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Challenges for humanitarian action in situations of armed conflict and internal violence

16-11-2005 Statement

Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Seoul, Republic of Korea, 16-18 November 2005, by Pierre Krähenbühl, ICRC Director of Operations.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

It is an honour to address the Council of delegates and to do so here in Seoul, at the invitation of the Red Cross Society of the Republic of Korea.

Analysing the factors that contribute to or fuel wars and situations of armed violence is a delicate undertaking. One is constantly reducing to a few general considerations what are infinitely complex situations, where individual and collective motives co-exist, where the apparently rational behaviour collides with the apparently irrational, where the worst and the better parts of human nature manifest themselves. One is also confronted, increasingly so in today's world, with a need to distinguish and understand the links between local, regional and global factors influencing these environments. 

I wish to present a brief review of conflict trends and of the key humanitarian challenges, we confront today.

 Evolution of conflict environments  


A scrutiny of the evolution of conflicts in the last few years suggests a shift in the nature of armed conflicts in general and of internal conflicts in particular. Internal conflicts and situations of internal violence make up the majority of cases today.

What characterizes them? Such conflicts today are different from the wars of national liberation of the second half of the twentieth century. Today's conflicts are characterised by a crisis of legitimacy of the state. They see a greater diversit y of warring parties with a greater diversity of objectives or grievances which include opposition to government, struggle for land rights, access to natural resources, resistance against ethnic or indigenous oppression, etc. Multiple rebel or opposition groups may face the same central authority, but with a great diversity in objectives and methods.

This is reinforced by the prolongation of conflict, which may lead to a proliferation of groups, further break-up of chains of command, along ethnic or other lines. Over time, what began as a politically motivated action turns into plundering and anarchy. In this multi-stakeholder environment , actors with influence go far beyond the traditional government political-guerrilla divide. What is described as civil society holds many of the keys to understanding, influencing the outcome of and managing the consequences of armed conflict.

The Cold-War and immediate post Cold-War period looked at armed conflict or war as resulting from classic power-related rivalries between states, as anti-colonial or anti-imperial liberation or self-determination struggles, as well as classic political-ideological guerrilla campaigns. They were essentially local affairs, at times with limited regional implications and in which more global considerations were related to super-power involvement. Most of the times, these conflicts could be precisely mapped out, with clear-cut frontlines, identifiable state and non-state actors, as well as godfathers.

Today, things are decidedly different and will become ever more so in the future. It is an established fact that local, regional and global factors affecting situations of armed conflict have become more intertwined. It is important to look for those connections, to understand how they impact on a specific situation.

The question h as often been raised as to whether local or global factors have the greater impact. The challenge today however is probably not so much to answer that particular question, but rather to recognize the sheer diversity of situations of armed conflict and violence that we will have to deal with. One increasingly significant hypothesis is that the notion of what is local may have less to do with an actual location or border and more to do with affiliations, forms of identification and diverse linkages.

In 2005 the environment of conflicts was further marked by an ongoing confrontation of global dimensions – the so-called " war on terror " between certain States and a highly decentralised and loosely connected range of non-State actors - which manifested itself in a number of deliberate acts of terror in various parts of the world. It also led to a combination of military/counter-terrorist operations and the introduction of anti-terrorist legislation in some countries. At the other end of the spectrum, highly localized forms of intercommunity feuds, often of a trans-national nature, inflicted high levels of human suffering in some regions.

Economic factors continue to weigh heavily on conflict dynamics, with a range of State and private actors competing for access to markets and critical natural resources such as oil, while a variety of other actors indulge in various forms of economic predation. The reality in many countries in the throes of or emerging from conflict is the weakness – in some cases the generalized collapse – of public services such as health, water supply and social welfare, delaying recovery and making the transition from emergency to development strategies harder to achieve.

Globally, the evolution of armed violence has been affected by the widespread proliferation of weapons and by mass migration from rural to urban settings, resulting in sprawling urban centres in many countries. This has contributed to an increase in new forms of urban violence, often blurring the distinction between political violence and criminality.

