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Strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations

11-11-2008 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 63rd session, Plenary meeting, item 65a of the agenda, statement by Ms Christine Beerli, Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, New York, 11 Novembre 2008

Mr Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is grateful to be able, once again, to address the UN General Assembly on the challenges of coordinating humanitarian assistance, particularly in connection with armed conflicts and other situations of violence.

In many places around the world, the lives of countless men, women and children continue to be ravaged by armed conflicts or other situations of violence. Natural disasters are occurring more frequently. Scarcity of resources partly due to environmental degradation and climate change, as well as rising food insecurity imperil livelihoods that are already fragile. All these factors contribute to poverty, migration, increased public health risks; and they aggravate the humanitarian consequences of armed conflict.

The ICRC's action is exclusively humanitarian. It works relentlessly throughout the world to protect and assist persons affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence. Its aim is to meet their most urgent needs without discrimination of any kind. The ICRC is determined to remain a reliable, effective and predictable   organization that can adapt to evolving humanitarian situations and needs, and one whose work is underpinned by a strong culture of accountability, first and foremost to the persons affected themselves.


Humanitarian action is carried out today in highly complex and sensitive environments, and faces many challenges. Gaining and maintaining access to persons in need of protection while minimizing security risks   is, beyond any doubt, our top priority concern in most operations.

The level of violence has increased considerably in many countries where the ICRC works with corresponding serious humanitarian consequences for the civilian population. The risks of rejection and instrumentalization of humanitarian staff are growing. And this has dramatic and dire consequences with regards to their safety.

The ability for its staff to carry out its humanitarian task safely is of extreme importance to the ICRC. Safety is more than just an issue of physical protection. For the ICRC to operate in safety it must have acceptance . Acceptance is entirely dependent on the perception the parties to an armed conflict and those whom the ICRC assists have of its exclusively humanitarian and impartial approach and its dissociation from any kind of political or military agenda. Impartiality implies that assistance will be provided without any discrimination, and prioritized based solely on assessed needs. Projecting credible  neutrality and independence requires the deliberate abstinence from acting in any way or making any form of declaration that might be interpreted as taking sides or as being associated with a specific agenda. Proximity to people affected is as essential to the ICRC as is sustained dialogue with all actors in armed conflicts – no matter how they may be qualified by the international community – and with all those able to influence these actors.

Based on its long experience of working in armed conflict, the ICRC believes that it is this exclusively humanitarian, neutral, independent and impartial approach that allows it to operate in places such as Afghanistan, Colombia, Darfur, to fulfil its humanitarian mandate in the northern and southern Caucasus and Pakistan, and to act as a neutral and humanitarian intermediary (for example, to facilitate the release of captured civilians). It considers this way of working to be the most effective and powerful tool at its disposal for ensuring access to people as well as acceptance by all parties. Of course, this rests on the assumption that belligerent parties trust the ICRC. 

But it is precisely this trust that is increasingly difficult to build and maintain, as various stakeholders are putting the very foundations of humanitarian aid into question, which is yet another challenge of serious concern to the ICRC today.

Mr Chairman,

The environment for humanitarian action has changed dramatically in recent years. The integration of crisis-management tools – combining political, military, humanitarian, and development objectives and activities – is an inherent feature of many contexts today. UN peace support operations are increasingly multifaceted: their mandates range from peace maintenance to peace enforcement, and to post-conflict recovery. They are often entrusted with the task of both protecting civilian populations and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Unfortunately, this has sometimes blurred the distinction between political goals and humanitarian operations, as well as that between political or military actors and humanitarian organizations.

Increasingly, political and military actors refer to humanitarian principles or reasons. That these principles are being acknowledged is, of course, a welcome development. But we should recognize that they apply mainly to the activities of humanitarian organizations. When used by public authorities and the military to describe their activities, the term humanitarian may lose some of its essential attributes. The incorporation of humanitarian aid into a political strategy might have the very unwelcome consequence that parties to an armed conflict and affected populations may come to associate all humanitarian actors with political or military agendas. And humanitarian agencies may cease to be regarded as independent and neutral and, thus, as no longer acceptable. The effectiveness of humanitarian action, particularly access to persons in need of assistance, may suffer.

States have an important political role in preventing and resolving conflicts and in creating sustainable conditions to enable populations to recover after conflict. Armed and security forces play an equally important role in stabilizing situations and providing security. The independence of humanitarian organizations – in making decisions and acting - must be preserved while they maintain the appropriate dialogue with political and military actors for humanitarian purposes. The ICRC deems it essential that political or military action, including that undertaken under the auspices of the UN, be conceived in such a way as not to erode the acceptability of humanitarian action.

While there are situations where the military might be needed - to build a bridge, drill a well, or otherwise provide logistical means to bring urgent assistance to those in need - entrusting the military with humanitarian tasks should occur only in situations of emergency where humanitarian agencies cannot do the job. Likewise, humanitarian agencies should resort to the use of military and civil defence capabilities only when no civilian alternative is available. But this must always be distinguished clearly and unambiguously from military use. 

Mr Chairman,

The ICRC has a legal mandate from the international community to ensure the protection of inte rnally displaced persons and to provide them with assistance, when they are victims of armed conflict. Displaced persons are very high on our list of operational priorities. Their needs are an integral aspect of our humanitarian efforts in behalf of the population affected by armed conflicts and other situations of violence. In 2007, the ICRC provided protection and assistance to 4.1 million displaced people and returnees in 27 countries, more than half of them in Africa. Reaching the displaced where they are, and setting up and sustaining a direct line of access and communication with them, is an absolute priority to the ICRC. It is done every day by its staff, and by members of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (National Societies) in some very complex and challenging environments marked by armed violence: for instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, are just a few of the countries where ICRC is comprehensively engaged in meeting their wide variety of needs. 

The ICRC has often called for the need for designing flexible response strategies to situations of internal displacement. These strategies would take into account the mandates and comparative strengths of the actors and agencies in the field; they would also be adapted to fit the different contexts in which internal displacement occurs. The ICRC cannot but reiterate its wish for a coordination approach that succeeds in reconciling the ICRC's specific identity as a strictly neutral and independent actor with a dynamic collaboration with UN agencies and non-governmental organizations in responding to humanitarian needs on the ground.

The complexity of crises today – especially those related to armed conflicts and other situations of violence – and the volume of humanitarian needs are increasing our operational challenges. The diversity of humanitarian agencies, together with the mobilization of all their existing resources, can be of benefit to affected populations. Coordination and cooperation, strengthening needs-based partnerships in the field, where it most counts for the men, women and children affected by conflict and disaster, will go some way to avoiding gaps and duplication in the aid effort.

Mr Chairman,

In situations of armed conflict or other situations of violence, the ICRC, in addition to its own activities, coordinates the international relief operations undertaken by the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement. Every National Red Cross/Red Crescent Society is committed, together with the International Federation, to the Fundamental Principles of the Movement, to supporting sister organizations dealing with crises in their countries, and to doing so neutrally and impartially. In the over 80 countries where the ICRC is currently operational, National Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies are its primary partners for humanitarian action towards people in need.

However, the ICRC remains committed to efficient cooperation – in particular at field level – with all other relevant humanitarian actors that are effectively delivering protection and assistance. This, of course, includes the humanitarian agencies belonging to the United Nations system.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.