Head of Delegation
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

United Nations General Assembly
Twenty-fifth special session
on Human Settlement (HABITAT II)

New York
June 8, 2001

Mr. President,

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) approaches this special session of the General Assembly with a number of profound concerns. In our view, although there has been much good work done by governments, international organisations and NGOs since Istanbul, there are also areas of activity which continue to fall behind.

The Istanbul Declaration and the Habitat Agenda which was adopted at the same time, carried with it the promise of real energy aimed at redressing what was identified by Heads of Government as the continuing deterioration of conditions of shelter and human settlements. A detailed agenda of commitments and undertakings followed, but now, we must ask ourselves whether much has changed.

The perspective of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is enriched by the observations, experiences and reports of over 180 member and observer National Societies, participating with us and the ICRC in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

We have been assisted in this work by the recognition the 1996 Habitat Agenda gave to disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness. Paragraph 176 (1) of the Agenda specifically invited governments at all levels to recognise, support and facilitate the "role of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their member national societies in disaster prevention, preparedness, mitigation and response at the local, national and international levels".

I will not dwell on what has happened since the adoption of this paragraph, except to observe that the response has been patchy. While our Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies are well-recognised for their role in disaster preparedness and response, and in other fields directly related to disaster itself, there has been less understanding of the part disaster preparedness must play in the setting of housing and construction standards.

The International Federation, through the very nature of its work, finds itself working wherever the world experiences disaster. We have accumulated a great deal of experience of the good and the bad in our 82 years of work in this field.

It was against this background that a chapter appeared in the World Disasters Report of 2000 on International Disaster Response Law - following the announcement of the President of the International Federation, Dr. Astrid Heiberg, in her speech to UN General Assembly, in New York on 27 November 2000 that the Federation was launching this initiative - analysing the present state of international law in the field of disaster preparedness and response. That chapter, which was written by an expert with the American Red Cross, drew a strong and favourable response from the international community.

The positive response was noted by the International Federation's Governing Board at its meeting in November 2000, and a group of experts was convened to discuss the issues.

The outcome of the meeting was an affirmation that the study of International Disaster Response Law (IDRL) needs to be strengthened. Further, that the International Federation should use its position as an international organisation to bring the work to the attention of States as well as to the civil society groupings with which it has such valuable contact.

This venue, the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Human Settlements, is a most appropriate one for informing States of the work now under way on International Disaster Response Law. At the outset, we should state that it is the intention of the International Federation to integrate States into the study phases now about to begin. We are also most grateful for the support we have received from several parts of the United Nations system, especially the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Assistance, OCHA.

The printed version of my intervention today will contain more information, but let me briefly summarise it. The IDRL study is about the need for clear understanding of the legal framework within which disaster assistance is provided and used. This framework needs to take account of national law as well as international law, both hard and soft, and of practice at all levels. The scope of the legal study has to be left open, deliberately. The experts who met in Geneva in February 2001 saw several issues as deserving of careful work. These include the need for laws and regulations to waive import, export and transit restrictions and duties for relief goods; waive over-flight and landing restrictions and duties; grant landing rights and facilitate telecommunications in emergency situations, waive visa and other immigration restrictions and provide for medical and other professional assistance directly benefiting disaster victims.

This work will be conducted by experts, but the International Federation undertakes to ensure that States and others interested in the process will be kept fully informed of its evolution.

The time-frame for this work has been designed around the value which would accrue to the exercise if it could be considered by States Party to the Geneva Conventions and their National Societies at the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent due to be held in Geneva in 2003. For this reason, the study phase should conclude with the publication of the collated legal and customary texts in mid 2002, allowing about 12 months for further consultations and other work at regional and international levels.

Mr. President,

We will also ensure that Habitat in Nairobi is kept fully informed of this work as it proceeds. We would like Habitat and its network to be prime contributors to the IDRL exercise. We also hope that the lessons to be learned from the 2001 World Disaster Report, building on the IDRL chapter in the 2000 WDR, will galvanise States and civil society alike for the work which lies ahead.

The International Federation's regional and country delegations throughout the world, in co-operation with the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, will also be working actively to advocate for better responses to issues like housing and construction standards. With this in mind, we commit to continuing the work entrusted in us at Istanbul. Our mission in this respect is to mobilise the power of humanity for disaster prevention, preparedness, mitigation and response at local, national and international levels.

Thank you, Mr. President.