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Spirit of partnership dominates the conference

 

30th International Conference of the
Red Cross and Red Crescent
Geneva
26–30 November 2007

Climate change, respect for humanitarian law, migration, violence and preparing for disasters top the agenda.

 

‘Together for humanity’ was the slogan adopted for the 30th International conference. In the event, it was an appropriate choice. Partnership was the theme that ran throughout the whole event.

The mix of states and the Red Cross Red Crescent network, the largest in the world, makes the event unique. But its high profile inevitably means that political issues are not far from the surface in many debates. This time, fears that these issues would sour things proved groundless.

The conference chairman, Mandisa Kalako-Williams, president of the South African Red Cross Society, reminded all delegates to avoid political controversy when she opened the first session. Delegates needed to make the relationship between governments and the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement work for the benefit of vulnerable people worldwide. The pressure on them was even greater because of the global significance of many of the issues on the agenda.

The conference focused on the humanitarian consequences of four major challenges facing the world: environmental degradation and climate change; international migration; violence, particularly in urban settings; and emergent and recurrent diseases, and other public health challenges.

The final declaration of the conference recognized that these challenges required partnerships and a ‘collective response’ by the international community. Alone, neither states nor individual organizations could deal with them.

The theme of partnership was already clear during the General Assembly of the International Federation that preceded the conference. Asha-Rose Migiro, United Nations (UN) deputy secretary-general, gave a keynote address that highlighted UN–International Federation partnerships in mobilizing volunteers, advancing global public health and promoting disaster risk reduction.

‘Poorest of the poor’

The debate of the four challenges was wide-ranging in the plenary session, the specialized commissions, workshops and side events and in the crucial drafting committee chaired by Ambassador Masood Khan of Pakistan.

The 30th conference was the first time there had been such a detailed debate by the Red Cross Red Crescent on the humanitarian consequences of environmental degradation and climate change. Both contribute to poverty, migration, health risks and an aggravated risk of violence and conflict. The poorest of the poor are most affected. Conference participants committed themselves to integrate environmental degradation and adaptation to climate change in disaster risk reduction and disaster management policies.

The debates at the International Federation’s General Assembly and at the conference on international migration recognized the benefits of migration but also the humanitarian consequences for people adversely affected. The role of governments in combating exploitation and trafficking, and enforcing legal protection was clearly identified, but the role of the Movement was also emphasized. Examples of its action included assistance with food, shelter, clothing, first aid and healthcare. Special note was made of the vital role played by the Red Cross Red Crescent in restoring family links and visiting migrants in detention.

The conference recognized, in the words of the final declaration, that “violence is a leading cause of preventable death, injury and human suffering worldwide.” There was particular concern about the impact of urban violence. Delegates acknowledged that states had a responsibility to adopt policies and legal frameworks to prevent and mitigate such violence, including urban armed violence between organized groups.

The Red Cross Red Crescent has a long history of dealing with public health challenges. The conference resolved to ensure that public health was an integral part of disaster management and to act to tackle emergent and recurrent diseases. Delegates committed themselves to strengthen health systems, mobilize volunteers and uphold the right of access to medical services to any individual in need.

Respect for civilians

Civilians continue to suffer most in armed conflicts and are the main victims of violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). For this reason the conference adopted a strongly worded resolution demanding respect for human life and dignity in armed conflict. It specifically condemned attacks on civilian objects and civilians not taking a direct part in hostilities, including humanitarian relief personnel, journalists and other media professionals.

Aware that the challenge is to ensure respect for the law, the delegates included in the resolution a reaffirmation of the fundamental guarantees established by IHL.

While reasserting the principles of distinction and proportionality in the conduct of hostilities, the resolution specifically called for international action to “address the humanitarian impact of explosive remnants of war and cluster munitions”.

In the debate on the specific nature of the Red Cross Red Crescent and the National Society role as auxiliaries to the public authority, there was concern that the relationship should be balanced and clear. The resolution adopted by the conference clarified the mutual benefits of the partnership for governments and National Societies. It also called on states to refrain from asking National Societies to act outside their mandate or to undertake tasks which would be inconsistent with the Fundamental Principles of the Movement.

The conference asked the International Federation and the ICRC to continue to develop legal advice, guidelines and best practice to support National Society and public authority partnerships.

Limited progress

One issue that could have caused difficulties at the 30th International Conference was the report of the Red Cross Red Crescent monitor on the implementation of the 2005 memorandum of understanding between the Magen David Adom (MDA) in Israel and the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS).

The monitor, Pär Stenbäck of Finland, commended the efforts of both National Societies in his report to the Council of Delegates, but said that full implementation remained a problem.

In particular he referred to the continued non-deployment of five PRCS ambulances in East Jerusalem and the difficulties PRCS ambulances face at checkpoints, which had led to some “tragic cases including loss of life”. He urged the Israeli government to act urgently on these issues.

A breakthrough then occurred, and by the time of the monitor’s report to the International Conference, news had come of the deployment of the five PRCS ambulances in East Jerusalem.

Despite well-known differences, discussions on a draft resolution focused on the humanitarian facts on the ground and political positions were put to one side. The resolution, adopted by consensus, includes a strengthening of the monitoring and reporting process.

Pledging to work together

It is now a well-established part of an International Conference that participants make pledges, individually and jointly, for the four years ahead. Pledging is a very visible expression of partnership at work. In total 71 governments, 121 National Societies, the International Federation, the ICRC and three observers made pledges. ICRC president, Jakob Kellenberger, and Juan Manuel Suárez del Toro, the International Federation’s president, signed a joint pledge on the new Movement strategy on restoring family links.

From words to action

In his address at the opening of the conference, the chairman of the Standing Commission, Mohammed Al-Hadid, had said that working together was the main challenge. In the event the conference proved a real advance for the idea of humanitarian partnerships. In the opinion of many delegates it was one of the most workmanlike and focused conferences for many decades. But what happens next is what counts.

In closing the conference, Mandisa Kalako-Williams called on all participants to return home and make the commitments of the conference a reality. “It does not end here,” she said. Words, both written and spoken, are the natural outcome of conferences, but now states and National Societies had to leave Geneva with a determination to translate those words into effective action to improve the lives of millions of people.

 


©THIERRY GASSMANN / ICRC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Conference vice-chair Annemarie Huber-Hotz of the Swiss Red Cross with chair Mandisa Kalako-Williams of the South African Red Cross Society.
©THIERRY GASSMANN / ICRC


Ian Piper

Ian Piper is a freelance writer based in London.

 

Documents, resolutions, speeches, interviews and the Daily Bulletin for the General Assembly, the Council of Delegates and the 30th International Conference can be found on the ICRC, International Federation and Standing Commission web sites: www.icrc.org, www.ifrc.org and www.rcstandcom.info.

 

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