Elhadj As Sy International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies IFRC Secretary General
Date: Monday, 28 August, 2017
Event: The Clara Barton Lecture
Location: Chautauqua Lake, New York, USA


Introduction – Clara Barton, International Humanitarian Law (IHL) & international humanitarianism

Thank you for those words of introduction Koby, and thank you all for this invitation to join you to give the Clara Barton lecture at this year’s International Humanitarian Law Dialogues.

It was Dean Michael Scharf of Case Western University, who – on behalf of you all – issued this invitation.  I knew it was important to join you, so I have squeezed in this US visit between two trips to the Middle East.

When I look at the very long list of prestigious Case Western alumni, I can’t help spotting the name of M Scott Peck, who gave us one of the world’s best-known self-help books in ‘The Road Less Travelled’.  Peck’s routes to fulfilment remain a lifetime’s work for most of us.  His title also speaks specifically to me, as one who is anything but ‘less’ travelled: I spend almost half of my time travelling, seeing ordinary people doing extraordinary things in extraordinary situations.

And it also speaks to an expression which we use in the IFRC, where we talk about ‘the last mile’, and ‘the first mile’: two roads that are not easily and often travelled.  Our uniqueness in the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is that we are based on the ground and in our communities, in 190 National Societies (that’s almost everywhere on earth) and in the form of some 17 million volunteers.  We are everywhere you work, working alongside the communities we all seek to serve.

We are there before, during and after crisis, simply because we are always there, in crisis or not.  We walk the first mile with the people we serve; we walk the last mile with them.  And that ‘last mile’ is often the one that others won’t walk: it’s the mile that leads to the hardest places, and the hardest people to get to.  We accompany the communities we serve, and the people within them.  We help people to recover the thing which is the most precious to them – their human dignity.

And it is this principle of humanity – the fundamental principle of humanitarianism, and what former ICRC President Max Huber described as ‘the unconditional recognition of the value of everything that has a human face’ – which overarches everything you will discuss over the next few days, and which clearly links you, as International Humanitarian Lawyers and criminal lawyers, to me and the IFRC, as plain international humanitarians.

And nobody personified humanity and the humanitarian principles quite like Clara Barton, who is rightly held in the highest esteem not just in this country but the world over.  The fact that she was born on Christmas Day in 1821 may have hinted that she was destined to be a gift to the world.

So much of what she believed and did rings true to the work of the IFRC well over a century later.

As a fearless campaigner against slavery, she was a forerunner of all our work with the most marginalized, the most vulnerable, the most abused.

As one of the mothers of volunteerism – famously mobilising hundreds of people to tend to wounded soldiers at the Battle of Sharpsburg in September 1862 – she was a forerunner of an international organization now numbering, as I said, 17 million volunteers.   When we talk of battlefields, we reflect that they used to be defined geographically: battlefields had names, like Sharpsburg … But now our battlefields cross borders. They come in the form of things like climate change and disease and ideology.  And they are in our cities, our schools, even our places of worship.

As someone who brought her ‘supply wagons’ to the aid of the distressed on both the Union and the Confederacy side, Clara Barton was a pioneer of the humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality.

As someone who set out to find missing people, alive or dead, and make contact with their families – most notably at Annapolis – she could easily be transplanted to some of the work that the Red Cross is doing right now in so many places, for instance in Sierra Leone, as people search frantically for their loved ones lost after the mudslides of a fortnight ago, or on migrant routes, where we reconnect families and children.

Clara memorably said that ‘Everybody’s business is nobody’s business, and nobody’s business is my business.’  I like that.  Again, it speaks to me and to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which is concerned with precisely everybody, with ‘everything that has a human face’.  And that includes all those whom society rejects as ‘nobody’ … those left behind because of their race, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their legal status, their geographical remoteness, or just their sheer poverty.

Clara of course also founded the American Red Cross in 1880, and it’s a pleasure to see Koby Langley, Senior Vice President, here today.  So let me also take this opportunity to pay my respects to the American Red Cross.

