Universal values for
a changing world
By Christina Grisewood
In December a unique gathering is
taking place in Geneva under the banner “Keeping hope
alive!”. for the first time in almost a decade, governments
around the world are meeting with representatives from the Red
Cross and Red Crescent Movement to discuss the humanitarian
imperatives of today. The International Conference has been
a stormy event in the recent past. Expectations and apprehensions
are high, likely sentiments for an event that hopes to improve
the condition of humanity itself.
It will be a new conference for a new era. The event that
is almost as old as the Red Cross itself, the International
Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, is gearing itself
up to meet the challenges of the day. These are so great and
so daunting, cynics might doubt that a conference of this
kind can even begin to tackle them, but not attempting to
do so would be a worse defeat.
The International Conference is the most visible expression
of the close relationship that the Red Cross and Red Crescent
Movement enjoys with governments. In no other forum do governments
accept to meet with private organisations and discuss issues
on an equal basis with them.
It is unique in other ways as well. It is a conference in
which governments participate, but one which has strictly
humanitarian objectives. In addition, it is a conference that
requires action. Conferences are often associated with inertia,
but the dialogue that is maintained with governments through
this forum is critical for the Movement’s effectiveness.
So, the Movement has an enormous stake in turning the ideas
at the Conference into reality.
“The Conference provides an ideal opportunity for the
Movement and the States party to the Geneva Conventions to
remind each other of their respective obligations to humanity
and to each other,” says Esther Okwanga, Secretary General
of the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society. “Given the pace at
which the world is changing and the rate at which disasters
are occurring worldwide, it is vital that the decisions of
governments and the responses of the Movement are not misunderstood.”
The moment is ripe
December’s gathering, organised jointly by the ICRC
and the Federation, will be the 26th International Conference
of the Red Cross and Red Crescent since its inception over
a hundred years ago. What began as a Red Cross initiative
was taken up by governments and has since brought the two
together to discuss matters of humanitarian concern every
four years — with a few exceptions, notably during the
two world wars.
This time, nine eventful years have elapsed since the last
International Conference took place. They have been filled
with political upheaval that has changed the face of the world
and created new problems and challenges that governments and
the Movement alike need to confront as a matter of urgency.
“If there was ever a time when such a conference was
needed, it is now,” says André Pasquier, special
the ICRC President. “Things need to be reshaped, redefined.
We just don’t know where the world is going. We need
to reaffirm our common base that was created around a few
unassailable humanitarian values and procedures.”
Had it not been postponed, the Con-ference set for Buda-pest
in 1991 would have been the first to take place in the post-Cold
War world. In the 40 years following the Second World War,
the international political scene seems, with hindsight, to
have been a relatively static, almost predictable place. The
Conference reflected this state of affairs and its outcome
was determined well in advance.
Today there are no such certainties. Far from generating
an era of widespread peace and prosperity, the breakdown of
the balance between the blocs has thrown whole regions into
disarray, dislocated States and given rise to a new spate
of conflicts, while many of those that flourished during the
Cold War have taken on new and alarming proportions.
Meanwhile, the effects of prolonged economic crises, ris-ing
crime, deepening poverty, environ-mental degradation and rapidly
increas-ing urbanisation have widened the impact of natural
and man-made disasters. In this climate of uncertainty and
desperation, a conference that ad-dresses the most pressing
humanitarian issues is, for many, long overdue.
risks, no rewards
But some people in the Movement are sceptical. Memories of
the setbacks at the last two Conferences are still
fresh in people’s minds. The 25th International Conference
held in Geneva in 1986 was thrown into confusion at the very
start of the event when, after a heated debate, a motion was
carried to suspend the South African government delegation.
In 1991 the Conference due to be held in Budapest was postponed
owing to a dispute over the participation of the Palestinians.
At the time, some National Societies felt the adverse publicity
caused by these incidents did untold harm to the image of
the Red Cross, which is supposed to remain above such political
considerations. If there is a repeat this year, there are
fears that the damage will be irreparable.
“The Conference must show to the world that the international
community realises the importance of humanitarian action,
particularly during these times when we are witnessing atrocities
and violations of all humanitarian conventions,” says
Jörgen Poulsen, Secretary General of the Danish Red Cross.
“If this Conference fails, it would be a serious blow
“When you look at the reasons for the failure of the
last two Conferences, you realise that we are working in a
context of constant change,” Pasquier says. “There
is so much that cannot be foreseen. What seemed to be an insurmountable
problem nine years ago, has since been peacefully resolved.
Equally, the Palestinian question is a step closer to at least
a partial solution.
“Both of these seemed very remote possibilities at
the time they caused such furore. This time around, it should
be clearer than ever to participants that the issues at stake
go beyond the concerns of the moment.”
