IFRC and Humanitarian Diplomacy

Publicado: 29 octubre 2009

Address by Bekele Geleta, Secretary General, at the Moscow Diplomatic Academy, in Moscow

Thank you very much for inviting me to visit your distinguished Academy and speak with you here.

I very much welcome this opportunity because, while I represent a unique humanitarian network that is well-known worldwide, this recognition does not always go hand in hand with a great understanding of its history, mandate and activities.

Although I am given humanitarian diplomacy as topic to speak on, I decided to start with the Red Cross Red Crescent, because this provides the background rationale why we engage in humanitarian diplomacy.

Humanitarian diplomacy remained the best instrument of success to promote humanitarianism and to mobilize both public and governmental commitment and resources for humanitarian action ever since the creation of the Red Cross Red Crescent.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement consists of three independent segments – the International Committee of the Red Cross, a private Swiss organization with a mandate in International Humanitarian Law and conflict or war-related relief activities; the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and their International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the IFRC, which I lead and am honoured to represent here today.

At present, the IFRC represents and supports Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in 186 countries worldwide, and more are in formation. This network has around 100 million volunteers and members, and the community-based organizational capacity to mobilize these highly-trained volunteers to respond to natural and human-made disasters and health crises, large and small, wherever they may occur.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Red Cross Red Crescent achieves so much in the service of vulnerable people because it is embedded in communities large and small in every country, and because its 100 million volunteers and members know that they have the power to change the world.

They know this because the Movement itself has grown from the actions of one man who saw terrible suffering and refused to turn away from the horror of it.

Swiss businessman Henry Dunant saw the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in 1859 and was so appalled by the cries of 40,000 injured and dying men that he mobilised the inhabitants of nearby villages to aid the wounded, and comfort those who were beyond help in their final moments. His plea – “Tutti fratelli”, or “We are all brothers” – ensured that the stricken soldiers were treated equally, regardless of their nationality or allegiance.

When he returned to Geneva, he worked hard to convince governments to create a legal instrument to limit the human damages of wars, and to form relief societies in each country to aid all victims of conflict.

This year we are celebrating not only 150 years of the Movement, but also 90 years of the formation of the IFRC and 60 years of the Geneva Conventions, which were expanded in 1949 to include much greater protection for civilians in conflict.

The Movement originated on the field of battle as an expression of mercy for the wounded, the sick, and prisoners of war, irrespective of their nationality. In this regard Russia has a very much identical and strong humanitarian history that precedes that of Henry Dunant - although Dunant gets the credit for internationalizing it.

Dr. Pirogov, an outstanding Russian scientist, surgeon and public figure, initiated and promoted similar ideas in the early 1850s. During the 1853-1856 Crimean War he advocated for an international treaty to relieve the victims of war, and the establishment of officially recognized societies to provide relief to the wounded and the sick.

He also wanted international law to include a minimum requirement of care for the wounded and protective status for medical personnel carrying out their duties on the battlefield. In his Course of Military Surgery, Pirogov said war was a "traumatic epidemic", and called for an international organization to provide relief to the wounded. The public help to the wounded and sick defendants of Sevastopol, which he organized, served as a prototype for the Red Cross.

As early as 1854, and on Pirogov’s initiative, the first social organization with activity similar to the Red Cross was created in St. Petersburg with the aim of attending the wounded during the Crimean war. This was the Krestovozdvizhenskaia obshina sister miloserdiia, or Holy Cross Society of Sisters of Mercy. Interestingly, the Russian version of the Sisters bore the stamp of its imperial patroness, the Grand Duchess Elena Pavolvna, very similar to the British Nightingale Sisters.

The Russian Red Cross Society was established on 3 May 1867, subsequent to the Geneva conference of 1863 and the Geneva Convention of 22 August 1864. This was a benevolent public organization, and its humane ideas and principles attracted outstanding Russian personalities who shaped it into an organization of the social masses. The Russian Society sent medical detachments to France and Germany during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, to Ethiopia during the Italo-Ethiopian war of 1895-1896, and to South Africa during the Anglo-Transvaal (Boer) war of 1899-1902.

