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Applying humanitarian principles in the aftermath of armed conflict

13-07-2005 Statement

Statement to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations 2005 Substantive Session, Humanitarian Affairs Segment Panel session on post-conflict transition, New York, by Jacques Forster, vice-president of the ICRC.

It is a great pleasure to be here today to exchange views on the scope for independent, impartial and neutral humanitarian action in contexts of transition. I shall tackle the topic

  • first by clarifying what I mean by post-conflict transition and humanitarian action in such contexts;

  • secondly by recalling why, in contexts of transition, relief strategies may still be necessary to deal with certain problems that persist well beyond the immediate post-conflict crisis; and

  • finally by reaffirming the advantages in periods of transition of neutral and independent humanitarian action as practised by the ICRC.

For the purposes of my talk, I define a transition period as a period of indeterminate duration which follows an armed conflict or a situation of internal strife, in which armed violence has ended or at least entered a period of remission. In such a period, fighting may not have completely halted, despite a ceasefire or peace agreement, but a process of stabilization will have been set in motion. A deployment of peace-keeping forces may be under way. Communications will be gradually restored.

Humanitarian action may be necessary even in periods of transition. Such action involves much more than merely providing relief; in particular, it involves protecting people suffering the effects of armed conflict – a duty that continues after the conflict itself has ended. Its ultimate goal is to make sure that the people’s dignity is respected. Achieving this goal requires respect for each person's physical and mental well-being, protection against abuses of power and against discrimination, and recognition that people can and should play an active part in finding lasting solutions to their own problems.

In transition periods as in conflicts, international humanitarian law should remain a keystone of humanitarian action. Indeed, when active hostilities come to an end, States remain bound by numerous obligations under the law of war such as the duty to care for the sick and wounded and ensuring that people still detained are treated in conformity with international humanitarian law. In addition, with the end of hostilities States also become subject to further obligations, such as the duty to clarify the fate of persons of whose disappearance they have been notified by the adverse party and, in international armed conflicts, to release and repatriate prisoners of war. Therefore, political and military authorities engaged in a stabilization process should have a clear understanding of exactly what their obligations are and make it their objective to fulfil them.

"Help may not be forthcoming from local authorities unwilling or unable to provide it" 

My next point is that the need for relief often continues after the end of active hostilities. During the immediate post-conflict period, emergency relief is required, for example when there are food shortages, or when groups of people could not be reached by humanitarian organizations during the fighting for security reasons, or because the parties to the conflict failed to support, or even obstructed, humanitarian work. Such people are often in dire straits and in need of immediate relief. Help may not be forthcoming from local authorities unwilling or unable to provide it. For humanitarian organizations to disregard the plight of these people would of course be unacceptable. Not only would they violate the principles of humanity and impartiality, but they would also suffer a total loss of credibility.

Relief action by humanitarian organizations may well have to extend beyond the immediate post-conflict period in order to avoid a gap between the phasing out of humanitarian action and the phasing in of development aid, which may have to be delayed for security reasons or because financial resources have not yet been committed or cannot be disbursed. The conditionality linked to the provision of development resources may also delay the availability of financial support. Moreover, when development funding eventually does become available, it may not necessarily result in a quick improvement in living conditions for people – the neediest in particular – who expect tangible benefits to result from the peace process. Finally, the plight of displaced people, refugees, returnees and others can also be made worse when a natural disaster – a drought, an earthquake or a flood – aggravates the effects of the armed conflict.


"... organizations should not be pressed to bring their activities to an end when there are no alternative ways of enabling people to live in dignity" 

Pressure on humanitarian organizations to end their activities may thus have an adverse effect on the victims of a conflict and its aftermath. From the ICRC's point of view, humanitarian organizations should not seek to engage in development activities not compatible with their time horizon and requiring specific skills and experience they may not possess. Such activities may also carry political implications that cannot be reconciled with the organizations’ mandates. Nevertheless, organizations should not be pressed to bring their activities to an end when there are no alternative ways of enabling people to live in dignity. In other words, these organizations sometimes have a duty to carry on their activities in periods of transition not because their principles and working methods are best suited to solving the problems at hand, but because no international development agencies are readily able to replace them, and local or national bodies do not yet have the means to do so on their own.

In such situations the ICRC would certainly be eager to shift its human and material resources to higher-intensity conflict situations elsewhere, but it is not prepared to let down patients in need of care, amputees it has fitted with prostheses, or displaced people still requiring assistance. In situations of transition, it endeavours to identify ways of achieving and sustaining economic security for the people concerned and of boosting the capacity of national and local partners, ways that involve support for systems and processes rather than mere distributions of aid. In short, it endeavours to implement assistance strategies constituting a sound basis for future development.

There are also post-conflict circumstances in which neutral and independent humanitarian action remains the most appropriate means of helping people. This leads me to my final point.

What are the advantages of independent, impartial and neutral humanitarian action in transitional situations? In answering this question I shall limit myself to three remarks.

First, a neutral go-between is still needed in a society fraught with tension, in which many people are suffering physical pain and psychological distress. It may be difficult for former enemies to co-exist peacefully at a time when the fate of missing people remains in doubt, when not all prisoners have returned home, and when refugees and internally displaced people are coming back to shattered houses. Humanitarian workers who did not take sides during a conflict, and were steadfas t in their determination to remain on the ground to help and protect those affected, may benefit from a wealth of trust from antagonistic communities. They may also have a network of contacts built up during the conflict that can benefit projects involving former enemies and contributing to reconciliation.

"People at risk, such as former detainees, returnees or members of minority groups, often do not benefit from the minimum protection they should be afforded ..." 

Secondly, an independent and neutral humanitarian organization such as the ICRC is best placed to alleviate the plight of many of those living in a hostile environment who are exposed to acts of vengeance – whether aimed at them or at the community to which they belong – perpetrated by their former enemy. People at risk, such as former detainees, returnees or members of minority groups, often do not benefit from the minimum protection they should be afforded by the forces of law and order, because the institutions needed for this have not been fully established. Some prisoners are at the mercy of an authority they have opposed or that still sees them as a threat. Again, the presence of non-partisan humanitarian workers bringing aid and making representations to the authorities when required serves to ease tension. Furthermore, ascertaining the fate of missing persons and other similar activities may contribute to reconciliation.

Thirdly, even where tensions have diminished, humanitarian organizations must remain faithful to their principles as they perform their tasks during the gap period mentioned earlier. Neutrality and independence must be upheld in all circumstances. To gain trust and maintain credibility, an organization must be consistent in its attitudes and behaviour.

Lastly, survivors of armed conflicts need security. They are afr aid that they will fall prey to yet more violence. They fear looting and rape. They are endangered by landmines. But they also need help to gradually overcome their physical and psychological pain, and in some cases also to surmount humiliation and loss of self-esteem. Hope – a fragile hope – is within their reach, so losing it causes tremendous pain. Let us acknowledge the needs and expectations of people affected by conflict from their perspective, and let us make sure we respond without delay. If we do so at the grassroots level we may find out that the answers to some of the issues we are currently debating come from the field, from the very people who are suffering the effects of conflict.

Thank you.