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Speaking up for humanity


A voice for vulnerable people in the halls of power, Movement diplomacy ranges from rapid response during emergencies to support for long-term solutions and humanitarian values. Movement efforts at the African Union offer a case in point.

AS unrest boiled over into all-out civil war in Libya this past spring, the ICRC quickly deployed medical teams and sent other relief supplies to areas in the eastern part of the country where it could gain access.

Side by side with local medics and Libyan Red Crescent volunteers in Benghazi hospitals, ICRC surgical teams put on their light-blue scrubs and white surgical masks and got to work: performing triage, removing shrapnel and treating the injuries of people wounded in the fighting.

At the same time, another lesser-known humanitarian response had also shifted into high gear. Roughly 3,700 kilometres (2,300 miles) to the south-east, at the headquarters of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a team of ICRC delegates had been working on a different front, having urgent discussions with all parties to the conflict to obtain safe access to areas still unreached by outside medical or other humanitarian assistance.

At stake were the lives of thousands of people caught inside the escalating conflict, but with limited access to doctors, medical care or other help. Vincent Ochilet, the deputy head of ICRC delegation to the African Union, recalls patiently waiting outside a meeting in March held between the AU and representatives of the Gaddafi administration. “We just waited around all day in the AU corridors to talk with one of Gaddafi’s representatives in order to make sure that the ICRC extends its activities to the areas controlled by Gaddafi’s troops,” he says.

This was just one of many diplomatic efforts launched by ICRC internationally to gain greater access to the conflict zone and to ensure protection for health-care and other aid workers. At the AU, the ICRC’s status as permanent observer affords unique access to decision-makers during emergencies
That doesn’t mean it’s easy even to get an audience — or that you always get the results you hope for. “You have to be patient doing humanitarian diplomacy,” says Ochilet.

Humanitarian diplomacy in action
This is one example of humanitarian diplomacy in action during a rapidly evolving emergency. Similar strenuous efforts have been made this year by Movement diplomats at the AU — and elsewhere — as political unrest swept through much of North Africa and the Middle East, as violence in Côte d’Ivoire led to massive displacement of people into Liberia, and as the ongoing Horn of Africa crisis descended into a regional, complex emergency.

As fighting erupted in Libya, the ICRC talked with all parties to gain access to areas of conflict and ensure that health-care workers were protected. Here, an ambulance passes rebel fighters in Ajdabiyah, Libya, April 2011.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Esam al-Fetori, courtesy




“When you see anyone
coming with proof…
the impact is different
and more useful.”

Jean Ping, chairman
of the African Union


In all cases, Movement actors have to work on two fronts: publicly and privately advocating for a robust response to urgent needs, while at the same time, promoting long-term solutions as well as adherence to international humanitarian law (IHL) and regional agreements that protect the displaced.

Fortunately, a more solid legal foundation for the protection of displaced people throughout Africa is emerging. In 2009, the AU (with ICRC assistance) adopted the Kampala Convention, the first-ever international treaty for the protection and assistance of internally displaced persons (IDPs) across an entire continent.

Otherwise known as “The AU Convention on the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced People”, the treaty contains important provisions for respect of IHL that bind both state and non-state actors.

The ICRC’s Addis delegation has been involved in the drafting process on IHL-related matters from the outset. But the delegation’s work is far from over. The challenge now is to assist the AU in promoting and, ultimately, implementing the convention. At the levels of African Regional Economic Communities and member states, the ICRC is available to assist in the ratification, domestication and entry into force of the convention.

“This effort is unique and coming from the countries themselves,” says Catherine Gendre, the head of ICRC’s delegation to the AU.

The two sides of humanitarian action

The term ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ has only recently entered the lexicon of international relief organizations. But the idea is far from new. One could say it began as soon as Henry Dunant returned from Solferino, Italy in 1859, when the horrifying aftermath of war inspired what is now the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

Armed with what was in a sense the Movement’s first advocacy report — his book Memories of Solferino — Dunant tirelessly lobbied friends, kings, generals, prime ministers and fellow businessmen to help him develop the framework for a volunteer movement and a system of codes to protect civilians and the wounded during battle.