I pay special tribute today of all days, as thousands of American Red Cross volunteers help to fight the horrific results of Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

The American Red Cross is one of the largest National Societies in terms of staff and volunteers, and a key player in our global Federation as one of the original founders, and a current member of our Governing Board.

Many of you here will have seen the way they mobilise this great country’s responses to tragedies near and far – from the Indian Ocean Tsunami at the very end of 2004, to the Haiti earthquake of January 2010, to Hurricane Sandy in November 2012.  A month ago, I saw the laying of the first stone of an American Red Cross-funded blood transfusion centre in Port-au-Prince.  There have been five American Presidents of the IFRC, including the iconic Henry Davison as the first, from 1919.

Ladies and gentlemen, it serves my purpose to acknowledge some of the moving spirits behind this lecture and these dialogues, because the theme that unites them all is the relief of suffering.  That is why we are all here.  Today I would like to look at both international humanitarian law, and international humanitarianism.  They are part of the same continuum, and two things link them: the legal and regulatory environment in which we as humanitarians operate, and the fundamental humanitarian principles which underpin all our work.

Here, perhaps, I should also acknowledge the spiritual, emotional and intellectual forefather of both international humanitarianism in the form of the Red Cross Red Crescent, and also of one of your professional disciplines, that of International Humanitarian Law.  I am of course referring to the Swiss banker Henri Dunant who, in the terrible wake of the slaughter at the Battle of Solferino in 1859, laid the foundations of two things: first, the Movement of which I am a part; and second, of the Geneva Conventions which are of course central to your work, and which have become ever stronger since the Protocol of 1977.


International humanitarianism – a sketch

And we all share this same context, because we all share the same world.

It is a world which is hurting, in which the UN estimates that 100 million people need humanitarian assistance in any one year, at a cost of USD 22 billion.  It is a world of multiple possibilities for unhappy alliteration, in which today I will simply mention three diabolical Ds: disaster, disease, displacement.

The first D is for Disaster.

This week, our focus is on the victims of the mudslides in Sierra Leone: with 400 dead and counting.

The focus is also on the worst floods in South Asia in living memory.  More than 800 people have been killed and 24 million are affected following widespread floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.  Bangladesh – the country of flatlands which was devastated by floods with massive loss of life a generation ago, and which has since done so much to mitigate their damage – has experienced the most severe flooding in 100 years.

Any week, the disaster agenda is different, but it is always there.  We approach the morning news headlines with trepidation.  We know that disasters impact most on the most vulnerable: the poor and most marginalized, women and children, the elderly, the disabled.

We also know the reasons for so many disasters. Natural shocks and natural hazards – like the monsoon season which we know always comes – do not have to turn into natural disasters.

In Sierra Leone, for instance, the causes of the mudslides were the result of a lethal cocktail.  Deforestation and environmental degradation. Badly-constructed homes in informal settlements at the bottom of denuded hills. Poor sanitation and drainage systems that are easily blocked by bad waste management. No early warning systems.

That’s why our disaster preparedness work gets ever more important.  We in the IFRC have carried out research on our own projects showing that a dollar spent on disaster preparedness saves 16 dollars in disaster relief.

And those dollars also save countless lives – not least the lives of life-givers themselves, with half of all preventable maternal deaths worldwide occurring in conflict or disaster settings.

Disaster-preparedness is life-readiness.  It is central to what we do in the IFRC.

Meanwhile the second D is for Disease.

Disease: which is so often a compound of famine, the scourge by which 20 million lives are still in grave danger in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen.  We measure famine: Level 1 is OK, Level 2 is stress, Level 3 is crisis, level 4 is emergency, and level 5 is famine.  Most of the places where we work are at very best at level 2, ‘stress’, which is bad enough in itself.  These four countries are at Level 4.  And insult has been added to injury in the form of horrific cholera outbreaks in Somalia and Yemen.  Can you imagine that 540,000 out of 27 million Yemenis, 1 in 50 people, have already contracted the disease, 2000 have died, and there are more than 25,000 new cases still occurring every week?

