Speech by Minister of State Niels Annen at the 2019 Einstein Humanitarian Dialogue“Humanitarian principles under attack from all sides”

03.12.2019 - Speech

Tomorrow it will be a year since the first Dialogue here in Berlin, when we discussed Germany’s policy options as an incoming non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

It does not feel like a year, as at least three things have not changed at all:

  1. The world map unfortunately continues to be dominated by crisis.
  2. Humanitarian needs have again increased to record numbers.
  3. And refugee figures are at their highest level since World War Two.

It seems like a gloomy picture but that does not change the fact that it is true. We cannot and will not ignore million-fold human suffering. And we have to acknowledge that the need for humanitarian assistance is still growing.

Growing needs and insufficient humanitarian funding are not the only challenges faced by humanitarian actors. An increasingly bigger issue evolves around the question of how to actually reach those in need.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Humanitarian assistance requires humanitarian space!

Humanitarian assistance not only needs resources, it also requires an environment that is conducive for humanitarian organisations and workers to be able to do their job. The 5 humanitarian principles should be an easy common denominator for humankind. But in fact, they are increasingly and deliberately ignored and called into question.

Talking about principles may sound somewhat academic. But

  • when humanitarians, while doing their job, are denounced as taking sides in a conflict,
  • when denial of humanitarian assistance is used as an instrument of warfare,
  • when delivering assistance in the territory dominated by one party to the conflict is denounced or perceived as supporting only that party, or even criminalised,

when all this happens – and it is already happening –

then humanitarian workers become a target, and life-saving assistance is effectively hindered.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Undoubtedly, the ever more complex nature of crises in the world has a direct impact on humanitarian assistance. An increasing number of conflicts are waged between, or with the involvement of, non-state parties, sometimes classified as terrorist groups. ICRC president Peter Maurer explained last week how the Red Cross is dealing nowadays with 130 national armed forces and at the same time with 420 non-state armed groups.

Not only are there no longer any clear dividing lines between state and non-state actors, but even among States committed to international humanitarian law there seems to be a tendency to subordinate those obligations under the fight against terrorism. This is a dangerous path!

As an international community we have to make the extra effort to design our counter-terrorism measures in a way that neither hinders nor criminalises humanitarian assistance. We also have to avoid slipping even further into a situation where humanitarian organisations stop doing their work out of fear of prosecution.

If we do not succeed in this tightrope walk, the consequences will be severe: it will be the weakest who suffer – those who have often lost everything but their lives.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have been a Member of Parliament for many years and am now fortunate enough to experience government work first hand as Minister of State. With this job I do feel an enormous responsibility. It feels like much-valued pillars of the multilateral system are crumbling on our watch. And I sometimes ask myself:

Is the international community really unable, or unwilling, to do something about it?

Have the rules-based approaches of multilateralism failed at this very crucial point?

Tricky questions, because the working of multilateral approaches is hardest to discern when they are running smoothly. It is only when they don’t work that we notice the malfunction immediately.

Fortunately, there are encouraging signs:

Take UN Resolution 2462, for example. It focuses on measures to counter terrorism financing. But it also contains a regulation to safeguard humanitarian assistance and this is the result of a coordinated multilateral effort to support the humanitarian system. – That is an example of what multilateralism can achieve!

You have also all heard about the Humanitarian Call for Action. This call, jointly initiated by Germany and France as a key element of the Alliance for Multilateralism, contains precise steps on how to better ensure that international humanitarian law prevails and that humanitarian principles are respected - in short, how to strengthen humanitarian space. More than 40 states already support the Call for Action. – That is multilateralism at its best!

Ladies and gentlemen,

We hope to see more countries join the Call for Action. And we hope to see a number of good initiatives emerge, strengthening the framework for humanitarian assistance. Of course, the starting point is that States, and all parties to conflicts, must live up to their obligations under international humanitarian law. And where they don’t, they must be held accountable.

But we must also address the issue from the side of the humanitarian organisations, strengthening their ability to negotiate access based on law and principles:

They need to be able to explain what they are doing.

They need to be able to explain why they are doing it.

And they need to be able to make it very clear that they are entitled to do it.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Only if States and humanitarian organisations keep engaging in dialogue will we be able to tackle the challenges the humanitarian system is facing at present. We need to connect and listen to the experiences at every level of this crucial work. Only by staying in dialogue can we make our partnerships even more effective and committedly work towards one aim: alleviating the suffering of the population in conflict and war zones.

Dialogue is a good keyword. The IRC must have had a few thoughts on the matter when it named this fine event the Einstein Dialogue. I am very much looking forward to a stimulating discussion with you all.

Thank you very much.


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