27th International Conference
of the Red Cross and Red Crescent

Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General, World Health Organization

27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva, 1 November 1999

Your Royal Highnesses,
Madam President,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is an honour to be here with you today, building - as we all are - on the far-sighted work of Henry Dunant. WHO is proud to pay tribute to the pioneering work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement . our partners in the quest for health, human rights and human development.

In an increasingly difficult situation, can we offer hope to victims of complex emergencies? Yes, as international organizations committed to health, we must do so.

During the 1990s, the international community has built up an unrivalled capacity to assist people in times of emergencies. Relief agencies have shown an ingenuity, a courage and a persistence which have allowed them to save thousands of lives in the most hopeless and difficult situations. This is an excellent legacy to build on for the future.

But we all know that it is no easy task. It is exceedingly difficult, as our traditional ways to organize and manage our humanitarian assistance must be re-thought. It must be geared not only towards the most urgent needs, but in ways that lead to reconstruction and development.

With the exception of the Second World War, the world has never seen so many people displaced as it has witnessed over the past 15 years.

At the end of a century of magnificent scientific and human progress we are witnessing the mindless stunting of social development by conflicts that disorganize and demoralize civil society and erode its institutions, including health care systems.

Tragically, many of these conflicts are occurring in the world. s poorest countries, where they are not only inflicting tremendous damage today but also denying the opportunities of tomorrow. For irrespective of who eventually wins these conflicts, the health of countries and people is being destroyed. And where there is no health, there can be no sustainable development.

The casualties of Solferino were on the battlefield; the victims were soldiers. The victims of modern war are mostly unarmed, defenceless. They are mothers, children, families. The battle pursues them into their own homes.

Yes . it is exceedingly difficult. And yet I remain optimistic. For rarely have we seen such willingness to work with and for people in complex emergencies. Donors and people on the street are heeding public appeals in ways they have rarely done before. The number of humanitarian groups has grown, and people are increasingly willing to help, give their time, and - as we so tragically know, sometimes their lives . in an effort to alleviate suffering and safeguard peace.

I applaud the decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award this year. s Peace Prize to Médecins Sans Frontières. What better recognition could there be that humanitarian work in conflict situations is work for peace.

If we are to really offer hope, we must go further than relief and learn to talk about relief and social reconstruction in the same breath.

We must be on the site of an emergency early, but our job is also to stay on when CNN leaves. Rehabilitation must guide our immediate actions from the very first day. When the Kosovo refugees flooded into Albania and Macedonia, we urged that healthcare should as far as possible take place through existing facilities. Investing millions in temporary health facilities while Albanian and Macedonian health centres remain under-equipped would be an ineffective use of resources. By strengthening the existing facilities, we could leave a lasting contribution.

Critically needed health campaigns such as immunization go beyond the reactive dispatch of relief. Impressive results have been achieved in Thailand to protect refugee populations against malaria. Effective action against malaria during emergencies can make the difference between sending home a strengthened population free from . and informed about . malaria, or one weakened by repeated bouts of disease.

By recognizing that refugee populations are not just passive receivers of handouts, but resourceful participants in their own emergency within the limitations forced upon them, we can tap an important resource. Too often, the victims. attempts at improving their lives are seen by relief agencies as unwanted meddling into their well-oiled relief operations. Our job is to put the victims at the centre of our activities, and reduce the limitations they face . not increase them by rigid logistics and bureaucracy. Refugee populations should not only be objects for assistance; they should be subjects of their own choices and welfare.

In working strategically for long-term gains even during acute emergencies, I believe we can use health as a bridge for peace. Co-operation in health can be key for communities divided by conflict. Diseases respect neither borders nor frontlines. Many health workers have reported that health concerns can bring about co-operation and even reconciliation. We saw that so clearly a few years ago during the polio immunization campaign in Central America, where warring factions united to get their children vaccinated. They had a common future to safeguard, so the first bridges of common understanding were built.

In Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo we are now forging a polio eradication campaign with UNICEF and other partners, seen by all parties as a common thread to everyone. s future health and development.

But we do not want those children safely vaccinated and only a few years later to carry guns. Your goals for respect and advancement in international humanitarian law are so vital in this and other fields. We need your advocacy and moral force: we need to build on the success of campaigns like the one against landmines.

Complex emergencies are by definition chaotic and confusing. But if we are to succeed in our mission we must find a way through that confusion. We must take sides. Our side must be for health and social development.

I have no illusions that this will be easy. In Kosovo and East Timor, the UN administration is trying to rebuild a health sector where there is no functioning local government, and a severely damaged human infrastructure. In Afghanistan and in Myanmar, we have to take a cautious course between responsibility towards the population and unacceptable infringements of their human rights. In several areas, we have to deal with regimes or warlords who, even if they wanted to make an effort for long-term rehabilitation of health services, don. t have the budgets or the ability to go to donors and ask for funds to do so.

If we are going to make a positive impact against such tough odds, the humanitarian agencies that work with health must operate together as part of one, technically sound international effort. Unless we do, we will duplicate where we should be complementing. We will divide where we should unite. We will be wasteful when what the victims need is consolidated action.

We must avoid situations such as in Bosnia and Kosovo where hundreds of tons of unwanted drugs were sent and could not be used. I have spoken out on this already, but we will need your active participation if we are to prevent it from happening again.

Similarly a report by WHO and the International Centre for Migration and Health highlighted how little time has become available to NGOs and international agencies for training and briefing staff going into humanitarian work. Obviously, the level of training varies enormously, but the overall level of training is dangerously low. We must train and support our staff in the field more actively. They are faced with new ethical as well as technical dilemmas on a daily basis.

Fortunately today we have a body of knowledge that can help us predict, prevent and mitigate the health impact of complex emergencies. Let us build on that knowledge and ensure that our responses to emergencies are science-based and sound. Not to do so would be a grave injustice against the victims.

In our world partnership is key to success in so many areas. We need to focus on how we can complement each other and how we can add to our achievements by pulling together. WHO and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement are already working closely on issues such as tuberculosis, tobacco and first aid. We have now decided to expand our joint efforts on the issue of blood safety . so critical for health, and so crucial to our capacity to deal with the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

We will join forces in the celebration of World Health Day 2000, on 7th April of next year - a day dedicated to the theme of safe blood. It is more than an event. It is the building of a lasting partnership which also has implications for our ability to assist in complex emergencies.

We can offer assistance to the victims. Some will say this is yet another utopian dream. They said the same of the Red Cross when it was conceived. You made the dream reality for so many. Together I believe we can expand that noble ambition.

Thank you.

Text submitted prior to speech

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© 1999 | French (homepage) |
Proceedings

Speeches

Cornelio Sommaruga, ICRC

Astrid Heiberg, Int.Fed.

Louise Fréchette, U.N., Deputy Secretary General

Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO

Catherine Bertini, WFP

Carol Bellamy, UNICEF

The Plan of Action for 2000-2003