From risk to real danger
by Pierre Hazan and Jean-François
A sign of the times: humanitarian
action has become more vulnerable. The Movement and other
humanitarian organizations mourn colleagues killed in suicide
attacks or murdered, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In certain contexts, the increasing threat has rendered the
humanitarian mission almost impossible. How serious are these
dangers and what can the Movement do to continue to act in
close proximity to the victims? Red Cross, Red Crescent offers
some elements of a response.
Inside an ICRC Land Cruiser in Basra, Iraq,
May 2003. To be perceived as neutral and independent is a
key factor of security.
©François de Sury / ICRC
has the humanitarian world lived through such difficult times.
In Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Caucasus and in Africa, humanitarian
workers have been deliberately targeted. On 27 October 2003
in Baghdad, an ICRC delegation was the victim of a murderous
attack. The emblem, once a symbol of protection, no longer
suffices. The ICRC and the International Federation, as well
as other actors on the humanitarian scene, some of whose staff
members have lost their lives because of the shrinking of
humanitarian "space", that neutral and independent
ground where humanitarians can assist vulnerable people in
time of conflict and disaster, share this worrying realization.
Their unprecedented vulnerability has sometimes caused humanitarian
organizations to pull out or reduce activities in certain
regions, which have become too dangerous (notably in Iraq,
Afghanistan and Chechnya), as well as to rethink their operational
strategies. According to United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Delphine Marie, "since
the murder of three of our staff in Timor in September 2000,
we have been taking a long, hard look at the balance to be
found between meeting populations' needs and ensuring the
safety of our humanitarian workers."
The repercussions of the "war on terrorism" declared
by the United States (US) administration have accelerated
the erosion of the humanitarian space. ICRC president Jakob
Kellenberger emphasizes the current trend towards "polarization"
and "radicalization", which, he says, means "certain
people associate us with the Western world, which they reject".
Therefore, in conformity with the rules set forth by the Council
of Delegates in 1995, which forbid the use of armed protection
by the different components of the Movement, and in order
to avoid being associated with the US-led coalition in Iraq,
the ICRC refused the US governments offer of military protection
for its delegates in Iraq. The president of the International
Federation, Juan Manuel Suarez del Toro, stresses for his
part "the growing politicization of humanitarian aid
and the erosion of respect for our independent and impartial
work, with the corollary of increasingly frequent attacks
on our staff". Pierre Kraehenbuehl, ICRC director of
operations, sees a danger "when states exploit humanitarian
aid by using it as a tool for conflict management and as an
instrument to promote their own interests".
highly polarized contexts, is it still possible to be close
to the victims and to operate in acceptable security conditions?
Ten years ago, deliberate attacks on ICRC personnel, and Movement
staff in general, were very rare. Today, the proportion of
such attacks has risen significantly for all humanitarian
workers. This extremely worrying symptom is having a detrimental
effect on the functioning and prospects of humanitarian action.
Moreover, the increasing involvement of a range of non-state
actors in conflicts is seriously complicating security matters.
Some of these actors "are caught in an unequal struggle
and have no hesitation in resorting to non-conventional methods
of warfare such as attacks on humanitarian organizations,
considered to be 'soft targets'", says Michel Cagneux,
head of the ICRC's security unit. In this respect, the strengthening
of passive security measures — "bunkerization",
to use the jargon — adopted by many external actors
can make the ICRC more vulnerable in the eyes of certain groups.
In a humanitarian space reduced by the logic of "who
is not with me is against me", there remains little room
for the humanitarian intermediary who, in order to assist
the victims, is simply trying to remain neutral, impartial
Haitian rebels in Gonaives, February 14. Dialogue
with non-state actors is vital to ensuring respect for IHL.
©Reuters / Daniel Aguilar, Courtesy www.alertnet.org
National Societies play a vital role in security
matters like this mine awareness session led by the Afghan
Red Crescent Society in Kabul.
©Farzana Wahidy / ICRC
To counter these new threats, there is general agreement
on the need to reorient operational policy, but for the moment
such developments are still in their infancy.
