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Humanitarian action
From risk to real danger

by Pierre Hazan and Jean-François Berger

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

Rarely 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".

In these 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 and independent.

Haitian rebels in Gonaives, February 14. Dialogue with non-state actors is vital to ensuring respect for IHL.
©Reuters / Daniel Aguilar, Courtesy

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

Future direction

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 to polarization."

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 an imperative?

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 be implemented.

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 personnel.

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 neutral.

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 in Geneva.

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 Crescent.


Philippines Red Cross staff helps displaced people in Zamboanga city, Mindanao.
©Roland Sidler / ICRC

The 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 respect us."

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 intensive preparation.

"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 conflict.


Jean-François Berger


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 with caution.
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, etc.).

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 Wars"

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 and Chechnya.

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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