The Russian Red Cross went on to achieve a great deal within the borders of the USSR on its own and internationally in partnership with IFRC. The partnership operations following the Armenian earthquake of 1988, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the tuberculosis and psychological support activities that are phasing out at present or to be phased out shortly, can be mentioned as good examples.

Thus, over the years National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies such as the Russian Red Cross - together with their International Federation and the ICRC - have been saving lives and restoring livelihoods through strong local, national and global response and recovery activities.

Today, efficient systems have been put in place worldwide to allow for fast and effective mobilization of skills, volunteers, logistics and resources in the aftermath of catastrophes both man-made and natural. Our tools for disaster response, prevention and risk reduction are elaborate - and perhaps even unmatched.

Red Cross Red Crescent societies are also engaged in wide-ranging development activities and are changing ways of life, attitudes and mindsets from the community level up, mainly through preventive health, first aid, social mobilization activities, dissemination of principles and values and institutional and community capacity building.

However, in the context of a rapidly changing world, modern humanitarianism is becoming increasingly complex and complicated.

Conflicts are now mostly intra-state rather than inter-state, except for the well known situation in the Middle East.

Globalization and technological advancement, on the positive side, generate unparalleled wealth creation, poverty reduction and global economic interdependence. They also simultaneously require the restructuring of the traditional economy, thus creating unemployment and population movement, albeit in the short term, and introduce new ways of thinking and doing things. This creates tension - particularly when value systems and traditional ways of life are perceived to be under threat - and can become a contributor to conflict.

Regardless of their causes, the consequences of conflicts affect all. Even if the conflicts are internal, their impacts cross state borders and have a knock-on affect on the economic interests of other nations. This of course complicates power relations, as such situations invite external interventions in support of one party or another, and the overall situation can take a long time to resolve. Throughout, huge numbers of civilians suffer the consequences indefinitely.

Urban violence is an ongoing and very real problem for countless people, and the need for information and choice reinforces the importance of maintaining a critical balance between personal freedom and government control.

Communicable diseases are still killing vast numbers of people, and the rise and continued spread of the pandemic influenza H1N1 virus remains of grave concern. And in many nations, great vulnerability is emerging among the world’s aging population.

At the same time, the humanitarian consequences of climate change are growing at a rate that far outstrips efforts to adapt to and mitigate its effects, and natural disasters are increasing in both their frequency and severity.

The Red Cross Red Crescent has been tracking the humanitarian effects of climate change through its Climate Centre in the Netherlands for many years, and we are heavily engaged in advocating for the world’s vulnerable people through IASC and through our high-level involvement in UN platforms such as the Poznun conference and the upcoming COP 15 climate event in Copenhagen.

The IFRC will be in Copenhagen to call for a robust commitment to climate change adaptation, and we will ensure that the voices of the many millions of people already living with the consequences of climate change ring in the ears of the world’s decision-makers.

The Red Cross Red Crescent is uniquely placed to respond to these challenges – and to ensure that the voices of the voiceless are not only heard but acted upon - because it is unlike any other humanitarian organization.

Our emblems are mostly respected by all warring parties even in situations of internal conflict, because they are enshrined in international humanitarian law and this has been widely disseminated for decades.

National Societies are indigenous organizations with extensive and intuitive knowledge of their people and culture. Each one has earned respect and recognition, and they have a presence in every community, in every country, in every corner of the world.

States parties to the Geneva Conventions created the Red Cross Red Crescent, chose its emblems, recognized the National Societies in each country by Act of Parliament or Governmental decree as independent auxiliary to public authority, and sit with the Movement in the International Conference every four years to decide on the overarching policies that govern the Movement’s work.

In short, today governments and conflicting parties in most cases allow the Red Cross Red Crescent the humanitarian space it needs to deliver its humanitarian services. The Movement has also acquired sufficient experience and expertise to perform as a major player to meet the challenges.

So how does the Red Cross Red Crescent transform this visibility, recognition and trust into concrete action at the highest level? We use humanitarian diplomacy, which has long been one of the network’s most important tools.