There is more.  This week we hear of chronic measles in Somaliland.  In recent months, we have been on the trail of yellow fever in Brazil and dengue fever in Sri Lanka.  In 2014 we were at the forefront of the Ebola response in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia: our volunteers carried out over 50,000 safe and dignified burials, and are thought to have saved 10,000 lives in the process.  It is unusual to measure the success of a programme by how many you buried, but this time, we did just that.

The third and final D is for Displacement….

… with today seeing the highest number of displaced people globally since the period of trauma at the end of the Second World War.  There is no 3rd World War, but I so often repeat that we have never seen anything like this, since the 2nd World War.  The UN puts the figure at 66 million: 44 million people displaced within their own countries, and 22 million refugees and asylum seekers outside their own countries.

To alight on just one situation of which we are all painfully aware: in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, our National Societies – along with the IFRC and the ICRC – are strengthening a Movement-wide response to the Syria crisis which is now entering its sixth year.  Over five million Syrians have been displaced outside their own country, and even more within it.  Of those outside, three million are in Turkey, while Syrian refugees make up a full third of the population of Lebanon.  What generosity, from a country with so many of its own challenges before it takes on those of anyone else.

Our IFRC member the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, or SARC as we know it, has led the humanitarian response inside Syria from the beginning: we collectively reach more than five million people each month through the combined efforts of more than 7,000 active volunteers and 2,000 staff.  We do so at a terrible price – we have lost over 60 staff and volunteers in Syria.

It has been my privilege to visit Syria three times as Secretary General.  The last time, in March, I witnessed SARC-run livelihoods projects in al-Hisn in the Homs governorate and Qutayfah in the rural Damascus governorate. I sensed that these projects were testament to a new Syrian will to recover normality and get on with their lives.

But when people are outside their own country – whether as migrants or refugees –  the IFRC and its National Societies are present where they can be, in trying to help them at every stage of that journey …

… in their points of origin, for instance in West Africa, in giving impartial and factual information on what it is to move country, for whatever reason, and on how there are those – smugglers, traffickers – who would abuse them;

… in their often-perilous journeys, for instance across the “Saharan Sea” to North Africa, and the Mediterranean Sea to Europe;

… in their points of arrival, supporting their immediate needs when they get to countries such as Greece, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon, Uganda.  (How is that we speak of a ‘refugee crisis’ when one million people try to come to Europe, but not when three million go to Turkey, one million to Jordan, one million to Lebanon, and now one million to Uganda?)

… and in their points of near or final destination, for instance in teaching livelihoods in Turkey, or language and vocational skills in Germany and Scandinavia.

We in the IFRC believe protection and assistance should be provided to all who need it, regardless of their status.

Ladies and gentlemen, I offer this quick and grim sketch of global humanitarianism simply to say that this is the humanitarian world – and this is of course our collective world.  It’s a world in which I want the IFRC to do even more to educate young people – in conflict situations and in all situations – to put into practice the values of humanitarianism, all of which are based on the brotherhood of man.  We call it ‘Education Plus’, and it teaches self-esteem, dignity, respect, tolerance, and the recovery of hope.


International Humanitarian Law (IHL) – the humanitarian dimension

Let me now turn to your specific field, that of international criminal law and international humanitarian law (or the law of armed conflict).

Within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, as you know, situations of war and conflict are largely the preserve of our sister organization the ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross.  As ever, I pay tribute to the ICRC, which carries out magnificent work in situations of extreme danger, and is officially the guardian of IHL.

Today I would like to acknowledge the important work undertaken by investigators, prosecutors, lawyers and others in the pursuit of justice in the wake of war crimes.  Never have I felt so safe!  I am pleased to see representatives from the international criminal tribunals, including the International Criminal Court.  It has been fifteen years now since the Rome Statute entered into force, and there have been some 40 individual indictments in the ICC.

