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Negotiations at Red Cross conference shrouded in global politics

‘The debates were instrumentalised for other political purposes.’

Delegates gather at the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva from 9-12 December 2019. Heba Aly/TNH
Delegates gather at the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva from 9-12 December 2019.

At a major conference to shape the agenda of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement around the world, governments forged hard-won consensus on Thursday on a series of new resolutions to govern humanitarian action, but only after days of thorny negotiations marked by increased politicisation of the forum.

Respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL), data protection, and climate change topped this week’s agenda at the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, held every four years in Geneva.

“There were some encouraging steps forward, but I would have liked to see more progress,” said Manuel Bessler, who co-chaired the Swiss government delegation. “Immediately, discussions become highly political, which makes it so difficult to get anywhere.”

The International Conference brings together states who have signed the Geneva Conventions; the 192 national Red Cross or Red Crescent societies – who are auxiliaries to their government; the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC); and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

It is meant to be an apolitical forum focused purely on humanitarian concerns, but this year’s conference came at a time when geopolitical rivalries among powerful nations are fuelling proxy conflicts, and violations of the rules of war – including the bombing of hospitals, starvation of civilians, and rape of women as a weapon of war – are routine.

“No one can deny that sanctions are harming the wellbeing of civilians. But because of the politicisation imposed on this conference by some countries, we were not able to adopt it.”

After three days of negotiations stretching into the night, it ended with a public showdown, after Iran attempted to insert language into a resolution on climate change about the negative impact of sanctions on humanitarian work.

Supported by Syria, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Central African Republic, and opposed by the United States, the UK, and Canada, the proposal was ultimately withdrawn, but reflected, as one participant put it, how “the debates were instrumentalised for other political purposes”.

Syria’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Hussam Edin Aala, shot back, telling TNH: “No one can deny that sanctions are harming the wellbeing of civilians. But because of the politicisation imposed on this conference by some countries, we were not able to adopt it, which is a disappointment.” 

Given this politicised environment, ambitions heading into the conference were, some participants said, already low.

Compliance with IHL

At the last international conference in 2015, the Swiss government and the ICRC proposed creating an international mechanism to enhance compliance with IHL, which ultimately failed to pass.

This year, rather than trying to hold violators accountable, the ICRC requested that states commit to adopting legislative, administrative, and practical measures to implement IHL within their own countries. Even this, described by one government representative as “the most anodyne of resolutions”, came under heavy debate, particularly by the US delegation, which sent a “battalion of lawyers” to soften the language, as one participant put it.

Language in an earlier draft of the resolution had called on governments to reaffirm their obligation to “respect and ensure respect for IHL in all circumstances” – a phrase already enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and agreed in resolutions of previous Red Cross conferences.

This time, the United States successfully negotiated to remove the words “ensure respect” from the final text, arguing that the ICRC’s interpretation of that expression was becoming too expansive, and that it was only bound to ensure respect of the rules of war enshrined in the Geneva Conventions – rather than the wider body of international humanitarian law – and only within its jurisdiction, rather than “in all circumstances”.

“Does that mean I have to ensure respect of IHL by the people I give money to, training to, that I support politically?” said Randy Bagwell, senior director at the American Red Cross. In warzones, the US government works with private contractors and may support third parties, for instance Syrian rebels or the Iraqi army. “If the line is not defined, we don’t know where the limit is,” said Bagwell.

The final text also removed a request that states consider recognising the competence of the International Fact-Finding Commission, mandated to investigate violations of IHL, from which Russia’s parliament decided last month to withdraw.

‘We have to fight for every word’

While these resolutions are not legally binding, they serve as a reference for what states have committed to and give national societies a mandate to act.

“It used to be easy to get consensus,” said one government representative present in the negotiating room. “That’s not the case anymore. We have to fight on every word.” In one case, negotiators reportedly spent 30 minutes debating whether the letter ‘s’ should be placed at the end of the word ‘obligation’.

In a resolution on climate change, the US delegation successfully staved off attempts by South Africa to pepper the document with references that would commit states to measures in line with the COP21 agreement reached in Paris – from which the United States has withdrawn. Otherwise, delegates said the US was less bullish on climate than expected, while China was surprisingly progressive. 

“It used to be easy to get consensus.”

Referencing the politicisation of the discussions, and in particular the debate over sanctions, ICRC President Peter Maurer told The New Humanitarian that he shared frustration that after six months of careful consultations, “when states come to this fora, they load their resolution with – very frankly – a lot of outside and irrelevant stuff”. Nonetheless, he felt the conference had resulted in “relevant and important progress”.  

