Water and war

from International Committee of the Red Cross
Published on 02 Mar 2009 View Original
Neutral and independent humanitarian action

Neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian action in the event of armed conflict and internal violence is at the heart of the ICRC's mandate and a fundamental part of its identity. This approach is intended to give the ICRC the widest possible access both to the victims of the violence and to the parties concerned. To do this, the organization seeks dialogue with all actors involved in a given armed conflict or other situation of violence as well as with the people suffering the consequences in order to gain their acceptance and respect. Its neutral and independent approach also enables the ICRC to ensure the safety of its staff. In this way the organization is able to reach people on either side of the front lines in active conflict areas around the world.

The ICRC's role as neutral intermediary follows on logically from this operational approach. In many cases this entails negotiating with the relevant parties to gain humanitarian access to battlefields or hospitals, for example, in order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian services to the victims of conflicts. The ICRC's role of neutral intermediary is based on legal provisions in the Geneva Conventions as well as the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. This role can take the form of providing good offices or, less commonly, mediation. Either way, the consent of all the parties involved must be obtained before the ICRC can act. The overriding aim is that any action should relieve the suffering of people whose lives have been disrupted by conflict and help to promote adherence to international humanitarian law (the body of rules that protects those not or no longer fighting).


The ICRC's established presence in Iraq dates back to the early 1980s. It was reinforced at the time of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, when the ICRC remained the only international organization present in Iraq, becoming the reference humanitarian organization. Over the years, the ICRC has implemented major infrastructure projects with the relevant ministries, in particular with the national authorities in charge of health, water and sanitation. Millions of people have thus been given better access to water, sanitation and health infrastructure, which has also helped to consolidate the ICRC's reputation as a reliable, effective and neutral humanitarian organization.

During the acute phase of the conflict in 2003, the ICRC was once again the only major humanitarian organization still present and working in Iraq. It adapted its modus operandi, developing new management tools and remote-control mechanisms to ensure the continuation of its humanitarian activities in high-risk areas or areas that were difficult to reach. Ensuring water supplies and sewage disposal, and supporting health facilities are examples of the work done within this new ICRC operational framework. An ongoing dialogue, even from a distance, often leads to the ICRC being perceived positively and accepted by all.


In 2003, when the ICRC first visited Cité Soleil, the shantytown was considered the most dangerous place in the country. Cité Soleil is a striking example of the positive changes that the ICRC's neutral and independent intermediary role can make to civilians' lives in contexts of extreme urban violence. Between 2005 and 2006, on the basis of contact established and negotiations conducted with all the authorities and parties concerned, including gang leaders, the Haitian National Red Cross Society and the ICRC were among the few humanitarian organizations able to reach and work in Cité Soleil. The ICRC and the Haitian Red Cross were able to restore minimum water supply for the 200,000 inhabitants by making it safe for the relevant government service to access the facilities.


Since 2005 the conflict has become increasingly complex and polarized. The recurrent periods of violence and the recent natural disasters have had a disastrous effect on the civilian population. The situation is made worse by the lack of public infrastructure.

As the ICRC has maintained a presence in the country since 1977, all parties to the conflict and the beneficiaries themselves have witnessed its activities and understand that its work is carried out in a spirit of neutrality and impartiality. This recognition has enabled the organization to continue its activities, such as rehabilitating wells and improving the production capacities of people farming the land.

The ICRC also relies on a dense network of contacts and partners such as the Somali Red Crescent Society. Indeed, without the latter, the ICRC would not be able to understand the realities of the country or to reach as many victims as it does.


Poor security conditions and fierce fighting in the northern governorates of Yemen have had a dramatic effect on the civilian population in recent months, forcing increasing numbers of people to flee the area.

The lack of clean drinking water and medical care is a particularly serious matter for displaced persons, the sick, the wounded and isolated communities.

However, the unstable security situation has often prevented the ICRC from responding to the most urgent humanitarian needs in a timely and appropriate manner. The ICRC is working in the town of Sa'ada and its immediate vicinity and is trying to expand its field of action as soon as conditions allow. Numerous water and sanitation projects have been launched for displaced persons who have fled the fighting and made their way to camps in Sa'ada city. Other infrastructure projects have been carried out (deep boreholes and water reservoirs) in the villages affected by the fighting in order to improve access to drinking water and water for agricultural use.

The ICRC maintains a dialogue with the authorities with a view to gaining better access to the most severely affected areas. It also seeks to promote understanding among the Yemeni armed and security forces of international humanitarian law and of the ICRC's mandate.