It has been a time in which there have been achievements and results, and also a time in which there have been complications to match: the accusations of imperialism and an over-focus on Africa; the tensions between the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of peace; the challenges of avoiding politicisation and bias; the complexities of ‘complementarity’ whereby the national state is supposed to be the first to deal with a violation, with the ICC a support for that process, and a court of last resort.

I am not the person to unpack those issues, but I can talk to how the work of international investigators and prosecutors can affect the work of humanitarians.

IHL violations clearly lead to massive humanitarian needs, and they need to be stopped.  At the same time, we must always be careful that any work undertaken to prevent and respond to IHL violations, including by international criminal processes, does not create further needs, nor create challenges for humanitarian actors to do their work.

The obvious challenge comes down to neutrality.  While humanitarians would like to see an end to violations of IHL, at the same time, as you know, we cannot engage with or support these legal processes.  Even speaking to court staff may mean that the humanitarians come to be seen as not being neutral, undermining their ability to provide assistance to people in need.

All I can say today is that some of our ways of working may be useful for you in your work, given that we are often operating in similarly complex environments. In particular, humanitarians take a ‘do no harm’ approach which seeks to evaluate every one of its actions to ensure that it only does good, not harm

For humanitarians, the ‘do no harm’ approach can be applied at the most granular of levels, and it makes very real sense.  ‘Do not build a well in a place where the water it produces will be fought over’, we say – simply and practically enough.  ‘Do not build toilets without locks in places that are darkened are night’, we say.  This is common sense: consideration of ‘do no harm’ is a prerequisite for every humanitarian action.

How can court staff apply the same principle?  You can answer that question better than us.

To look at just one example: could it be useful for prosecutors and investigators to ask themselves whether their choice of witnesses (or the process to identify them) might have unintended negative impacts on a community?  If, say, the investigators view teachers as key interviewees (which makes perfect sense, in that teachers are literate and they often speak an international language) then the investigators must ask themselves a question.  If a teacher is taken out of a community to be interviewed (and often removed to safe housing in the process) – then who will remain behind to teach children?  And to give them ‘Education Plus’?

You will see that I am trying to offer practical wisdom here, but it comes alongside a philosophical observation which I think is of real interest to you, in applying bodies of formal law to decidedly ‘informal’ situations.

That is, that the IFRC’s humanitarian work in the farthest reaches of the communities we serve – or ‘the last mile’, which I mentioned at the outset of this lecture – often takes us to places not just without government, but without formal laws.  We are often operating in places which uphold ancient and customary law, shaped by tradition and values.  I draw a parallel here between the fundamental principles of humanitarianism which I have so emphasised in this lecture, and some of the fundamental principles of the communities in which we work.  These are the principles behind the law – be it international humanitarian law, or customary law.

And there are messages here for us as well as for you, about how to plug in to the values and norms of communities which may seem oceans away from the tenets of international humanitarian law.


The legal and regulatory environment for international humanitarianism – Disaster Law, Volunteering

Let me now explore further some of the legal and regulatory aspects of humanitarianism, going beyond IHL.

You are lawyers, and I feel it will be of interest to you to know how laws – or at least guidelines – can enhance our humanitarian work.  One of the IFRC’s big tasks is to take Disaster Law to the same scale and effectiveness as Humanitarian (or ‘war and conflict’) Law.  The one is over 50 years old and the other is not much more than 15, and the age difference shows.

The lack of laws and procedures to regulate incoming disaster relief – at national and international level – has had and continues to have significant effects.  We see the problem of over-regulation which leads to unnecessary bureaucratic bottlenecks slowing the entry and distribution of relief, and we see the problem of under-regulation which permits poor quality and lack of coordination.

Laws and guidelines are essential to enabling us to undertake our work, providing assistance during crises.