"Humanitarian action seems to be perceived as being
driven by the Christian West," says Abbas Gullet, director
of operations at the International Federation. "The challenge
is to improve the level of acceptance while being perceived
as a universal Movement." Pierre Kraehenbuehl agrees,
but adds: "We need to explain better why impartiality
and independence are so important and prove that we do not
have a hidden agenda." Confirming this orientation, Dr
Mahmoud Gabr, secretary general of the Egyptian Red Crescent
Society believes that " the Movement must advocate and
demonstrate its neutrality" while adding "to avoid
overreaction to terrorism that may lead to further risks due
Following the various attacks suffered by the Movement, the
ICRC, International Federation and National Societies have
radically reinforced coordination on security matters. Although
certain National Societies, contrary to the rules and principles
of the Movement, prefer to rely on the protection of their
armed forces — notably in Iraq — there is nevertheless
a strong consensus that only an independent, neutral and impartial
action will be accepted by the protagonists in a situation
of armed violence or conflict. But how do you respond to such
The prevailing view is to be much better integrated at the
field level. This means developing local networks and forging
links with all the actors, be they political, humanitarian,
religious or military. Above all, it requires being better
known by the non-state actors and trying to foster a dialogue
with them, an approach that is not necessarily new in itself,
but that is relatively uncharted territory. For a certain
kind of belligerent secrecy is, in fact, the modus operandi,
which makes dialogue with the outside world problematic. These
include the Islamic extremist groups, contacts with whom must
be sensitively handled so as not to fuel suspicions of spying.
People to whom you can relay your message also need to be
identified. For what impact? Hard to say. In any case, this
work of listening and persuasion — which requires a
lot of patience and tact — can prove to be the determining
factor and must therefore be undertaken with the utmost seriousness.
New approaches in order to strengthen the dialogue must therefore
The "perception" factor
Risk limitation also involves adopting a more technical approach
to security issues. In this domain, much has been accomplished
in the last ten years, triggered by the conflicts in the former
Yugoslavia. Now it is a question of consolidating the security
rules (see box The seven pillars of security). To quote Paddy
Ogilvy, an ICRC delegate: "If you do not respect the
security rules, not only do you risk being fired, but above
all you risk your neck!" Security briefings, systematic
notification of all field movements and targeted dissemination
at checkpoints are standard practice nowadays. Such measures
make it possible to work in places where the risks engendered
by "classic" conflicts are a daily reality, but
they can do nothing to lessen the new threats facing humanitarian
Once humanitarian actors are perceived as belonging to or
associated with a party to the conflict, the nature of the
problem changes and demands upstream and in-depth work. It's
then a priority to limit the risks stemming from the presence
of so many different actors involved in the humanitarian field.
The challenge here lies in convincing all the actors in a
conflict that we are purely humanitarian, independent and
Because of its long-standing experience in numerous conflicts
where the collapse of social structures is fertile ground
for the emergence of all kinds of non-state armed factions
and "warlords", the ICRC has no other choice but
to "find the keys" — in the words of Pierre
Kraehenbuehl— that will enable it to pursue its mission
while taking into account the new threats. The challenges
confronting independent humanitarian action are greater than
ever before. This profound crisis was at the heart of the
deliberations of the 28th International Conference of the
Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 2003 in Geneva. Although
the diagnosis has now been made, finding the right responses
will be long and hard.
Security training session for new ICRC delegates
Pierre Hazan and Jean-François Berger
Pierre Hazan is a freelance journalist based in Geneva.
Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red
Philippines Red Cross staff helps displaced
people in Zamboanga city, Mindanao.
©Roland Sidler / ICRC
case of the Philippines
In the Mindanao region, there have been clashes between
separatists and the Philippine armed forces for 30 years.
Among the main insurgent groups are the Moro National Liberation
Front, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and, most recently,
the Abu Sayaf Group. In addition, there is the New People's
Army (NPA) whose goal is to alter the country's political
structure. The presence of foreign Islamic militants compounds
the situation and the difficulties encountered by the Philippine
government in its efforts to find a negotiated solution. Population
displacements are everyday currency, and the chronic insecurity
is taking a heavy toll on civilians. The challenge for the
ICRC and the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC) is to be
accepted by all the different protagonists in order to carry
out their work.
