President’s Speech for International Volunteer Day

Published: 5 December 2003

I would also like to thank the representative from the Geneva Red Cross youth that spoke before me. Like him, now some time ago, I too was a youth volunteer, with the Spanish Red Cross. It is therefore a great honour for me to be here now, representing in some way the interests and aspirations of millions of Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers around the world.

Let me share some of the things that I have learned over my years of involvement as a volunteer with the Red Cross Red Crescent. I have learned respect for the individual and to care for the well-being of others. I have learned not only the value of tolerance, but to celebrate diversity. I have learned to listen to others, to value their opinions, and to work together in cooperation towards a common goal. In short, I think I can say that I have learned to be a better person through volunteering.

Above all, I have learned that every person, regardless of their situation or circumstances, has something to offer to humanity. Every individual has the capacity for caring and the capacity for working in solidarity to alleviate human suffering and contribute to human dignity.

We all know that the task of protecting human dignity and achieving noble goals such as eradicating poverty and hunger, intolerance and discrimination, and other threats to human dignity would be impossible without the energy and dedication of volunteers.

But, as I said in my opening statement to this Conference, the task goes beyond merely protecting human dignity. We need to actively promote human dignity. I can think of no better way to do so than through volunteering. Volunteering plays a vital transforming role in society.

The videos we have seen show volunteers from vulnerable communities offering care and support and inspiring other through their dedication. It confirms once more that vulnerable people are never just “victims” – they have so much to offer in our efforts to promote human dignity. We should look for socially-inclusive means of allowing and encouraging their involvement and participation in reaching that goal. Volunteering can be one of them.

By creating a sense of cohesion and solidarity within society, volunteering builds social capital, because it converts individual action into collective action directed towards a social end. It allows for social mobilisation and organisation within the community. It also offers a means for people to show that their value and to reaffirm that they have an important place in society. It can build a sense of self-worth, and true feeling of pride for their contribution to creating a better world. These points highlight something that is not often acknowledged about volunteering: it is a key function in strengthening civil society.

The International Federation has worked hard at fulfilling the pledge made at the 1999 International Conference to promote voluntary service and improve our mechanisms to support volunteers within our Red Cross Red Crescent network.

We have also worked in close partnership with United Nations Volunteers, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union to follow-up on the International Year of Volunteers in 2001.

I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the outstanding efforts of Sharon Capeling-Alakija, the former Executive Coordinator of United Nations Volunteers who recently passed away. I knew Sharon personally, and admired her energy and commitment to volunteerism. She was a good friend to the Red Cross Red Crescent, and she will be missed, but her vision will continue to guide the continued relationship between the Federation and UNV.

One outcome of the International Year of Volunteers was United Nations General Assembly resolution 56/38, which outlined a number of ways in which governments could support volunteering. I would like to commend governments that have taken action to improve their support to volunteering, and encourage you all to do more.

But I would like to ask the governments represented here today to continue to work with the Red Cross Red Crescent and volunteer organisations everywhere to create a more conducive environment for volunteerism. In particular, we need to ensure that legislation promotes and safeguards volunteers, rather then impedes and discourages voluntary service. We especially need to ensure that volunteers engaged in humanitarian activities are afforded the respect, dignity and protection they deserve.

Today, International Volunteer Day, we can begin with a simple gesture, if only symbolic, towards that objective: to value, acknowledge and celebrate the work of volunteering. For that we can together honour them through our applause.

I would like to ask ALL delegates here to convert this gesture into reality when we return to our homes, to transmit to the volunteers that work in our countries, not only that we have applauded their efforts here today, but that we recognize and value the work that they do every day.

And to the millions of volunteers that every day put our humanitarian principles into action, I give my sincerest thanks. Without every single one of you, the dream of human dignity for all would be impossible.

Thank you!