At 45 years and counting, Colombias internal armed conflict is one of the longest in recent history. Its consequences are dire. Summary executions, threats, the forced recruitment of children, hostage-taking, sexual violence and the use of anti-personnel mines have all had serious humanitarian costs, especially during the past 20 or so years. The conflict has also produced one of the worlds largest populations of displaced civilians. According to government and civil society figures, between three and four million people have been forced to flee their homes due to threats, armed clashes and forced recruitment.
The ICRC and humanitarian space
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been present in Colombia since 1969, when the government permitted delegates to visit people detained in relation to the conflict. As the conflict intensified and humanitarian needs increased, a Headquarters Agreement was signed in May 1980 between the government and the ICRC, allowing the agency to implement the full range of activities in support of victims of the conflict. The Headquarters Agreement also implicitly recognises the principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality, the main raison dêtre of the ICRC.
Together with the supreme principle of humanity, neutrality, independence and impartiality are fundamental to the ICRCs ability to fulfil its humanitarian mandate in relation to the victims of armed conflict. The ICRC strongly believes in the importance of these principles, not only in Colombia but in every country where the ICRC works. These principles are more than theoretical expressions of basic moral values; they are a means to allow safe access to populations in need, in order to help those who bear the brunt of conflict and violence and to enhance the effectiveness of humanitarian aid through protection and assistance. Simply proclaiming that it is guided by the principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality is however insufficient: the concrete humanitarian actions the ICRC takes are perhaps the most important component of the humanitarian space. It is the ICRCs operational effectiveness that opens the door to discussions of its mandate and principles, not vice-versa. Words have little value without action, and it is action that establishes the ICRCs credibility, giving it access to victims and enabling it to play an effective role. Access has to be earned through acceptance. Acceptance in turn is earned through the relevance of the humanitarian action, the difference it makes and ultimately the utility (or at least absence of threat or detrimental effect) of the humanitarian action for all stakeholders. These are elements of perception: not the perception of humanitarian actors, but of the stakeholders in any given context. The distinction between humanitarian presence and action and political or military actors can be an essential element of such perception.
Humanitarian space should also be understood as that part of the response to conflict that deals exclusively and credibly with humanitarian concerns, and thus poses no threat to any of the parties involved in the conflict. For this to work, however, a humanitarian actor has to uphold these principles consistently across time and space. A politically motivated or tainted action at one time, in one context, tends to influence how future actions are perceived. The same is true for the actions and behaviour of individual staff.
The ICRC subscribes to what is probably the most restrictive interpretation of neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian action. Physical access to populations affected by conflict is at the core of its mode of operation. Perception and acceptance among all stakeholders are key to ensuring access. Persuading stakeholders of the ICRCs neutrality, independence and impartiality, as well as its capacity to deliver a credible and purely humanitarian response, depends on a broad dialogue with all stakeholders, as well as on its actions in all its operational contexts. Strict confidentiality, sparse recourse to public denunciation and the formal refusal to collaborate with or testify in tribunals all serve to diminish any perceived threat deriving from the ICRCs presence.
Principles in practice
Among the range of humanitarian activities implemented by the ICRC in Colombia, its role as a neutral mediator in kidnap cases best illustrates the importance of being perceived as a neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian organisation. The ICRC has been involved in the release of hundreds of hostages in Colombia, dating back to 1980. In order to continue acting as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC has had to develop and maintain a dialogue with all the parties involved in the conflict. It is only through this dialogue that the organisation can maintain the necessary trust and acceptance of all stakeholders, allowing the ICRC to operate effectively and safely in the territories these actors control. Building this trust and acceptance takes time and demands patience; it is a long-term process aimed at convincing all the stakeholders that the ICRC is effectively neutral and is not part of any political or military agenda.
The fact that the ICRC has been present in Colombia since 1969 and has been able to develop the full range of humanitarian activities since then has certainly helped the organisation to be known, recognised and respected as a strictly neutral, independent and impartial actor, with an exclusively humanitarian mission. Nevertheless, such trust is fragile. Misperceptions, misunderstandings and confusion with other actors can rapidly destroy this capital of trust and endanger humanitarian action. It is essential that all parties respect the specific mandate of the ICRC, and do not seek to exploit or instrumentalise the organisations strictly neutral and independent character.
ICRC delegates need to be present in the field, close to those who are affected by the conflict, to meet their need for protection and assistance. To do this, they need to meet, negotiate or deal with the whole range of different arms carriers or other influential stakeholders. Through this permanent dialogue, the ICRC also tries to influence the behaviour and attitudes of those who are often the source of the humanitarian problem.
The ICRC contends that seeking dialogue with all parties to a conflict and abstaining from any action or declaration that could be interpreted as taking sides with one party or another is what makes the ICRCs presence possible in the long run, because it offers the best chance of being accepted by all parties in a safe way. It is therefore an important aspect of the ICRCs policy on staff security. The ICRC is convinced that it is this strictly neutral approach that allows the institution to continue its humanitarian work. In 2008, the ICRC provided over 73,000 displaced people with food and household items, a 10% increase over 2007. This increase is partly due to the fact that the ICRC and its local partner, the Colombian Red Cross, have improved their ability to reach displaced families in the conflict-affected south-western state of Nariño. Thanks to its strictly neutral, independent and impartial character, the ICRC is able to reach areas that are out of bounds to governmental bodies (whether military or civilian).
The ICRCs approach to the problem of humanitarian space is not the only one, and we claim no monopoly on humanitarian action on behalf of the victims of conflict. In that sense, humanitarian space may be open to a range of actors both civilian and military. In addition to humanitarian NGOs, the state has a responsibility and a duty to assist and protect its own citizens. There is however a risk that humanitarian action may be instrumentalised and used for political, military or propaganda aims, distorting the principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality and potentially jeopardising or endangering the work of official humanitarian actors in Colombia (with possible repercussions in other contexts where ICRC is also present). For all these reasons, the specific mandate of the ICRC, based on its fundamental principles, must be preserved.
Confronted with different approaches (some of which are called humanitarian when they are not), the ICRCs main objective is to ensure greater respect for its particular approach, based on strict observance of its neutral, independent and impartial character as a humanitarian actor. Without diminishing the effectiveness of different approaches, the ICRC is convinced that there remains a need for neutral and independent humanitarian action in times of armed conflict; neutrality is a pivotal aspect of humanitarian intervention and is not a concept that can be abandoned and taken up again at will. Neutrality is not a given: no one is neutral by essence or by merely declaring themselves so. Neutrality is a quality that must be recognised by the parties themselves, as they perceive it through the ICRCs actions and communications. Be it in Colombia or in any other context where an armed conflict is still affecting the civilian population, the ICRC will continue acting as a neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian actor.
Maurizio Geremia is former ICRC Coordinator in charge of Field Activities in Colombia. Currently he works at the Institution’s Communication Department in Geneva.