The UN’s International Law Commission have prepared a set of ‘draft articles on the protection of persons in the event of disasters’.  The draft articles are due to come up for consideration before the UN General Assembly at the end of 2017.  These articles could form the basis of a new global agreement: an agreement which could spur further interest and commitment among states to put in place domestic laws and procedures to bring about better international assistance after disasters.

Before the ILC began its work, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement had set about rectifying this serious problem.  We spoke to governments, local and international aid providers, and developed the formal Guidelines for the domestic facilitation and regulation of international disaster relief and initial recovery assistance.

To date, IFRC and National Societies have worked in over 50 countries worldwide to review their legal frameworks for disaster management and response.  26 countries have adopted provisions based on the IDRL Guidelines into their national legislation.  A further 17 draft bills or regulations are pending.  IFRC has been called on by National Societies and governments to provide operational IDRL advice to help facilitate emergency response operations in the Philippines, Vanuatu, Fiji, Nepal, Haiti, Ecuador and Myanmar.

Customs and border entry issues; import tariffs; unsolicited donations; first aid awareness and training: these are the kinds of areas that are covered in the Guidelines and which can go into legislation.

One of the most important characteristics of our Disaster Law work is the primacy of local actors – national governments, and national organizations such as the National Societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.  They lead, and others follow.

Enshrining this in Disaster Laws sits alongside the global commitment to ‘localise’ aid which was made at last year’s World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, and which the IFRC leads and champions.  One of the stated targets of localisation is to increase the funding channelled to local organizations from an estimated 0.4%, to 25%.

So the cause and the practicality of IDRL is the flagship of the IFRC’s efforts to bring into law the elements which will allow us to do our work better, and also allow governments to regulate what are often chaotic disaster situations.

But let me briefly mention one other way in which we are trying to improve the environment in which we work.

This is the area of volunteer protection.  Again, this is of interest to you because of the increasing death toll among humanitarians in either conflict or disaster settings.  Just a week ago, on 19th August, you may have seen that the world marked International Humanitarian Day, with the hashtag and the slogan that volunteers and civilians are ‘NotATarget’.

It was a grim anniversary for us.  Every violent death of a health or aid volunteer sends a shudder through the humanitarian world. This happened yet again two weeks ago.  In the Central African Republic, where we are working closely with our member, the Central African Red Cross, to strengthen health systems, nine Red Cross volunteers were gunned down alongside two dozen civilians attending a crisis meeting at a health facility in Gambo.

In 2016, eleven Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers were killed in violent incidents.  So far in 2017, 24 volunteers and staff have lost their lives to violence in far-flung locations including Syria, Nigeria, Mexico and Mali, as well as CAR. This year is on track to becoming the deadliest since at least 2011.

Our 17 million Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers are our greatest treasure.  Much of our moral authority and unique presence derives from them, and their simple desire to do good and offer time and help to their fellow human beings.  They speak local languages, they understand local cultures.  These people are courageous and committed, but if we want them to keep coming forward and continuing their vital work, we must do more to ensure their safety.  We simply can’t measure the courage of volunteers by recounting the numbers of those we lose in the line of duty.

The obligation to protect aid workers and civilians lies with parties to the conflict. International humanitarian law makes this clear.



Ladies and gentlemen, in coming to a close, I hope you see that I have tried to link your worlds of international criminal and humanitarian law, with mine.  One of those links, of course, is IHL’s younger sibling, IDRL.  But I think the greatest of the links is humanity – the fundamental principle of humanitarianism – which unites us all.

Our world is suffering.  For all the advances of the 20th Century, never has the world looked more parlous and more threatened than in these first two decades of the 21st Century.  None of us can stand for this – all of us have a role play as stewards of our inheritance, in preserving our planet and civilisation for our children and our children’s children and grandchildren.

What has gone before is not good enough.  I think it is fitting that Clara Barton herself should have the last word.

She wrote that: “I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past.”

Thank you.