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Strengthening of the coordination of humanitarian and disaster relief assistance of the United Nations, including special economic assistance

16-11-1998 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 53rd session, Plenary, item 20 of the agenda, Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) New York, 16 November 1998

Mr Chairman,

Humanitarian coordination remains of paramount importance if we are to harmonize our efforts, avoid duplication and carefully orchestrate different types of activity over time, in a frequently volatile environment.

Two aspects of this coordination effort merit closer consideration: coordination and consultation mechanisms and the harmonization of humanitarian approaches .

 Coordination and consultation mechanisms  

We greatly welcome the establishment of permanent as well as field-based ad hoc coordination mechanisms, which has become a regular practice in the past five years.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), under its current dynamic leadership, plays a pivotal role in promoting coordination within the United Nations system and beyond. 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 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) voices its opinions on humanitarian issues and shares information on its operations. At field level, it contributes actively to United Nations-led inter-agency coordination efforts and supports ad hoc arrangements designed to take into account rapidly changing circumstances.

The ICRC's participation in these mechanisms is motivated by its desire to achi eve the greatest possible complementarity between its own efforts and those of the United Nations (UN) and of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). On the other hand, it is also determined to fulfil its specific role, enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, as an independent and neutral intermediary in situations of armed conflict.

Also, the ICRC maintains a bilateral dialogue with several UN agencies and bodies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), as well as with some of the major NGOs involved in emergency situations or humanitarian advocacy. The objective of this bilateral approach is to enhance mutual understanding and, in particular, to strengthen sectorial coordination and cooperation.

Within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the adoption late last year of the Seville Agreement, which defines the respective roles of the Movement's components in different types of situations, marked an important development in terms of coordination. The Seville Agreement confers upon the ICRC the role of lead agency within the Movement in situations of armed conflict or internal strife, and their direct results, and entrusts the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies the lead role in natural and technological disasters and other peace-time emergency situations requiring resources exceeding those of the operating National Society. In some of the situations where the ICRC acts as the lead agency, the activities carried out by local and/or foreign National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies under its overall direction and coordination are an invaluable complement to its own efforts.

With regard to NGOs, the ICRC has made known its willingness to assume field coordination responsibilities in certain contexts, on a pragmatic and voluntary basis and without prejudice to its specific mandate, particularly when it is de facto the main humanitarian organization on the spot.

 Harmonization of humanitarian approaches  

Mr Chairman,

Humanitarian action deals with life-or-death issues for millions of people, and yet it remains one of the least regulated domains of activity in the world. It requires proper planning and professional management, as well as constant evaluation and impact assessment. Organizations involved in emergency response need to recognize their interdependence. Inappropriate behaviour or lack of professionalism on the part of some can adversely affect the efforts undertaken by others. It can also lead to a dangerous lowering of standards and performance in humanitarian action. Recognition of this recently prompted the ICRC to adopt quality control measures for its own activities and to introduce a new way of defining its operational objectives which should allow for a more accurate evaluation of its operational achievements.

Shared understanding and a concerted humanitarian approach are particularly vital for the protection of vulnerable groups, whether they are internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, or prisoners, as well as for the security of humanitarian workers. There now appears to be growing awareness that this last issue is a collective problem which requires a coordinated approach. Thus, following the tragic killing of four UNMOT staff in Tajikistan on 20 July, the ICRC took the lead and coordinated an information strategy with other humanitarian agencies, as well as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General. The ICRC's strategy also aimed at defining the minimum security conditions needed to ca rry out humanitarian tasks, and the conditions which would require humanitarian agencies to disengage. Coordination in this field thus means forming a common front which provides increased leverage when warring factions or uncontrolled elements endanger the safety of humanitarian workers.

The need to define common standards and principles is also applicable to specific types of humanitarian activity. Difficulties have arisen, for example, in the unaccompanied minors programme in the African Great Lakes region, where humanitarian organizations have different definitions of which children qualify and which do not. Often there is also a need to define, on an ad hoc basis, common policies when the lives of victims are at stake. Taking the example of refugees or IDPs, concern may arise when certain organizations or political bodies decide that repatriation or return is safe while others consider the risk too high to be taken.

A further major challenge for humanitarian coordination 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. This is the " building bridges " aspect of coordination, which emerged as one of the major issues in humanitarian aid at the Second Wolfsberg Humanitarian Forum, organized by the ICRC last June. Those involved in humanitarian emergencies are required to integrate the " rehabilitation dimension " early on in their activities and link up with development players. Particularly in countries resembling a patchwork of conflict and relative peace, coordination with those involved in reconstruction requires innovative solutions on a local basis.

Mr Chairman,

Allow me to now briefly comment on certain recent developments.

In Afghanistan, where the ICRC continues to carry out one of its largest operations in cooperation with the Afghan Red Crescent Society, a major project has been launched by the UN in the form of a " strategic framework " . Following numerous consultations, an " assistance strategy " has been formulated. The ICRC has been involved in the process, along with UN agencies and programmes, the World Bank, donor States, as well as Afghan and international NGOs working in the country. The particulars of the overall concept, however, remain to be clarified. It is not clear, for example, to what extent this " assistance strategy " is linked to the project's overall political framework. Though the ICRC is supportive of the principled common programming approach, it remains wary of attempts to make humanitarian aid conditional on political objectives.

Another welcome development has been the increased attention being paid to human rights. One area of ICRC work in which human rights play a growing part is in its dissemination efforts. The ICRC has recognized that, in order to ensure adequate protection and assistance to victims of some situations of exacerbated armed violence, attention must focus on all the players, which is why both international humanitarian law and human rights law are included in ICRC dissemination activities to police, security and armed forces. In this area, the linkage with human rights organizations, in particular the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is recognized by the ICRC as a major emerging coordination issue.

The Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines and the Rome Conference earlier this year which led to the establishment of the International Criminal Court, as well as the Security Council's now standing practice to provide for humanitarian exemptions when imposing sanctions, are encouraging examples of the positive impact that can be brought about b y concerted humanitarian advocacy or an increased awareness of humanitarian issues.

To conclude, Mr Chairman, the ICRC would like to reaffirm its commitment to fostering a true " culture of coordination " , an essential expression of international solidarity.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

 Ref. LG 1998-090-ENG