More encouragingly, a number of conflict situations have seen a marked improvement in terms of stabilization, containment or transition, often the result of international or regional mediation and peacekeeping efforts. However, while effectively ending or freezing the period of active hostilities and addressing some of the populations'most pressing security needs, such large-scale operations have stretched the resources of the international community.

Furthermore, they often take place in contexts of great socio-economic instability and fragile states. As experience shows they are often lengthy processes of demobilisation, reintegration and reconciliation, insufficiently resourced and lacking the necessary political will. This has resulted in delayed improvement, persistent insecurity, rising criminality and increased hardship for the populations concerned.

Experience shows that while today's conflicts generally result in lower direct casualty rates than in previous decades, the number of indirect victims is very high. Moreover, current conflicts and situations of violence tend to last longer, while protracted transition periods often produce little concerted action to address the underlying causes of the conflict, making a renewal of hostilities possible in several contexts.

 Challenges for humanitarian action  

Many of the features of current armed conflicts I have just described above have existed for some time, while others are more recent. Some are specific to an individual context while others may be irrelevant to a given situation. As mentioned earlier, it is the interconnection between many of these factors, both local and global, that has complicated the analysi s of specific situations and the formulation of appropriate responses.

The overriding challenge ahead, as seen from an ICRC perspective, and we believe highly relevant to national societies, is to address the multiple needs of populations affected by these extremely diverse situations of conflict and violence, and to respond rapidly and effectively to new emergencies.

I would like in this context to review briefly the key challenges that the ICRC identifies in the conduct of its humanitarian action and its cooperation with National Societies and the International Federation.


 1) A professional humanitarian response to needs in times of armed conflict and violence  

It remains crucial for the ICRC to respond to needs that arise in the full spectrum of conflict situations in the world. This implies an ability to act rapidly and effectively in instances of acute crisis (e.g. in Sudan, or in conflict affected or militarily sensitive areas after the earthquake in South Asia). In this respect, the ICRC is determined to make optimum use of its specific expertise and added-value, based on a structured and constantly updated early-warning, rapid-response and rapid-learning capacity. Equally central is the capacity to sustain longer-term commitments in chronic crises, early transitional phases or situations of violence that attract little or no attention. The expertise and know-how of national societies are an important part of that capacity, something very evident currently in Pakistan.

A professional humanitarian response means several things. First and foremost, it implies concern for people, concern for their individu al dignity and sensitivity when addressing their most urgent needs. Acting in proximity to the victims of armed conflicts -- men, women and children who have borne the brunt of arbitrary violence and who have endured great suffering - implies concern for quality and meaningful humanitarian action to assist and protect them. 

Second, the ability to fulfil its humanitarian tasks implies having qualified staff - national and international, generalists and specialists – who are familiar with and who understand the different contexts in which they work. Humanitarian workers require special qualities such as sensitivity and openness to cultural differences, curiosity, respect, the ability to listen and a desire to find solutions to even the most intractable problems in highly complex environments.

 2) A universal humanitarian response to needs in times of armed conflict and violence  

A second key challenge is that of a universal response capacity, being able to assist and protect people in need, wherever they may be. This requires effective networking for an effective field presence and underlines the importance of the network of National Societies, of their Federation and of the network of ICRC delegations worldwide.

We live in a rapidly evolving world, where public opinion focuses on a few conflicts at a time while ignoring others. In some places, we are under intense pressure and scrutiny to achieve results in a matter of hours or days, while in others we struggle to attract even the most minimal public attention.

A trademark of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – and one that the ICRC believes in very strongly – is precisely the universal nature of our approach. This is a responsibility we take very seriously and it implies that we do not choose between populations in need, between those that hap pen to be under the national or international spotlight or not.

 3) Focusing on operational and security management  

The ICRC's operational philosophy – acting in the closest possible proximity to those in need – requires a commitment to develop and maintain a broad network of staff in the different contexts in which it works and a highly decentralized security-management concept. It also demands a shared recognition of the risks involved in the current diversified and often-unpredictable environments.

