European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response
Speech at the NRC Conference on "Principles in Practice: Safeguarding Humanitarian Action"
NRC Conference on "Principles in Practice: Safeguarding Humanitarian Action"/ Brussels
4 December 2012
Let me express my sincere thanks to NRC for having organized this very important conference. Great to see such a distinguished panel with many familiar faces and old friends. And what better chair than Lise Grande, who must be one of the most experienced humanitarian and resident coordinators in the UN system. Over the years you have had to deal on the ground with the issues we are here to debate – in South Sudan and elsewhere.
And thanks to NRC for putting the issue of the principles upfront on the agenda. This could have been yet another conference on the humanitarian principles. With the converted preaching to the converted. But it actually comes after a very useful process of seminars and discussions – crucially, reaching out beyond the usual circle of the humanitarian community. And it has already generated some very useful ideas. On issues like the role of host governments in humanitarian response (I found the discussion you had at the seminar you ran in Geneva absolutely fascinating). Or the discussions you have had on transition, or on the relevance of the Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative, 10 years after its inception.
The issue around the principles is often phrased as: "Are the humanitarian principles still valid today"? And then people refer to the emerging role of 'new actors' in humanitarian response – national governments, regional organizations, military actors, faith-based organizations, etc. And they refer to developments such as "comprehensive approaches" or whole-of-government doctrines – as evidence that the principles need to move on.
Well, I’d like to frame the issue differently. The issue is not whether the principles are still valid. The principles are actually more important than ever before. Precisely because of all those developments I mentioned.
Let's start with the most basic basics. And I want to share with you a little analogy. If any of us here today happen one day to need the emergency services in our home countries – say, the fire brigade, or an ambulance (and of course I hope that we won't) - we expect them to come and help. Right away, and no strings attached. Responding only to your needs. And your needs are actually quite straightforward when you call an ambulance or the fire brigade: you want them to save your life. Or to put out the fire. The last thing you want the people in the ambulance to do is ask which party you vote for. Or what your religious beliefs are. Or what you think of the mayor of the town you live in.
Well, this is actually what the principles are about. That you don't discriminate. That you don't attach strings to the help you provide. That you don't make it part of some wider political agenda.
And this very basic notion is actually all the more important in the context we all work in now. Let me give you three reasons why.
Firstly: because we are seeing much more complexity in the nature of conflicts. Take Syria. We are seeing a multiplicity of actors, a constant shift in battle-lines. A situation where humanitarians need more than ever to be beyond any suspicion of siding with one party or another. I think to a very large extent we have succeeded in that endeavour. We have largely kept the humanitarian track separate from the politics – with the Syria Humanitarian Forum as a platform for exchanging information and developing joint action points. That has not been easy – but we think it has been worthwhile.
Secondly: because governments in countries affected by crises are becoming much more involved themselves. And that is great. That is very positive. That is absolutely how it should be: they have the primary responsibility to respond and assist their own population. In fact the international normative framework actually says so.
But this means that when we as outsiders come in to offer assistance, we have to be all the more careful not to come in with any hidden agendas. Look at the situation in countries like Colombia or Sri Lanka. Countries with strong governments, who may have clear views about the political objectives of external actors. But where on the whole, genuine humanitarian actors supported by us have been able to provide assistance precisely because they have been very consistent in sticking to the principles.
I could also quote a recent example in a country in conflict in Africa, where some of our NGO partners had their assets confiscated by local military forces. The incident was taken up immediately by our EU Head of Delegation with the local authorities, underlining our neutrality as a humanitarian actor, and – quoting the EU Consensus on Humanitarian Aid! Upon which the assets were returned to our partners.
Thirdly: a word on the specific situation of the EU. In 2010, two big things happened in Brussels with relevance for what we do – or three, if you count the designation of a dedicated Commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis response. The other big changes were, on the one hand, for EU humanitarian aid, a firm anchoring of the humanitarian principles in the Lisbon Treaty (in Article 214). And the establishment of humanitarian aid as a self-standing objective of EU external policy – not subordinated to any other political or development objective. On the other hand, you also had the creation in 2010 of the EEAS. And therefore, at least in theory, a much stronger role for the EU on the political side of external relations.
This strengthening of the political profile of the EU is something I very much welcome, as a European, and as a Commissioner. I want to see the EU strongly engaged in conflict prevention, resolution and mediation. In many cases, that will involve the EU at the political level taking sides. But of course a more visible EU presence on the political front means that as the humanitarian wing of the EU, we have to be absolutely consistent and credible in abiding by the principles, if we want to continue to be able to work where it matters, with the most vulnerable people affected by conflict. More than ever before.
On the whole, this has worked. So far. No one has seriously questioned the EU Consensus on Humanitarian Aid. We have seen one or two small incidents where individuals get carried away and go around mixing up humanitarian aid and politics. That is not helpful. And we point out to them that it actually undermines the EU and its ability to reach out and show solidarity with the people who need it most.
So to conclude: I am actually very upbeat about the principles – but all the examples I have mentioned also show that we can never be complacent about the principles. Whether it is towards partners in other parts in the world, or in our own internal structures, in the EU or at national level: we constantly have to explain and to make our case. That is part of our business. I tell my team all the time to go out there and not be shy of talking about why we do things the way we do. Because we actually have a winning proposition. And I am really grateful to NRC for having given us another chance to make our case today!
Thank you very much, Lise Grande.