In Zamboanga, a small port town at the westernmost point
of Mindanao, life goes on in spite of the conflict, but tourism
is at a standstill. In this city, the risk of kidnapping and
attacks in public places is real. Expatriates' movements are
severely restricted, and access to the neighbouring islands
of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi Tawi is strongly discouraged.
Against this backdrop, how can the Red Cross continue to
work unhindered? Clearly, the humanitarian "space"
is not completely closed. The PNRC and the ICRC are well aware
of this and are striving to open up whatever avenues they
can, however tenuous they may be. "We are working closely
with the Philippine Red Cross, which is very well established
locally," says Normand Lessard, head of the ICRC in Mindanao.
"Before we travel anywhere, we consult the PNRC and the
military commanders." Victor Liozo Jr, head of the PNRC
in Zamboanga and regional administrator, maintains an extensive
network of contacts with the various military and civil authorities.
"Little by little," he says "people are beginning
to understand our mission. But we have to tread carefully,
by remaining neutral and apolitical, if we want people to
In the absence of sufficient security guarantees, certain
regions remain off-limits for all ICRC staff members, while
other areas are closed to non-nationals because foreigners
are at risk of abduction. In the latter instance, occasional
recourse to Philippine employees is still a possibility, but
this approach from afar is nonetheless exceptional and requires
"My contacts with the various military commanders and
the PNRC on the spot are the deciding factors," confides
Albert Madrazo, ICRC field officer, who travels from time
to time to high-risk areas such as Isabella (Basilan) and
Jolo (Sulu). "When I am there, my hardest task is to
explain what the ICRC is and make it understood that we are
not a governmental agency." With this in mind, the ICRC
and the PNRC jointly run dissemination programmes in the municipalities
(barangay). The sessions focus on the fundamental principles
of the Movement and humanitarian law. "The objective
is to make known the Red Cross in general and the protection
and assistance activities of the ICRC and PNRC and to promote
respect for the rules of humanitarian law among those sections
of the population likely to take up arms," emphasizes
Syméon Antoulas, ICRC head of delegation in the Philippines.
"In this way, we try to minimize the risks run by ICRC
and PNRC workers."
Some 20 civil administrators are taking part in one such
dissemination session in Pantukan, an hour's drive from Davao
where NPA fighters operate. Leonardo Segovia, a town councillor,
explains, "these awareness-raising sessions provide a
useful framework for village heads, who often have to deal
with such problems as evacuation of the wounded and care of
people displaced by the clashes."
Another important aspect of the ICRC's work in the Philippines
is its programme of visits to security detainees linked or
suspected of being linked with insurgent activities. These
visits have been taking place for more than 20 years and are
an indication of the value that the authorities place on this
work. In 2003, visits took place to more than 500 detainees
in the Philippines. Many of them are imprisoned far from their
homes — notably in Manila — and can avail of family
visits organized jointly by the ICRC and the PNRC. Unquestionably,
these family visits have helped to strengthen acceptance of
the Red Cross in the regions affected by the long-running
The seven pillars of security
Founded on seven pillars, the ICRC's security policy in the
field flows from its mandate. This policy is currently being
reviewed with the aim of integrating new guidelines.
Acceptance. To be politically, operationally
and culturally accepted as a neutral, impartial and humanitarian
actor by all the parties to the conflict.
Identification. To be identifiable by the
ICRC logo and to notify the different parties concerned of
an intended action.
Information. To be well informed and to inform
one's colleagues on all aspects of security, while respecting
the hierarchy. Information from the outside must be handled
Rules. Each delegation establishes, updates,
applies and ensures respect for the security rules that are
specific to it.
The person. The security of an action is
dependent on the individual qualities of each staff member,
starting with a sense of responsibility and solidarity.
Telecommunications. Having a reliable and
independent communications system is indispensable to security.
