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Human dignity first

By Ian Piper

The 28thInternationalConference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent will take place in the first week of December in Geneva. Red Cross, Red Crescent looks at the various issues to be addressed by conference participants.

There is a familiar ring about the slogan for the 28th International Conference — "protecting human dignity". It sums up in a few words what many in the Movement think the Red Cross Red Crescent is all about.

Getting from a slogan to holding a conference which actually makes a difference to people's lives is, however, no easy matter. The challenge over the next few months and during the conference itself will be to ensure that the outcome is practical, responds to problems the Movement has identified, and is achievable. The unique relationship between governments and the Red Cross Red Crescent has to be made to work in the interests of vulnerable people around the world.

Stark analysis of today's realities

As a first step the ICRC, the International Federation and the Standing Commission defined what they believed were the humanitarian challenges faced by the international community with the help of the Group of Ambassadors in Geneva advising on the preparation of the conference.

Their analysis is stark. Lack of respect for human dignity and human rights is widespread. Access to people affected by armed conflict or other disasters is often difficult, international humanitarian law is not followed adequately and there are too many serious violations of that law.

Human dignity is also under threat for civilians in occupied territories and detainees. Poverty and inequality put people at increased risk from disease and disasters, denying them the right to life, health and dignity. Intolerance and discrimination also marginalize groups and individuals in society.

Finally acts of violence aimed at spreading terror and the fight against terrorism create new challenges.


An opportunity for action

The conference is an opportunity to tackle some of these issues. It must at least reassert the overriding importance of laws that safeguard human dignity and find practical ways of improving respect for them.

Responsibility is a big issue. It is up to all sides in a conflict to apply law especially in the face of new security threats and in internal conflicts where armed groups are active. There is a responsibility as well to find ways to reduce discrimination and violence, strengthen vulnerable people's capacity to cope with situations that threaten their human dignity and involve them in finding solutions.

Taking responsibility for protecting human dignity also means that governments, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement and civil society in general must be clearly accountable for their actions, or lack of them. The final declaration of the conference should make this clear.

Apart from the declaration the conference will draw up an "agenda for humanitarian action" containing a series of concrete goals. It will develop this agenda by focusing on four key issues. Dealing with the problem of people missing in conflict, reducing the human cost of using certain types of weapons, reducing the impact of disasters and lowering the risk and impact of infectious diseases on vulnerable people.

The missing

One of the saddest legacies of war and internal violence is the number of people who go missing and the anguish faced by those they leave behind. It is possible to prevent many disappearances if the parties to a conflict live up to their responsibilities. The same is true for establishing the fate of missing people if prevention has failed. This was clear from the outcome of the international conference on people missing in armed conflict and internal violence organized by the ICRC in February 2003.

The issue now goes before governments and the National Societies, the ICRC and the International Federation at the December conference. It must take action to prevent disappearances, improve information on people unaccounted for, and deal with the issue of handling human remains. Above all it must recognize the need to support the families of missing people and clearly establish their "right to know".


The arms issue

The Movement played a key role in the campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines. While more the 30 million have been destroyed and vast areas cleared, much work remains to end the suffering caused by anti-personnel mines. The conference will provide an opportunity to stimulate progress on landmines and other weapons issues of humanitarian concern.

Negotiations have begun on an international agreement to reduce the risk posed by other explosive devices remaining after conflict — so-called "explosive remnants of war". The conference can highlight the need for a future agreement to contain both post-conflict and preventive measures. Unregulated arms availability is another issue on the agenda.

Advances in biotechnology — while having impressive potential benefits — could be misused to create new means or methods of warfare entailing enormous risks for all human beings. It is timely for the conference to call for action to prevent the use of biotechnology for hostile purposes.

Reducing the impact of disasters

Millions of people each year are affected by disaster, and the number is growing. The most severe impact is often in societies that already face adverse social, environmental and economic conditions making it more difficult for people to cope when disaster strikes. Much has already been done to prepare people better to deal with disasters such as floods, earthquakes and drought. But the conference will call for an increased and more coordinated effort so that "disaster risk reduction" becomes a reality. It will consider a range of practical actions that governments and National Societies can take to incorporate risk reduction, disaster management techniques, awareness and preparedness in their policies and practices.

Better coordination, timeliness, quality and accountability of disaster response activities will be tackled through the elaboration of what is now known as international disaster response law. The conference will consider ways of reinforcing that regulatory framework further.


Changing attitudes to HIV/AIDS

The stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV/AIDS and other diseases is a direct threat to human dignity. Those who suffer most are often poor and live in areas where conflict, disaster or social marginalization has increased their vulnerability. The conference will identify action by governments and National Societies to tackle stigma and discrimination and build on the global campaign "The truth about AIDS... Pass it on".

The conference must also look at action to reduce the risks and vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and other diseases in programmes where the Red Cross Red Crescent and governments already work together, such as assistance to displaced people, whether through conflict, disasters, migration or social and economic crises, and to other marginalized groups such as prisoners and detainees.

Pledges and workshops

Alongside the more formal aspects of the conference there will be opportunities to mobilize and involve people in other ways. Ten workshops are being planned by groups of National Societies and governments on specific issues linked to the conference themes.

The pledging system proved very popular at the 27th conference and will be repeated in 2003. Individual governments or National Societies, or groups of them, make public pledges to achieve something tangible in the four years that follow.

On the penultimate day of the conference, there will be a series of other items including reports on the auxiliary role of National Societies, the issue of the emblem and customary international humanitarian law. Finally some excitement will probably be generated by the election of a new Standing Commission for the coming four years. All the components of the Movement go to great lengths to avoid involvement in anything political in order to preserve their reputation for independence, neutrality and impartiality. The election of the Standing Commission is of course also a non-political affair. Nevertheless there is always a ripple in the air when it happens.


Ian Piper
Ian Piper is ICRC senior press officer.

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