[Eyes of the Wise] Humanitarian and Neutral Focus of Red Cross Activities

This speech was presented at the fourth symposium on Humanitarian Support under Conflict Conditions: Perspectives on the Implementation of Universal Values, held on February 28, 2008. The original speech was made in English.

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Japan and the International Committee of the Red Cross have a longstanding and well-established relationship based on shared values and principles. Our links date back to the late nineteenth century, when the Japanese Red Cross Society was founded and recognized by the ICRC and when Japan became party to the original Geneva Convention. At the end of World War II, as you are certainly aware, Marcel Junod, head of the ICRC's delegation in Japan at that time, was the first foreign doctor to witness, on September 8, 1945, the unspeakable carnage wrought by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and to give medical care to the survivors.

The mandate of the ICRC requires it to do its utmost to protect and assist people affected by armed conflicts and other situations of violence. These can be injured fighters, internally displaced people, prisoners of war and security detainees, children separated from their families, or civilians whose basic needs are unmet. The ICRC does not limit its action to one particular domain, such as medical care or drinking water, but strives to respond to all the basic needs of people affected by armed violence. In this sense, the ICRC's unique combination of protection and assistance activities is fully in line with the concept of "human security," which holds that people caught up in armed conflict must have at least the most basic personal security and receive the services needed to live in dignity.

To give you an idea of the ICRC's worldwide assistance and protection work, here are a few figures. Our organization is present and active in more than 80 countries across the globe. According to preliminary figures, in 2007 the ICRC assisted in one way or another over 4 million internally displaced persons. ICRC activities in the field of water, sanitation, and construction benefited more than 14 million people. The ICRC distributed food to around 2.5 million people and essential household items to close to 4 million people. More than 100,000 surgical interventions were performed in the hospitals supported by the ICRC. Last year, ICRC delegates visited more than half a million detainees, monitoring close to 37,000 of them individually. Close to half a million "Red Cross Messages" - brief personal messages to relatives - were delivered to restore or maintain family links between people separated from their loved ones by battle lines or prison walls.

Given Japan's particular interest in African development - I am thinking of the Tokyo initiative regarding that continent and of this July's G8 meeting in Hokaido, with climate change and African development high on the agenda - it might be of interest to you to know that 43% of the ICRC's planned expenditures of over 1 billion Swiss francs in 2008 are earmarked for its operations in Africa.

The first operational challenge for an organization like the ICRC is to have access to all areas where there is conflict. We set great store by being able to work in close proximity to the people we set out to help. Throughout any operation - from the initial assessment of the situation and the resulting needs (a process in which the beneficiaries are involved as much as possible) to the actual distribution of aid - ICRC staff are present in the field, in personal contact with the people they are there to help, striving to understand their reality and their vulnerabilities. For example, in Sudan - our biggest operation in Africa - we have offices in many towns and villages of Darfur, from Kutum in the north to Gereida in the south. We rely on some 1,800 Sudanese staff and 140 expatriates. This field presence helps us to build a network of contacts with all armed actors in this conflict: with the government in Khartoum of course, but also with all the armed groups present in Darfur. These contacts are needed to ensure that they accept our presence and our work, to ensure the safety of our staff, to enable us to carry out our protection and assistance activities. Gaining and maintaining this access grows increasingly difficult when the conflicts are of an anarchic nature, as in Somalia, or when armed groups fragment into a plethora of smaller groups, as in Darfur. It is an enormous challenge to identify those in a position of influence, when chains of command are often much more tenuous than before. Then there is the added difficulty of banditry and other crime that tend to develop in conflict-affected areas.

What are the factors that help the ICRC to gain acceptance? In our experience it is first and foremost the difference that the ICRC's work makes for those in need, its ability to deliver on the expectations it creates. Rapid deployment and effectiveness are key features that we constantly endeavor to improve. We also take great care to ensure that ICRC action remains consistent and predictable over time and whatever the geographical location. Another key to gaining acceptance is our strict adherence to the principles on which the ICRC's work is based, namely carrying out exclusively humanitarian action for all those in need, and doing so in an independent and neutral manner. This explains why the ICRC refuses to be incorporated into approaches or operations that have a broader mandate than an exclusively humanitarian one, for example the African Union Mission in Sudan, the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the European Union force in Chad and the Central African Republic. Some of the operations I just mentioned have also been launched for the purpose of facilitating the work of humanitarian organizations. It should, however, be born in mind that protection of civilians by UN peace-keepers or other troops implies a military and security dimension, which must be kept clearly distinguished from the activities carried out by humanitarian organizations. When security conditions make it impossible for humanitarian organizations to carry out their work, we can only welcome the willingness of states to commit troops to do humanitarian work and save lives. However, when humanitarian organizations are able to work, it is their job to carry out humanitarian activities. You know the importance attached by the ICRC to neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action intended solely to ensure that the people affected by conflict are assisted and protected according to their needs. We strongly believe that political and military action must be kept separate and distinct from humanitarian activities, since conflating them could result in confusion detrimental to humanitarian work and to the safety of humanitarian personnel.