Seasoned journalists, accustomed to seeing conferences come
and go, have a tendency to be cynical as well. “I go
to every conference I can and try to listen in on some of
the debates. Each time I go, I get the feeling that they don’t
produce anything except words and don’t tackle the issues
in a consistent and permanent way,” says Peter Capella,
Geneva correspondent of the English Service of Swiss Radio
Governments also have expressed misgivings about the utility
of the whole exercise. One representative, after attending
prepar-atory meetings leading up to the Conference, reflected
that crucial issues, such as potential disputes over participation,
were not being addressed. Some governments fear that they
are coming to the Conference just to watch the Red Cross and
Red Crescent argue over internal matters.
Yet, International Conferences in the past have achieved
tangible results. At the 1912 Conference in Washington, a
resolution established the respective wartime responsibilities
of the National Societies and the ICRC in providing protection
and assistance not only for the wounded and sick but also
for prisoners of war. In 1921, in Geneva, the 10th International
Conference gave the National Societies and the ICRC a mandate
to assist the victims of civil war and internal disturbances.
In 1948 in Stockholm the three existing Geneva Conventions
were revised and a fourth one adopted dealing specifically
with the protection of civilians.
“People who question the utility of this Conference
don’t realise what a fantastic opportunity it presents,”
Pasquier says. “Of course there are risks. But without
risks, there are no rewards.”
The Hague (1928)
New Delhi (1957)
Saint Petersburg (1902)
A vital dialogue
The issues that figure on the Conference agenda have been
carefully selected both for their urgency and the need to
achieve consensus. After a plenary session on the first day,
the Conference will split into two commissions. One will deal
with the promotion of and respect for international humanitarian
law and the protection of civilians in wartime.
The other will cover several key areas of the Movement’s
work to ensure that Red Cross and Red Crescent programmes
around the world are responding effectively to the challenges
of today’s rapidly changing world. It will discuss a
wide variety of topics, including a code of conduct for disaster
relief organisations, the enormous problem of refugee and
displaced populations and the balance between National Societies’
independent status and their role as auxiliaries to governments.
From the agenda itself, it is easy to see why members of
the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have a vested interest
in the success of this Conference, but do governments also
stand to gain? They do.
“Governments formulated and agreed upon the Geneva
Conventions and their Additional Protocols so they have a
very real interest in keeping an eye on any developments that
effect these treaties,” says Toni Pfanner, head of the
ICRC’s Legal Division. “At the same time, the
ICRC and National Societies are clearly designated by the
Geneva Conventions to act on behalf of those whom the treaties
aim to protect. This makes it vital for a dialogue to be maintained.”
The problem, of course, is that throughout the world the
Conventions and their Protocols are not being respected. The
catalogue of atrocities in recent conflicts is extensive:
genocide in Rwanda, “ethnic cleansing” in the
former Yugoslavia, the shelling of civilian areas in Afghanistan,
the deprivation and deliberate contamination of water and
manipulation of hunger as a means of subjugating whole communities,
and the widespread and indiscriminate use of landmines —
to name a few.
“In today’s conflicts the most basic rules of
humanity are being flouted. One has to wonder if this is really
war that we are talking about: when each person becomes the
enemy of the other, when hatred and cruelty are no longer
the result of war but an end in themselves,” Pasquier
The Conference will try to highlight the unacceptable nature
of these violations and point out that they fly in the face
not just of international law, but of every basic precept
“States are directly concerned with finding ways to
respond to these alarming developments and for ensuring that
international humanitarian law is respected. They are the
ones dictating the standards,” Pfanner says.
Issues that extend beyond the scope of international humanitarian
law are also on the Conference agenda and are equally as important.
“Why do we need the second commission?” asks Luc
de Wever, Head of Legal Affairs at the Federation. “Because
we want governments to rediscover the philosophy of the Movement
and, in so doing, to realise the value of their own National
This requires a somewhat more innovative approach. Anja Toivola,
Acting Director for Institutional and Resource Development
at the Federation, has taken part in the Conference’s
preparatory meetings. “For the ambassadors, political
issues are their daily bread, they are used to dealing with
them. So, the development of international humanitarian law
is relatively standard fare for them.
“It is harder for us to make a case for specific Red
Cross and Red Crescent matters that don’t come up in
these contexts. We need to introduce these in a way that makes
sense to government representatives and explain why they have
a stake in them too.”
One such topic is the role of National Societies in their
own countries and their relationship to their
“What we want to convey to governments,” Toivola
continues, “is that we have a unique structure. In each
country there is a National Society that has local roots and
enormous potential. These local organisations are also part
of an immense international network, which gives them both
strength and solidarity.”
There are many more National Societies today than there were
ten years ago and a large number of them are in developing
countries. A whole group emerged in the wake of the disintegration
of the Soviet Union, for instance. The new National Societies
don’t necessarily have the capacity to deal with crises
they are facing. In many disaster-prone areas where needs
are immense, National Societies are often small and poor.
Furthermore, the current world recession has meant that even
in the developed world governments have had to reduce public
expenditure, and are cutting back on health, education and
social services, just as more and more people are in need
of these services. National Societies are increasingly being
called upon to bear the consequences of the economic crisis,
while at the same time their traditional sources of funding
are drying up.
