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59th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

06-10-2008 Statement

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, statement by Jakob Kellenberger, President of the ICRC, Geneva, 6 October 2008

Mr Chairman,

Mr High Commissioner,


Ladies and Gentlemen

I would like to thank you, Mr High Commissioner, for this opportunity to address the 59th Session of the UNHCR Executive Committee.

As humanitarians, all of us have one common aim - that is to help vulnerable people in need of protection and assistance. Perhaps the two key challenges in fulfilling this aim in today's armed conflicts and situations of violence are the following: firstly, to clearly understand the diversity and complexity of the environments in which we work, and secondly, to respond effectively to the multitude of needs faced by affected populations. It is within this context that I would like to focus particularly on internal displacement, and make some comments on coordination between humanitarian actors.

The UNHCR and the ICRC have a long history of cooperation.  Both UNHCR and the ICRC are engaged in promoting and developing legal frameworks, and in highlighting and enhancing respect for the bodies of international law relevant to our activities, including international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law.

International humanitarian law – IHL – expressly prohibits all parties to an armed conflict from arbitrarily displacing civilian populations. In addition, the basic rules of IHL intended to spare civilians from the effects of hostilities play an important role in preventing displacement. Of particular relevance are the prohibitions on attacking civilians or civilian property, and on indiscriminate attacks. In short, the legal and normative frameworks needed to protect people at ri sk exist. The problem, more often, is that these laws are not respected.

It bears repeating that the primary responsibility to provide protection and solutions falls unequivocally upon the State, the concerned authorities and other parties to a conflict who control a given territory.

Efforts should therefore aim to encourage those responsible for providing such protection, in particular arms bearers, to fulfil their responsibilities. Action to ensure compliance with the law must be prioritized, as a matter of urgency. At the same time, IDPs have increasingly become a focus of international humanitarian concern. Indeed, their plight is at the heart of the current reform of the UN humanitarian system.

The ICRC has welcomed the various UN initiatives toward humanitarian reform – including the cluster approach. Although we consider it incompatible with our understanding of genuine independence to be formally part of this approach, we have demonstrated that this is not in fact an obstacle to cooperation.

I think we all agree that a sincere collaborative approach is essential if we are to avoid gaps and duplications in addressing needs. Our common goal must be to achieve more effective and more reliable humanitarian response where it counts most: in the field, for the people affected by disaster or armed conflict. To this end, enhanced coordination and dialogue are essential.

However, while some progress has been made, there is undoubtedly still a long way to go. I believe that effective and meaningful coordination must be based more on genuine respect of certain basic principles than on ever-more refined mechanisms and procedures of coordination.

These principles are really very simple. Firstly, it is crucial that as humanitarian actors we match our declarations with real substance on the ground. We must be realistic and unambiguous abo ut available capacities in situations of emergency. In situations of emergency, it is important to coordinate not mere ambitions and dreams, but rather real capacities on the ground.

Related to this point, it is crucial to both our credibility and our accountability (and I speak of " us " in the broadest sense here) to be realistic about beneficiary numbers – to every extent possible, those we can verify ourselves. There is sometimes a worrying tendency for exaggerated estimates of beneficiary numbers to be bandied about – often for political or financial reasons.

We must also be clear and transparent about where we have humanitarian access and where we do not. Likewise, where we implement activities ourselves and to what extent we work through implementing partners. In the case where we effectively delegate activities to partners, to what extent do we monitor these activities? Given the extent of reliance on implementing partners in the field, do existing coordination structures adequately reflect their role?

A common understanding of important concepts handled by humanitarian actors such as " protection " or " humanitarian space " clearly matters for improved cooperation and coordination. Words matter. As do the facts.

Another important factor to maintaining credibility is, in my view, to address needs where they are found and to adapt the humanitarian response accordingly. To this end, we should avoid artificial distinctions between the various phases of conflict or disaster and their aftermath. For example, there is rarely a clear line at which emergency relief ends and the development phase begins. The transition between the two is often fluid, and requires a flexible humanitarian response. In other words, the response should not be determined or constrained by sometimes unrealistic concepts or indicators.

Genuine observance of these basic principl es would not only help to close the gap between declarations of intent and actual achievements on the ground, it would ultimately boost the credibility, transparency and accountability of the humanitarian sector as a whole.

Mr President,

Mr High Commissioner

Internal displacement is increasingly a characteristic of modern armed conflicts, creating a particular set of dynamic and extreme circumstances for affected civilians. Ensuring protection and assistance to IDPs lies at the core of the ICRC's mandate and its operational priorities. However, we see this as an integral aspect of our overall effort to help victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence.

The ICRC has on many occasions raised its concern that the current IDP-focused discourse could imply that people who have not been displaced are comparatively safe. The assumption that IDPs are systematically the category of victim at greatest risk does however not always correspond to reality.

There are many reasons for people not to flee an armed conflict, which in no way lessens their vulnerability. Some, such as children, the elderly, the handicapped, the ill or the wounded may be physically unable to leave. In other cases, people at severe risk may be unable to move because of the dynamics of the hostilities. Arms bearers may deliberately prevent people from fleeing the conflict zone. Clearly,'non-displacement'does not equate with either safety or security.

However, once people are displaced, they are often cut off from their traditional support and coping mechanisms, and their vulnerability is consequently increased dramatically – not to mention the persistent threats associated with armed conflict.

Displacement is a dynamic phenomenon encompassing many different forms and stages, to which there is no easy one-fit-all solution. It is t herefore essential for us to meet the many challenges IDPs face in the most efficient and  comprehensive way possible, and to provide those affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence with optimal protection and assistance. Economic security issues, for example, are key factors influencing people’s decision-making throughout the process of displacement and return.

Ten years ago, Francis Deng presented the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement to the UN Human Rights Commission. This document synthesized our shared efforts to compile into clear principles the many applicable norms and to highlight the more concrete aspects of human rights and humanitarian law guarantees that are of special significance for the internally displaced. Next week we will be gathered in Oslo to celebrate this anniversary.

Over the past few years, UNHCR and the ICRC have been working more and more in the same fields of operations. I thank you, Mr High Commissioner, for the quality of this dialogue.

In November 2006, you, Mr High Commissioner, and I signed a joint note outlining cooperation between our two organisations. Our enhanced dialogue is one of the key elements towards ensuring swift and efficient humanitarian response for those in need. We look forward to further developing our dialogue and cooperation in pursuit of this common goal.

Thank you.