The credibility of the ICRC’s independence explains its broad access to people affected by armed conflict. That credibility also enables us to offer our services as a neutral intermediary on issues of humanitarian concern and allows us to concentrate our work where other organizations have little or no access, such as the rural areas of Darfur or the sites with resident and displaced people in Chad that are closest to the border with Sudan. These principles and our commitment to reaching the most vulnerable people have also enabled us in some instances to step in despite difficult security conditions when other organizations have had to leave. One example of this is the Gereida camp for displaced people in Darfur. Working as a neutral intermediary, in the past year we have been able to facilitate the release of captured civilians and fighters and the return of mortal remains in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sudan, Niger, and Colombia. We have helped bring about the repatriation of civilians and prisoners of war, for example between Ethiopia and Eritrea and between Azerbaijan and Armenia. And for decades now, the ICRC has been facilitating weddings by ensuring that the bride can move across the Israeli-Syrian buffer line on the Golan Heights.

Working with National Societies

Some 150 years ago, the ICRC came into being as the founding organization of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. Today that movement is the largest humanitarian network in the world. In addition to the ICRC, it consists of national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in almost every country, as well as those societies' federation. In the field, the ICRC works closely with the national societies. It directs and coordinates international relief work conducted by the movement in situations involving armed conflict. In Kenya, following the recent upsurge of violence, the ICRC has been working with the Kenya Red Cross Society to distribute essential household items, such as blankets, kitchen sets and mosquito nets as well as emergency food rations. It has also provided the Eldoret and Nakuru hospitals with medical supplies for treating wounded patients and sent a flying surgical team to support several hospitals in western Kenya struggling to cope with patients who have suffered arrow and machete wounds and severe burns. In addition, ICRC and Kenya Red Cross staff are working together to ensure that proper water and sanitation facilities are in place in camps for displaced persons.

We are in the process of intensifying relations with the Japanese authorities and the Japanese Red Cross. In Sudan, for example, Japanese funds and Red Cross staff were essential to enabling the ICRC to withdraw from the Juba Teaching Hospital, leaving behind trained and competent local staff. The Japanese Red Cross was among the first to send an emergency response unit to Kashmir after the earthquake that hit Southern Asia in October 2005. Their medical team worked in difficult regions and saved many lives. Allow me to quote Japan's foreign minister, the Honorable Masahiko Koumura, who said at the peace-building seminar here in Tokyo in January that "those who want to build peace in a place where it does not exist must go there and work with the parties directly, to the extent possible." We are very much encouraged by the enthusiasm of young Japanese who want to be active in the humanitarian field, and just last week two staff members of the Japanese Red Cross flew to Nairobi to be part of the flying surgical team I just mentioned.Upholding International Humanitarian Law

The ICRC and international humanitarian law have a common philosophical root and to some extent a common origin. The purpose of both is to reduce the suffering caused by armed conflicts. The single greatest challenge for this law today is to ensure that it is respected in the midst of fighting. Without compliance by the belligerents, humanitarian law cannot achieve its goal. I have no need to remind you of the frequency and magnitude of the violations occurring daily on the battlefield. This deplorable situation is compounded by a culture of impunity that continues to prevail despite the fact that the states party to the Geneva Conventions have clearly committed themselves to bringing to justice perpetrators of serious violations, wherever they occur. In this regard, Japan's ratification last July of the Rome Statutes establishing the International Criminal Court is an event we at the ICRC warmly welcome.

When confronted with violations of international humanitarian law, the ICRC's preferred mode of action is confidential dialogue with the responsible authority for the purpose of putting an end to such violations. The parties to the conflict bear the primary responsibility for compliance with the law. However, when this dialogue does not lead to the results hoped for, the ICRC approaches a range of states to support its humanitarian efforts. This humanitarian diplomacy is based on Article 1 common to the four Geneva Conventions, by virtue of which all states are also obliged to ensure respect for international humanitarian law.

When it comes to the struggle against terrorism, doubts have been raised as to the relevance of international humanitarian law. Let me stress that the principles on which that law is based are timeless, and I am profoundly convinced of their enduring relevance to today's conflicts. I would also like to reiterate the ICRC's position that humanitarian law is not and cannot be the only legal framework applicable to the struggle against terrorism. Since terrorism goes well beyond the scope of armed conflict, it is by means of other legal instruments and by still other means - political, financial and police-related - that it must be addressed.

