Report of the Conference on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Acute Crisis

Conference on The Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Acute Crisis

London, 11-13 February 1998

Edited by
Co-Directors: Dr Mukesh Kapila (DFID) and
Professor Nigel S Rodley (University of Essex)
Rapporteurs: Professor Kevin Boyle (University of Essex)
and Ms Aisling Reidy (University of Essex)

Report links: website home page
Table of Contents - Search - Introduction - Recommendations - Opening Address - Papers Presented - Acknowledgements - Appendices
Papers Presented (by author):
1. Kate Mackintosh - 2. Nigel S Rodley - 3. Françoise Hampson - 4.Carlo von Flüe - 5. Geoff Gilbert - 6. Nicholas Morris - 7. David Bassiouni - 8. Philip Wilkinson - 9. Emma Shitakha - 10. Ian Martin - 11. Colleen Duggan

Carlo von Flüe

The Work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)









See elsewhere: Author's Biography (appendix C)


1. General introduction

The ICRC is a humanitarian and independent organisation working on an international level: its action takes place in situations of armed conflicts and in other situations of internal violence.

Part of the International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the ICRC is its founding body, the other components being the National Societies of Red Cross or Red Crescent around the world (175 in 1997) and their International Federation, which maintains its headquarters in Geneva.

The Cross and the Crescent of the emblem have, incidentally, the same value. Each one of these components is independent and no hierarchical relation exists between them. Nevertheless, each components sees its role defined in the Statutes of the International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

We can summarise by saying that the ICRC is responsible for the co-ordination of all the activities of the Movement in times of war, the International Federation has a co-ordinating responsibility in natural and technological catastrophes and in development situations. National Societies can conduct activities in all these situations both on a national and an international level.

Regular meetings between the different components of the International Movement take place every two years and are called Council of Delegates and every four years, provided that there are no problem, an International Conference reunites the different components of the Movement with the States Parties to the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949.

The activities of the Movement are conducted both in times of peace and war: a constant effort of co-ordination is needed, and the Agreement on the organisation of the International activities of the Components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement of Seville of 1997 is a recent effort towards a more functional co-operation between the different components.

2. The work of the ICRC

The ICRC has a two fold activity: first as a guardian of international humanitarian law and secondly as an operational organisation. On the field level, it maintains two types of delegations, namely, operational and regional.

As guardian of the law, the ICRC has the duty to promote and develop international humanitarian law, if necessary and it carries out the important task of disseminating this body of law as well as the Red Cross and Red Crescent Fundamental Principles. A recent effort consisted in implementing the Advisory Services which should help, on a regional level, Governments to adapt their national legislation to international standards and to adopt rules and sanctions against violations. Moreover, an important role is played by the National Societies in taking appropriate measures to protect the emblem. This task which may appear theoretical remains important, especially nowadays when humanitarian personnel is so often confronted to situations where they themselves become targets.

3. Preventive activities

In everyday speech the word "preventive" may have several meanings. The ICRC is often asked to play a role in the field of prevention. If we speak of prevention of armed conflicts, it is definitely an activity for which involvement of the political sphere is essential and therefore such activities are beyond the capabilities of the ICRC which can, nevertheless, play an important role in this field.

Experience shows that it is generally too late to begin spreading awareness once a crisis breaks out, the best protection that can be offered to potential victims is ensuring respect for fundamental principles of humanity, for instance, in the conduct of police or military operations.

A Round-table on Preventive Action was held in Copenhagen in November 1997 on this topic. The ICRC attempted to define what it means for prevention: a set of measures and activities intended to prevent harmful events or to limit their adverse consequences in order to prevent abuses from happening to limit their scope and to contain or keep to a minimum the harmful effects of abuses.

Among these measures, promotion of norms is of paramount importance. Promotion of international humanitarian law or human rights law is an enormous challenge in itself, involving education, training and awareness-raising. One can say that a faithful implementation of humanitarian law, may create appropriate preconditions for parties to a conflict to eventually choose other means than war to solve their problems.

The ICRC invests a great deal of resources and energy in activities of dissemination of international humanitarian law and fundamental principles, both in peacetime and in time of war.

For the ICRC prevention includes in particular:

While there is a considerable agreement on education or awareness programs in peacetime, there is growing uncertainty as to the effectiveness of these responses in the midst of crisis situations.

