Humanitarian action: "Today's new security environment has forced us back to basics"

 Speech by the ICRC's Director-General, Angelo Gnaedinger, to the Donor Retreat on the Consolidated Appeals Process and Coordination in Humanitarian Emergencies (Montreux, Switzerland, 26-27 February 2004)  

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends

We have come together today to imagine the future of humanitarian action. 2003 was a tragic year for us humanitarians.

It started in Afghanistan in March last year when our colleague Ricardo Munguia was murdered in cold blood. This assassination was followed by a series of attacks on Afghans working for or with international organisations. In August, Mullah Omar seemed to have issued a declaration saying that the US, the UK, the UN, and Western humanitarian organisations were the enemies of Islam. UNHCR's Bettina Goislard was killed in November 2003.
"...we are operating in a changed world. These acts are too massive, brutal and well prepared to be ignored..." 

In Iraq, it started in July when IOM and ICRC were fatally attacked on the highway between Hilla and Baghdad. Then came the terrible attack against the UN Headquarters at the Canal Hotel followed by a bomb attack on our delegation in Baghdad that killed 12 people and had the potential to take many more lives if the security measures had not been reinforced.

It cannot be denied that we are operating in a changed world. These acts are too massive, brutal and well prepared to be ignored. It was not a case where we were at the wrong place at the wrong time. These tragic events sum up to much more than isolated incidents. They force us to take a harder look at the new security environment; some call it a new security paradigm. The threat is mobile and potentially we could be hit again, anywhere from Central Asia, to the Middle East and Indonesia.

Today's new security environment has forced us back to basics. We at the ICRC believe that our security can only be fostered through the rigorous preservation of space for independent and neutral humanitarian action.

It would go beyond my intention to predict how the new security environment will shape the future of humanitarian action as such but I can and will tell you how we plan to shape the future of our action.

In operational terms we cannot go on with business as usual. We must read the writing on the wall. We do not want to challenge the assailants who attacked us so brutally. So we have temporarily limited our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time we have decided to stay the ground and to continue our activities while adapting them resolutely to the new security constraints, making them more mobile and less visible. It is indeed in Afghanistan and Iraq that we need to learn the lessons, much more than in Geneva or Montreux – and we need to learn fast.

Preliminary elements of this crucial learning curve are:

  • in all exposed operations, line management, up to the top management and governance structures needs to be kept fully abreast in order to allow the field operations to maintain the indispensable operational initiative and flexibility;

  • we need to concentrate on our key operational areas; the protection of civilians and detained persons as well as essential health and relief activities;

  • we have to be innovative in our modus operandi, empowering our national staff and local partners, but not over-exposing them;

  • we will review and adapt constantly our security management while reaffirming the key responsibility of our field staff and reconfirming the validity of the acceptance-based security concept;

  • we will take new initiatives to reach out to all actors that can obstruct our operations.

We are ready to engage with all other humanitarian actors in a transparent exchange on all these aspects of security management although we are aware that we may not all come to the same conclusions.


"The term humanitarian is presently so overused that it has itself become a source of considerable confusion. And this we cannot afford..." 

On a conceptual level we see an urgent need to clarify what we all mean by " humanitarian space " or indeed " humanitarian action " . I will not bore you with a long definition. The term humanitarian is presently so overused that it has itself become a source of considerable confusion. And this we cannot afford in the present phase of crucial decision-making.

We believe it is more practical and productive to engage in an informed debate between all stakeholders on our respective understanding of humanitarian action. This will not only allow us to identify possible areas of confusion and blurring of necessary distinctions, but equally to establish areas of synergy and complementarity.

Here is what we stand for:

First: our humanitarian action is non-militarised  

We believe that for us, consent-based humanitarianism is the most efficient way to achieve results. In terms of security this is important because if we employ military means to gain access we become a military target ourselves.

What does it mean practically: it means we avoid military escorts (yes there are exceptions), we wear no uniforms, we don't engage in intelligence gathering and we don't participate in humanitarian activities carried out by armed forces (even when they are presented as non-military actions e.g. PRTs); we also strongly advocate that military personnel carry out military activities and do not characterise " hearts and minds " campaigns or reconstruction efforts as humanitarian.

