EU Commissioner for Development and humanitarian aid
The Humanitarian challenges: A European Commission's perspective
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Annual ECHO Partners' Conference 2009
10th December 2009 - Brussels
Annual ECHO Partners Meeting 2009
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am very happy to meet you today on the occasion of your annual meeting. Although I am the Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid for only a temporary period, I have already had the opportunity to see for myself on the ground the dedicated work of the humanitarian organisations funded by the European Commission.
On behalf of the European Commission I would like to take this opportunity today to thank you very much for all what you do, often in adverse conditions but with an enduring sense of duty.
In the landscape of EU external action, humanitarian aid has become, over the years, a well-established policy. Humanitarian aid is actually one of the most effective and visible projections to the outside world of the values and principles the EU stands for: solidarity, human dignity, protection, non-discrimination.
Humanitarian Aid has been given a firmer footing in the institutional and political framework of the EU thanks to the changes introduced by the Lisbon treaty.
With its entry into force - at last ! -Humanitarian aid is for the first time formally recognised in EU primary law as one of the external policies of the EU.
Providing assistance to people who are victims of man-made or natural disasters is now formally part of the objectives of EU external action.
The new team of Commissioners designate recently announced by President Barroso will have a Commissioner exclusively assigned to Humanitarian Aid and Disaster and Crisis response. This new portfolio will undoubtedly raise the international profile and visibility of the Commission in humanitarian affairs. And it should enable greater synergy and complementarity between the various emergency response instruments of the EU.
These changes are not just mere words. They clearly reflect a will to strengthen EU humanitarian aid. It is my conviction that the EU will be better equipped in the future to address the growing number and complexity of humanitarian challenges.
Obviously it is for my successor to embark upon this exciting task. I shall therefore refrain from being too prescriptive today. Nevertheless, I still think this is a fitting moment to review current humanitarian challenges and the implications they have for the future work of the European Commission in this area.
Firstly, and probably the greatest challenge of all, is the growing constraints to the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance, often labelled as the “humanitarian space”.
In this regard, today's reality is rather gloomy. The acceptance of relief workers on the ground is receding dramatically in many parts of the world. Targeting relief workers has become a convenient way of making money or headlines and removing unwanted “witnesses”. The figures speak for themselves: In 2008, 260 humanitarian aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in violent attacks. This toll is the highest on record. Beyond the cold statistics, I am keenly aware that some of these people were your colleagues and friends.
It is no surprise to observe that such deliberate acts of violence happen mostly in places where law and order has vanished and insecurity prevails. Unfortunately, such situations are more frequent nowadays notably in Africa where “failing” or “fragile” regimes are unable to extend their authority to the whole country leaving room for armed militias of sorts which impose their “own rules” - think of Somalia; but regimes themselves also sometimes use their authority in an abusive manner.
Many of your organisations have been exposed to growing restrictions relative to access and operations. Whether it is the expulsion of NGO's by governments as we saw in Sudan, refusal of access to camps as in Sri Lanka or the imposition of endless bureaucratic obstacles to gain access to Gaza, these are all insidious means used to gradually dissuade humanitarian workers from operating.
These often pose a serious dilemma to the humanitarian community: how far can we go - for the sake of delivering our aid - in accepting such practices that are in contravention of International Humanitarian Law?
Violations of International Humanitarian Law also impact directly on civilian populations in the cruellest manner. As asymmetric warfare becomes more common than conventional warfare, rules of engagement no longer respect some fundamental principles, including the protection of civilians. Disproportionate use of force against civilians has been a dramatic feature of the latest conflicts in Gaza and in Sri-Lanka.
In the face of such violations of International Humanitarian Law we should never leave any ambiguity on where we stand. But shouldn’t we do more? Maybe the EU sometimes needs a bit more political courage and should denounce more forcefully gross abuses of International Humanitarian Law wherever and whenever these are committed.
In recent years, international justice has been taking on a greater profile.
My personal conviction is that we should make more use of international justice as a tool of accountability. The universal jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court has proven itself a powerful lever not just in attempts to end a culture of impunity when local judicial systems are defective or ineffective - but also possibly as acting as a deterrent to future violators of International Humanitarian Law.
Another issue I am very attentive to is the blurring of lines between humanitarian aid and political and military action. Attempts by military actors to substitute themselves for humanitarians are counterproductive as much as they are dangerous. When co-operation and engagement of humanitarians with the military is necessary it should be based on a genuinely participatory and principled approach. We will continue to advocate the specificity and principles of humanitarian aid delivered by professional humanitarians.
Upholding the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality of EU assistance is a "must" if we want to preserve our ability to intervene on the ground. European humanitarian assistance should not subjected to political or military objectives. And ensuring the coherence and efficiency of EU external action should by no means affect the specificity of humanitarian action.
