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Conferences are in fashion. These days it is not unusual for hundreds (sometimes even thousands) of people to travel from every corner of the earth to a selected city to discuss issues of common concern. This year, for instance, Copenhagen was the venue for discussions on economic development, and in September Beijing welcomed the world to a conference on women. Now, in December, Geneva will host a conference devoted to all things humanitarian — the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

But what do conferences actually achieve? After the resolutions have been adopted, when the meeting halls have emptied, when everyone goes back to their respective corners of the globe, what happens? Undoubtedly, we are still left with a less-than-perfect world and, no matter how successful a conference is, that world won’t change overnight. Why then do we need conferences?

In the case of this International Conference, there are at least three good reasons. In the first place, it symbolises another step on the humanitarian “journey of a thousand miles”, a journey on which we cannot afford to falter. If we consider the number and ferocity of conflicts that rage today, the scale of the problem of refugee and displaced populations, or the prevalence of poverty, it is clear enough that promoting human welfare is an enormous task. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement does not pretend to be able to solve all the world’s problems, but it is a humanitarian impetus, a nudge to the world’s conscience.

Secondly, the ideas slated for discussion at the Conference are by no means new, but the context in which they operate is, so they need to be refitted into current real-ity. By such tailoring, the impact and potential of these ideas will be seen from a fresh perspective and they will become more useful and more powerful.

Finally, the reason to have this Conference is that it does have an enormous potential to turn words into action. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is confident that its members and governments can translate the ideas of the International Conference into reality. That confidence is based on experience, namely, on 25 previous International Conferences spanning more than a hundred years.

Experience also tells us that the leap from words to action requires two essential things. One is courage. Enforcing international humanitarian law or developing strong, independent organisations can be difficult and unpopular. It takes conviction and determination to do it. The second is a comprehensive vision. This Conference cannot be seen in isolation. The ideas and values it promotes are far reaching and they must be carried into every aspect of our lives and work. To what extent this Conference can make a difference will depend very much on the courage and vision of the participants and of those who are unable to attend but who constantly strive to promote human welfare.

The International Conference has pinpointed a number of crucial issues to tackle in the course of its four-day agenda. But the overriding message goes beyond these specific items. In choosing “Keeping hope alive!” as its slogan, the Conference is saying to the world: in spite of the odds, we can work for a better future.

Barbara Geary

Christina Grisewood

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