Humanitarian Diplomacy and Principled Humanitarian Action

Story by Anna Nelson, ICRC Washington, Spokesperson and Intercross Editor

The ICRC recently launched its 2nd Research and Debate Cycle on Principles Guiding Humanitarian Action* with a speech by President Peter Maurer at La Maison de la Paix in Switzerland.

“The principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence have been at the heart of all major humanitarian operations for over a century. And yet, questions arise today about their relevance in addressing new and emerging challenges in a broadening humanitarian agenda,” he told a crowd gathered at Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

Maurer’s words herald a global discussion about the principles, which have guided the action of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement for over 150 years.

While a growing variety of humanitarian actors endorse humanitarian principles in practice, a lack of common understanding, or even misleading or politicized uses of these principles, risks jeopardizing the scope and scale of humanitarian action.

“The concepts as well as practices of ‘Principled Humanitarian Action’ are increasingly being challenged in current conflicts,” and “parties to the conflict themselves may explicitly desist from this project of ‘shared humanity’,” warned Maurer.

The debate about humanitarian principles is a very pragmatic one. It deals with “some of the most sensitive dilemmas” confronting us in the real world, namely, setting priorities in situations of overwhelming needs; fulfilling a commitment to humanity while taking into account the stark realities of power; and accessing populations in need while maintaining the safety of humanitarian personnel.

Watch the conference below.

*The ICRC’s Second Research and Debate Cycle on Principles Guiding Humanitarian Action will gather key actors during seven high-level conferences to be held on several continents, starting in September 2014 and running throughout 2015.

By hosting discussions on humanitarian principles and their concrete operational implications in the field, the ICRC hopes that all parties to conflicts will, in the words of Maurer, “recognize their shared humanity,” as represented in the goals of humanitarian organizations present on the ground. Only through this recognition and dialogue will the ICRC be able to intervene to help affected populations.

From Uganda and the DRC: A Story of Hope, Restored

Story by Anna Nelson, ICRC Washington, Spokesperson and Intercross Editor
Photography by Christian Katsuva

Last month, 19 Congolese children, separated from their families by fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and living in a Ugandan refugee camp for the past two years, were successfully reunited with their loved ones, thanks to support from the ICRC and the Uganda Red Cross Society.

The two of the nineteen children are brothers, Niyonzima (14) and Justin (13). Their lives were turned upside down in 2012, when they were doing some routine gardening work and suddenly, they were running for their lives - forced to flee the armed conflict in the DRC. They were separated from each other and wound up as refugees in Uganda.

They were eventually reunited at the Rwamanja Refugee Settlement in western Uganda. (Niyonzima arrived at the refugee camp three months after Justin did.) But that was just the start of a long journey to restore their family links and bring them back home to the DRC. The following photo essay depicts their journey from tragic loss to restoration.

Volunteers from the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo criss-cross the country to the most remote places looking for the families of displaced children. According to Ugandan authorities, some 180,000 children currently live in Uganda, having fled there to escape the violence that has ravaged eastern DRC for the past two decades. The ICRC delegations in Kampala and Goma, working closely with the Uganda Red Cross Society, have been able to trace many of the children back to their families now that the security situation has improved and made their return possible.

Niyonzima (14, left) and Justin (13) are brothers. A day in 2012 that started with routine gardening work in the family plantation ended in a run for their lives, fleeing an armed conflict in the DRC. They ended up, separated by the conflict, as refugees in Uganda. The brothers were eventually reunited at the Rwamanja Refugee Settlement in western Uganda, where they are pictured here.

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“I was in the garden,” says Justin. “My mother had sent me there to chase birds away from the garden. But when I came back home, I found that she had run away when the fighting started. I saw a crowd of people moving and I followed them to the border,” he adds. And so began an arduous journey that changed him from a normal school-going child to a refugee. Here, ICRC tracing officer Oliver Muvunyi checks Justin’s name at Rwamanja.

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Niyonzima arrives at the refugee camp – three months after Justin. “Whenever I didn’t go to school, I went to the garden to chase away birds,” Niyonzima says. “That day in the garden, when I suddenly heard bullets firing, I started to run, following a large group of people. A friend in the group stayed near me and together we moved to the border. I was very glad to see my brother again and to learn that he was going to school like me,” Niyonzima adds.

Dressed in new clothes for the occasion, Niyonzima and Justin look forward to being reunited with their family. “I missed my mother,” says Justin, “Every time I needed something, she would give it to me.”

Justin (left) waits for his friends as they are received by the ICRC team from Goma, DRC, at the DRC-Uganda border.

Crossing the Bunagana border, the children are visibly excited, happy to have arrived back in the DRC. The idea of finding their family makes them sing and jump for joy. Seven-year-old Moses, striking a victory sign, exclaims, "My home is in Kitshanga and they told me that tomorrow I'll go home! I'm finally going to live with my family again and it makes me very happy.”

During the reunions, the entire village comes out to celebrate the arrival of the returning children. It is an opportunity also for the former playmates to ask a thousand and one questions about life away from home.

A grandmother’s joy is almost palpable on seeing her long-lost grandson, Bahati Erick. “It is two years since I have seen my grandson. I thought I had lost him forever. I thought he was dead,” she says. “When the Red Cross volunteer came to say that he had been found, I did not believe it. I was waiting to see it, to believe. And now that I have seen it, I can die in peace because my grandson is here.”

Justin and Niyonzima are finally back home with their father (right).

“I'm very happy to be back with my family and friends,” says Amani Jean-Marie Amini, the young man in red trousers, posing with his family. “It is when you are away from home that you realize how much it is important to be with family. I am also pleased to be back at school and to see my classmates again,” he adds.

For more from the ICRC Intercross blog, please click here.

Bringing Sexual Violence out of the Shadows of War

Story by Anna Nelson, ICRC Washington, Spokesperson and Intercross Editor

Sexual and gender-based violence is a scourge that ruins lives and shatters dreams. It comes in many forms – from forced marriage and sex trafficking to rape and sexual abuse. The victims are commonly women and girls but it happens to men and boys, too. It is used as a method of warfare to intentionally exert pressure on communities and fuel fighting. It can also be opportunistic in situations where there is no rule of law. For example, when people are forced to flee their homes, perpetrators will take advantage of the chaos to commit horrific crimes.

The scars of sexual violence can last a lifetime for the victims, but also for the communities in which they live. It breaks people's spirits, tears families apart, and can destroy the fabric of societies. The fact that it is so widespread, yet largely invisible, is also an immense challenge for humanitarian agencies, like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who are working in countries affected by war and armed violence. This is why we recently decided to take a new approach to tackling the problem.

In any situation of armed conflict, the ICRC now starts with the basic assumption that sexual violence is happening. Just because we don't see it right away, doesn't mean it's not there. Experience has shown that it is there – lurking in the shadows, its victims too scared or ashamed to come forward.

In this video, we hear from a rape survivor in the Democratic Republic of Congo and learn why it's so important for victims to have somewhere safe to turn.

For more information on the work of ICRC to help survivors of sexual violence, please click here.

For more stories from the Intercross, ICRC Washington's blog, please click here.