Central to our ability to operate remains everything related to acceptance, proximity and security. In general terms, we want to continue to operate in highly complex and sensitive environments, such as in Iraq, Sudan/Darfur, Somalia, DRC, Ivory Coast, Northern Caucasus, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Haiti, among others.

Carrying out humanitarian activities in zones of armed conflict or internal violence has always been a dangerous undertaking. The security of our staff and of beneficiaries has always been a crucial priority and responsibility. In today's world, marked by different forms of polarization, humanitarian actors face risks of both rejection and instrumentalization. Both the ICRC and several National Societies have lost staff members to deliberate attacks in recent years. Other agencies – UN or non-governmental - have suffered similar losses.

Unique to the ICRC's approach is the constant search for dialogue with all actors influencing a given situation of conflict. This was never easy and is not becoming more so.

What used to involve primarily contacts and dialogue with official armed and security forces on the one hand and fairly structured rebel or opposition movements on the other hand, today requires approaching a diversity of non-State actors fro m political to criminal, some with initially clear chains of command, but which later splinter into multiple sub-groups or clans with shifting agendas. It also means dealing with a broad spectrum of parties, ranging from powerful conventional armies to radical armed groups or urban gangs. Learning to adapt to and work with this diversity is crucial.

 4) Safeguarding the essence of neutral and independent humanitarian action  

The humanitarian environment and community have experienced significant changes in recent years. The process of integrating various crisis-management tools – combining political, military, social and humanitarian objectives and activities – has continued and is an inherent feature of many contexts today.

In this regard, it is no coincidence that one of the major themes of this Council of delegates is that of preserving neutral and independent humanitarian action.

The ICRC has been tasked by the international community to act in all situations of armed conflict and violence across the globe. In these contexts, it benefits significantly from the knowledge, support and capacities of National Societies. Such situations are by definition sensitive and to fulfil its role, the ICRC needs to build acceptance by and seek dialogue with all actors influencing or directly involved in a given conflict, however complex it may appear to be. To do so, it must be – and be seen to be – neutral and independent.

This sometimes sounds like a slogan. It may sound defensive and neutrality is at times seen as amounting to indifference or a cosy way of not becoming involved. That could not be further from the truth. Our staff and colleagues from National Societies are confronted daily with individual or collective tragedies, suffering and pain that goes beyond what most people can imagine. They feel revulsion and outrage at what they see, but more than anything else they are spurred on by an even greater determination to alleviate that suffering, to prevent it from happening again or at least to mitigate its worst effects.

To do so effectively, we strongly believe it important to steer clear of political controversies and keep our action distinct from – or not aligned on – the political or military agendas of any actor. This includes the ways in which we manage interaction in the framework of so-called civil-military relations. Neutrality must be understood here as a pragmatic tool to reach people in need, a tool for access and action.

What leads us to believe that the same approach can hold out in today's polarized world? Based on decades of experience in numerous zones of armed conflict, we are convinced that not taking sides provides the best chances to protect and assist people affected by conflict in the long run. We also know that a heavy burden of proof rests on our shoulders to demonstrate the added value of our neutral and independent approach.

This approach does not mean that we believe that there is only one definition of humanitarian action. We do, however, want our own approach and action to be clearly understood as separate and accepted for its distinct added-value in all situations of armed conflict, whether acute, chronic or in transition.


 5) UN reform and humanitarian coordination  

I would like at this point to reflect briefly on the process of UN reform and its impact on humanitarian coordination generally. I will come to Movement coordination in a moment.

First, the ICRC will pursue its efforts to coordinate with UN humanitarian agencies in a proactive manner based on their actual capacity to deliver humanitarian services. Our teams in the field and units at headquarters spend significant amounts of time in consultation and coordination with other organizations operating in the same contexts and sharing similar objectives. For example, they participate whenever possible in UN general, specific or thematic coordination meetings to increase the effectiveness and ensure the complementarity of responses to humanitarian needs.

Secondly, important debates on the future of the UN humanitarian sector are taking place. The ICRC is resolutely positive about this reform and opted for active engagement in the consultative process. It has provided a substantial input into the Humanitarian Response Review and actively participated in the meetings of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. The ICRC sees a number of potential benefits in these efforts. An improved and strengthened response capacity within the UN and clearer lead responsibilities will be to our benefit.

