Uniting for humanity

In all his travels over the years, IFRC President Tadateru Konoé has always made meeting with volunteers a top priority.  Here, he speaks with a youngvolunteer from the Red Crescent Society of Uzbekistan during a visit to the country in June 2017. Photo: Nick Jones/IFRC

Uniting for humanity

After eight years as president of the world’s largest humanitarian volunteer network, Tadateru Konoé reflects on the critical work ahead in strengthening National Societies, volunteerism and local humanitarian action.

EMERGING FROM HIS CAR into the intense heat of an Uzbek summer morning, Tadateru Konoé bows his head and places his right hand over his heart in a customary local greeting to a group of smiling volunteers and staff from the Red Crescent Society of Uzbekistan.

Two women in matching embroidered tyubeteykas, or skull-caps, present trays of flatbread and dried fruits, traditional welcome offerings in Central Asia.

As president of the IFRC, Konoé is in the historic city of Samarkand, south-west of the Uzbek capital Tashkent, to meet members of the local branch, who minutes later have a chance to ask the president arange of questions, from the future of volunteering to first-aid training and disaster preparedness. One young volunteer asks about the future role of youth in the Movement.

Konoé is direct in his reply. Criticizing the ‘old-fashioned’ approach of some National Societies in their dealings with youth, he says all IFRC members need to do more to empower young people and bring them into decision-making roles.

Noting the city’s centuries-long history as a trade hub and cultural melting pot along the famed Silk Road, Konoé encouraged Samarkand volunteers to continue to lead by example.

“Despite the fact the world is so divided, our 190 National Societies share the same seven basic principles,” he tells the audience. “I hope you can further strengthen the understanding of these principles and continue, by example, to promote a culture of tolerance and non-violence as you work to build resilience.”

Part of something larger
Before catching the high-speed train back to Tashkent later in the day, he enthuses about the frankness of the young people in the audience. “I very much like meeting and working with volunteers. I really feel a part of this Movement at those times,” he says. “So if my visits can serve as an encouragement and recognition of the services provided by volunteers, I think they’re worthwhile doing.”

In his role as head of an assembly of 190 National Societies, including his own, the Japanese Red Cross Society, Konoé is very much the public face of the IFRC and its chief humanitarian diplomat. The trip is particularly momentous because it marks the first visit ever to Uzbekistan by an IFRC president. Since 2009, when he was elected president at the biennial General Assembly, he has visited nearly 100 countries on 73 separate trips, racking up almost 600 days on the road.

His country visits typically include meetings with a nation’s leadership and high-ranking officials. “The profile of some National Societies may not be very high and they may not have had much chance to meet the country’s leader,” says Konoé, a day after talks with members of the Uzbek government. “So they can use my presence as an opportunity to deliver their own message.”

Unfortunately, Konoé explains, high-level talks are sometimes not enough. “Often it takes a disaster for the government to pay attention,” he says. “A big disaster provides a chance for a National Society to show itself and its relevance to the government. It’s not ideal, but it’s the reality.”

Konoé’s overseas trips give him the opportunity to recognize the work of so many unsung volunteers and staff, and also to reinforce his message of solidarity. The IFRC’s principal strength, he says, is its commonalities.

“By uniting our power of humanity, we can do much more. Then we need to improve the capacity of each National Society, otherwise, as a Movement, we cannot exert our power and address challenges.”

By Nick Jones

Nick Jones is a journalist and editor, based in Tokyo, Japan.

In his role as the IFRC’s top humanitarian diplomat, Konoé has been a passionate advocate for a number of humanitarian causes. Here, he stands with ICRC President Peter Maurer during a visit to Hiroshima, Japan, during which the two reiterated their call that states negotiate an international agreement to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons within a binding timetable. Photo: IFRC

“If we can better unite ourselves for the common cause, perhaps we can present ourselves more strongly to the outside world,” says Konoé, sitting aboard the Tashkent-bound train. “By uniting our power of humanity, we can do much more. Then we need to improve the capacity of each National Society, otherwise, as a Movement, we cannot exert our power and address challenges.”

These trips are also a chance to maintain a connection to the grass-roots side of the organization, says Konoé, who has been president of the Japanese Red Cross Society since 2005. “You have to see with your own eyes and listen with your own ears to assess the reality on the ground. Feeling empathy is also important. As a basic policy, whenever a major disaster hits, I try to make a visit.”

