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
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
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
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 www.alertnet.org
“When you see
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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 www.alertnet.org
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.
“If civil society
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, www.alertnet.org
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.
Bianchi, courtesy www.alertnet.org
“If I have to
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