While it does not define "terrorism," international humanitarian law - which is applicable during armed conflict - expressly prohibits most acts committed against civilians that would commonly be considered as "terrorism" if committed in peacetime. Such acts also constitute war crimes. It may therefore be argued that little purpose would be served by making different rules to outlaw such terrorist acts.

People suspected of having committed any criminal offense, including acts of terrorism, should be prosecuted. They must, however, be afforded essential judicial guarantees, including the presumption of innocence, the right to be tried by an impartial and independent court, the right to qualified legal counsel, and the exclusion of any evidence obtained as a result of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. I remain convinced that the struggle against terrorism and respect for these fundamental rules are fully compatible. Indeed, I am convinced that respecting humanitarian law constitutes a long-term investment in one's own security.

International humanitarian law is a dynamic body of law, and I am pleased to note that Japan is at the forefront of states in terms of ratifying and promoting the law. There is today a growing momentum towards a new treaty to address the severe effects in humanitarian terms of cluster munitions. These effects have been well documented in Laos, Iraq, Kosovo, and Lebanon, among other places. Cluster munitions not only have long-lasting consequences - killing and maiming, and rendering agriculture impossible in vast areas for decades after the conflict has ended - but all too often they present grave dangers for civilians at the time they are used. The ICRC welcomes the recognition by virtually all major states that have produced, used, and exported cluster munitions that their human cost is enormous and that this must now be addressed. As you know, there are currently two frameworks in which states are discussing this issue: the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and the so-called Oslo process. The ICRC will continue to lend its expertise to both processes to the extent felt useful by the participating states. We are firmly convinced of the urgency of prohibiting through legally binding rules the use of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions, which have killed or injured tens of thousands of civilians in war-affected countries. The ICRC will contribute to the development of the strongest possible protection for civilians. In October last year, I urged the states to work towards an international treaty on this issue, and I hope that such a treaty will be concluded this year.

Building Peace

Japan aspires to contribute to the enhancement of peace around the world, recognizing thereby also that peace is a prerequisite for development. This commitment is reflected in Japan's active role within the UN Peace Building Commission (PBC) and the recent Ministry of Foreign Affairs initiative to train future personnel in peace building.

Through its mission in New York and its field delegations in Sierra Leone and Burundi, the ICRC has been closely following the developments of the PBC, presently chaired by Japan. The ICRC sees the additional value in neutral and independent humanitarian action carried out in the situations falling under the remit of the PBC. During post-conflict transition periods, international humanitarian law should remain a key reference for humanitarian action. When active hostilities come to an end, states remain bound by numerous obligations, such as caring for the sick and wounded and ensuring that the people still held in detention are treated in accordance with international humanitarian law. New obligations also take effect for states at that point, for instance the need to throw light on what has happened to anyone whose disappearance has been reported by the adverse party. Addressing these issues of humanitarian concern is also a means of facilitating reconciliation and avoiding the resurgence of tensions between former enemies. The protection work that the ICRC continues to carry out in these periods of transition is intended precisely to solve the remaining conflict-related problems of humanitarian concern.

In Liberia and Sierra Leone, for example, the ICRC is still reuniting children with their families. Finding out what has happened to people who went missing in connection with the conflict is also high on the ICRC's agenda in its dialogue with governments such as those in the Balkans, in Nepal, and in countries where conflict is still raging, such as Iraq.

The need for relief often continues after the end of active hostilities. During the immediate post-conflict period, emergency relief might be required. Humanitarian action may well have to extend beyond the end of the active hostilities in order to bridge a gap between phasing out humanitarian action and phasing in development activities. In such cases the ICRC is certainly not prepared to abandon the people in need of medical care, the amputees it has fitted with prostheses, or the displaced people still requiring help. In such situations of transition, the ICRC does its utmost to empower local communities and give them the means to meet their own essential needs. In contrast with Darfur, where the ICRC directly treats patients by means of its mobile surgical unit, in Liberia our healthcare activities are in support of the Ministry of Health. We have also helped upgrade the skills of over 100 traditional midwives. In water-related activities, besides building or repairing wells, we have also set up water and sanitation committees composed of members of the local community.

Themes such as the financing of new infrastructure as well as health, education, and environmental programs will be at the forefront of discussion at the forthcoming Fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development. These will enable Japan to illustrate its commitment to creating a better future in Africa. For the ICRC, it will be another opportunity to demonstrate the value of neutral and independent humanitarian action and its determination to alleviate the suffering of people caught up in armed conflicts and other violent situations.

Jakob Kellenberger

  • President, International Committee of the Red Cross