Historical archive

Principles in Practice: Safeguarding Humanitarian Action

Historical archive

Published under: Stoltenberg's 2nd Government

Publisher Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Norwegian Refugee Council Conference, Brussels, 4 December 2012- High-level panel: “The values and purpose of humanitarian action”

"The fundamental purpose of humanitarian assistance is to save lives, alleviate suffering and safeguard human dignity regardless of ethnic background, gender, age, religion or political affiliation. Funding for humanitarian assistance should be based on humanitarian needs and not on political considerations", Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide said.

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Thank you for the invitation to participate at this timely and important conference. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has a presence in many of the most difficult conflict situations and is an important channel for Norwegian humanitarian assistance.

We highly value NRC as a professional humanitarian actor who understands the value of presence on the ground and local anchoring of its assistance and in a variety of contexts such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Colombia. In Pakistan NRC is one of very few present in Baluchistan. It shows remarkable ability to adapt to changing circumstances and respond to the most pressing needs. It is a strong voice on how to transform the humanitarian principles to practice. Documentation is essential and the report presented for this conference is a good example of this.

Adaptability and flexibility is needed: Conflicts and disasters today are increasingly complex and we often find that humanitarian principles are being challenged in a number of ways. I will mention three:

  • Firstly, the integrated approach of the three “D”s: defence, diplomacy and development, may be more effective in some cases, but it also poses challenges on humanitarian actors. For instance in Afghanistan, with the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Important that there is separation between the humanitarian and other efforts in practical deliveries on the ground.
  • Secondly, the humanitarian principles are challenged by people who do not care about the principles and are driven by what they consider to be more important agendas.
  • Thirdly, we are still experiencing the consequences of the so called global war on terror. Anti-terrorist rules and legislation limit the freedom of action of humanitarian actors.

This is why humanitarian principles are so important! Humanitarian principles matter! I will also stress the following: Humanitarian principles matter more in certain contexts and at certain times than in others. They depend on the context.

What happens when principles meet reality? Last year, during the Libya-crisis there was a heated discussion on the use of military assets to support operations undertaken by humanitarian organizations – particularly with regard to the situation in Misrata. The intention was, no doubt, to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian actors and access to populations in need.

The issue at stake was, however, the credibility of humanitarian action. Could they be perceived as associated with the military operations? My view at the time was clear – and it still is: in these contexts the need to preserve the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence is of fundamental importance in order to be able to provide effective protection and assistance.

I will address the three questions to this panel. The first:

  1. How can humanitarian aid policy best be reconciled with other elements of foreign policy while maintaining its autonomy?

Three points:

Firstly, the Norwegian approach: Humanitarian aid, peacebuilding and human rights are high priorities for the Norwegian Government. We saw the importance of developing a humanitarian policy that is separate from but linked to other policy areas. In 2008 my Government presented an overall humanitarian strategy for Norway entitled Norway’s Humanitarian Policy. This clarified and enhanced our humanitarian approach.

The goal of our humanitarian strategy is to ensure a rapid, flexible and effective response to changing humanitarian needs. The fundamental purpose of humanitarian assistance is to save lives, alleviate suffering and safeguard human dignity regardless of ethnic background, gender, age, religion or political affiliation. The humanitarian strategy is part of Norway’s policy of engagement.

Secondly, humanitarian crises require political solutions. Norway, as a political actor, can be impartial but is not neutral. We take the side of the victims and will not remain silent about maltreatment or abuse of power. We actively promote the normative frameworks of international humanitarian and human rights law.

When it comes to the respect for international humanitarian law, there are mainly three categories of actors: First, the ones who don’t know the law. For instance local warriors who have no knowledge or training. Second, people who know the law, but who don’t care. And the third, people who know and care but question how the law applies to modern conflict situations. Here it is a matter of practical guidance on interpretation.

The main problem is not inadequate legislation, but inadequate implementation.

That is why my Government has launched an initiative entitled “Reclaiming the Protection of Civilians under International Humanitarian Law” in which the Norwegian Refugee Council is an active partner. The aim is not to negotiate new legislation, but to agree on practical measures that will effectively improve the situation for civilians in armed conflicts.

It may be necessary to remind conflict parties about their commitments individual responsibility International Humanitarian Law. Norway, in consultation with the ICRC, is engaging states that may influence parties to the conflict in Syria to remind and insist on the commitments to respect international humanitarian law and protect health workers, hospitals and ambulances.

Thirdly, I would like to stress the need to maintain a principled approach to humanitarian action. Funding for humanitarian assistance should be based on humanitarian needs and not on political considerations.

2. What are the challenges and best ways of working to co-exist with other operations?

Norway’s position: Coordination but with a clear division of roles and responsibilities is essential. There needs to be a clear distinction between humanitarian, development and military efforts.

Challenges: Humanitarian efforts are often carried out side by side with international police efforts and military peacekeeping operations. In some countries there are frameworks for coordinating these various activities. We are, of course, not arguing against structural integration – it is good that the different UN efforts are integrated and coordinated. But on the ground it is important that the various efforts are kept separate and that humanitarian assistance is clearly set apart from other operations.

I would like to return to the point I made earlier about principled humanitarian action and when it matters the most. In highly complex conflict situations a principled approach is essential to ensuring acceptance for humanitarian action and to enabling humanitarian actors to operate on the ground. The more complex the situation, the greater the need for a principled approach. But once peace is restored in a country or region, the main task becomes reconstruction. The focus becomes development rather than humanitarian aid and the need for humanitarian actors to demonstrate their autonomy decreases.

In Afghanistan, for instance, it is very important with a clear distinction between the different roles and responsibilities – and not to mix military and humanitarian efforts. Whereas in a situation of national disasters where there is no conflict, the co-operation between military and civilian efforts poses no problems, rather improves the response.

When one agency has a dual mandate and delivers both humanitarian and development aid, this may pose a challenge. It is important to be clear that when it is providing development assistance it is not impartial. For instance establishing a girl’s school in Afghanistan is political. It is indicating a direction of desired change. Are the organisations sufficiently aware?

3. How might donors and their implementing partners work to improve principled allocation of humanitarian funding?

Three points:

Norway has increasingly focused on the need to provide more flexible and predictable humanitarian funding. This is mainly done through multi-year agreements with key humanitarian partners. These agreements normally contain a certain degree of flexibility to switch between budget lines according to changing humanitarian needs. We depend on our partners to implement the programmes based on needs analyses and humanitarian principles.

Non-earmarked funding for emergency appeals is another way of allowing humanitarian partners more flexibility.

The increasing use of humanitarian fund mechanisms, like the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). The CERF allows rapid disbursement of funds for sudden onset disasters and forgotten crises. It is the Emergency Relief Coordinator who makes decisions on allocations purely on the basis of a needs analysis. To be even more effective, UN agencies must be able to respond more quickly and this includes being able to provide funding to NGOs more rapidly.

To conclude,

The financial crisis is leading to budget cuts in many countries. Which budgets are cut? It is a question of damage limitation. In this situation it is also important to take note of new actors entering the arena, some with new ideas and ways to do humanitarian assistance.

It is important to broaden ownership of humanitarian principles, fundamental humanitarian values and human rights. Humanitarianism and human rights are shared values.

I wish you every success with this conference and look forward to the discussions.

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