Puhe Euroopan Punaisten ristien seminaarissa, 31.3.2006, Helsinki

Mr/Mme Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen

Humanitarian action is facing new challenges. The nature of present day conflicts is changing. The discussions concerning our relations with different parties, notably the Muslim world, also influence and shape the ground.

Let me therefore elaborate some key factors that have given rise to the present challenges in the field of humanitarian action and human rights.

Mr/Mme Chairperson,

Firstly, I would like to refer to the often rather complicated issue related to the root causes of conflict situations.

Even if recent studies have shown evidence of a decrease in the number of conflicts and fewer casualties of these conflicts globally speaking, it is acknowledged that the nature of conflicts is becoming increasingly complicated. ”Traditional” international conflicts, for which instruments of humanitarian law were originally primarily intended, rarely occur anymore. A clear trend has also been a growing proportion of civilian casualties, including women and children, who are often intentionally targeted.

In many cases, the causes of conflicts can be identified to lie in shortcomings concerning human rights protection and the rule of law.  Discrimination of segments of society and obstacles to democratic participation create room for frustration and anger. Inequality with regard to the use of natural resources, for instance, can provoke tension and conflict.

Human security can be compromised as a result of wide-spread corruption and lack of good governance at different levels of society. In many cases, fragile states, characterized by breakdown in governance, are also among the poorest.  

In such complex situations, the limits of humanitarian law are put to test. Is it enough to act on the basis of the traditional humanitarian concepts when the real issue at stake is related to large-scale human rights violations? Ensuring the survival of the victims may necessitate not only humanitarian assistance but also protection. The United Nations endeavours to combine relief, development and peace-keeping into integrated missions, especially in crisis situations on the African continent.

On the other hand, if a less traditional, more comprehensive framework for humanitarian action is sought, how can the notion of the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian assistance be secured? In order to maintain the credibility and viability of humanitarian action, decisions to provide assistance have had to be based on humanitarian criteria as opposed to political considerations. Even if, in a sense, channelling assistance to a certain target or recipient is always a political decision, it has been crucial to be able to point out that humanitarian needs and considerations have been the decisive factor.   

Issues related to human rights are at stake when discussing the concept ”ethics in aid”. Gender issues are a case in point: it is necessary to ensure adequate gender sensitivity and knowledge of women´s rights also in the context of humanitarian assistance. On the other hand, humanitarian actors are sometimes accused of being involved in issues they should stay away from, because they are seen to be too sensitive, and of allegedly protecting the ”wrong” groups. 

In this context, I would also like to refer to the plight of children in armed conflict. As UNICEF points out in its most recent ”State of the World´s Children” report, conflict heightens the risk of children becoming exposed to abuse, violence and exploitation – with sexual violence often employed as a weapon of war. Child recruits are denied access to education and protection and do not often have access to the basic health care services. Displaced people, refugees and persons who have been separated from their families are also deprived of these rights.

The EU has adopted special guidelines on children in armed conflict, thus indicating that it prioritizes and acknowledges the acute nature of the problem. Addressing the issue of children affected by conflicts is a cross-cutting issue linked with crisis management, humanitarian assistance as well as development policies. The EU possesses various tools to address the different aspects of the problem. This is also a typical example of the need to act in a coherent and consistent manner: only by using different instruments together to protect and assist children affected by armed conflict can we expect to reach results.

Mr/Mme Chairperson,

The other set of issues related to the changing realities surrounding humanitarian assistance, which I would like to touch upon, is the challenge of dialogue and understanding between different cultures – or sometimes a lack of it.  Analysing these issues is of importance also to organizations acting in the field of humanitarian relief.  

Humanitarian organizations can be secular or faith-based. The European Commission’s humanitarian aid department ECHO has partnership agreements with two hundred European and international aid organizations, including such denominations as Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Interchurch, Pentecostal, Baptist and Islamic. These organizations can be faith-based but their professional humanitarian work must follow the basic principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.

As I have stated in earlier contexts, I believe that the tensions that surfaced in the form of various reactions to the so-called ”cartoon crisis” have been building up for a long time, and with increasing force after September 11th. Had it not been the unfortunate cartoons, sooner or later, some other event could have ignited more or less the same kind of reactions.

The many unresolved conflicts affecting Muslims have contributed to these frustrations – notably of course the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pictures from the West Bank but also from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have widely lead to the understanding – however wrongly – that the war on terror is in fact a war on Islamic terrorism or, to take it one step further, even on Islam.

In order to avoid such erroneousconceptions that can easily be abused by extremists, it is essential to be conscious of various signals that we give, notably in the area of counter-terrorism but also otherwise. It is particularly important that human rights standards and the rule of law are respected when combating terrorism, also so as not to give ground for allegations of double standards.

Policies aimed at supporting democracy and human rights are, of course, important from the point of view of addressing the causes of tensions and extremism in the long run. However, such policies can only succeed if they are seen to be consistent and credible, and if we can convincingly argue that we implement the same standards ourselves.

Not all causes of frustration are imported, of course. There is a failure by all too many governments to deliver the reforms and improvements that their citizens have the right to expect in terms of democracy, respect for human rights and concrete economic and social development. But also these failures have been used – sometimes through a deliberate policy of the governments who actually are to blame for them – to deepen the rift between the West and Muslim countries.

Such deepeningdivisions are of course to some extent contradictory in the globalizing world, where, on the other hand, interaction and interdependency are clearly on the increase. Societies, including our own, are becoming increasingly multicultural.  The EU should seek to engage itself in an enhanced dialogue with mainstream moderate Muslims, both internationally and at the level of the Member States. 

Last December, the European Union adopted a Strategy for combating Radicalization and Recruitment to Terrorism.  The key message of this strategy was to ensure that the voices of mainstream opinion prevail over those of extremists, and we took upon ourselves to promote yet more vigorously security, justice, democracy and opportunity for all.  Also here in Finland we should examine more closely how we can best enhance dialogue and tolerance. 

Mr/Mme Chairperson,

The Red Cross plays a significant role as a promoter of tolerance: the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are active all over the world. Much of the work is carried out by the national societies in this domain. The organisation naturally follows its principles and takes a neutral attitude towardssuch matters as religions, and is able to address issues related to racism, the situation of refugees and migrants as well as other vulnerable groups in an efficient manner. A very good example is the Finnish Red Cross, which has over the years strongly promoted tolerance and respect for the dignity of all individuals in this country.

With these words I wish you a successful seminar.

Thank you.