Jason Smith in Kuala Lumpur
In late 2009, the global membership of the IFRC made a collective comittment to increase its advocacy efforts to address the major challenges facing the world today. It’s new Humanitarian Diplomacy Policy highlights the responsibility of Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies to persuade decision-makers and opinion leaders to act, at all times, in the interests of vulnerable people, and with full respect for fundamental humanitarian principles.
For decades, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Red Cross Society operated under a Red Cross law that dated back to 1948. “The internal and external context of the country had changed considerably” in the nearly 60 years since the DPRK’s original law was adopted, says Ryo Sung Chol of the DPRK Red Cross, a former diplomat and a key player in the shift toward the upgraded new law, passed by its Parliament in 2007.
Over the course of those sixty years, DPRK became a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement adopted its Seven Fundamental Principles, and the IFRC’s General Assembly passed resolutions and adopted policies on the integrity and auxiliary role of the Red Cross. Beginning in 1995, the DPRK Red Cross took on an increased role in disaster preparedness and response, and there has been increased international cooperation and exchange of experiences and information with other countries.
New programmes, new access, new law
The 1990’s saw a multi-faceted slate of initatives introduced by the National Society, aimed at boosting its ability to reach into the community. These included the introduction of a new constitution and improvements in volunteer management.
A new law to define the humanitarian space occupied by the National Society was the logical next step, which the DPRK Red Cross pursued with dedicated and systematic advocacy for more than a decade.
Getting started, teamwork is key
Advocacy efforts began in earnest with a chance meeting in Mongolia between a Danish Red Cross delegate and a DPRK colleague “who spoke about the National Society’s idea of getting a new Red Cross law adopted by Parliament,” says Preben Soegaard Hansen, Assistant Secretary General for the Danish Red Cross.
That led to the involvement of the Danish Red Cross to talk through the issues, bring in helpful parallels from other contexts and help explain the concepts involved to the country’s legislators. Soegaard Hansen, a long-time expert on Red Cross Red Crescent legal issues served as the focal point for the Danish Red Cross and the DPRK Red Cross.
During the first meeting he attended with legislative department officers of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) in Pyongyang, together with colleagues from the DPRK Red Cross, the legal officers “were a bit hesitant,” says Hansen.
But they soon embraced the idea, as the Red Cross team made the case for why a new law was needed. They cited examples of laws from other countries, including Bulgaria and Cambodia and talked about the content that would be needed to make improvements.
The encounter, lasting just an hour, was the opening gambit in a process that went on to involve intensive further discussion between the DPRK Red Cross and legislative body members of the Supreme People’s Assembly.
“Throughout this time,” says Ryo Sung Chol, “the DPRK Red Cross made constant use of various communication means, including working directly with the media, to actively disseminate information on Red Cross activities. They promoted the Red Cross and persuaded important people working with the legislative body through consultation meetings, proposals and recommendations.”
Drafts take shape and become law
Decisive points came when a delegation from the DPRK Red Cross met up once again with Soegaard Hansen in Geneva and when two legal officers of the SPA together with the DPRK Red Cross visited the International Federation office in Kuala Lumpur.
During those meetings, discussions took place on four possible drafts of a proposed law, which were narrowed down to one; that preferred draft became the basis for the new law that was adopted in 2007.
The new Red Cross law includes the following:
- The Seven Fundamental Principles of the Movement
- Regulation of Red Cross emblem use
- The assurance of assistance towards the DPRK Red Cross from stakeholders including government agencies.
The new Red Cross law also clarifies the right of local branches to be set up and disbanded. And according to Gwynn, “A lot of DPRK Red Cross programming is built upon the role that the law gives them, for example recognition to play first responder roles in disaster response.”
Success built upon credibility
The adoption of the new law did not happen over night. The DPRK Red Cross began in the mid-1990s to receive increasing recognition for its role in meeting the needs of vulnerable people. Yet the new legislation gave its standing an immediately discernible boost.
Just months after the new law was adopted by the country’s parliament in 2007, DPRK was battered by severe flooding, when hundreds of people were killed and thousands more were made homeless.
With its legal standing firmly established and having been invited by the government to join the National Disaster Management Committee, the DPRK Red Cross found it had such immediate access to information that “for the first three or four days of the disaster, the National Society was the first to be able to come out with the numbers of people affected,” says Jaap Timmer, then IFRC Head of Delegation.
The DPRK Red Cross has gained “confidence out of the new space given to them, along with a very large measure of independence,” Gwynn says.