Henry Dunant was a consummate humanitarian diplomat, as evidenced by his ability to convince first the Swiss Authorities and then the French government to initiate a diplomatic conference to create the Red Cross Red Crescent and sign the first Geneva Convention. Henry Davison, a president of the American Red Cross, created the IFRC in 1919 by convincing four National Society presidents and their respective governments to meet in Paris and sign the first protocol.

Every humanitarian situation portrays unique characteristics that require forceful humanitarian diplomacy to reach the vulnerable swiftly and smoothly, even during the clamour, chaos and tragedy of a natural disaster.

For a long time, State sovereignty overrode the need for humanitarian response and lives were lost indiscriminately. To overcome such shortcomings, the IFRC has developed International Disaster Response Law to facilitate the free flow of international assistance during major disasters. We are promoting IDRL and its guidelines to all States and government, and they are now being adopted in many countries.

While the Red Cross Red Crescent’s relationships with governments are of the utmost importance to its mission of relieving vulnerability worldwide, the path has not always been an easy one.

There have been difficult times where international humanitarian law and principles have been violated by one party or another in a country beset by conflict. In such times, National Societies have had to walk a very fine line between risking confrontation and avoiding the problems. For a long time only the ICRC, coming from outside and mandated to deal with such issues, was accepted as a neutral intermediary to be able to raise such issues with governments and other parties.

But gradually, as the humanitarian work of the National Societies became better known and their value recognized and reinforced by the growth of their capacities, they now serve as neutral intermediaries in their respective countries and reach where other external organizations - including the ICRC - cannot. Of course there are always problems, such as the kidnapping and occasionally even murders of humanitarian workers, and these have to be resolved on ongoing basis.

We could not achieve this without humanitarian diplomacy, which we define as persuading decision makers and opinion leaders to act, at all times, in the interests of vulnerable people, and with full respect for fundamental humanitarian principles.

Humanitarian diplomacy is vital for National Societies, their volunteers and staff and for the IFRC – to be heard, understood, given space, utilized and properly resourced. It is vital because many National Societies work under the most difficult circumstances across frontlines in many countries.

It is also vital within the Movement itself and has proven to be instrumental in resolving a number of long-standing issues that may, if left unchecked, have damaged our unity and shared mission.

One such example is the admission into the Movement of the Israeli National Society, Magen David Adom, and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. This was finally achieved at an extraordinary meeting of our International Conference, where a Memorandum of Understanding was finalised and the two societies were admitted as full members. This implementation of the MoU has not been without its difficulties, but is now proceeding. Such an outcome would not have been possible without forceful humanitarian diplomacy supported by the Fundamental Principles that underpin the Movement.

These principles have also ensured that many National Societies have been able to carry out their humanitarian missions in countries where the political and military realities on the ground can cause difficulties for every other organization.

In Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, their respective Red Crescent societies are the only credible national organization to function throughout their countries to deliver most needed assistance to the vulnerable. The Afghanistan Red Crescent is present and serving under difficult circumstances in all of that nation’s districts, and indeed has done so throughout all wars and all regimes. No other organization has ever been able to achieve this.

In Myanmar, the national Red Cross was allowed to invite in and work with the international Red Cross Red Crescent network during Cyclone Nargis in 2008 where external agencies were not permitted to operate. In countries such as Zimbabwe, where the political realities can often preclude the involvement of international non-governmental organizations and curtail the activities of indigenous ones, governments have allowed their National Societies the humanitarian space to operate.

And in DPRK and the Republic of Korea, the Red Cross works extensively and well in both countries and bilaterally. Indeed, for many years, the only dialogue taking place across the front line was between the respective Red Cross societies. In the most sensitive political arenas, the neutrality and impartiality of the Movement allows humanitarian work to continue even when all other ties have been severed.

Humanitarian diplomacy also allows our network to be counted as a major player in not only responding to and recovering from disasters, but reducing their impact through disaster risk reduction, and preventing them through “early warning, early action”. We can also use our development work to reduce poverty, and prevent millions of deaths from malnutrition, preventable communicable and non-communicable diseases, and changing ways of life, attitudes and mindsets.

The network is heavily engaged on the issue of climate change. National Societies are already busy working on both mitigation and adaptation and they want concrete governmental commitment to combat the humanitarian consequences of climate change through clear commitment to adaptation.

