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The values and purpose of humanitarian action

Norwegian Refugee Council Conference, Brussels, 4 December 2012- High-level panel: "The values and purpose of humanitarian action"

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Thank you for the invitation to participate at this timely and important conference. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has a presence in many of the most difficult conflict situations and is an important channel for Norwegian humanitarian assistance.

We highly value NRC as a professional humanitarian actor who understands the value of presence on the ground and local anchoring of its assistance and in a variety of contexts such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Colombia. In Pakistan NRC is one of very few present in Baluchistan. It shows remarkable ability to adapt to changing circumstances and respond to the most pressing needs.

And adaptability and flexibility is needed: Conflicts and disasters today are increasingly complex and we often find that humanitarian principles are being challenged in a number of ways. For example:

  • Humanitarian actors find themselves forced to take sides in highly polarised situations of “us against them”.
  • Humanitarian assistance may also be restricted in more subtle ways. Anti-terrorist legislation may lead organisations to impose restrictions on where they operate. Organisations may opt not to operate in areas controlled by so-called terrorists in order to avoid allegations that they are providing “material support to terrorists”.


This is why humanitarian principles are so important! Humanitarian principles matter!

I will also stress the following: Humanitarian principles matter more in certain contexts and at certain times than in others. They depend on the context.

What happens when principles meet reality? Last year, during the Libya-crisis there was a heated discussion on the use of military assets to support operations undertaken by humanitarian organizations – particularly with regard to the situation in Misrata. The intention was, no doubt, to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian actors and access to populations in need.

The issue at stake was, however, the credibility of humanitarian action. Could they be perceived as associated with the military operations? My view at the time was clear – and it still is: in these contexts the need to preserve the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence is of fundamental importance in order to be able to provide effective protection and assistance.

Do the principles work in practice? Documentation is essential. We value the efforts made by NRC and the Humanitarian Policy Group to document this.


I will address three questions.

The first is this: How can humanitarian aid policy best be reconciled with other elements of foreign policy while maintaining its autonomy?

Three points:

Firstly, the Norwegian approach: Humanitarian aid, peacebuilding and human rights are high priorities for the Norwegian Government. We saw the importance of developing a humanitarian policy that is separate from but linked to other policy areas. In 2008 my Government presented an overall humanitarian strategy for Norway entitled Norway’s Humanitarian Policy. This clarified and enhanced our humanitarian approach.

The goal of our humanitarian strategy is to ensure a rapid, flexible and effective response to changing humanitarian needs. The fundamental purpose of humanitarian assistance is to save lives, alleviate suffering and safeguard human dignity regardless of ethnic background, gender, age, religion or political affiliation. The humanitarian strategy is part of Norway’s policy of engagement.

Secondly, humanitarian crises require political solutions. Norway, as a political actor, can be impartial but is not neutral. We take the side of the victims and will not remain silent about maltreatment or abuse of power. We actively promote the normative frameworks of international humanitarian and human rights law. The main problem is not inadequate legislation, but inadequate implementation.

That is why my Government has launched an initiative entitled “Reclaiming the Protection of Civilians under International Humanitarian Law” in which the Norwegian Refugee Council is an active partner. The aim is not to negotiate new legislation, but to agree on practical measures that will effectively improve the situation for civilians in armed conflicts.

Other examples of International Humanitarian Law being strengthened include the Mine-Ban Convention and the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Thirdly, I would like to stress the need to maintain a principled approach to humanitarian action. Funding for humanitarian assistance should be based on humanitarian needs and not on political considerations. I am fully aware of the discussions you have within the EU and the pressure that exists to make humanitarian assistance subordinate to political agendas. That is why I think the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid is so important. It is completely consistent with Norwegian humanitarian policy.

Any attempt to use humanitarian assistance as a crisis management tool is unwise. It is not only bad humanitarian policy; it may also expose those delivering and receiving assistance to considerable risk, as in Afghanistan.

What are the challenges and best ways of working to co-exist with other operations?

Norway’s position: Coordination but with a clear division of roles and responsibilities is essential. There needs to be a clear distinction between humanitarian, development and military efforts. When one agency has a dual mandate and delivers both humanitarian and development aid, this may pose a challenge. Humanitarian assistance should be based on humanitarian needs, and not be part of a political or military strategy.

Challenges: Humanitarian efforts are often carried out side by side with international police efforts and military peacekeeping operations. In some countries there are frameworks for coordinating these various activities. We are, of course, not arguing against structural integration – it is good that the different UN efforts are integrated and coordinated. But on the ground it is important that the various efforts are kept separate and that humanitarian assistance is clearly set apart from other operations. There are good examples that integration functions in practice, for instance in South Sudan.

We must also recognise the fact that when the UN is involved in a stabilisation effort it may be perceived by some as being party to the conflict. One concrete example is the DRC where MONUSCO is assisting the Congolese military in its effort to stabilise the country. Developments during the last weeks show how difficult this task is. This may then affect the perceived neutrality of the humanitarian UN bodies. Their access may also be limited by strict security considerations.


I would like to return to the point I made earlier about principled humanitarian action and when it matters the most. In highly complex conflict situations a principled approach is essential to ensuring acceptance for humanitarian action and to enabling humanitarian actors to operate on the ground. The more complex the situation, the greater the need for a principled approach. But once peace is restored in a country or region, the main task becomes reconstruction. The focus becomes development rather than humanitarian aid and the need for humanitarian actors to demonstrate their autonomy decreases.

In Somalia for instance – the context is different today from the situation a year ago when the armed conflict between the AMISOM-supported government forces and the Al Shebaab-militias was going on. Today it is more important to strengthen the authorities’ ability to respond to needs. Insisting on independence may be counterproductive, and may lead to the creation of parallel structures. This poses a challenge for humanitarian actors: when is it appropriate to leave the field and hand over to development actors? How can the various actors operate together most effectively in areas where humanitarian and development needs co-exist, as they often do?


How might donors and their implementing partners work to improve principled allocation of humanitarian funding?

Three points:

Norway has increasingly focused on the need to provide more flexible and predictable humanitarian funding. This is mainly done through multi-year agreements with key humanitarian partners. These agreements normally contain a certain degree of flexibility to switch between budget lines according to changing humanitarian needs. We depend on our partners to implement the programmes based on needs analyses and humanitarian principles.

Non-earmarked funding for emergency appeals is another way of allowing humanitarian partners more flexibility.

The increasing use of humanitarian fund mechanisms, like the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). The CERF allows rapid disbursement of funds for sudden onset disasters and forgotten crises. It is the Emergency Relief Coordinator who makes decisions on allocations purely on the basis of a needs analysis. To be even more effective, UN agencies must be able to respond more quickly and this includes being able to provide funding to NGOs more rapidly.

To conclude,

It is important to broaden ownership of humanitarian principles, fundamental humanitarian values and human rights. Humanitarianism and human rights are shared values. We need to make that clear.

I wish you every success with this conference and look forward to the discussions.




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