“Since its inception, the Red Cross Red Crescent has been engaged in humanitarian diplomacy,” notes Stephen Omollo, IFRC’s lead humanitarian diplomat in Africa. “It is basically persuading key decision-makers to act at all times to alleviate human suffering.”

Today, 152 years after Solferino, the issues we confront are more complex, the methods of persuasion more diverse and the messages we bring are based on a body of humanitarian law of which Dunant could only dream. Still, the fundamental message is the same — protect the vulnerable, care for those in need, respect the rules of war.

“ICRC humanitarian diplomacy is about raising awareness about the plight of the victims of armed conflicts and the necessity of all parties taking part in hostilities to respect international humanitarian law,” says Vincent Ochilet, deputy head of ICRC’s delegation to the African Union, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

This year, humanitarian diplomacy takes on particular urgency as the Movement holds its 2011 statutory meetings: the Council of Delegates, the IFRC’s General Assembly and, finally, the 31st International Conference, the “supreme deliberative body for the Movement” and a key chance to consult with state signatories to the Geneva Conventions.

At the top of the agenda: strengthening international humanitarian law, improving international disaster response law, protection of health workers during conflict, equal access to health services, supporting local humanitarian action and promotion of non-violence, among other key issues.
Faced with myriad new challenges, from climate change to new weapons technology or the rise of non-state armed groups, the Movement will need to bring all its diplomatic skills to bear as it seeks to address these issues and keep the fundamental humanitarian values — pioneered by Dunant and his followers — alive in the 21st century.

This type of diplomacy also takes patience even after most actors have agreed to the basic framework. For example, IDPs do not yet benefit from the landmark 2009 agreement “because it always takes time to have states sign and ratify instruments of law”. Around half of the required 15 nations have adopted the convention so far, according to Gendre.

Turning point
Established almost 20 years ago, the ICRC delegation to the AU was created with a view to advising the bloc on humanitarian issues based on both IHL and evidence gathered on the ground by its field operatives.  It is also involved in a number of other activities, including working with key panels on the protection of conflict-affected women and children. Last year, it contributed to an international symposium on AU draft guidelines on the protection of civilians during peacekeeping operations.

The delegation is also able to raise and discuss humanitarian concerns with the Peace and Security Council (PSC) during monthly meetings and, through a legal expert seconded to the Peace and Security Department, help the AU Commission integrate IHL into policies and activities.

For El Ghassim Wane, director of the powerful PSC, a turning point in the arrangement was the coordinated 1995 effort for the union to ban all landmines.  “We agreed to undertake three workshops, which led to a decision by the African Union calling for a total ban on all landmines,” he says. “It was extremely helpful working with the ICRC combining its expertise and knowledge of landmines with our capacity to bring member states together. Since then we have continued to work together on a range of issues, especially humanitarian law.”

An underfunded crisis
The IFRC and National Societies also work closely with key institutions and decision-makers at the AU. This year, the IFRC established a permanent presence in Ethiopia’s capital after moving its continental humanitarian diplomacy operation out of Johannesburg, South Africa into the corridors of the African Union.

“If I want to make a difference I need to engage at the very highest level,” explains Stephen Omollo, the IFRC’s top Africa humanitarian diplomat. “If civil society is not up at the forefront with these issues, then no action is taken. So we are trying to bring pressure to bear to influence change at the highest level possible.”

This past summer, the Addis delegations faced another humanitarian test, one just as dire and difficult as the Libya conflict. As drought and conflict pushed thousands of people from Somalia into neighbouring countries and arid conditions exacerbated food insecurity throughout the region, representatives of the AU’s 54 member states gathered for a pledging conference for the estimated 12.4 million people in the Horn of Africa in need of emergency assistance.

Media coverage of the event lambasted the poor turnout of four heads of state and for the insufficient funds (US$51 million) donated by African governments. For the Movement, the Horn of Africa crisis has posed a unique diplomatic challenge: a complex and neglected emergency that had been foreseen by many, but for which there has been a lethargic and somewhat jaded international media and donor response.

With IFRC’s global emergency appeals still falling short of goals (the Kenya drought appeal was 28 per cent funded at press time), the organization’s efforts at the AU dovetailed with IFRC’s global and very public call for greater emergency response, as well as sustainable solutions to recurrent drought cycles that could and should become a greater staple of development aid (see Focus, page 12).

