New spirit of cooperation
By David Wyatt
On 27 November 1997 in Seville,
Spain, on the last day of the Council of Delegates, a remarkable
event took place. The many hundred delegates representing the
175 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, their Federation
and the ICRC adopted by spontaneous acclamation a new Agreement
between all components of the Movement – an agreement
of a kind which has never existed before and which promises
a new beginning in mutual cooperation. How did this come about?
Why was it needed? What differences will it make to the work
of protecting and assisting the most vulnerable?
It might have been thought that with common Statutes and
individual Constitutions, backed up by the many Resolutions
passed over the years in the Council of Delegates, the Movement
could have no need of yet another piece of paper, but should
simply get on with its humanitarian mission. However, that
mission, and the humanitarian agenda in general, had in recent
years been getting ever more complex.
This was demonstrated most tellingly in the aftermath of
the Gulf war, when the Movement as a whole found it increasingly
difficult to formulate a coherent response to the expectations
of victims and to the actions carried out – individually
and in the name of the United Nations – by governments.
The existence since 1989 of a narrower agreement between the
ICRC and the International Federation had failed to provide
an effective framework for cooperation and had come to be
interpreted, perhaps unfairly, rather as a kind of “rules
of combat” between the two Geneva-based institutions.
Nor did it succeed in binding the National Societies.
Thus prompted by experience, a formal process began in 1991
with the task of analysing how the Movement goes about its
task and where there was scope for improvement. By 1995, enough
common ground had been identified to establish an Advisory
Commission to draft a report to the next Council of Delegates.
The 1997 Agreement was the culmination of these years of discussion
So what is “new” in the new Agreement? The main
difference is in the tone, for the tone here is one of a collaborative
spirit, of a kind which may have been lacking in the past.
That spirit will allow the Movement to achieve:
- a more effective response to humanitarian needs;
- better respect for humanitarian principles;
- the creation of a stronger Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
The Agreement, though not in fact very lengthy, covers too
wide a range of activities to analyse in detail in a short
article. However, some provisions concerning international
relief activities are of particular importance and will affect
Red Cross and Red Crescent work in the field immediately and
Foremost among these are the new concepts of “lead
role” and “lead agency”. This means that
while other partners have rights and responsibilities in everything
the Movement does, one part of the Red Cross and Red Crescent
will be charged with the lead responsibility in a particular
area. Additionally, in a given situation, one organization
may be given the responsibility, as lead agency, for the general
direction and coordination of the international operational
Of course, the interests of victims remain paramount. Therefore,
the Agreement emphasizes that if and when circumstances change,
the need for continuity of action must be recognized –
whoever is in charge.
All this is more complicated than it might seem. In the past,
the question of “who does what, for whose benefit and
when” has caused some real difficulties. In tackling
these difficulties, the Agreement seeks to define when a “lead
agency” may be required; what is a situation of armed
conflict; what are to be understood as the direct results
of conflict; what happens when hostilities cease; what are
situations of natural disaster; and how to deal with overlapping
conflict and natural disaster.
Much of the most important effect of these provisions should
prove to be a clear understanding about who does what in those
different situations. The Agreement defines the role and responsibilites
of the component called upon to act as the lead agency in
charge of the general direction and coordination of an international
Red Cross and Red Crescent relief operation.
The ICRC is to be the lead agency as regards protection and
assistance for victims of internal strife or armed conflict
anywhere in the territory of a party to conflict. The Federation
will act as lead agency in the case of natural or technological
disaster in peace time and in post-conflict situations where
there is no longer any need for a neutral intermediary as
well as in respect of refugees who have fled to a country
which is free of conflict. With regard to those different
situations, the Agreement considers when and how a National
Society may also in its own country be entrusted with the
role of lead agency to ensure the coordination of an international
In all these circumstances “direction and coordination”
means not just operational management, but also resource mobilization
and management and a coordinated media response. The time
should now be at an end when the Movement makes conflicting
appeals for funds and speaks to the world with different voices
– all in respect of the same human tragedy.
Dialogue and flexibility
However, the Agreement, while providing elements of identification
for when armed conflict and internal strife exist and dispositions
for situations of conflict concomitant with a natural or technological
disaster, recognizes that these will not cover every situation.
The components are also required to use their judgement and
Thus to take Russia as an example: the ICRC acts as lead
agency in the conflict in Chechnya, and in respect of victims
of that conflict, who might, say, have gone to Siberia. However,
the Federation would lead in respect of an earthquake occurring
simultaneously in, say, Kamchatka. Common sense must likewise
be called into play when situations unforeseen in the Agreement
As well as providing for international relief activities,
as described above, the Agreement pays particular attention
to the development of National Societies. As the building
blocks of the Movement, nothing can be more important than
to develop strong National Societies, and the Agreement makes
clear that this is a task which falls first to the National
By their assent to this Agreement, the ICRC and the Federation
have committed themselves to this, each within its own sphere,
while recognizing the lead role of the Federation to support
the National Societies with the technical and financial means
The components of the Movement are further called on to enhance
their functional cooperation and to coordinate their advocacy
and information activities. The Agreement also recalls the
lead role of the ICRC and the complementary roles of the Federation
and the National Societies with regard to the Fundamental
Principles and to questions relating to international humanitarian
Finally, and importantly, provision is made for a process
of “rolling review” of the Agreement, so that
the intentions behind it can be tested in practice and improvements
made as and when they are seen to become necessary.
What’s new in the accord
For all components:
- A new spirit of cooperation.
- More clearly defined roles and responsibilities.
- Machinery for cooperation and coordination.
- Introduction of provisions to keep the Agreement under
For the ICRC:
- Clarification of its role as lead agency with regard to
victims of armed conflict, including displaced persons.
For the International Federation:
- Clarification of its role as lead agency in disasters and
with regard to refugees.
For National Societies:
- Introduction of their role in development, as lead agency
in emergencies and as actor in international relief operations.
Where to now?
This Agreement is not for the benefit of Red Cross and Red
Crescent institutions, but for the victims and the vulnerable
everywhere. In order that what began as a document acquires
practical force, every volunteer and every staff member must
become committed to the philosophy which underlies the Agreement.
This means training, seminars and workshops designed to promote
understanding of its principles and guidance on their application.
The Federation and the ICRC have already started on the dissemination
of the ideas in the Agreement. It is hoped that all National
Societies will follow suit.
David Wyatt is International Relations Adviser to the British
Red Cross. He was chairman of the Advisory Commission which
drafted the Agreement.
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