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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 advisor to
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.

No 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 to humanity.”

“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 International.

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.”


International Conference venues:

Berlin (1869)
Brussels (1930)
Bucarest (1977)
The Hague (1928)
Istanbul (1969)
Karlsruhe (1887)
London (1907,1938)
New Delhi (1957)
Manila (1981)
Paris (1867)
Rome (1892)
Saint Petersburg (1902)
Stockholm (1948)
Tehran (1973)
Tokyo (1934)
Toronto (1952)
Vienna (1897,1965)
Washington (1912)


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 says.

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 of humanity.

“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.

Beyond the treaties

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 Societies.”

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.


The 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 nature.

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 Movement.

Voluntary Service
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 organisations worldwide.

“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 be conservative.

“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, its purpose.”

Historical Horizons

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 and work.

“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 1996.

Said and done

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
Christina Grisewood is an editor in the ICRC’s Publications Division.

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