This being said, the ICRC took an active part in the discussions on the UN reform based on a clear concept of three separate poles – or networks – coexisting in the humanitarian community: a UN pole, an NGO pole and a Red Cross and Red Crescent pole.

This explains why, in the ICRC's view, the Movement’s involvement in the UN reform can go only so far. The limitations are set by the fact that the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement is not part of the UN, that its components have their specific roles or mandate, and that the fundamental principles of neutrality and independence prevents it from being coordinated by others to whom it would be accountable. In that sense, there must be coordination, transparency and interoperability between the poles and the UN reform offers prospects for improvement in that regard.

There must equally, however, be separate roles for the different poles and the ICRC believes in the strength of the pri nciples of the Movement and the added-value of the individual and collective operational capacities of the components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent pole, developed on its own terms and not integrated with or accountable to others. Based on this strong conviction, the ICRC decided against accepting a cluster lead role, as envisaged in the framework of the UN reform.

 6) Strengthening the Red Cross – Red Crescent pole  

Against the background of this rapidly evolving environment, with big challenges ahead of us, both as a result of armed conflicts and of natural disasters, there is no room for complacency for the ICRC or for other components of the Movement. We need to rise to the new challenges, adapt to changing circumstances and demonstrate the added value of our approaches.

Recent major crises (Iraq, Darfur, Tsunami, Pakistan) have shown an important level of trust placed in the ICRC, the Federation and National Societies. There is a confidence that we can deliver concrete support to people affected. Our responsibility is all the greater. There has been much discussion on how to coordinate with the UN system, but if we are honest, we know that there is much still to be done to improve coordination within the Movement.

This will be a matter much discussed here in Seoul in coming days. The ICRC remains a firm believer in the Seville Agreement and committed to the supplementary measures proposed to enhance its implementation. It offers concrete ways to refine our own coordination system, based on the respective roles of the different components, as well as lessons learned and best practices in the field. At the end of the day though, the truth of the matter is that only with dedicated and transparent implementation by our field teams will we enhance effectiveness.

We live in a world of increasing compe tition and professionalism in the humanitarian sector, with a range of agencies developing expertise in fields we had become to believe as our own. Today, we must invest in new skills and better coordination of means and mobilization of expertise.

To illustrate this point, let me refer to one area where prospects for successful coordination within the Movement are high: the re-establishing of family links. Families become separated as a consequence of armed conflicts and other situations of violence, disasters, and migration. The international Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement can alleviate the anguish of those without news of their relatives if all of its components are ready and able to respond. The role of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Family News Network, underpinned by the Geneva Conventions, the Statutes of the international Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and various Resolutions of the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is unique. It can offer an impartial, non-partisan, independent and globally coherent response to those trying to find out about their lost relatives.

Building on the Agenda for Humanitarian Action of the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2003, a global initiative was launched to strengthen the Red Cross / Red Crescent Family News Network over the coming decade. The Family News Network is activated each time a family member seeks to contact his or her loved ones and calls on components of the international Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to provide assistance. It is also activated in times of crisis when whole communities find themselves cut off, either because they are on the move or because their usual means of communication no longer function. The ability of the international Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to respond to these needs depends on the preparedness, resources an d capacities of each National Society in the Family News Network. This ambitious project will include a 10-year'Restoring Family Links'(RFL) Strategy for the Movement; a major commitment, beyond doubt.

The case of reestablishment of family links is but one example. There are many other issues in which concerted efforts within the Movement can make a real difference.

This Council of delegates is an opportunity for critical yet constructive reviews of where the National Societies, the International Federation and the ICRC stand in relation to this demanding environment. Where do we stand and where do we want to go? The ICRC is convinced that the Movement offers strong potential and is a forceful network. The more honest a look we take at our strengths and weaknesses, at our successes and failures, the stronger the impression will be that we have made a step in the direction of confirming our commitment to effective humanitarian action for people in need.

Thank you.