The phenomenon of youth urban violence, which has its roots in exclusion, discrimination and economic disempowerment, and creates vulnerabilities that can also risk exploitation for terrorism, is another priority for the Red Cross Red Crescent.

Ladies and gentlemen, What does the Red Cross Red Crescent’s humanitarian diplomacy expect from governments? We want greater humanitarian space and to take part in the decision-making process, to be listened to and recognized as a cost-effective and fully accountable partner that is worthy of investment in.

From business, we want wealth creation and at times the protection or saving of its decline (economic crisis) not to take place at the expense of aggravating vulnerability and - equally importantly - to partner with the Red Cross Red Crescent as the network offers the best humanitarian value for money in carrying out its corporate social responsibility.

From the public, we want to strengthen commitment and human to human support. We know that we already have the trust of the public, as demonstrated by the flow of donations that have followed history’s most devastating disasters.

The Red Cross Red Crescent was the recipient of the majority of publicly-donated money following the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, and has since transformed the affected areas by building new communities and infrastructure, and helping individual people build back stronger. And in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the Red Cross Society of China raised an astounding 2.4 billion dollars for the recovery operation within its own borders.

In future, we want to grow closer to the general public and, together, keep the flame of humanitarianism burning brightly in all corners of the world, and together build a more humane, peaceful and disaster-resilient situation for the human being. For the younger generation, we want to prove that our cause is a great one, worthy of their support and commitment, and that their involvement in it can change their own lives for the better as well as those of vulnerable people across the world.

We can reach these young Henry Dunants and Dr Pirogovs through our humanitarian diplomacy and outreach. We have already done so through this year’s global campaign, called “Our world. Your move”, which has reached hundreds of millions of people since its launch in May.

We can also reach governments and the public through our international representation work. The IFRC has permanent observer status at the United Nations in New York, and a Brussels office that is dedicated to working with the European Union. In addition, we have diplomatic status through agreements in 73 countries, including one with government of the Russian Federation.

In Geneva, we have a dedicated humanitarian diplomacy division and a series of advocacy teams in place across the world. And every National Society president and secretary general is a humanitarian diplomat, forging stronger relations with his or her government, and positioning the Red Cross Red Crescent as a credible partner within their respective countries while maintaining strong international links with partner agencies, civil society and the wider Movement.

Nationally, and internationally, the network also promotes strong diplomatic links and partnerships with States through the network of diplomatic missions. The IFRC is fortunate to have a good working relationship with the Russian mission in Geneva among others.

To move back from global to national issues, I will now touch on some issues of importance to the Russian Red Cross and its own humanitarian diplomacy.

It is clear that there are many needs, but also great potential and willingness to do more and do it better. Migration remains a source of tension, and this will only increase in the light of the ongoing financial crisis and the pressures it is bringing to bear, particularly in competition for jobs and resources, and a drop in remittances. National issues such as the Northern Caucasus and international ones such as the relationship with Georgia will remain of great importance, and there is still a need to build stronger relationships with National Societies in the CIS.

The IFRC is committed to providing any and all support to the Russian National Society in its current and future endeavours, and I look forward to working closely with it in the months and years to come.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished members of the Academy, Our world has changed dramatically since Henry Dunant gazed upon the Solferino battlefield and refused to give into despair.

In the 150 years that have passed since the Battle of Solferino, the Red Cross Red Crescent has grown to reach almost every community, in every country of the world. Our capacities have grown and we are known and respected. But there still needs to be a greater understanding of our work among policy and decision makers, and there must be a greater flow of resources, commensurate with the needs, throughout the network.

The world is still ravaged by vulnerability, poverty and conflict, and the challenges are many. No one government or organization can solve these problems alone, so I welcome this opportunity to meet you and hope that we can work together for humanity.

I do not want governments to miss out on an opportunity to use this global network, with its huge capacity and unrivalled grassroots presence, because if they fail to partner with us to tackle today’s humanitarian challenges to the full extent of our shared abilities, the world will suffer more than it should.

I wish you all great success in your studies and your careers, and I am sure that our paths will cross again.