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

22-11-1999 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 54th session, Plenary, item 20 of the agenda – Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 22 November 1999

Mr. President,

In many conflicts civilians are no longer considered as extraneous to war, nor even used as a logistic or political support " base " . They have become stakes in conflicts or even the very reason for them. Because of their religious, cultural or ethnic affiliation, they have often become a tool of warfare, a target of hostilities.

This tendency is not new. However, the trend has grown worse in contemporary conflicts, in particular those involving issues of identity. As a result, there has been an exponential increase in security risks incurred by humanitarian personnel. By virtue of their presence on the ground, at the very heart of conflicts, they have come to be viewed as dangerous witnesses to brutal methods of exclusion or elimination used by protagonists. The dozens of casualties mourned by humanitarian organizations in the last few years attest to it. The tragic irony is that the international community has come to accept losses among humanitarian workers more easily than those suffered by the military.

Another impediment to the effectiveness of humanitarian efforts is the international community's apparent lack of consistency in managing crises. Unequal attention has been paid to dire humanitarian emergencies. Whereas developments in Kosovo and East Timor, for example, have taken global dimensions, humanitarian agencies have been left alone to cope with long, drawn-out conflicts in places like Central Africa, the Sudan, Angola or Afghanistan.

The ICRC would like to recall what it has been so tireless in repeating: Political problems need political solutions. Humanitarian endeavours cannot substitute for these. Th ey can, at best, serve as palliative means of containing politically unstable situations. Although humanitarian action takes place in contexts where political, economic, social and military factors are inextricably connected, it is vital for humanitarian institutions to preserve the strictly non-political and impartial character of their mission. The provision of humanitarian assistance must not be linked to progress in political negotiations, or to other political objectives. This would ultimately lead to an unacceptable distinction between so-called " good " and " bad victims " . Humanitarian aid and political action must not only be dissociated from each other. They must also be perceived as such.

Mr. President,

This rather pessimistic, general observation must not be cause for gloom. On the contrary, it is a reminder that despite considerable difficulties, humanitarian organizations are able to offer protection and assistance to millions of people every day. It should also give us pause for thought on what can and must be done to improve the lot of civilians caught up in armed conflicts. For the ICRC, there is no doubt that human beings and respect for human dignity must be placed back at the heart of political thinking and decision-making.

This concern was at the core of debates at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which convened in Geneva at the beginning of this month. It gathered representatives of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement's components and of States party to the Geneva Conventions. All shared their views and worked to co-ordinate their efforts to tackle emergencies. The Conference stressed " the power of humanity " in challenging inequalities, in preparing for and efficiently responding to emergencies, and in searching for common solutions to the humanitarian consequences of conflicts and disasters. A detailed Plan of Action fo r the coming four years was adopted. It outlines key goals and proposed actions for their implementation. The improvement of humanitarian response was deemed a priority. It is to be achieved through the following:

  • Improved national and international preparedness.

  • Strengthened mechanisms of co-operation and co-ordination amongst States, the Movement and other humanitarian actors.

  • Improved priority-setting by focusing on the rights and needs of the most vulnerable people.

  • A better understanding of the respective roles of political, military and humanitarian actors, and protection of humanitarian personnel.

Against this backdrop, the ICRC would also like to stress its continued commitment to improved coordination between humanitarian agencies. It recognizes the need to strengthen its cooperation with bodies such as the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC). This policy is dictated by two key considerations.

The first is ICRC's desire to achieve the greatest possible complementarity between the efforts of the Movement, those of the United Nations, and other humanitarian organizations. The second relates to its firm determination to fulfil its special role as an independent and neutral intermediary in situations of armed conflict, as enshrined in the Geneva Conventions.

Apart from this expanding cooperation with UN coordination mechanisms, the ICRC has also been pursuing a bilateral dialogue with UN specialized agencies and bodies, including UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, WHO, FAO and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as with some of the major non-governmental organizations involved in emergency situations and humanitarian advocacy.

Thi s two-track approach is aimed at enhancing mutual understanding and strengthening sectorial coordination and cooperation.

Mr. President,

Effective humanitarian response to crises also depends upon the development of an open dialogue between all key players in humanitarian emergencies; both those within and beyond the humanitarian community. This is essential to the relevance of humanitarian action especially in volatile and rapidly changing conflict environments. The ICRC thus strives to expand its contacts with political and military organizations as well as financial institutions, such as the World Bank.

The ICRC is convinced that now, more than ever, humanitarian agencies and political leaders should engage in a regular, comprehensive dialogue. It recognizes the need to be proactive in matters involving humanitarian diplomacy and is therefore paying increasing attention to its interaction with governments and regional and global political bodies.

As part of this ongoing drive, last May the ICRC convened, for the third consecutive year, the Wolfsberg Humanitarian Forum. This gathering provides humanitarian leaders and senior government officials in charge of humanitarian affairs with a unique opportunity to discuss and debate humanitarian issues in an informal setting. The last round of discussions emphasized the need for a comprehensive approach to crisis management taking into account the respective mandates and roles of the various actors (p olitical, military and humanitarian).

Mr. President,

Challenges ahead lie in the international community's ability and will to reach comprehensive solutions to humanitarian problems. Such solutions can only last if they rest on political, economic and social measures which deal with the roots of conflicts. The ICRC, for its part, spares no effort in striving for an efficient humanitarian coordination and for a clearly defined framework of interaction between humanitarian and political endeavours; one that preserves the essence of humanitarian action.

Thank you, Mr. President.

Ref. LG 1999-189-ENG