Amid all the politics, here’s what was agreed:

Data protection: One of the most significant outcomes of the conference was an agreement on the big question of the day: data protection. States agreed not to request or use personal data collected by the Red Cross Red Crescent movement for purposes incompatible with their humanitarian work, protecting the independence of the latter from wider national security interests. The resolution also gave the national societies a mandate to share data in their efforts to reunite family members who have been separated, even if specific mention of “cross-border transfers of personal data” was removed at Syria’s request.  

Mental health: A broadly supported resolution brought to the fore for the first time an issue that “has been hidden” in the past, according to Maurer: mental health. It mandates national societies to incorporate psychosocial support services from the very start of a humanitarian response, train volunteers to provide such services, and address the mental health needs of responders too. This builds on the consensus reached at an international conference on psychosocial support in emergencies, hosted by The Netherlands in October, but goes further by identifying concrete steps towards the implementation of this vision within the movement.  

Climate change: Perhaps more important than the resolution calling for strengthened disaster preparedness laws and policies, leaders of the movement – speaking outside the negotiation room – expressed a level of urgency and attention about climate change unseen in past conferences, and recognised a new role for the movement in tackling it. The ICRC and the IFRC have pledged to create a Climate Charter to green their operations, and climate is front and centre in the IFRC’s new 10-year strategy, approved ahead of the conference. 

“The humanitarian world now recognises the risks associated with climate change,” said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre. “I don’t think it’s ever been expressed at this level.” The reverse is also true, with senior officials at COP25 dialling into the Red Cross conference to explore how climate negotiations in Madrid can take into account the needs of those most affected. “Even a year ago, I would not have expected humanitarian disasters to feature so clearly in the climate agenda. That is now a given,” van Aalst said.

Women’s leadership: Participants agreed to increase the representation of women at all decision-making levels of the movement, including in governing bodies and management positions. But they have a long way to go to make this reality. The president, vice-president, and director-general of the ICRC, as well as the secretary-general of the IFRC, are all men. Until this week, all the members of the Standing Commission, the body responsible for setting the agenda of the international conference, were also men. On Wednesday, two women were elected to the Standing Commission in a new round of elections.

New and contested members: Bhutan and The Marshall Islands were formally admitted as new members of the IFRC at the Council of Delegates meeting that preceded the international conference. Climate change is a top priority for both. “Before, there was not a need,” said Dragyel Tenzin Dorjee, secretary-general of the Bhutan Red Cross Society. “The King personally was at the site of any disasters. Now, because of these global effects and earthquakes”, a greater pool of human resources is needed, he said.

Also at the Council of Delegates, the Palestinian delegation put forward a proposal to suspend Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s national organisation for emergency medical services, for continued violation of an agreement between the MDA and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society on how to provide aid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The other delegates rejected the language around suspension, instead passing a resolution, as they have done repeatedly in the past, “expressing strong disappointment that after nearly 14 years the [Memorandum of Understanding] is not yet fully implemented”, noting that Israel’s government has caused “difficulties, delays and limitations” on licensing Palestinian ambulances to operate in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.

Urban crises: With the effects of Ebola outbreaks, typhoons, and displacement increasingly felt in cities, the conference emphasised for the first time the importance of humanitarian work in urban areas, pushing the humanitarian sector outside its traditional focus on rural areas. “The face of vulnerability is changing,” said Asha Mohammed, incoming secretary general of the Kenyan Red Cross. “We need to factor in urban risks as a central priority of our work.” The IFRC has developed guidelines for dealing with heat waves in cities, as well as a toolkit to identify risks facing urban communities.

Epidemics: In an uncontroversial and rather benign resolution, states and the movement agreed to a greater role for national societies in national disease prevention and control, and to a “community-centric” approach in the prevention of and response to outbreaks.

Migration: While the movement passed a resolution about migration at the Council of Delegates, which does not include governments, the topic did not feature highly on the agenda in the international conference, in which states are included, because they could not come to consensus on the issue. In a speech during the conference, the president of the IFRC, Francesco Rocca, chastised governments for failing to agree a resolution on migration, and for their lack of action on the movement’s call to provide all migrants with access to essential services; enable national societies to help migrants, regardless of their legal status; stop detaining children and separating families; and use detention of migrants only as a measure of last resort.

For more on the International Conference, stay tuned for an interview with ICRC President Peter Maurer next week, and the text of a speech given by TNH Director Heba Aly on trust in humanitarian action, another key theme of the conference.


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