Human dignity first
By Ian Piper
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.
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 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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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 is ICRC senior press officer.