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2.5.2006 Jakob Kellenberger, Punaisen Ristin kansainvälisen komitean puheenjohtaja: The Politicisation of Humanitarian Aid: New Challenges in Assisting People in Need

Paasikivi Society - Helsinki
2 May 2006
Challenges in helping People in Need, included the risks linked to the politicisation of humanitarian action
Intervention by Dr. Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by saying how pleased I am to be here to share some thoughts with you tonight. The politicisation of humanitarian aid is indeed one challenge an organisation like the ICRC has to face in its endeavours to help people in need. This challenge is one of various challenges humanitarian organisations like the ICRC are faced with. It is not a new one, and as I see it, not the main one. Interlinked with several other challenges, in particular the main one of ensuring access to the victims in armed conflicts, it has to be taken seriously. You will understand that I deal with the challenges from an ICRC point of view while being aware that other humanitarian actors may face similar challenges.

Before discussing the challenges facing the ICRC, we need to ask ourselves two questions. First, what is the ICRC today? Secondly, how does the ICRC perceive and understand today's geopolitical environment? Only in relation to that perception can we identify the challenges we face.

The Scope of ICRC's activities today

The ICRC is among the major international humanitarian agencies. In 2005, it had delegations in 80 countries, staffed with close to 10'000 locally recruited employees and 1'500 expatriates, supported by almost 800 staff at its headquarter. Its total expenditures in 2005 amounted to almost 600 millions Euros. The four largest operations in terms of expenditure in 2006 are Sudan, Pakistan, Israel OT/AT and Somalia.

Born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battlefield in an even-handed manner, the ICRC acts mainly in situations of armed conflict and other situations of violence. This includes the humanitarian response to natural disasters when they occur in the same place, such as the effects of the South-Asian earthquake in Pakistan or the drought currently affecting Somalia.

I would like to highlight some of ICRC specificities. It is a worldwide actor. Its protection and assistance activities endeavour to address the needs of all persons affected by armed conflicts while paying attention to the specific needs of particular groups of people such as women or those who are internally displaced. We call this in the internal jargon the all-victims approach. Internally displaced people, or IDPs, are a good example of this approach. In 2005, the ICRC helped IDPs in 35 separate contexts worldwide. Among the biggest such operations were Somalia, where we provided various forms of aid to 350,000 internally displaced people, and northern Uganda, where the number exceeded half a million. In Darfur the ICRC has been providing medical care, water, food and essential household items to IDPs in camps, for example to up to 80'000 people in rural Gereida where at times no other organisation than the ICRC has been working. However, the majority of the 1.8 mio IDPs in Darfur live in big camps, in towns easily accessible to other agencies. The good network with all the parties to the conflict allows the ICRC to concentrate its efforts on meeting the needs of people in rural Darfur - including in rebel held areas - to prevent further displacements to those already overcrowded IDPs camps.

The ICRC protection activities include four components: the efforts to protect the civilian population with, as you would expect, mixed results, the visits to detainees of different categories, the search for information on missing persons and the restoration of family links. This broad spectrum of protection activities clearly is an ICRC specificity, but specificity is not a monopoly.

The specificity of ICRC's approach to assistance activities lies in their variety with the ambition to give a complete response to basic needs be it with the aim of saving lives or restoring self reliance. Unlike many humanitarian agencies specialised in one assistance activity, the ICRC will endeavour to respond comprehensively. It is therefore developing assistance activities as diverse as

the supply of food, water, essential household items and seeds,

supporting or running hospitals and orthopaedic centres

vaccination of livestocks like in Darfur or Somalia

Any description of ICRC's identity not highlighting its capacity to act fast would be very incomplete indeed. In Pakistan for example, using a fleet of 9 helicopters, and around 100 lorries, the ICRC demonstrated its capacity to start operations very rapidly and to provide more than 270 000 people affected by the earthquake of 8 October with shelter, medical assistance, food and essential household items. You will have understood the importance of efficient logistics.

I wish to underline that the operation has shown the importance of the close cooperation with National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies. The Finnish Red Cross, one of the most important and reliable partners of the ICRC, has played a decisive role in the field of medical assistance by providing, together with the Norwegian Red Cross, the field hospital in Muzafarrabad, by also providing staff and equipment for the hospital and by running the basic health care unit in Pattika. To foster this relationship, the ICRC and the Finnish Red Cross are engaged together with the other Nordic National societies in a strategic dialogue process launched in 2002.