4. Operational activities

The ICRC carries out a double activity as two sides of the same coin, the relief assistance activity can not go without the protection one.

The ICRC works on the basis of international humanitarian law, which provides the frame for its activities. It can act on a conventional mandate or on its right of initiative given to it by its Statutes. It main objective is to work as close as possible and in favour of the victims of war or other situations of violence, who can be soldiers or combatants no longer taking an active part in the hostilities (i.e. the sick, the wounded and the prisoners) and the civilians (i.e. IDP's, refugees, the most vulnerable - women and children, elderly people - civilian internees etc.).

As you know, the main traditional activities in the field of protection are the work of what is called the Central Tracing Agency, which consist in particular, in organising Red Cross message exchanges in co-operation with the Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies network, and aims at establishing links between separated families, prisoners and their families etc.

Other activities of protection deal with the complex problem of missing persons, visiting detention centres, prisoners and other civilian internees and monitor the situation of the civilian populations in general.. All these activities are accompanied by regular reports to the concerned authorities with a view to help them to improve the situation when necessary.

The ICRC adopts a criteria of confidentiality in this domain of activity, which should be understood as a tool to allow it to be better present near the victims.

In the field of relief assistance, the ICRC is active in emergency situations. Each situation being different, it is important to the ICRC to take into account the reality of the situation in establishing surveys. The effects on a more longer term in defining programmes have to be taken in consideration and this as from the initial phase in establishing the programmes. It is therefore vital to be aware of all the phases of what the UN language defines as continuum, and thus despite the fact that the validity of a temporal and linear approach from emergency to rehabilitation and development is deeply put in question. It would be far to lengthy to elaborate on this now.

Simply expressed, the ICRC defines its programmes based on the needs only.

Its relief assistance programmes can go from war-surgery to more general responses in the field of health, which may include food and non-food programmes (often better than to give a fish, is to provide fishing material), water and sanitation and medical programmes, to the shelter one.

In limiting its activities in emergency response, the ICRC has to make the link with what was before and with what comes after.

5. Partners of the ICRC

The ICRC bases its work on the principle of independence, which does not mean isolation, and is therefore very much aware of the importance and the need of co-ordinating humanitarian activities and to work in "concertation" with other actors, particularly at the field level. Without going into the complex subject of co-ordination, we can again summarise in saying that the period when the ICRC was practically alone in carrying out humanitarian activities in situations of armed conflicts is definitely over, as a large number of different players are now present in the field.

When we refer to partners, that means for the ICRC primarily National Societies, and not only the ones coming from the rich countries, but particularly the ones from the countries facing the problems. These local partners are very important to facilitate access to the regions and in helping the ICRC to understand not only the culture but also the situation of a region. If it is true that they are not always well organised, it is also true that they are often the only local organised structure in the country, despite the fact that, in some cases, they are not always complying with the Fundamental Principles of the Movement, particularly those of neutrality, independence and impartiality.

So how to act when faced with a National Societies which does not comply with the fundamental principles? The ICRC may still accept to work with this National Society ( this approach is valid as well for non officially recognised Red Cross or Red Crescent Society), but the activity will be accompanied by a constant effort to push it to comply with the Fundamental Principles.

National Societies are present in the country before the conflict, and play therefore an important role in implementing, in advance, support measures for the civilian populations.

One of the problems arising from the increasing presence of actors in the field is that the National Societies often being the only existing structured organisations at a local level may accept to implement programmes from governmental or intergovernmental organisations. Such programmes may sometimes be in contradiction with the Fundamental Principles which should characterise the work of all components of the International Movement. Efforts are put in keeping the different components of the Movement to work in adherence with the Fundamental Principles.

6. The importance of ethical guidelines

Initiatives to improve humanitarian response were taken by the International Movement. We may recall here the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Disaster Relief sponsored by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response and the ICRC, which is not a manual on how to deliver relief aid, but rather a text to provide general ethical references with the purpose to help organisations to avoid basic mistakes in carrying out their work. To date, more than one hundred major NGOs have signed up the Code. It is interesting enough to note here that the word neutral does not appear in the text of the Code, but stresses that humanitarian assistance should be carried out in an impartial way.

If in the area of emergency relief, ethical guidelines have been drawn up with a view to maintaining standards of conduct, no similar principles have yet been laid down for protection activities.

