Humanitarian challenges in the spotlight as International Conference gets underway

As the 33rd International Conference in Geneva gets underway, IFRC President Francesco Rocca and ICRC President Peter Maurer discuss humanitarian challenges and some of the big issues on the agenda this week.

What are your hopes for the International Conference?

Francesco Rocca: The International Conference is a unique place where all the components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement can discuss with Governments under the safe space of our Fundamental Principles. I hope that we will use this opportunity to discuss about the most pressing humanitarian challenges, like the climate crisis, migration, the criminalization of humanitarian aid, the respect of humanitarian workers, to name but a few.

We need a strong Red Cross Red Crescent voice to advocate on behalf of the communities we serve. I hope that we will have fruitful and bold discussions, without shying away from topics that can be also divisive at an international level. I feel a deep responsibility to represent our 192 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their almost 14 million volunteers; I will strongly advocate for the localization agenda which is the humanitarian trend we created a few years ago at the World Humanitarian Summit.

Our National Societies are local actors par excellence. We need to strengthen them and involve them in every decisional process. This is the strength of our Movement, the original idea of our founder, Henry Dunant: strong National Societies, strong local actors, mean strong local communities.

Peter Maurer: The unique promise of the conference is that in times of disaster, violence and conflict, in contexts of underdevelopment and other global challenges, when despair and devastation are greatest, lives can be saved and suffering alleviated through the special relationship of signatories to the Geneva Conventions and the components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

This special relationship recognizes that neither States nor civil societies can deal with these issues on their own, but rather need each other. We now have an opportunity to reinvigorate the special relationship we have with States, reinforcing our principles of NIIHA.

In practical terms this means making progress on the key themes and resolutions of the conference: on upholding respect for IHL, responding to key areas of vulnerabilities – mental health and psychosocial support, Restoring Family Links, climate crisis, digital transformation, migration, displacement and urban challenges – as well as trust in humanitarian action.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the Movement right now?

Francesco Rocca: Our main challenge is to stay relevant, ready to anticipate and detect new vulnerabilities and be ready to adapt accordingly. We are facing many complex emergencies all around the world: the climate crisis, the humanitarian crisis linked to migration and pandemics, as well as the many protracted crises where the sustainability of humanitarian activities is deeply under pressure.

We must work as a collective, as a Movement, enhancing our complementarity and putting our National Societies at the core of every discussion and decision. The world outside, the people we serve, donors, the general public, media, all of them only see one Red Cross or Red Crescent.

We must act accordingly; we need to sit together, put aside individual interests, and have an honest and trustful dialogue about roles and responsibilities. If we do not adapt, change will be forced upon us. The world is changing rapidly, and we must adapt accordingly.

Peter Maurer: The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is an incredibly powerful force in the world. In our diversity there is strength, from the countries we come from, the languages we speak, and the experiences we have individually and collectively.

But the realities of the crises that the world faces today – humanitarians and States alike – are enormous and complex. We see the nature of crises changing and a widening gap between the shape and scale of people’s needs and our capacity to respond.

In the absence of political solutions, wars are protracted, some lasting decades. Urban battles feature prominently, causing widespread destruction and indiscriminate harm to civilians and their cities. As wars destroy whole systems, as people are displaced for years at a time, new crisis needs are created. Beyond the basics of food and shelter, families also need electricity, water, health systems. What we think of as ‘emergency needs’ is shifting. And so must our response.

We must also respond to the invisible needs – the mental health and psychosocial needs of people. Entire communities and individuals are suffering in silence, overwhelmed by stigma and a lack of appropriate support. This hidden suffering demands our attention as much as physical needs.

And finally we must support our own people. Our Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and staff answer the call of crises. They step up, despite the personal tragedies within their own communities, despite the personal risk. I recognize their dedication, their sacrifice – and we must make sure we are all there for each other, because we are one family.

Trust is a big theme of the conference. How can we better build trust in humanitarian action?

Francesco Rocca: Trust is crucial, and it is a very important signal that we have it as one of the main themes of our International Conference but also as a red thread for our Statutory Meetings. I believe that our greatest strength is that our volunteers are coming from the same local communities they are supporting. They understand the culture, they speak the same language, they are there before, during and after any crisis or disaster.

Our Movement is unique: we build and maintain trust from communities through our volunteers. The meaning of trust is when an ambulance or a team has access during an outbreak of violence and entire crowds applaud their bravery; we saw it many times over past months in many different places. Obviously, we still need to do it better, but I am sure we are best positioned to maintain trust from the people we serve, as well as from donors and partners. We must engage communities and put them at the centre of everything we do. We are deeply committed to doing this.

Peter Maurer: There is enormous trust in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Trust is the backbone of successful action and is sorely needed in today’s fragmented and divided societies. I firmly believe that the Movement can be a more powerful incubator of trust in societies at large, through the values we embody, the vision we represent and the pragmatism with which we act.

For trust is our license to win the confidence of communities, arms bearers and others to deliver humanitarian aid that is neutral and impartial. We are defined by the trust of populations, by the millions who say: “When I suffered, you were there.”

Related news