While its operational surface is today more than ever a defining feature of the ICRC, its intrinsic link to international humanitarian law is another one. The ICRC has played a crucial role in the genesis and development of this body of law, from which its mandate is derived.

The ICRC's reading of the geopolitical environment

Let us now turn to the ICRC's perception of the global environment, as regards armed conflicts and other forms of violence. Today, this environment is increasingly heterogeneous and therefore ever less predictable. Heterogeneous, that is, in terms of types of conflicts, their causes and the nature of the belligerents.

International conflicts have almost disappeared, and some academic research points to a decrease in the number of non-international armed conflicts as well, though these findings may depend on how a conflict is defined. The relevant question to be asked by a humanitarian organisation anyway is a different one: have the humanitarian consequences of armed conflicts decreased? Violence today takes an increasing variety of forms. Internal conflicts almost invariably involve some degree of regional or international interference. Political and criminal violence become intermingled. In some places, urban violence may sometimes have similar consequences as conflicts. Local, regional and global factors interact with one another and need to be taken into account when one is analysing the causes of violence. Access to resources, socio-economic issues, religion, migration and environmental degradation are among other factors fuelling it. Finally, States themselves are less and less the main source of violence: the belligerents of today's conflict are often non-state actors, trans-national clandestine networks, private militias and security companies. Their chain of command is not always well organised and their structure may be highly volatile.

War and other forms of violence always mean suffering for the individuals caught in it. People are killed or injured, they witness the suffering of their families, they are separated from their loved ones, displaced and dispossessed. However, the patterns in the ways in which conflicts affect the people have changed. Unfortunately, today the world witnesses today too many conflicts where civilian are deliberately targeted. This is frequently because the conflict is rooted in the assertion of the belligerents' identity, be it ethnical, religious, cultural or national. The disappearance of state structures, and with them of any social services like health or education, further aggravates the suffering of the population, and the number of indirect victims of wars.

The final thing to which I would like draw your attention is the duration of the conflicts. Israelis and Palestinians, Afghanis, Columbians and Sudanese, to name a few, have all been enduring conflict for decades. The beginning and end of such conflicts are often difficult to define. Many of them are frozen or in a protracted transition from war to peace when a resumption of hostilities is at any time possible. How to assess the situation in Somalia today, that in Ivory Coast or in Haiti, or the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia? The last one is widely considered as frozen without really being frozen as I learnt during my mission to the Southern Caucasus this month.


After some additional reflection on the notion of "challenge" - which I define as a demanding, difficult and important task, not a routine task - it appeared to me as reasonable, speaking of an institution such as the ICRC, to identify the following categories of challenges:

1) Operational challenges, directly linked to the mission of the Institution

2) Managerial challenges, including those induced by donors

3) Challenges the Institution as such has to meet independently of specific operational requirements but by far not irrelevant for the institution's capacity to meet its operational and managerial challenges. The challenges posed by the politicisation humanitarian aid are of that latter kind.

While time will not allow discussing managerial challenges, I will focus first on the two main operational challenges we have to meet if we want to fulfil our mission.

access to all those affected by armed conflicts and other situations of violence

contribute to the better respect of international humanitarian law

Access and Security

To access people in need of protection and assistance while keeping security risks at an acceptable level is no doubt the main challenge we have to meet. This challenge goes back to the roots of the ICRC. Direct access to victims of conflicts and other forms of violence is essential if we are to understand and try to address their situations and their needs. Moreover, contact with all belligerents is crucial to ICRC's endeavours to protect the population and have access to it, as well as for ICRC staff security.

The ICRC addresses security concerns through various means. The most challenging aspect is to ensure the acceptance of ICRC's presence and activity by all the belligerents, whose number can increase in one same context as illustrated by what happened in Darfur in recent times. To remain close to the victims, ICRC has developed a network of more than 230 delegations, sub-delegations and offices throughout the world. It constantly endeavours to expand its range of contacts with all bearers of weapons, and with those influencing them. However, such contacts are useless without the capacity to deliver on the expectations created by ICRC presence and mandate. It is therefore as well through its effectiveness in the field, its work to relieve the suffering of the victims and the difference it can make that the ICRC gains acceptance.

