Humanitarian Action on the Front Lines

Humanitarian Action on the Front Lines
North Kivu: During a food distribution programme to displaced persons an ICRC employee hands a distribution card to a mother.KATSUVA KAMATE/ICRC

by Dominik Stillhart

The ICRC is mandated by the international community to assist and protect those affected by conflict or violence, including promoting international humanitarian law, monitoring respect for that law, and assisting people affected by war. This mandate reflects the ideas of Henry Dunant, a private Swiss businessman who witnessed more than 40,000 dead and wounded on the battlefield of Solferino, Northern Italy in 1859. He mobilized the villagers to help those not already receiving aid. Not stopping there, he convinced first the authorities of Geneva and then beyond to create a framework to limit the consequences of war and conflict. That same spirit still pervades the ICRC.

In light of the current polarization of the international community, would such a mandate be given to a private organization today? Probably not, in spite of the fact that the work of the ICRC is more important today than ever before, as reflected in a budget expanding to $2 billion Canadian in 2017.

The world today faces intensified conflict with a corresponding demand for humanitarian assistance. The Middle East, the Lake Chad Basin, Afghanistan, and Ukraine are just some of the places where conflict now causes untold human suffering. Each context has its own specific reasons for war but growing polarization and the failure of traditional multilateral diplomacy both contribute. Regional rivalries intensify local grievances, which in turn are manipulated by geo-political interests. Radical groups then exploit the situation and the international system is hard pressed to mitigate the conflicts, much less end them.

Marginalization, exclusion, and weak or absent state institutions contribute to the fragility. Add climate change, youth unemployment, and the globalization of crime and you end up with massive, protracted humanitarian problems. The ICRC has been present, on average, for more than 36 years in its ten largest operations. With such long-term engagement, emergency humanitarian aid is far less prevalent today.

For instance, the ICRC has supported the Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan for more than twenty years. Initially its focus was entirely on the war wounded. Now it is a referral hospital for five million people, widening the scope from those directly injured by the conflict. Health systems are massively affected in protracted conflicts, so the ICRC must use a broader lens, including support for non-communicable diseases. This blurring of the lines between humanitarian aid and development approaches saw the recent distribution of vast quantities of insulin to patients with diabetes in Yemen.

Protracted conflicts also increase the number of people forcibly displaced. Destruction of infrastructure, continuous insecurity, and declining hopes for the future lead to growing numbers seeking opportunities elsewhere. In Europe, the concern focuses on refugees and migrants, but they are ultimately small in number. In fact, most of the 65 million people on the move today have never crossed a border. These 42 million internally displaced still live in the countries affected by war themselves.

In the town of Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria, for instance, one million residents host one million displaced by the fighting. Most of the displaced live with relatives and friends, meaning that the local population bears the greatest burden. Solutions must be found not only for the displaced but also for the residents whose resources are being exhausted. Humanitarian responses therefore must be varied, adapted, and delivered in some of the most fragile environments imaginable.

As a frontline organization, the ICRC operates in close proximity to those it strives to assist and protect. Based on neutral, independent, impartial humanitarian action, its modus operandi allows the ICRC to work where it is most needed and most difficult, entailing a number of important challenges. In order to operate, we must be accepted by the conflicting parties, which implies engagement with all stakeholders on a daily basis, creating relationships with a wide range of state and non-state armed groups. Alas today with growing fragmentation on the battlefields, as compared to twenty years ago, we are often faced with a proliferation of conflicting parties, not just two.

This complexity is obvious in the current conflict in Syria where one must pass through many different checkpoints, negotiating with all of the groups controlling them, in order to reach affected civilian populations. This engagement is step one in building the trust necessary to play the role of neutral intermediary. The recent evacuation of thousands of civilians from eastern Aleppo is one of the fruits of this process.

Constant interaction, patient relationship building, and continuous adherence to our principles over fifty years also paved the way for the ICRC’s contribution to the Colombian peace process. For the negotiations, the ICRC transported FARC guerilleros from the jungles of Colombia to Havana and back, with the agreement of the government.

This role as neutral intermediary, however, is not always accepted. Sometimes establishing a relationship of trust with all the actors in a conflict — and therefore the protection and assistance that follows — is not possible. Today, unfortunately, the ICRC simply cannot reach large populations in some parts of Syria and Iraq.

One must remain humble in the face of the massive need that we see in the field for we witness the incredible resilience of populations affected by conflict. After all, those who make the greatest difference are the people themselves and their families, friends, and networks. Without the ICRC, however, countless detainees would receive no protection; myriad internally displaced people would receive no assistance.

Thousands affected by war and violence live in areas where the ICRC is among the few organizations with access. Its impact and its unique position in the humanitarian world motivate our staff who work in these extremely challenging environments. Or, as Nelson Mandela put it, “It is not so much about the good that the ICRC does, but about the bad that it prevents.”

Dominik Stillhart is the Director of Operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. He spoke at CIPS on 19 January 2017.

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