Address by Her Excellency Dame Pearlette Louisy on the occasion of World Red Cross Red Crescent Day 2008
“Together for Humanity”
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is May once again and the International Federation of the Red Cross Red Crescent invites the international community to join their national societies worldwide in the observance of World Red Cross Red Crescent Day on the anniversary of the birthday of the Founder of the Movement, the Swiss national Mr. Henri Dunant. Indeed, in light of the fact that this year’s observance celebrates the 180th birthday of Mr. Dunant, a short history lesson is in order to refresh our memories which the passage of time has understandably dulled.
Henry Dunant is 31 years old when he takes a business trip to Italy. Lombardy is the scene of a short but bloody war in which the armies of France and Sardinia face those of Austria. On June 24th, 1859, the evening of the Battle of Solferino, Dunant observes that the wounded are almost wholly neglected. His indignation is aroused by the sight of so many men dying around him because of the almost total lack of any medical service. Haunted by these terrible scenes, he writes a book three years later which reveals to the general public the sickening condition of the war-wounded. It is called “Memories of Solferino”. How can one put an end to this scandal? Dunant provides his own answer. By creating in every country a private relief society which would go right into the battlefield to alleviate the lack of medical services of its own army. With the support of four other citizens of Geneva he founded in 1863 the International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded which later becomes the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Later that same year, in answer to an appeal by the International Committee, governments send representatives to an assembly in Geneva which decides on the creation of the national societies that Dunant had so earnestly desired. And so the Red Cross is born. It would not be long before it becomes the most visible, the biggest and the most internationally recognized relief organization in the world. It was at the instance of the International Committee of the Red Cross, for example, that the international community – then represented by twelve states – adopted the Geneva Convention of August 22, 1864 for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field, - the Convention which today governs in large measure the behaviour of combatants in international or regional conflicts.
Today, the Red Cross Red Crescent continues to be active on the front line in many of the world’s hot spots, as well as behind the lines bringing relief to civilian casualties, refugees and displaced persons. But it is just as active in non-combat situations, as it has broadened its mandate over the years to embrace the prevention and relief of suffering in all circumstances. Today the Red Cross strives to protect life and health and to promote respect for the human person. It works in favour of mutual comprehension, friendship, cooperation and a lasting peace among all peoples. It is with this dimension that we are perhaps most familiar here in Saint Lucia, since thankfully we have been spared the ravages of war and civil conflict.
So it is then that once every year, on May 8th, the International Federation invites us to reflect on a theme which highlights some aspect of the programme of work which its National Societies have committed to promote or to implement. This year, we continue to reflect on the theme “Together for humanity” which you will recall was adopted as the Federation’s official slogan for the four-year period 2007-2010, in the hope that by then we will have put in place systems and structures to reduce vulnerability, and to build capacity at the community, national and international levels.
This year, National Societies are invited to use the theme to highlight the importance of partnerships in addressing the humanitarian consequences of climate change. For it is widely acknowledged that the challenges posed by climate change, such as increases in meteorological disasters, impacts on agriculture and water resources, the emergence of new diseases, for example – cannot be met by individual communities or humanitarian actors. We need therefore to forge new partnerships to enable us to better understand, identify and address them. One such partnership is the one that the International Federation has formed with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society which is a premier climate data center based at Columbia University in New York. Its strength in climate science gives the International Federation a sound scientific basis from which to make critical decisions, improving the possibilities to move from disaster response to early warning and therefore early action.
As more and more disasters affect vulnerable communities around the world – indeed in 2007 alone, 201 million people, or one in every 33 people on the planet, were affected by natural disasters; a 40% increase from 2006 – Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are on the ground, preparing people for future threats, training more international and regional disaster response staff, and forging partnerships to further develop its climate information and early warning technologies.
In this regard, the Federation invites us all to consider 6 key issues as we build our own national capacity to deal with the challenges of climate change and its effects on our population.
1. Early warning = Early action. Improved early warning technology or communication will shorten response time and save lives.
2. No community, organization or government can single-handedly deal with the consequences of climate change. The key therefore is to forge partnerships, share resources and expertise, and work together.
3. Climate change is a humanitarian issue as much as it is an environmental, political and economic one. It is expected to lead to a significant increase in the frequency and/or severity of weather extremes like heat waves, floods, droughts, hurricanes, and tropical cyclones, and the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue.
4. The people who will be hardest hit by these effects of climate change will be world’s most vulnerable; the elderly, the sick, the poorest people in the poorest countries.
5. To meet the humanitarian challenges of climate change, we must not only strengthen our capacity to respond to disasters but we must also invest in disaster risk reduction- in making communities stronger and more resilient in the first place.
6. Disasters cannot always be prevented, but they do not have to be devastating or catastrophic. The key is to be willing to invest in public health initiatives, community preparedness and emergency planning.
“Together for humanity”. The call therefore is for all to work together to prepare communities to deal with and to respond more quickly and more efficiently to these disasters caused by climate change: disasters which, by all indications, will be more frequent and more life-threatening. The issues of food insecurity, of environmental degradation, of loss of livelihood and of income, of decreasing water supply are all issues which we are currently grappling with. The way forward is for a coherent approach by the partners who are already doing very good work on the ground, but perhaps too much in isolation. The International Red Cross has already taken the lead in forging these partnerships, and we cannot go wrong if we follow that lead. Here, at home, the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO), the National Trust, the Caribbean Environmental Health Institute (CEHI), the Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Response Agency (CDERA), the Solid Waste Management Authority, Government Ministries and Agencies, and of course the St. Lucia Red Cross are all potential partners in this initiative of mobilizing the power of humanity to work to address the threat posed by climate change to all communities, but particularly the most vulnerable.
Sometimes we tend to pay scant attention to these global issues, believing that they are far removed from our reality. We concentrate instead on what we perceive to be bread and butter issues. But as inconvenient a truth as the issue of climate change is, we cannot escape the realities that are even now beginning to affect us. The establishment of a Climate Centre by the Red Cross Red Crescent to help persons to first understand the threats and then to develop and implement grassroots measures to address and reduce these risks is an indication that climate change may soon overtake armed conflict as the source of suffering among the poor and vulnerable.
Over the years, the Red Cross Red Crescent has shown great flexibility in adapting its programmes to meet the changing needs of the people it has pledged to serve. From the planting of mangrove trees to protect the coastline of Vietnam, to the construction of cyclone shelters and the development of early warning systems in Bangladesh, to the translation of weather warnings and meteorological information into the many languages in Pacific Samoa, to its work on vulnerability assessment in Saint Lucia, to its contribution to seasonal forecasting, climate and environmental monitoring and health surveillance, the Red Cross Red Crescent has been responding in a timely manner to one of the most significant humanitarian issues of the twenty-first century.
The cost of damage inflicted by natural disasters last year was estimated at nearly US$63.5 billion. Let us therefore join the Red Cross as social partners in playing our part to prepare for and plan for the predicted increase in the number of disasters as a result of climate change.
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