has become a target for armed attack. The possibility of a pull-out should even be considered as soon as any other humanitarian organization pursuing similar aims comes under attack.

l Establishing such criteria presupposes constant and careful analysis of the behaviour of the various parties and contacts present in the theatre of operations and the messages being sent by them.

l A partial and temporary withdrawal is possible as an intermediate step in cases where there is doubt and therefore a need to ascertain the real intentions of the parties to the conflict.

l If expatriate staff leave, a local network may nevertheless be left in place to carry out assistance programmes. In the case of the ICRC for example, work may be continued by the National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society with expatriates making occasional supervisory visits - as in Somalia and Chechnya (Russian Federation).

 (iii) "Active" and "passive" protection measures  

 To counter criminal activity and to protect buildings such as offices and staff residences, recognized local security firms should be hired. The ICRC has a special security unit, which is current ly being reinforced, to advise our delegations on how best to protect our staff. A number of delegates are receiving specialized training in such matters.

 Regarding armed protection, it should be made absolutely clear that while the ICRC employs armed guards to protect its premises against criminal activity, we have no intention - except in certain rare cases - of using armed escorts to protect our work itself. We remain convinced, as I have pointed out, that a clear distinction must be maintained between humanitarian operations and military operations - for security reasons!

 There remains the crucial question of rules of conduct for humanitarian organizations, what is referred to here as " active protection " . How should relief workers behave (words, gestures, lifestyle, etc.) to reduce existing or potential feelings of hostility towards the humanitarian agencies? Much remains to be done in this regard to avoid shock or offence to the members of the societies in which we work.

 (iv) Recruitment, training and assignment of staff  

 This is a matter that would merit thorough consideration, but let us simply stress the tremendous importance of preparing humanitarian staff for their work. Good intentions are no longer enough. The thorough preparation of professionals is increasingly vital to ensure that aid workers in the field do not fall into traps of their own making. These precautions must be taken from the time of recruitment and continue through training and the process of field assignment.


First, we must remember that, however careful we are in our analysis, however thorough we are in the precautions we take, there are inevitable dangers, a degree of risk that is inherent in our work.

Secondly, the integrity and the authenticity of exclusively humanitarian operations must be restored if they have been associated or merged with political and military activities; where this has not occurred, vigilance is needed to uphold those values. It must be borne in mind at all times that humanitarian endeavour has its limits and cannot be used as a substitute for political action.

Thirdly, we must do our best to reconcile imperatives that may seem contradictory. Certain precautions are indispensable, but they must not affect our ability to take rapid action, nor must conforming to local culture in any way obscure the specific identity and the principles of the humanitarian organizations.

In any event, humanitarian endeavour must be pursued as long as needs persist and victims rely on our help. I cannot believe that the flame of humanity will ever be extinguished.

[Ref.: LG 1998-012-ENG ]