I believe that the arrangements and structures being put into place regarding the EU External Action Service acknowledge that basic principle.
However, let me be clear on this: specificity should not be mistaken for isolation. Quite the contrary: Principle and value based humanitarian aid and the modus operandi that goes together with it, should be factored in to EU foreign and security policy concepts and policy-making.
From the doctrine upstream to ESDP operations downstream, the humanitarian aid dimension should be systematically integrated into the design of EU civil-military cooperation in crisis management. The EUFOR operation in Chad was close to the co-operative model we should aim at.
Conversely, Afghanistan is a model not to follow, it being a disastrous example of military interfering in humanitarian operations.
Let me now turn to another type of challenge also related to the changing nature of humanitarian crises. It is very topical in these days when the world is now meeting in Copenhagen. Climate-related disasters are on the increase - threefold over the last decade with weather hazards more violent and deadly than ever before.
This will lead to food insecurity and “climatic migration”, and will further exacerbate competition for scarce natural resources and fuel social and political instability. In other words: more suffering and more humanitarian needs.
We also know that the poor in developing countries will be the hardest hit.
In the face of these developments, we will need not only to strengthen our activities in the area of disaster risk reduction (DRR) but also to change the way we provide our humanitarian aid.
Something I would like to be clear on is that disaster risk reduction, very much like climate change, needs to be addressed first and foremost in the framework of development policies. The experience, gained by ECHO in disaster preparedness through its DIPECHO programme, will be invaluable in that respect.
Showing the added value of EU humanitarian aid is a related challenge and responsibility for us.
The expectations of us, from the beneficiaries themselves, from you our partners, and from tax payers and member states to deliver aid in a professional manner are indeed as high as ever. For the Member states and European Parliament, we have to continue to provide value for money in a context where aid budgets are under pressure.
Getting the work done properly on the ground is the core of our mandate. But the EU is more than just a 28 th European donor with a large cheque book. We have to be a lead partner in policy-making and coordination. The contribution that you make to this is of great importance to us.
The Commission through DG ECHO has come a long way to show member states, the UN and others that it is a strong, effective and valued partner in humanitarian operations and policy.
We have done this together within the framework of principles and guidelines enshrined in the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid.
Important as it is, the Consensus is more than just a common policy commitment vis-à-vis the European Parliament and our Member states through the Council. It is the basis for our daily work. We are delivering on the implementation of this Consensus, especially with respect to EU humanitarian aid effectiveness. The work undertaken in the framework of the COHAFA (the Council Working Group for Humanitarian Aid and Food Aid) has been instrumental in developing a common understanding among EU Member States of major humanitarian issues and of the necessity of further co-ordinating EU humanitarian action.
This will allow the EU, as a whole, to wield greater influence vis-à-vis our international partners.
The Commission, through DG ECHO, has been at the forefront of efforts to improve the functioning of the humanitarian system, in particular in the framework of the United Nations. My main message here is that it is essential to remain engaged and supportive of the reform efforts. The European Commission shares the objectives of making humanitarian response more timely, effective and predictable. And I hope this is something that is shared by the NGOs even though I am fully aware of some of the criticisms you voice on these issues.
While this may be work in progress, its chances of success can only be enhanced by constructive and practical engagement.
We have a great deal to contribute not just in terms of technical support, for example by pushing for better needs assessment but also by injecting ideas in order to improve the overall governance of the humanitarian system. Humanitarian agencies and donors should definitely enlarge their coordination to policy-making and not restrict it only to operational or - as it were - financial issues. Reaching out to emerging donors, especially from the Muslim world, will be also part of the work. Contributing to the international governance of the humanitarian system will definitely be one of the key tasks of my successor.
Last but not least, let me turn to the growing role of the EU in civil protection within Europe itself, which represents another challenge in terms of coordination.
Here I believe that we have taken a major step forward with the decision by the President of the Commission to bring the civil protection mechanism into DG ECHO.
It will be up to my successor, in conjunction with the Director General, Mr. Zangl to ensure a seamless transition and to maximise the added value of this new structure.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Being a lead humanitarian donor in the world means we have great responsibilities to ensure the overall system works. I outlined earlier, the different challenges we face represent a tall order for us.
But we have no other choice if we want to be true to the spirit and values which led to the creation of modern humanitarianism through the Red Cross movement.
In this year 2009 we celebrate the 150 th anniversary of the battle of Solferino and the 90 th anniversary of the establishment of the Red Cross. These events remind us of what humanitarian action stands for. Being professionals with a cause is both a requirement and the beauty of the work you do.
I thank you for your attention.