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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 and negotiation.

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 directly.

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 activities.

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 relief operation.

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 common sense.

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 arise.

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 Societies themselves.

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 available.

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 law.

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 review.

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
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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