It is a special honour for me to share this platform today with my friend Jan Egeland, the UN's Emergency Relief Coordinator. We have worked together a great deal over the years, but never more actively and effectively than in the last weeks.
The earthquake and tsunamis which shattered so many lives in South and South East Asia have created a clearer understanding than ever before of the complementary nature of the work of the United Nations family and the family of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
In that respect, it is highly appropriate that the theme for today's discussion should be one which relates so exactly to what we are working on today in the region and especially in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
There are several levels within the topic of the disaster reduction capability of communities. I shall concentrate now on some points of particular importance to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, for they are also relevant to other discussions we are having with governments, international organisations, civil society and the corporate sector.
Whenever disasters strike the media is not far behind. Every picture, every story, and every film is of people and their suffering. Every image is of communities.
This is entirely proper, for it is people themselves who suffer. For us in the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies it is a constant statement of our proper place in the international community. We are the only member of that international community which is truly based on local communities. Our member National RCRC Societies are all required constitutionally to be community-based, and to have a diverse membership which respects and protects the most vulnerable without any form of discrimination.
That is why we are so determined to underline, at every opportunity, our belief that effective programs aimed at preparing for and responding to disasters must be designed, implemented and monitored by the communities themselves.
This is a message now much better understood, and the risk reduction theme of this panel shows how it has been accepted as a practical issue at all levels. The Asian Disaster Reduction Center, as a principal organiser of this event, has also been clearly on record as a supporter of the concept.
It also fits neatly with the development objectives set by the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000, and with the Millennium Development Goals which frame the world's development activity now.
We in the International Federation have linked those Goals, and particularly Goal 1 on Poverty Reduction, to the importance of disaster risk reduction programs which are effective at the community level. We state that the disaster/poverty cycle cannot be broken without strong investment in community capability, and we see this important International Symposium as capable of building that understanding.
Disasters, perhaps especially weather-related disasters, are seen for their immediate impact because of their effect on people and their lives. Soon after that, however, the image starts to transform into an understanding of the impact on economies and national well-being.
At this point the issue of livelihoods of affected communities takes on a broader context. It is a point which was of special importance to the International Federation at the meeting last week in Mauritius of Small Island Developing States, for many of those states have economies which are dependent on a narrow economic base.
The Maldive Islands is a case in point. The lifestyle of many of the people of the country is based on fishing, but the economy now draws most of its foreign exchange from tourism. The impact of the recent tsunami on the Maldives could, it is feared, do serious damage to those two industries and make it all the more difficult for the local communities in the country to regain their dignity and prosperity.
The same is true of most Small Island States, but the Maldives and some of its counterparts in the Pacific Ocean are also gravely concerned with the prospect that climate change will do even more damage to their prospects for survival.
The International Federation uses its capacity as an international organisation with full access to the United Nations system to advocate for effective community-based programs which will both help the communities in the countries themselves and take relevant messages concerning their vulnerability to the outside world.
The International Federation also uses its character as a membership organisation with member Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in almost every country in the world to lobby for government support for actions at the national and international levels.
One point we push hard is that governments should implement the obligations they have accepted. One, very important to community preparedness and effective response, is that governments should develop national disaster management planning and include their national Red Cross or Red Crescent Society on the national council set up to administer the plan.
In Japan, the Japanese Red Cross Society is a member of the Central Disaster Prevention Council, headed by the Prime Minister in accordance with the country's national law. This provides an essential safeguard for communities, and is a good example of the role which National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies should be recognised as discharging for their communities in every country.
Disasters, as everyone knows well, do not respect national or political boundaries. When disasters strike the world binds together to support those in need.
This takes many forms. One of the most spectacular is the public response worldwide to the tsunami disaster. Not only was there an immense worldwide outpouring of sympathy for the peoples of the countries affected, but there was the clearest evidence in history of the strength of human compassion and willingness to help.
The members and volunteers of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement went into action immediately and worldwide after the disaster struck. In the affected countries that action was support to the vulnerable and the people whose lives had been wrecked. In many other countries it was support for those who had lost family members.
But in all countries Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies began mobilising the resources which were needed immediately to bring support and assistance to the people of the affected countries. This took place alongside the work done by other organisations with similar commitments, and alongside that of governments which quickly put their own assistance programs into action.
I am deeply proud to be able to say here that the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement - that is the International Federation, its member National Societies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross have mobilised a total well in excess of one billion dollars in support of the vulnerable in the tsunami-affected region.
There has never before been a mobilisation of this size, and its stands alongside an equally spectacular response by governments and others to the Appeal launched by the United Nations in Geneva on 11 January, by Mr Egeland himself.
It is our intention to work closely together to ensure that the resources benefit the communities for which they were intended, and to ensure that to the greatest extent possible the risk of future disasters is minimised.
We do this, as I said before, at all levels, and we have the unique opportunity in our International Federation to work with communities and the top of governments and the international community on the same subjects, at the same time, and with the same objectives.
4. International and National and Local
Our work at the field level, preparing for and responding to disasters in all parts of the world, has taught us many important lessons. One of them, very relevant now while the world is supporting response to a disaster which has left people stricken in many different countries around the Indian Ocean, that there is a need for a clear understanding of what law and rules apply, both nationally and internationally, to disaster response.
This finding, which we first brought to the United Nations in late 2001, developed as a project known then as the "International Disaster Response Law Project", or IDRL. Its basic intention has been to produce an inventory of existing laws, rules and principles and test the way they work in real-life disaster situations.
We do not have in mind suggesting a new treaty to resolve any problems, for we understand that in most cases problems can be resolved through clarifying issues at the national level, producing consistent handbooks and other guidance and agreeing on principles to guide action at the local level when (as is common) disasters cut communication lines to the capital.
These elements of IDRL were drawn together for the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 2003 and we are now looking to the production of practical tools, such as a description of guiding principles and practice to facilitate the work of all governments, communities and others concerned with bringing effective relief into action as soon as the need arises.
IDRL is an important illustration of the way the International Federation works at all levels. It also shows, even more importantly, the way our work is driven by the need to ensure that the lives and livelihoods of people at the local level are protected in the most adverse of circumstances. This is our task as a Movement, and the task of our RCRC Societies Federation is to unite this work with the work of all others so that we can bring our action to wherever it is needed, for as long as is necessary.
But the fact remains, and Japan proves it, that well-prepared communities have the resilience to carry themselves through and recover quickly from even the worst of disaster situations. Even though the number of natural disasters is increasing year by year, the number of people who lose their lives has been declining.
This is due, in large part, to the success of work on building community capacity. This is one of our central planks, and we will continue to build our partnerships with others who share this objective.