Protection measures. Active and passive protection
measures are taken in the event of the risk of indiscriminate
attacks against the civilian population (shelters, for example)
and to counter banditry and crime (guards, alarm systems,
Protections measures somethimes can make a
difference but cannot gaurantee security. Jaffna, Sri Lanka,
ICRC office, 1991.
©Thomas Pizer / ICRC
In the Shadow of "Just
The 11 September 2001 and the conflict that engulfed Afghanistan
and then Iraq have brought into sharp focus the humanitarian
action and its evolution in the new international balance
of powers. In a collection of articles entitled In the Shadow
of 'Just Wars, edited by Fabrice Weissman under the aegis
of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF),*, several
humanitarian practitioners address the weakening of humanitarian
aid and look closely at the causes.
Referring to armed interventions, in which the spin doctors
of certain Western heads of state have even dreamed up the
notion of "humanitarian bombardment"; the authors
provide a no-holds-barred exposé of the cynical exploitation
of aid for political purposes. Jean-Herve Bradol, President
of MSF-France, reveals how the US administration, "by
resorting to the world's most powerful propaganda machine",
has managed to dress up its responsibilities as an occupying
power towards the Iraqi population under its control as "humanitarian
aid". An astonishing semantic sleight of hand, according
to Rony Brauman and Pierre Salignon in their article "Iraq:
In Search of a 'Humanitarian'". When Saddam Hussein's
Iraq distributes food to its population, it is merely fulfilling
its obligations; when coalition forces do so, it is presented
as a "humanitarian gesture". "What secret hierarchy
of values comes into play when the delivery of food by Anglo-American
troops is blessed with this convenient epithet, while it is
excluded, for the same act, for the Iraqi administration?"
ask the two authors with fitting irony. For Bradol, the lesson,
bitter as it is, deserves to be learned: "The abusive
use of humanitarian aid offers the dual advantage of justifying
war and glossing over its crimes." In the view of the
author, despite its desire to exploit humanitarian aid in
Iraq, the United States is no longer able to impose this message
on its own public opinion, nor that of its European allies.
Thus, the US administration is constantly reminded of its
non-respect for the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of
detainees held in Guantanamo.
The authors, having looked at examples of armed intervention
and humanitarian involvement, turn their attention to those
instances where the international community has adopted a
hands-off policy. They consider at some length the almost
total indifference of Western leaders to the 2 or 3 million
dead in Congo since 1998 and the bloodbaths in Liberia, Algeria
In another publication looking at the militarization of humanitarian
aid, an international mapping exercise called "The Future
of Humanitarian action"** and involving 200 practitioners
across the humanitarian community was undertaken. The authors
focused primarily on the Iraq crisis. Among the set of critical
questions emerging from the consultation, the instrumentalization
of humanitarian action to superpower political objectives
is at the top of the list.
According to the study, "neutral humanitarian space
appears to be shrinking generally and has practically disappeared
in situations like Iraq and Afghanistan". With the deterioration
of security in those countries, the temptation of militarization
is on the rise, notwithstanding the ICRC policy on this issue.
The study points out the threats faced by humanitarian personnel,
and urges that ways be found "to restart some kind of
conversation with the belligerents and militant groups and
their supporters". Before adding, rather wisely, that
"given the widespread perception of a western crusade
against Islam, this is likely to be a tall order."
Finally, the report also states: "There is a widespread
feeling that the "Global War on Terror" has resulted
in an erosion of humanitarian principles and international
humanitarian law. "Clearly, this is a problem for the
Movement, and shows that the relevance of its humanitarian
principles are more in jeopardy than ever. As ICRC director
for international law and cooperation François Bugnion
says:***, "one must take care not to destroy by arms
the values that one claims to protect by arms."
Pierre Hazan, Jean-François Berger
*Hurst and Company, London, 2004. **"The Future of Humanitarian
Action —Implications of Iraq and Other Recent Crises"
by the Feinstein International Famine Center, Tufts University,
January 2004. ***"Just wars, wars of aggression and international
humanitarian law" from International Review of the Red
Cross, September 2002.
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