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I have always been impressed by the ability of people to endure and adapt to life’s changes to the absolute lack of comfort, electricity, heat and water. In Grozny, when people would gather at distribution points, mostly women and children, no one was disruptive. No one tried to cut the line. There was a certain respect and solidarity in the suffering. At these distribution points, we would only provide water, but this water would change people’s lives, even if they still were returning to ruined homes, arms loaded with buckets, trying not to lose the least drop. Chantal Lebrat, former ICRC delegate. Her painting is entitled ‘Water distribution, Grozny’.

 

Enduring Humanity

“There is only one main principle and that main principle is humanity, the idea that we are all equal on the basis of that shared humanity.”

So writes humanitariaN analyst and author Fiona Terry in a recent article for the International Review of the Red Cross. “After that,” she adds, “independence, neutrality and impartiality are operational postures that we have to adopt in order to meet this principle of humanity.”

Around the Movement, people have been reflecting on the Fundamental Principles as part of a Movement-wide discussion leading up to the statutory meetings in November 2013, and ultimately the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2015.

To help get the discussion started, Red Cross Red Crescent magazine asked readers to share their stories and thoughts about this ‘main principle’ while a new Movement Facebook page dedicated to the Fundamental Principles has also stirred up some interesting reflections. An internal ICRC site called Share your memories, created as part of celebrating 150 years of humanitarian action, has also brought up some interesting stories, not to mention art and photos. Here are a few, reprinted with permission.

 


A lesson in the ABC’s of humanity

The shower in the prison hadn’t seen water in some years and was serving as a classroom, the 15 detainees sitting on the ground, fixed on one of their own who was writing in big letters in chalk on the wall, repeating after him, “A, B, C…”

We presented ourselves to the group. “We are delegates from the ICRC and we visit prisons. We are going to come back to each sector for a face-to-face interview with those who wish it.” The one holding the chalk translated spontaneously in Kirundi, adding more than a few words of his own to the translation. We noticed a few familiar words repeated: “Genève, Henry Dunant, Solférino.” The translation was generous! Later in the day I saw this mysterious professor again and I asked him where he had learned about the ICRC. “I’ve been in prison for many years, condemned to death, but for now, executions have been suspended. I know I’m not going to leave here alive. I have come to realize that the only thing that will remain of me after I die will be what I have given to others. I don’t have a lot of education, but I can read and write. Before going, I want to teach as many people as possible how to read and write. This is what will remain of me.”

Six months later, it was not a firing squad that took his life, but tuberculosis, the greatest killer in prison. As an ICRC delegate and later a teacher, I often think of him with an infinite appreciation for this fundamental lesson on the link between our life and that which follows. We must always try to seize each opportunity to do something for another human being. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement gives us that chance, to do a lot for others and give meaning to our own lives.

André Picot, ICRC staff, Africa 1991
Reprinted with permission from a posting on an internal ICRC website called Share your memories, dedicated to 150 years of humanitarian action.

 

North Africa’s humanitarian pioneer

“Send a priest to my camp. He will lack nothing. I promise that he will be honoured and respected. He will pray each day with the prisoners; he will meet with them and correspond with their families. He will be able to procure for them a means to receive money, clothes, books... One sole condition: from his arrival here, it must be solemnly promised, once and for all, to not make any allusion in his letters as to the placement of my camps or our tactical movements.”

This excerpt from a letter written by Emir Abdelkader in 1845 shows why this Algerian independence fighter is also considered a pioneer in humanitarian law and practice. The letter, written to the bishop of Algiers, was just one example. Many years before international humanitarian law was put into writing, Abdelkader had drawn up a law concerning prisoners of war. They were to be treated humanely, regardless of their religion or nationality.

“In the 19th century, two men — Emir Abdelkader and Henry Dunant — shared a common humanitarian ideal: every soldier who was no longer able to fight, whether through injury or because he had been taken prisoner, should be spared, cared for and protected, without discrimination,” says Bruce Biber, who heads the ICRC’s Algiers delegation.

An international colloquium in May 2013 presented the Emir’s contributions to humanitarian thinking and law. Commemorating the 130th anniversary of his death and the 150th anniversary of the ICRC, the event was organized by the Emir Abdelkader Foundation, in partnership with Algeria’s Justice Ministry, the ICRC and the Algerian Red Crescent.

 


They follow me everywhere…

“The Fundamental Principles represent for me a guide that goes beyond professional work… They follow me everywhere, even within my own family. I never give favourable treatment to my children to the detriment of other children who live with me.

Respect for the principles also gives me the additional force to represent the institution in the region where I was born, where social pressures are often very strong. Above all, I use the principles of neutrality and impartiality. I remember in 2012 when well-known people from my home town sent a delegation to Gao to solicit ICRC’s support for their local health centre. Based on the principle of impartiality, I had to say no, I must support the hospital in Gao and they very much understood that message.”

Attaher Maïga, head, ICRC sub-delegation in Gao, Mali For the full interview, see www.redcross.int

 

Red Cross “transformed my views”

“Growing up in the war-torn Republic of Korea, I benefited from the life-saving international aid brought into the country by those wearing ‘UN blue’ and by the men and women bearing the iconic red symbol of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. My first travel abroad, as a high school student, was sponsored by the Red Cross and it transformed my views of the world and my place in it. I was so moved by these expressions of global solidarity that I eventually chose to pursue my own career in international public service.”

United Nations (UN ) Secretary-General Ban Kimoon wrote these words in a special edition of the International Review of the Red Cross dedicated to 150 years of humanitarian action. In the article, he reflects on issues ranging from the Movement’s relationship with the UN , the role of peacekeepers and the problems caused when humanitarian aid is used for political purposes.

“While peacekeeping missions mandated to protect civilians unquestionably provide an important service in enhancing safety and reducing casualties,” he writes, “traditional humanitarian actors have valid concerns that their access and security may be undermined if they are perceived by belligerents or segments of the population as aligned to the political objectives of such missions.”

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