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4th Commonwealth Red Cross Red Crescent Conference on IHL

Welcome address by Robert Tickner, CEO, Australian Red Cross, delivered at 4th Commonwealth Red Cross Red Crescent Conference on IHL, Canberra.

20 July 2015

Good morning,

At the outset I would like to acknowledge the generations of the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of this land, who continue to retain a deep connection to the land on which we gather today. We also pay our respects to the Elders both past and present and acknowledge their ongoing custodianship of this country.

In this context, on behalf of Australian Red Cross I would like to add that we have undertaken a complete transformation of our relationship with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of this country. We are very proud of the fact that 6% of our entire workforce is either Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and those staff members add enormous value to our work.

Parliamentary Secretary, thank you very much for your warm welcome this morning, and to Leonard Blazeby we look forward to your delivery of the ICRC President's message to the Conference. It's my great pleasure, on behalf of Australian Red Cross, one of the three co-hosts of this meeting, to welcome you all from near and far to the 4th Commonwealth Red Cross Red Crescent Conference on International Humanitarian Law.

This gathering is made possible with the generous support of the Australian Government, British Red Cross, DFID and the ICRC, and I would like to particularly thank the Commonwealth Secretariat, Australian Government and ICRC Australian Mission who have, along with Australian Red Cross made all the necessary arrangements to accommodate you here in Canberra and devise an agenda which we trust will engage and stimulate you for the next four days.

Together we warmly welcome all of you, our distinguished international guest speakers, delegates, observers, and members of our Red Cross Red Crescent family to our National Capital. It is an honour for Australian Red Cross to be co-hosting this 4th Commonwealth Red Cross Red Crescent Conference on International Humanitarian Law.

You will see our IHL team and volunteers throughout proceedings. All of them are ready and available to answer your questions and provide any assistance they can to make your experience of the Conference, and of Canberra, as seamless and comfortable as possible. Please do not hesitate to reach out to them if there is anything you need or need to know.

As the Commonwealth family, over the next four days we will be informed and challenged by the array of humanitarian needs and legal issues confronting the Movement and the world. We live in complex times, and complex and innovative approaches will be necessary to address some of the challenges before us. We hope that the agenda will provide you with the stimulus and impetus to continue our important work in the arena of international humanitarian law.

The International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has recently marked a number of auspicious anniversaries. In 2013 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Movement by Henri Dunant. 2014 was the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the First Geneva Convention. This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fundamental Principles of the Movement - principles which unite us across 189 countries. In a few years time, we will observe the 70th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

These anniversaries remind us to keep three important elements in mind during this conference.

One, we are part of a global Movement. We are one Red Cross Red Crescent family, united by our shared humanitarian values and an unwavering commitment to care for others in times of need.

Two, that we are a Movement formed in response to the horrors of war, and that our humanitarian work in IHL derives from our origins, but also defines and shapes an important part of our future.

And three, we are a Movement with a clear and unique relationship with states - for the ICRC through their mandate under the Geneva Conventions, and for National Societies through their unique auxiliary status to their public authorities in the humanitarian field. The importance of this relationship is on show today and will again take on a high profile at the International Conference of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement later this year in Geneva.

Collectively, the Movement and states must continue to work together to ensure that these relationships are harnessed in the areas of international humanitarian law and humanitarian action. We have a unique and powerful platform to advance issues of global humanitarian concern, and we are pleased to have conferences such as these to further this relationship and these common goals. To this end, we are pleased to see so many colleagues from National Societies and participants from states here - it is a powerful demonstration of the unique relationship we have.

At Australian Red Cross we have also recently celebrated a local milestone, 100 years of Red Cross in Australia. Australian Red Cross was formed in 1914, just 9 days after the outbreak of World War I, and has been a part of the fabric of the Australian community ever since. Globally we are part of a Federation that proudly stands for a peaceful world and promotes non-violence in our communities.

Throughout the past century, Australian Red Cross has adapted to meet the changing community needs and demands of our nation's social history. Before this event is over we will be pleased to be able to provide all conference participants with a complimentary copy of our recently published history, 'The Power of Humanity' written by a distinguished Australian historian, Prof Melanie Oppenheimer. This is hopefully an interesting publication for other National Societies because it charts the course of the reform of our National Society, and the way in which we have deeply restructured to hugely increase our capacity and set ourselves up to best maximise our impact on improving the lives of people who are experiencing periods of vulnerability.

Whether it's helping people who have migrated to Australia to start a new life, expanding our capacity to respond to natural disasters, or working in partnership with Aboriginal communities, Australian Red Cross has been there.