This does not mean that we shy away from the military - to the contrary - we want to and do engage with them since they are the prime actor responsible for implementing IHL. I still have not understood why so many had difficulties to identify the nature of the situation in Iraq following the invasion by the US-led coalition forces. In international law this is a clear case of international armed conflict between sovereign states – all parties to the Geneva Conventions ending in belligerent occupation according to the Hague Rules of 1907 and the 4th Geneva Convention of 1949. These bodies of law define explicitly the roles and responsibilities of the military and of impartial humanitarian organisations.

This brings me to the second point: our humanitarian action must be impartial  

I think this is the best understood of all the humanitarian principles and does not need much further explanation. Most humanitarian actors share it with us, including NGO's, UN Agencies and even States. It is based on the understanding that every human bein g is equal and that the charitable gesture must be unconditional.


"Our action must be needs-based and non-discriminatory whereby no victim is deprived of assistance and protection because of who he or she is or what he or she believes in" 

Our action must be needs-based and non-discriminatory whereby no victim is deprived of assistance and protection because of who he or she is or what he or she believes in. Proselytising organisations reserving humanitarian aid to those who convert to their religion or political cause may not be able to live up to this criterion.

The third principle makes the circle of actors who share our vision already significantly smaller: our humanitarian action needs to be independent from political decision-making processes .

Why is this important: no belligerent in his right mind would afford us his consent if he cannot trust that we are not a Trojan horse of a wider political agenda of the enemy, even if the perceived " enemy " are properly mandated UN peace-keeping troops.

It comes as no surprise to you that the integrated and coherent approach advocated by the UN is conflicting with this principle and that the ICRC cannot and will not subscribe to such a policy. We have seen in the past that it can lead to aid conditionality, for example in Afghanistan under the Taliban. How can we justify abandoning suffering populations under the pretext that they are controlled by a belligerent whom the peace-makers wish to ostracise and isolate, even if it is in the name of a future peace? Of course, we will put every effort into making sure our action does not harm the peace process. Indeed, we often contribute to peace efforts in many ways. However we expect actors involved in political processes not to harm our mission to save lives and preserve human dignity in the meantime. You have all come across a situation where you were pestering against the ICRC and its usual « apartness » but we see no other solution for us to be able to fulfil our mandate.

In practical terms independence also means that we cherish our status as a private organisation ruled by a governance structure that does not include government representatives or any other political interest group. Yes, our mandate is conferred upon us by the international community through a series of international treaties signed by governments but our internal structure is entirely private.

Last but not least: our humanitarian action is neutral  

During an armed conflict belligerents are understandably nervous about third parties because they never know whether they are friend or foe. 

What do we mean by " neutral " : we mean that we don't take sides; we don't rank protagonists of a conflict into good and bad; we are not with one side and against the other side. We do not ascribe fault to a party for having started a conflict, nor do we support any kind of justification for a war. We take the conflict as a fact. We only express views on the conduct of the hostilities; views which we address first and foremost to the relevant actors directly. As my colleagues put it: neutrality is a means to an end and not an end in itself. It is a tool to keep channels open for better and more effective action.


"...the fathers of the Geneva Conventions expressly wanted the ICRC to be outside the 'you are with us or against us' doctrine..." 

We therefore keep the dialogue open with all parties; there are no armed actors who yield power over populations in need whom we would refuse to speak to. We don’t judge of their worthiness as an interlocutor. If they have the power to obstruct our activities we have to talk to them. Of course we will be careful not to confer undue legitimacy on a specific group.

It is a typical feature of warfare that parties tend to deny their enemy the status of human beings, to describe the other side as sub-human, not worthy of anything but fire and hell. As a humanitarian organisation we cannot adopt such an attitude. A neutral organisation must also uphold the notion that all protagonists of a conflict are human beings and deserve to be treated as such. Recognizing this need, the fathers of the Geneva Conventions and of the Statutes of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement insisted there be a specifically neutral organisation who could act as an intermediary, able to move from one side to the other. They expressly wanted the ICRC to be outside the " you are with us or against us " doctrine.

These four principles are our way of doing things and are central to our vision of humanitarianism in the XXIst century. We will defend that vision tenaciously because we believe not only will it be an effective bulwark against injustice and inhumanity but also because it allows us to reach and protect those who too often bear the brunt of armed conflict. We understand that every actor in the humanitarian community cannot and will not apply those same principles; we have no means, nor the intention, to impose it. It would be foolish to demand that UN humanitarian agencies for example be independent from political decision-making process. However we do insist that our approach be respected, including by the many humanitarian actors gathered here today.