This message was echoed by Omollo as he continued to work behind the scenes at the AU to reinforce the message in one-on-one meetings. In one example, he and a colleague held a meeting with the president of Somalia, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, in which they raised the issues of government support for the Somali Red Crescent Society’s operations and “ensuring we have a twin-track approach of relief work and development”.

National Societies also play a role in raising public awareness, which can in turn inspire action in both the public and private sphere. The Kenya Red Cross, for example, worked with regional telecom companies to create ‘Kenyans for Kenya’, a campaign by which people donate via cell phones. At press time, the campaign had raised more than US$10 million, offering a funding model for emergency relief and long-term food security that gives businesses and ordinary citizens a role in affecting change.

Local credibility
One advantage of building close ties with regional bodies is that the diplomatic delegations are relatively close to the field. This enhances credibility and allows for a responsive, evidence-based approach.

“Our diplomacy is based on the reality on the ground, so it’s something that is always linked to a specific situation — it’s factual,” Gendre says. “If I have to brief the president of the Peace and Security Council, I will try to have maximum amount of information from my colleagues in the field.”

The Chairman of the AU Commission, Jean Ping, confirms that embellishment and exaggeration are not part of the ICRC’s modus operandi. “When you see anyone coming with proof, with information like the ICRC has, the impact is different and more useful,” he says.

The technique of speaking softly but carrying a big reputation allows the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement to address thorny subjects directly and effectively. “The quiet diplomacy approach does not mean that we are not able to talk about difficult issues,” he says. “We can talk about difficult issues, but in a less threatening manner.”

Less noise, more impact
Quiet diplomacy doesn’t mean that the Movement is opaque in all its diplomatic efforts. For example, the ICRC often raises issues very publicly in cases where violations of IHL go unaddressed or access is impeded. Movement players are also often very public and transparent when raising the cry for an emergency appeal, shepherding new legislation or confronting world leaders.

Still, confidentiality is a critical diplomatic tool, particularly for the ICRC, which has a mandate to advise governments on compliance with IHL. “I believe the way the ICRC works is quite different from others in terms of confidentiality,” Ochilet says. “Confidentiality opens a lot of doors for the ICRC. People are aware that we try and change things by talking face-to-face to governments, not going to Voice of America or CNN to disclose everything we have seen.”

The Movement’s position of political neutrality and its practice of advising governments confidentially sometimes invites criticism that it provides succour to malign governments by failing to disclose information of vital public interest. 

“Yes, sometimes we are criticized, but the thing is to explain why we do it this way,” says the ICRC’s Gendre. “If you want to have access to detainees, you have to gain and keep the trust of those who are doing the detaining. You can’t spoil this trust, otherwise you will not have access again.”

The AU Commission’s Jean Ping agrees that in Africa, this form of quiet diplomacy is more effective than the megaphone approach. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, he says, makes “less noise, but has more impact”.

By William Davison
William Davison is a freelance reporter based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


Protection for displaced people is a priority for the ICRC African Union delegation in Addis Ababa. Here, women displaced by fighting and famine in southern Somalia rush into a government feeding centre.  Photo: ©REUTERS/Stuart Price, courtesy






African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping and Somalia’s President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed arrive in Addis Ababa in late August for an African Union summit on famine in Somalia and drought across the Horn of Africa.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Stringer, courtesy





“If civil society is not
up at the forefront
with these issues,
then no action is taken.
So we are trying to
bring pressure to bear
to influence change at
the highest level possible.”

Stephen Omollo, head
of IFRC’s delegation
to the African Union





In times of conflict, treatment of detainees is always a critical part of the ICRC Addis Ababa delegation’s work on behalf of international humanitarian law. Here, fighters sit inside a prison in Benghazi, Libya.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Suhaib Salem/courtesy,





Thousands of people have been making the treacherous journey from the areas in Somalia worst-hit by drought, which are mostly under the control of rebels, to Mogadishu. An internally displaced man carries his son, suffering from cholera, into the paediatric ward at Mogadishu’s Banadir hospital. Photo:©REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi, courtesy




“If I have to brief the
president of the Peace
and Security Council,
I will try to have the
maximum amount of
information from my
colleagues in the field.”

Catherine Gendre, head
of the ICRC’s delegation
to the African Union


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