Many members of the Australian public are surprised when they hear about our mandate in IHL. Australians have been the lucky individuals from the 'lucky country'- many of our citizens have lived their lives having never encountered IHL or the need for protection in war. Never experiencing the need to survive on a Red Cross relief parcel or find desperately sought after news about their loved ones from a Red Cross tracing message. I know that this is not necessarily the experience of many of you in the room and my heart goes out to those who have had to respond to terribly difficult circumstances including armed conflict. Yet despite our fortunate circumstances, we remain deeply committed to our work in raising awareness of IHL, through our strong IHL program, which is among our longest standing areas of work in Australia.

Indeed, it is IHL and the Movement's mandate to disseminate IHL in peace as well as provide protection and assistance in armed conflict, that sets us apart from the many other charitable and humanitarian organisations that operate in this country.

Australian Red Cross people, our staff, volunteers and members are champions of IHL and the Fundamental Principles, and all play a role in ensuring regular and strong engagement on IHL issues within Australia. The nucleus of our IHL work is our well-respected dissemination program, which operates in all Australian States and Territories, as well as enjoying strong and productive relationships with our colleagues in National Societies across the Asia-Pacific region - many of whom I am so pleased to see here at this conference.

We have wonderful support from the Australian Government to do this work, and our National IHL Committee with representatives of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Defence, and the Attorney General's Department, as well as many of our academic and practising IHL specialists, who all play an important role in this programme.

It is my view that highlighting the laws of war is more important than ever. The week's program reveals the range of developing topics that continue to challenge the implementation of international humanitarian law; the changing nature of conflict in the 21st century, sexual violence in armed conflict, and new technologies in warfare. But it also shows that we are still working to inject the most basic humanitarian principles into armed conflict, more than 150 years after Henri Dunant started what would become the world's largest humanitarian network.

Over the next four days I hope that you will harness the shared commitment of humanity, draw inspiration from our speakers, meet foreign counterparts and challenge yourselves and each other about the status and future direction of IHL. And hopefully emerge with a renewed sense of the contribution that we, as part of the Commonwealth, are making to IHL globally. The next four days should inspire and drive us towards strong and concrete outcomes ahead of the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross in December this year.

Before I conclude, may I turn to make some heartfelt and very direct comments directed to the very heart of some issues which confront our Movement around the world at this point in human history.

There are those who would tell us that International Humanitarian Law is loosing its relevance in today's contemporary world. Those critics point to the continuing rampant violations of IHL by some states and by an increasing number of non state actors. The critics say that IHL has failed to stop the carnage of non combatants and the suffering of the people in places where conflict prevails. It is certainly true that IHL is severely challenged by these violations and that it is easy from time to time to despair about the enormity of the challenge which confronts the international humanitarian community.

We need only look to Syria to see the tragedy of the loss of life of 50 Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers who have given their lives in the pursuit of the humanitarian ideals of the Movement. It is volunteers and staff of the Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies who continue to inspire me on a daily basis in so many places around the world where conflict dominates the daily lives of ordinary people. At their very best, these National Societies are closely connected with their communities as neutral and impartial humanitarian Movement Partners, and work closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross in reaching out to those who are not involved in the conflict including to women, children, the wounded, the sick and detainees among others.

We must never forget that these National Societies fulfil the dream of Henri Dunant that there should be voluntary societies of this kind in every country in the world, and they are of course critical partners of the ICRC in responding to conflict around the globe. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement enjoys the backing of a global community of academics and IHL experts as well as a global community of Government officials who share the dream of a better world in which IHL is globally respected and honoured by all combatants.

However, as important as this huge body of support is for the work that we do, we have to always remember that IHL belongs to all the people of the world and is the common property of human kind. One of our Movement challenges is to popularise IHL in our communities as well as with parliamentarians from all political parties represented in our parliaments. We need to remember that the backbench members of today, the Ministers and Prime Ministers of tomorrow, and the Oppositions over time will form the Governments, and so our Movement needs to reach out to all of them in a neutral and independent humanitarian way. We also need new and innovative ways to popularise IHL and to build public support for the rules of war so that no government and no military force can ever ignore them with impunity. However, my dear friends, my central message is to urge you not to lose hope. Do not stop believing in the importance of IHL to the people of the world. Because without IHL it is the law of the jungle which prevails and that thought is just too horrible to contemplate.

My message to you is not to forget that IHL will continue to evolve and that we have already seen fundamental shifts and improvements over time which would not have been envisaged 50 years ago. We have seen the creation of a Convention on Chemical Weapons, the Land Mines Convention and more recently the Convention of Cluster Munitions and the creation of the International Criminal Court, and all these add to the body of IHL which is already making such a difference in the world. We are witnessing nothing less than the inexorable march of human history towards a better world and you need to believe that you are part of this Movement for change and you are clearly on the right side of history. Never doubt this and never stop believing and working for a better world.

Thank you and my warm wishes for your future work.