It is difficult to refer to Africa without choosing terms that are both evocative and strong. African people and their lands are a rainbow of warmth, rhythm and joy of life. However, this explosion of life and beauty co-exists with the suffering provoked by poverty, HIV/AIDS, food insecurity, underdevelopment and armed conflict.
Throughout all the years of its commitment to the people of Africa, the ICRC has witnessed significant steps achieved in the quest for peace and st ability on the continent. The recent comprehensive peace agreement in south Sudan ending the longest conflict in Africa; the conclusion to the Angolan conflict after 27 years of civil war in 2002 and the peace accord in Sierra Leone ending 8 years of civil war in 1999 are just some examples.
However, tension prevails in many areas. Environments such as the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the armed conflict in Sudan's western provinces of Darfur, the crisis in Côte d'Ivoire, Uganda's internal conflict that affects children in particular, and Somalia's inter-militia warfare continue to take their daily toll on the life and well-being of millions of African families and individuals. It is in such places that the ICRC aims to fulfil its fundamental role as a neutral, impartial and independent organization serving victims of armed conflict.
Although every day many lives are saved by the joint response from humanitarian actors all over the continent, the situation remains fragile and calls for continued intervention.
Though Africa has stayed very much on the sidelines of the international political arena, the ICRC's dedication to the continent is not new. The first ICRC office in Africa was opened in Addis Ababa in 1935, during Italy's Abyssinia invasion campaign and this commitment has deepened and strengthened throughout the years.
The individual and institutional reward that comes in seeing lost children return home to their families after years of separation provoked by violence recreates a whole universe of new promises. In 2003, the ICRC reunited 2,618 African children with their families, a number that increased to 2,770 in 2004. Visits to prisons, distributions of food and other material assistance, ensuring access to water and the provision of medical services and medicines are all part of the ICRC's mandate. All this is vital if the ICRC is to live up to its responsibility to protect and assist people affected by armed conflict wherever they may be.
The ICRC enjoys the privilege of close cooperation and support of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies on the continent in order to meet its humanitarian goals and fulfil the needs in their respective countries.
The fact that the ICRC's operational budget for the region has increased in 2005 to around 50% of the total illustrates the importance the institution attaches to its response to the diverse humanitarian crises touching Africa. Moreover, over 60% of the ICRC's local employees are African and nearly 50% of ICRC delegates are based in Africa.
On the continent with the largest number of ongoing-armed conflicts in the world, asserting the relevance of international humanitarian law (IHL) is a major challenge. There is a big area to cover in terms of IHL legislation in African countries -- above all, in increasing the protection it affords to those who need it. Whatever justification may be given for armed conflicts, the ICRC is convinced that they can take place within the rules and obligations set forth in international conventions designed to protect human dignity. The African Union is a valuable partner in this effort, considering its increasingly prominent role in conflict resolution on the continent.
The ICRC gained official observer status at the OAU in 1992 and this has continued under the AU. Since 1993, the ICRC has maintained a permanent mission to the OAU and then the AU in Addis Ababa. Through this presence, the ICRC intends to draw attention to problems requiring humanitarian action and to promote a greater recognition of and much wider implementation of IHL throughout Africa.
Moreover, the ICRC actively endeavours to strengthen its relations with African governments, intergovernmental organisations and NGOs. After all, is it not true that " one has to know people to be able to work with them, instead of first working with them to get to know them " ?
At the headquarters of the AU in Addis Ababa, there is a monument commemorating the 25 years of the OAU. In its centre, there is a map of Africa and in one of the corners around it, the word " solidarity " written in English and Arabic. The ICRC shares this principle with Africa and its people; solidarity with those who suffer the plight of war and solidarity with those who struggle by their side to alleviate that suffering; the kind of solidarity that brings us together as part of this big human family.
Aware that compared to the magnitude of needs, humanitarian work is only a drop in the ocean, our institution wants to underline that though it cannot do everything, it continues to struggle to achieve what it can.
Today the ICRC reaffirms its commitment to Africa.