The ICRC has succeeded in maintaining a uniquely wide access to persons affected by armed violence in spite of a few areas off limits which hurt. What other elements are in our experience particularly relevant for the access issue ?

clear identity, credibility, predictability. I shall come back to this in some more detail. Identity is the main issue at stake when humanitarian aid becomes politicised.

a focussed humanitarian diplomacy at the different levels

the capacity for fast deployment

Promoting compliance with international humanitarian law

Contribute as efficiently as possible to the better respect of international humanitarian law the second main operational challenges. International Humanitarian Law, or IHL, seeks to mitigate the effects of war in two ways. First by limiting the choice of means and methods of conducting military operations, and secondly by obliging belligerents to spare persons who are not, or no longer, participating in hostilities. But this protection is effective only when IHL is indeed respected. The last decade witnessed impressive progress in terms of international tribunals. Unfortunately and notwithstanding this progress, too many violations continue to occur in today's conflict and ensuring respect for IHL remains a daunting task.

The ICRC has a two-pronged approach to improving the belligerents' respect for IHL. It promotes knowledge of the law, for example through training courses on IHL for bearers of weapons; and encourages the warring parties to put its provisions into practice. It does this through dialogue and representations in which it documents violations of IHL. The ICRC seeks to engage in dialogue with and make representations to all those inflicting violence, be they States or non-State actors. However, under the Article 1 common to the Geneva Conventions, the primary responsibility for ensuring respect for the law lies with all the States party to those Conventions, even in conflicts in which they are not involved.

The operationalisation of this article is in fact my main hope of seeing progress on respect of IHL ! A recent and positive development in this regard took place in the European Union in December 2005, when its Council adopted guidelines on promoting compliance with international humanitarian law. In a nutshell, these guidelines request all bodies of the Union in contact with third States to monitor situations where IHL might be applicable and assess the extent to which it is complied with. The guidelines contain a list of the means at the disposal of the Union should it consider it necessary to take action to promote compliance with the law. These measures range from political dialogue to sanctions. Obviously, the choice as to what action is most appropriate remains a political decision of the States. On the other hand, the ICRC regularly draws the attention of States to their obligation not to remain passive in the face of such violations.

Institutional Challenges

Positioning and identity, including in face of risks of politicisation of humanitarian action

Clear positioning is a challenge to be met by any organisation or enterprise in a fast changing environment with an increasing number of actors. Humanitarian organisations like the ICRC should not and cannot escape this challenge which is bigger as it might seem at first sight. Why is it so ?

First: the so-called "humanitarian community" is one of the least structured landscapes you could think of. Just try to find comparable figures or information on annual budgets, real expenditure, staff, scope of action, areas of access and non access etc.

Second: The principles of action between the different players vary widely and you cannot expect your particular audiences to understand your principles of action if you do not explain them in an understandable way. We have to take this in account in our message.

Third: there is much movement and much blurring of the lines inside the humanitarian community. New initiatives are launched. Some actors participate, some abstain, many refrain from taking a clear position leaving all options open.

Fourth: there is much more competition between humanitarian organisations than they like to admit. It even came to my mind that some form of competition rules as you find them in the European Union's internal market could become necessary one day, in the interest of the long term credibility of humanitarian organisations.

Politicisation of humanitarian aid can further blur the picture. Links between humanitarian and political issues are not new, nor are the attempts at politicisation of humanitarian aid, which can take the form of integrated missions or of the "winning hearts and minds" campaigns of the armies. Integrated missions can take various shapes, but their key element is comprehensive mission planning, that is to say defining a shared goal that political, military, humanitarian and development actors wish to achieve together, and develop joint strategies. Do not get me wrong, I'm not complaining about integrated missions and humanitarian activities of the military if there is humanitarian value added in it, what is particularly the case in areas where there are urgent humanitarian needs and humanitarian agencies are not present, for security or other reasons. It goes however without saying that also humanitarian assistance provided my military actors has to be impartial. In general, I rather see advantages in the diversity of actors and approaches. One can only be grateful if armies put their unique logistical means, their rapid reaction capacities or simply their manpower to save lives, which they often do all over the world especially in case of natural disaster. But when humanitarian actors are able to cover humanitarian needs it makes sense that humanitarian action is carried out by humanitarian organisations.

