The International Committee of the Red Cross is an impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal violence and to provide them with assistance. It directs and coordinates the international relief activities conducted by the Movement in situations of conflict. It also endeavors to prevent suffering by promoting and strengthening humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles.
- INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was founded nearly a century and a half ago to preserve a measure of humanity in the midst of war. Even in war there are limits: limits on how warfare is conducted and limits on how combatants behave.
The set of rules established with this in mind – and endorsed by 194 nations throughout the world – is known as international humanitarian law, of which the Geneva Conventions are the bedrock.
International humanitarian law, also known as the law of armed conflict or the law of war, is the body of rules that, in wartime, protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities. It limits the methods and means of warfare. Its central purpose is to limit and prevent human suffering in times of armed conflict. The rules are to be observed not only by governments and their armed forces, but also by armed opposition groups and any other parties to a conflict.
The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their three Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005 are the principal instruments of humanitarian law.
Making the rules known
One of the ICRC’s preventive work is designed to contain the harmful effects of conflict and keep them to a minimum. The very spirit of international humanitarian law is to use force with restraint and in proportion to the objectives. The ICRC therefore seeks to promote the whole range of humanitarian principles so as to prevent – or at the very least to limit – the worst excesses of war.
In its prevention programs, the ICRC targets in particular those people and groups who determine the fate of victims of armed conflict or who can obstruct or facilitate ICRC action. These groups include armed forces, police, security forces and other weapon bearers, decision-makers and opinion-leaders at local and international levels and, with an eye to the future, teenagers, students and their teachers.
States have a legal obligation to ensure that their armed forces are fully versed in the law of armed conflict and universal humanitarian principles at all levels in the chain of command and that they apply them in all situations.
The ICRC endeavors to establish relations and build contacts with all the protagonists in a conflict. In this way, it can make the activities and working methods of the ICRC and Red Cross and Red Crescent better known and thus make it easier to reach the victims and ensure the safety of humanitarian workers.
- PROTECTION IN WAR
In its activities to protect people in situations of armed conflict or violence, the ICRC’s mission is to obtain full respect for the letter and spirit of international humanitarian law. It seeks to:
– minimize the dangers to which these people are exposed;
– prevent and put a stop to the abuses to which they are subjected;
– draw attention to their rights and make their voices heard;
– bring them assistance.
The ICRC does this by remaining close to the victims of conflict and violence and by maintaining a confidential dialogue with both State and non-State actors.
Protection of civilians: Protection is the mainstay of ICRC activities, at the heart of its mandate and of international humanitarian law. The ICRC maintains a constant presence in areas where civilians are particularly at risk. Its delegates keep up a regular dialogue with all weapon bearers, whether they are members of the armed forces, rebel groups, police forces, paramilitary forces or other groups taking part in the fighting. The ICRC gives special attention to the following vulnerable groups: those displaced by conflict, women and children in war.
Protection of detainees: In international armed conflicts, the Geneva Conventions recognize the right of ICRC delegates to visit prisoners of war and civilian internees. Preventing them from carrying out their mission would amount to a violation of humanitarian law. In non-international armed conflicts and situations of internal violence, Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions and the Statutes of the Movement authorize the ICRC to offer its services to visit detainees, and many governments accept its proposal to do so.
The International Committee of the Red Cross works to:
– prevent or put an end to disappearances and summary executions, torture and ill-treatment;
– restore contact between detainees and their families;
– improve conditions of detention when necessary and in accordance with the applicable law.
It does so by carrying out visits to places of detention. On the basis of its findings, it makes confidential approaches to the authorities and, if necessary, provides material or medical assistance to the detainees.
During visits, ICRC delegates conduct private interviews with each detainee. They note down the detainees’ details, so that their cases can be followed right up to the time of their release; the detainees describe any problems of a humanitarian nature they may face.
Restoring family links: The ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency works to restore contact between dispersed family members in all situations of armed conflict or internal violence. Each year, hundreds of thousands of new cases of people being sought by their relatives are opened, whether they concern displaced people, refugees, detainees or missing persons. Those who are located are given the opportunity to send and receive Red Cross messages and/or are put in contact with their families thanks to the worldwide network supported by the ICRC and comprising 186 National Societies.
- ASSISTANCE FOR CONFLICT VICTIMS
The primary aim of ICRC assistance is to protect conflict victims’ lives and health, to ease their plight and to ensure that the consequences of conflict – disease, injury, hunger or exposure to the elements – do not jeopardize their future. While emergency assistance saves lives and mitigates the worst effects of conflict, the ICRC tries always to keep sight of the ultimate aim of restoring people’s ability to provide for themselves.
Assistance may take a variety of forms, depending on the region and the nature of the crisis. It may include the provision of food and/or medicine, but usually builds on the capacity to deliver essential services, such as the construction or repair of water-supply systems or medical facilities and the training of primary-health-care staff, surgeons and prosthetic/orthotic technicians.
Economic security: Economic security means that a household is self-sufficient and can meet its own basic economic needs. In a conflict or crisis, in which displacement, theft, looting and the destruction of property and infrastructure are commonplace, households may no longer be able to provide for themselves, thereby becoming dependent on outside aid.
Depending on the degree of loss of economic security, the ICRC provides one of three types of assistance:
– economic support: to protect victims’ vital means of production, so that they can maintain their productive capacity and economic self-sufficiency at the household level as far as possible;
– survival relief: to protect the lives of conflict victims by providing them with the economic goods essential to their survival when they can no longer obtain these by their own means;
– economic rehabilitation: to support conflict victims in restoring their means of production and, where possible, regaining their self-sufficiency.
Water and habitat: The ICRC’s water and habitat programs aim to:
– ensure that victims of armed conflict have water for drinking and domestic use;
– to protect the population from environmental hazards caused by the collapse of water and habitat systems.
In order to provide access to water, improve hygiene levels and protect the environment, the ICRC carries out a range of activities:
– rehabilitation of water-treatment plants, distribution networks or gravity water systems linked to pumping stations;
– construction of wells, harnessing and protection of water sources and drainage systems, construction of water- storage containers;
– purification and distribution of drinking water;
– construction and rehabilitation of latrines and sewage-treatment systems; collection and treatment of waste, including hospital waste;
– renovation and reconstruction of health facilities and schools;
– work on infrastructure in places of detention to provide inmates with at least the minimum water requirements and ensure decent sanitation and living conditions;
– setting up and organization of camps for displaced people;
– introduction of vector-control programs, protection of foodstuffs, decontamination of living spaces, reduction of energy consumption, use of alternative energy.
Health services: The aim of ICRC health programs is to ensure that the victims of conflict have access to essential preventive and curative health care of a universally accepted standard.
- COOPERATION WITH NATIONAL SOCIETIES
In countries affected by conflict, the National Societies and the ICRC work together to mitigate human suffering by mounting joint assistance operations for the victims. Where there is armed conflict or internal strife, the ICRC coordinates all input by the various components of the Movement, and supports the local National Societies through various capacity-building measures, mainly in the fields of operational management and the development of human resources.
The ICRC assists and supports National Societies in their activities to:
– provide assistance to victims of armed conflict and internal strife (preparedness and response);
– promote international humanitarian law and spread knowledge of the Fundamental Principles, ideals and activities of the Movement;
– restore contact between dispersed family members as part of the worldwide Red Cross and Red Crescent tracing network.