Shortly after taking office, Konoé visited his first disaster zone as IFRC president after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the Caribbean island of Haiti in January 2010. A few months later, Pakistan experienced its worst flooding in recorded history, with up to 20 million people affected. Other catastrophes followed, including a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Konoé’s home country in 2011, as well as numerous conflicts and refugee crises.

Konoé, 78, is no stranger to such scenes of calamity and suffering. He has spent more than five decades with the Movement and during that time, has been involved in some 30 relief missions around the world. One early, formative experience was a three-month stint with a Japanese Red Cross Society medical team in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1970, following the deadliest tropical cyclone on record.

“That was a typically complex emergency, and similar situations exist in many parts of the world today,” says the tall, slender Konoé, sitting in his office in Tokyo one midweek morning. “So we can still use the lessons we learned from that time. The problems are the same today, but the international community is better equipped and organized, though investment in preparedness is still not enough.”

Humanity’s ‘lifeblood’
Visiting with volunteers — who Konoé describes as the ‘lifeblood’ of the humanitarian network — is always a highlight of his missions. Fostering volunteerism has been a priority during his tenure. A volunteer charter, which aims to recognize, protect and encourage volunteers while clarifying their rights and responsibilities, is expected to be adopted at the upcoming General Assembly.

Strong volunteer networks also require strong National Societies. But the IFRC needs to acknowledge weaknesses within its network and find solutions. One of those weak points is that many National Societies are still far too dependent on a narrow source of income, often funding provided by a limited number of sister National Societies.

And while a major disaster may draw the media spotlight and an influx of donations to a National Society, Konoé argues that once world attention has moved on, National Societies need to find innovative ways to fund-raise for long-term recovery efforts and for less visible but vital medical and social welfare programmes.

Recalling the massive relief operation during the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s, Konoé explains how the IFRC and National Societies worked together to address some of the root causes of the large-scale hunger.

“I like that kind of multifaceted approach involving many actors,” he says. “Some argue that it’s not the work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, that it’s too ambitious. That may be true, but without multidisciplinary approaches to solving this kind of problem, nothing will improve.”

The One Billion Coalition for Resilience — which brings people, businesses, communities, organizations and government together to reduce risks and improve health and safety — is one example of multi-sector collaboration that Konoé has enthusiastically supported.

“It’s crazy that there are 15,000 nuclear warheads in the world that could kill humankind multiple times. If leaders are committed to international humanitarian law, maybe there is a chance to solve situations in better ways.”

In his role as president of the IFRC and the Japanese Red Cross Society, Konoé has made a point of visiting people affected by disaster and conflict. Here, he talks with people left homeless by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in north-eastern Japan. Photo: Japan Red Cross Society

An issue close to his heart
Born into one of Japan’s most prominent samurai families, the young Konoé was averse to the country’s politically polarized landscape and had little interest in a career in politics, a family tradition (both his elder brother and grandfather served as prime minister). Instead, he pursued travel and education outside Japan, eventually studying in the vibrant academic environment of the United Kingdom’s London School of Economics in the early 1960s.

“I learned how to analyse situations from different angles. It was very useful, particularly with regard to the situation in Japan at that time, which was deeply divided. Then I started getting interested in how one can be neutral or fair and how common sense can prevail,” he says.

Like many Japanese, Konoé is resolute in his opposition to nuclear weapons, a position reinforced after conversations with some of the hibakusha, or survivors, of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings of August 1945.

“As a Japanese, I am obviously particularly close to this issue,” he says. “It’s crazy that there are 15,000 nuclear warheads in the world that could kill humankind multiple times. If leaders are committed to international humanitarian law, maybe there is a chance to solve situations in better ways.”

In 2009, the IFRC adopted a resolution that urges states to continue their efforts towards the elimination of nuclear weapons with determination and urgency. At a Red Cross and Red Crescent conference in Nagasaki earlier this year, however, Konoé lamented both the lack of full participation by states in discussions on the issue and the failure to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  But he welcomed the adoption by 122 states of theTreaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at a recent United Nations conference in New York. The move was hailed as a significant step forward in the struggle against nuclear weapons although there is still much work ahead: several key nuclear-armed states have said they do not intend to participate in the treaty.

Now in the final weeks of his presidency, Konoé takes a few moments to contemplate a question about his strengths as a leader. “From the very beginning when I ran [for president], I’ve said I would be a good listener,” he eventually replies. “Particularly in this age of globalization, leaders have to listen to the opinions of others and try and find common ground wherever that exists.”

During one of his first international missions for the Japan Red Cross, a young Tadateru Konoé takes part in relief efforts following a major earthquake in Nepal in 1966. Photo: Japan Red Cross Society

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