What are the risks linked to humanitarian action by military units and integrated missions in specific contexts? One is that misunderstanding can arise between political, military and humanitarian actors, based on the belief that all are pursuing the same goal. Another risk is that the response to the needs is affected by political consideration, which might impair its impartiality. But the main risk I see for humanitarian action in general is its integration - willing or otherwise - into a political and military strategy. In other words, the subordination of humanitarian activities to political goals, using aid as a tool for local or foreign policy. If, in situation of armed conflict, non-state actors or parts of the population perceive the humanitarian agencies as instruments of a political agenda, security risks can increase considerably and access to those in need of protection and assistance become more difficult as a consequence. In particular in situations of armed conflicts, humanitarian action should be left to the humanitarian agencies provided they are capable to do the job.

How does the ICRC meet this challenge? The ICRC stands for an independent and neutral humanitarian action without having the pretension to think it is the only way to carry out humanitarian action. To see to it that this identity is clearly perceived and respected by all concerned, the belligerents first of all, is a real challenge. Credible independence also has its implications: it is not compatible with the participation in initiatives where the organisation no longer remains master of its own decision making process or where it risks to be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being part of a wider than an exclusively humanitarian agenda. I'm convinced that credible independent and neutral humanitarian action as represented by the ICRC has its own added value, in times of conflict in particular. In the past and in the present several examples can be found where the ICRC has been able or is able to remain operational where other organisations were or are not operational or were facing greater difficulties, like in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime or during the worst periods of the civil war in Liberia in the past, in parts of Iraq, in rural Darfur or central and southern Somalia today.

Coordination and independence

Insufficient coordination is a widespread reality, unfortunately it is also a reality in the humanitarian field. Needless to say that gaps as a consequence of failed coordination have particularly serious consequences in the humanitarian field. Any serious initiative to improve coordination must therefore be welcome. The cluster initiative launched in the framework of the reform of the UN humanitarian system is such an initiative. Its value added will now be tested in Liberia, Uganda and the RDC. This initiative was a challenge for us as are integrated missions. Why ? We have no doubts about the urgency to improve coordination in order to avoid gaps and duplications, provided coordination is action-orientated and reality based. On the other hand, the will to remain a credible independent actor and to be in a position to maintain our holistic approach, in particular the capacity to give a complete response to basic needs by a variety of assistance activities, prevented us from participating in the system. We are accountable to victims and donors and cannot run the risk to stop other assistance activities by having, to take an example, to use all our capacities in a specific context for water projects as a provider of last resort.

Public communication

More than ever ICRC action and the ICRC as an institution need support. Support - and we get strong support for this - is mainly generated by the efficiency and the quality of the humanitarian action in the field. But in today's world we also have to accept that support can be generated by perception, perceptions moreover which travel fast. That is why the management of public reputation is of key importance for us.

Therefore public communication, as an important function to manage ICRC's reputation, has an operational and an institutional dimension. If you get it wrong you can harm operations or the institutions reputation. The opposite is also true. Public communication is not only a risk, it is also an opportunity. The real challenge is not to communicate publicly; the real challenge is to do it in a consistent way in time and space. This is, for an organisation like the ICRC which has a global reach, the only way to manage its public reputation efficiently.

Credibility and predictability

Let me come to a last point: I think of credibility. Credibility in an environment where there are so many speculations, so many contradictory statements, where easy judgements dominate painful experiences.

What are the ingredients of credibility ? Let me mention four of them.

You have to do what you say you do, you have to do what you promise to do.

You have to be clear on the question: Do you reach people in need, also in remote, pretty unsecured areas ?

The seriousness and accuracy of the information provided based on your own assessment and not affected by temptations to attract a maximum of public attention.

The coherence of your public statements in time and space. This is an enormous challenge indeed for a global player like the ICRC in the sensitive environments it is working in. To give but one example: if, exceptionally, you decide to go public on the conditions of detention in one context you have to make sure you do the same in other contexts with same or similar conditions.

The ICRC, far from feeling perfect, tries hard to meet the challenge of credibility on the ground of these criteria. It will also try hard tomorrow, well aware of all the efforts and the resilience required for meeting this challenge.

Thank you.