The European Union's humanitarian aid policy reflects its founding principles - solidarity, tolerance and respect for human dignity. Humanitarian aid, while not a crisis management tool, is one of the pillars of Community action for countries affected by natural or man made disasters as well as by complex emergencies(1). Through its activities in disaster areas and through its active contribution to promoting respect for and adherence to International Humanitarian Law, the European Commission has asserted itself as a major player in international humanitarian aid. Today it is one of the main donors in operations providing assistance, relief and protection to populations in third countries affected by humanitarian crises.
The Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid (DG ECHO) is the service of the Commission which is responsible for implementing the humanitarian response to emergency situations, complex crises and forgotten crises. Its mandate, described in the Council Regulation of 20 June 1996(2), gives it the task of saving and preserving lives, reducing or preventing suffering and preserving the integrity and dignity of populations in distress. By fulfilling this mandate, DG ECHO has always maintained its adherence to the fundamental principles of International Humanitarian Law, namely humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. Indeed, its action is based on an objective evaluation of needs.
Since its creation, DG ECHO has adapted its strategy and its priorities to different humanitarian situations in order to improve the effectiveness of the aid provided to populations in distress. In the current geopolitical context, the major challenges which the international humanitarian community has to face are numerous. The main challenge is to protect a threatened humanitarian space and to promote adherence to International Humanitarian Law by all the parties involved in an armed conflict. Another challenge is the need to ensure the coordination of a growing number of humanitarian actors in order to bring effective and appropriate aid to those in need. With a view to promoting the principles and good practices of humanitarian action, DG ECHO has accepted, on behalf of the European Commission, the co-chairmanship of the Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative for the year 2008-2009.
The signing of the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid by the Presidents of the Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission on 18 December 2007, followed by the adoption of the action plan for its implementation on 29 May 2008, is a considerable step forward for the European Union which has finally given itself a common set of values, principles and objectives intended to strengthen the coherence of its overall humanitarian action. Significantly, the Consensus and its action plan stress the importance of the principle of diversity of the implementing partners - the United Nations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and non-governmental organisations and, as such, recognise that each of these bodies has comparative advantages in the response to specific situations or circumstances.
The effort of coordination of the European strategy on humanitarian aid and of ensuring its coherence will also be strengthened by the setting up of a specific working group of the Council on humanitarian and food aid. This group will meet regularly from 1 January 2009 as a forum for debating and discussing humanitarian situations and issues.