27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent

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Putting ideas into practice

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, a global network uniting 105 million volunteers under two of the world's most widely recognized emblems, was the initiative of one individual. Henry Dunant, appalled by the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield of Solferino in 1859, called on States to put in place measures to prevent and alleviate such unnecessary suffering. His gesture of humanity is still at the heart of the many and diverse actions of the Movement today, whether the helping hand offered by a single volunteer or a major relief operation to assist the victims of armed conflict or natural disaster.

A unique gathering

The Movement has always enjoyed a special relationship with governments. Although the fruit of a private initiative and resolute in maintaining its independence of action, from the outset it has looked to States to support its endeavours and assist in turning the humanitarian ideal into a reality, grounded in law. For the principle of humanity is also at the origin of international humanitarian law, the body of legislation of which the Geneva Conventions are the bedrock.

The most tangible expression of this partnership is the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the supreme deliberative body of the Movement. It meets, in principle, once every four years to discuss the development and implementation of international humanitarian law and humanitarian action carried out both nationally and internationally. It brings together representatives of the various Red Cross and Red Crescent institutions and the States party to the Geneva Conventions, as well as numerous observers with an interest in humanitarian matters.

This unique gathering is an opportunity for dialogue between people with different responsibilities but who share a common goal: to develop strategies in response to the dilemmas and challenges facing humanitarian action today.

gift of seeds, gift of life...An agenda for the new millennium

Those dilemmas and challenges are especially pertinent on the threshold of the new millennium. The world is very different now from that of Henry Dunant's day. The movement he spawned has grown beyond all imaginable proportions, many other agencies big and small are now involved in providing humanitarian aid, and new and increasingly sophisticated means and methods have completely altered the nature of warfare. And yet we are also facing an escalation of needs, and the demands placed on humanitarian organizations are growing daily, while the environment in which they work is often hostile and dangerous.

Since the 26th International Conference, held in Geneva in December 1995, progress has been made on a number of fronts. In response to a Conference resolution, the ICRC has set up an Advisory Service to advise and assist States in implementing humanitarian law at national level. The International Federation has renewed cooperation with National Societies and governments to follow up the Conference resolution on strengthening the National Societies. In 1997 the Seville Council of Delegates approved a new agreement clarifying the different responsibilities of each of the Movement's components. The Ottawa treaty banning landmines was signed in December 1997. Finally, in July 1998 the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was opened for signature.

The 27th International Conference will seek to build on these favourable developments, as well as to address issues that have continued to evade solution and find practical answers to some of the problems facing the humanitarian community today.

The beginning of a new era is a good time to take stock and review one's situation. This is just as true for the Movement as it is for individuals. How can the Movement change and adapt to the new landscape? How can it meet the needs of vast numbers of people beset by crisis? What role does it intend to play in the coming years? What is the role expected of it by others? The International Conference has shown in the past that it can make a difference in turning ideas into practice. It is an opportunity not to be missed.