Annual Report 2020


The Annual Report 2020 is an account of the activities conducted by the ICRC worldwide over the past year. These activities are part of the organization’s mandate to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war, and to promote respect for international humanitarian law.

In 2020, the ICRC was present in more than 100 countries through delegations, sub-delegations, offices and missions.

We provided 4.2 million people with food assistance, ensured access to clean water for 35 million people, supported over 1,250 hospitals and health centres, and visited places of detention holding 860,000 detainees around the world.

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It would be an understatement to characterize 2020 as a year of deep uncertainty, profound challenge and necessary adaptation. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the deep fragilities of communities already beset by violence and natural disasters, weak governance, poverty and inadequate health care.

On my visits to ICRC operations in 2020, including in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Libya, Niger, Somalia, the Syrian Arab Republic (hereafter Syria) and Ukraine, I again witnessed the devastating human face of indiscriminate warfare. I met people who had lost family members, homes and livelihoods; who were exhausted by years of violence; who described wars fought without mercy or humanity. Children were growing up in the rubble of buildings, their education lost. People had been displaced three, four, five times over. For those searching for missing loved ones, the years may have passed, but their grief had not.

This is an era of protracted conflict, where countries are in crisis for decades, and where suffering and trauma extend across generations: in 2020, the ICRC marked 40 years of operations in Iraq, more than 60 in Yemen and 33 in Afghanistan.

The COVID-19 pandemic acted as a crisis accelerator, adding a new layer of despair in many societies and laying bare the dire state of health, social and economic systems in many countries.

In places like Syria and Yemen, health systems were already operating at less than 50 per cent capacity. The three pieces of preventive advice – wash your hands; keep your distance from others; stay at home – were irreconcilable with conditions in camps for displaced persons and prisons where the ICRC works, where clean water is scarce, overcrowding a way of life and home a distant memory for millions of people enduring long-term displacement.

As countries were obliged to shift their focus to addressing COVID-19, other health issues – such as childhood vaccinations, treatments for chronic diseases and mental-health services – were neglected. As economic crises hit communities, those on the edges were pushed further behind. The widening gap between the haves and the have-nots left many with deep feelings of injustice and frustration.

The past year brought to the fore the deep inequalities and protection issues in our world. As the pandemic unfolded across the globe, leaders proclaimed, “We are in this together,” as the virus appeared to be affecting everyone, without discrimination. Today we know the truth: despite the rhetoric of solidarity, the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities. Those least able to cope, those already marginalized and at a disadvantage, are the most severely impacted.

In this situation, the ICRC was called on to step up and adapt in order to meet the needs of conflict- and violence-affected populations. Despite the difficulties, we swiftly navigated through the constraints to ensure operational continuity and to launch specific COVID responses. In some ways, this is not surprising – the ICRC is built for crisis response, and I have always been proud of the strength consistently demonstrated by ICRC staff members in times of adversity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been more than a health crisis: it has highlighted the continued need for a more holistic humanitarian response that covers broader supports, from clean water and sanitation systems to livelihood protection and income-generating activities. It has also illustrated the importance of the ICRC’s protection work and its efforts to promote respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) and for limits to the use of force in public order situations. We must continue to engage in dialogue with all those who can influence situations of conflict or violence, including states, non-state armed groups, and community and religious leaders.

Our COVID-19 response also reaffirmed the pillars of the ICRC’s Institutional Strategy 2019–2022: prioritizing protection and prevention; ensuring that the needs of communities affected by conflict and violence are driving our responses; accelerating digital transformation; improving our efforts to promote diversity and inclusion; and partnering with others, including components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first global threat that we face together, nor will it be the last. Many of today’s challenges – pandemics, climate change, misinformation – are not confined to state borders. We must change the reality where people who are already among the most vulnerable and have the fewest resources bear the brunt of global shocks. We must act where humanity and dignity are violated in contravention of our shared norms and legal frameworks. This implies, first and foremost, respect for IHL, by which every country in the world is bound.

Professional humanitarian work extends far beyond delivering bags of food: there are critical skills involved in negotiating access and acceptance, and in navigating political and societal tensions. Even in the most deadly and polarizing conflicts, we see how dialogue on shared humanitarian objectives can help parties find common ground, whether to enable evacuation of the wounded, cross-line humanitarian activities or the respectful exchange of human remains. The ICRC is called on to facilitate such mutual trust-building measures as a neutral intermediary. In October last year, for example, it facilitated the return of more than 1,000 people detained in connection with the conflict in Yemen. That operation was the outcome of two years of talks and many years of trust-building with the parties, building on the 2018 Stockholm Agreement.

These are extraordinary times, in which, more than ever, neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian action has a crucial role to play. I am deeply grateful to all of our supporters for championing and resourcing the work of the ICRC. 2020 was a difficult financial year. In a rare move, the ICRC drew on the operational reserves set up to help it navigate challenging times like these. This withdrawal ensured the ICRC was able to close its 2020 accounts and start 2021 on a sound financial footing. We will remain vigilant in the coming years to replenish the operational reserves and reinforce the financial security they provide the organization.

I wish to thank our donors and partners for standing with us through these tough times. Your contributions are critical to ensuring that the ICRC can pursue its life-saving work to protect and assist the millions around the globe facing the horrors of war and violence.

Peter Maurer

ICRC President