As mentioned by Kate Mackintosh in her Discussion Paper, International responses to acute crisis: supporting human rights through protection and assistance, prepared for this Conference, the ICRC took the initiative in November 1996 to organise a workshop on International Law and Protection, in order to discuss issues relating in particular to humanitarian law and human rights law, in an attempt to reach a common definition of the notion of protection.

The importance of having common concepts to facilitate communication between humanitarian organisations is important,: this does not prevent the different organisations from developing their internal reflecting and adopt other definitions for their internal use.

One of the problems which may affect the work in the field is that organisations do not understand the same meaning when communicating with each others - and this has become particularly true nowadays with the presence, in theatre of operations, of players coming from different backgrounds and origins - the political, the military and even the economical ones.

The November 1996 meeting proposed two definitions of protection , one of them being: any action undertaken for the purpose of preventing, stopping or avoiding the repetition of unlawful acts by those wielding power. The meting concluded nevertheless that it was too early to adopt a common definition, but concluded positively on the need to establish a common ethical framework for this kind of activity. Another workshop aiming at continuing the debate with a limited number of organisations is scheduled to take place in Geneva in March 1998.

7. ICRC is evolving

As you may know, in July 1996, the ICRC embarked on a project aimed at analysing and gaining fresh perspective on a contemporary environment for humanitarian activity. After more than a year of both internal and external consultations and deliberations the initial conclusions of this debate known as "Avenir Project " was submitted to the Assembly, the ICRC's supreme decision-making body in December 1997.

The ICRC in undertaking this project, is re-stating its exclusively humanitarian mission, which is "to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal violence and to forestall the suffering engendered by such situations".

One important conclusion is the uncertainty which has been affecting humanitarian action since 1989. Even if States remain the key players in the international system, the ICRC is particularly concerned at the weakening of State structures. It is also concerned at the lack of respect for human dignity in a growing number of contexts, and at the recourse to humanitarian action as a means of seeking legitimacy when political solutions are not found.

Consequently, the strategic guidelines adopted by the ICRC consist of:

As Françoise Hampson pointed out, it is important to understand international humanitarian law as a tool for action. A flexible and pragmatic approach is sometimes needed in order to carry out activities, keeping in mind that priorities should be given to the response to those who suffer from the consequences of war and thus, humanitarian response should be defined by the needs only, and by no means by other factors - either political, military or economical. If this were not the case, then this type of action could no longer be defined as humanitarian action. The ICRC undertook a number of initiatives these last few years with a view to making humanitarian action better understood. We can mention here the Humanitarian Forum held in Wolfsberg in June 1997 (the next is scheduled in June 1998), as already said, the Round-table on Preventive Action held in Copenhagen in November 1997, a more systematic organised exchange with UN agencies, the obtention of the observer statute in 1990 at the General Assembly was of great help. More organised exchanges with the non-governmental sector and with humanitarian (including the human rights one) NGOs in particular testify also to that: the workshop mentioned before is an example, and we have now a yearly meting with NGOs organised jointly with the Graduate Institute of International Studies (GIIS) in Geneva - in the course of the last one which took place the 5 December, the topic raised was the security of field staff. Just this week, a three days meeting was held in Brussels where the ICRC answered favourably to the Belgian government proposal to jointly organise a seminar on the relation between humanitarian and military and on the notion of humanitarian space. At the end of March, together with ECHO, the ICRC will organise, in Lisbon, a seminar on Humanitarian Action: Perception and Security.

Moreover the ICRC is more actively contributing to training, not only for its own staff, but also for training at an academic level. More organised exchanges with the academic world, i.e. the HELP courses, which since 1986 are organised with a University partner with the aim to better study principles of intervention in the domain of health and to develop and to disseminate a common approach for humanitarian organisations, more active involvement. A more active involvement in the NOHA network in Europe as well as in a number of universities in North America. More activities in this field would of course require additional funds and additional staff, something for which the organisation does not have the necessary resources at present.


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Papers Presented (by author):
1. Kate Mackintosh - 2. Nigel S Rodley - 3. Françoise Hampson - 4.Carlo von Flüe - 5. Geoff Gilbert - 6. Nicholas Morris - 7. David Bassiouni - 8. Philip Wilkinson - 9. Emma Shitakha - 10. Ian Martin - 11. Colleen Duggan
Report links: website home page
Table of Contents - Search - Introduction - Recommendations - Opening Address - Papers Presented - Acknowledgements  - Appendices
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