“Governments need to recognise the actual and potential
capacity of National Societies as a powerful provider of these
types of services and of their need for material and moral
support,” says Stephen Davey, Under Secretary General
for Communication and Policy Coordination at the Federation.
There is, however, an important caveat. National Societies
have to be totally independent in their actions and be free
to make their own decisions without interference from governments.
Otherwise, they will not be able to deliver assistance in
a neutral, impartial way. Understandably, this is not always
an easy concept for governments to accept. Still, the more
independent National Societies are, the more effective they
will be in providing services that will, in the long run,
greatly benefit their governments.
Seven Fundamental Principles
The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, born
of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to
the wounded on the battlefield, endeavours, in its international
and national capacity, to prevent and alleviate human suffering
wherever it may be found. Its purpose is to protect life and
health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes
mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting
peace among all peoples.
It makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious
beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavours to relieve
the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their
needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.
In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement
may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in
controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological
The Movement is independent. The National Societies, while
auxiliaries in the humanitarian services of their governments
and subject to the laws of their respective countries, must
always maintain their autonomy so that they may be able at
all times to act in accordance with the principles of the
It is a voluntary relief movement not prompted in any manner
by desire for gain.
There can be only one Red Cross or Red Crescent Society in
any one country. It must be open to all. It must carry on
its humanitarian work throughout its territory.
The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, in
which all societies have equal status and share equal responsibilities
and duties in helping each other, is worldwide.
Distinctly Red Cross
The Conference also provides an opportunity to promote the
Move-ment’s “Code of Conduct”. Elaborated
by the Federation in cooperation with the ICRC and five other
major aid organisations, the document outlines universal standards
of professionalism and ethical behaviour for disaster relief
“The Code of Conduct defines what is humanitarian and
takes the lead in setting standards, not just for the Red
Cross, but for other agencies and for governments,”
says Luc de Wever.
The Code is important because states seem to have lost sight
of the Red Cross perspective and the set of values that inspires
the Movement. As more and more organisations appear in the
humanitarian arena, as states themselves embark on humanitarian
assistance operations and as the terms “neutrality”,
“impartiality” and “independence”
are used freely by all in what has become an unregulated aid
market, it is increasingly necessary to reassert the values,
distinct philosophy and professional standards that the Movement
has devised for itself.
In short, the Conference has two main objectives: to confirm
the specificity of the Movement and to turn humanitarian principles
into concrete action in the field via, inter alia, the strengthening
of international humanitarian law. These alone are ambitious
enough even if resolutions, by their very nature, tend to
“Resolutions are adopted by consensus and must therefore
be palatable to all concerned,” says Kathleen Graf,
an ICRC lawyer. “The Conference has to set measurable
objectives and resolutions have to be feasible.”
“The setting of the agenda is a process of delicate
judgement. We need to prioritise,” Davey says. “Raising
six current but contentious issues may give us greater moral
integrity, but if you don’t arrive at any conclusion,
you don’t improve anyone’s situation. On the other
hand, if we don’t have the courage to advocate for change,
we fail to live up to the Movement’s ideals and, ultimately,
On the occasion of the 26th International Conference of the
Red Cross and Red Crescent held in Geneva this December, the
International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva
has mounted an impressive exhibit that describes the long,
prestigious and sometimes difficult history of the Conference.
Entitled “The Humanitarian Endeavour”, the exhibit
consists of 27 stations that will make use of postage stamps
and computers to provide the essential details of each Conference
beginning in 1863 and ending in 1995. In addition, there will
be four interactive posts to access information about the
ICRC, Federation and National Societies throughout the world,
as well as a workstation on related humanitarian organisations
“One can see so many different things through this
exhibit,” reflects Jean-Pierre Gaume, curator of the
museum. “What is especially evident is how the history
of the Conference is representative of the evolution of our
world. We can watch how the world has become gradually more
complex since 1863. Most importantly though, we see how the
Conference has forged humanitarianism over the last 130 years.
It truly represents the emergence of an expression of an international
humanitarian conscience and reminds us that it’s time
to reawaken it.”
The exhibit opens 22 November and runs until the end of May
But will the Conference resolutions remain just that —
expressions of good intentions that are quickly consigned
to the realm of grand theory once back in the real world of
cut-throat political expediency?
The participants and the governments they represent are duty
bound to carry their commitment beyond the Conference doors,
but the Movement also has a responsibility to ensure that
states are held to what they have agreed. The long-term unseen
work of the Movement is to remind states constantly that they
have agreed to something and see that they follow through.
The Conference cannot expect to change the world overnight.
But what it can do is seek to re-establish a set of universally
recognised values and procedures that form the common base
for all our actions. Raising awareness of today’s problems
and challenges, defining norms of behaviour and building consensus
can later translate into an accepted set of rules which regulate
behaviour. It is a small step — but an important step
— on the way to building a more humane world.
Christina Grisewood is an editor in the ICRC’s Publications
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