FOR MANY HUMANITARIANS, the laws and statutes that define and govern the organizations they work for are not the first things on their minds — they signed up as volunteers or staff to help people in need, not to occupy themselves with legal texts.
Without a solid legal foundation, however, effective and impartial humanitarian action would be extremely difficult for any organization to maintain. In the case of Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies, strong well-crafted constitutions, bylaws and statutes are essential to ensuring that they can function autonomously, abide by the Fundamental Principles and can serve as effective auxiliaries to their governments.
These are a few of the reasons the Movement is now engaged in a comprehensive effort to encourage and help National Societies update, revise and improve the statutes and laws that govern them and define their roles. These are not just important during disaster or conflict. Strong, clear laws and statutes play an important and positive role in maintaining public credibility and ensuring the trust of donors and members at all times.
Consider the case of the Swedish Red Cross, which has in many ways become a stronger, more cohesive National Society after engaging in a comprehensive revision of its statutes following a scandal in 2009.
It began when people at the Stockholm headquarters of the Swedish Red Cross became suspicious of invoices submitted to their communications department. Looking further, they learned that services described in invoices from two media and communication companies had never been performed or had been inflated.
After the Red Cross handed over their findings to prosecutors, the communications director and later two company directors were found to be responsible and convicted of aggravated fraud.
Due to the incident, the reputations of the Swedish Red Cross and the Movement within Sweden were badly damaged and the National Society lost a third of its members in three years. Everything was questioned: leadership salaries, the effectiveness of services, why the National Society didn’t notice the fraud and act earlier. When a new president, Eva von Oelreich, came into office with the motto of “Living our principles”, the incident was a top agenda item.
“I said ‘yes’ to becoming the president because of the crisis,” says von Oelreich, who introduced the motto as a theme for reimagining the National Society.
“When you lose the confidence of the general public, it’s an excellent moment for real change because crisis can pull you in the right direction,” she continues. “We needed to regain the public’s trust. We needed to reclaim the soul of the Red Cross.”
Back to the roots
It was a time of serious institutional soul-searching. In addition to making systemic, organizational changes, the National Society decided to look not just at the procedures that might have enabled the fraud, but to its core, its foundation: the set of statutes, laws, rules and principles that are encoded in its internal constitution and in national legislation.
With advice from the ICRC and IFRC Commission for National Society Statutes, or Joint Statutes Commission, a body of IFRC and ICRC advisers charged with helping National Societies improve their legal codes, the Swedish Red Cross was able to strengthen reforms that also helped rebuild public confidence, win back volunteers and foster greater internal cohesion around the defining principles of the Movement.
“We used this crisis in the best way we could,” says Dick Clomén, the Swedish Red Cross’s head of policy and the strategic advisor to the secretary general. “We got back to the roots, to the Geneva Conventions, the Fundamental Principles, the mission statement of the Movement; we used these as the basis on which to rebuild.”
One of the first things they did was to put the Fundamental Principles prominently within the National Society’s internal statutes. Eva von Oelreich adds: “It was clear we hadn’t used the principles prominently enough. They have to be lived, so we started the project Mission Humanity to relate the Fundamental Principles to today’s realities and challenges. That and putting the Fundamental Principles within the statutes made it clear to everyone that they are the backbone of our work.”
And while the Swedish Red Cross is, established in 1865, well known for its national and international operations, it has not been able to get the Swedish government to enact a law of recognition, or ‘Red Cross Law’. However, the Swedish Red Cross has been able to achieve de facto recognition through its emblem law and a series of other regulations that define its roles and responsibilities.
In updating its emblem law, which had last been revised in 1953, the Swedish Red Cross was also able to clarify and strengthen its auxiliary role, mainly through the preparatory documents that describe the National Society’s commitment to abide by the Fundamental Principles.
This recognition has been critical as the National Society engages in ongoing national discussions concerning civil society involvement in the response to disaster and other crisis and in defining its role with government ministries dealing with issues such as asylum seekers, rehabilitation of war victims and migrants.
The discussion about the National Society’s legal foundation went well beyond any one issue, however. After all, laws and statutes are only as good as the National Society’s ability to apply them in practice. In the case of the Swedish Red Cross, the legal reforms were closely linked with efforts to improve the way the National Society functions and in defining its long-term strategy.
One important part of the effort was engaging in IFRC’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Certification process, a self-analysis tool that helps National Societies clearly assess and address their strengths and weaknesses, as well as adapt to the challenges around them.
“Sweden is not a disaster-prone country and we have not had a conflict in 200 years,” notes von Oelreich. “But patterns of disasters and social unrest are changing and the effects of those issues cross borders more easily. So what is the role of the National Society in terms of new humanitarian issues within the country today? These are things that are very important for us to discuss.”
While it is often a crisis that prompts National Societies to reform their legal guidelines, National Societies are encouraged to review their statutes every few years.
Because of changes in the nature of conflict and emerging issues such as migration, there has been a push within the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement since 2009 to get ahead of the curve and encourage National Societies to update the laws that form the foundation of their existence and action.
“We are in a world that is being transformed at the local and at the global levels,” says René Kosirnik, the chairman of the Joint Statutes Commission. “National Societies are facing new challenges. The laws and internal statutes that define, enable and constrain the National Society should therefore reflect these new realities,” he says.
In many cases, the laws that define Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, however, are more than five decades old and many were formed when their country’s political structures were completely different from today.
Many of the internal statutes that define the way National Societies are organized or governed, or the way they operate in relationship to government, are similarly out of date or do not comply with basic standards set out by the Guidance Document for National Societies Statutes, which lays out basic standards and best practices concerning the statutes that define National Societies.
According to a commission report presented at the Movement’s 2013 Council of Delegates, just over 25 per cent of all National Societies have adopted statutes that are fully congruent with the minimum requirements defined in the guidance document and in the commission’s advisory notes.
Roughly 90 per cent of National Societies have started the process of updating their statutes, however, following resolutions by various Movement governing bodies to encourage National Societies to update their statutes and ensure that all Movement components function in accordance with the Fundamental Principles.
A strong legal base, for example, can help protect National Societies from being used by authorities as instruments of political, economic or social policy rather than being able to act only on humanitarian grounds. This is particularly true in cases where a polarized political environment leads to challenges to its independence and neutrality (see sidebar article on South Sudan Red Cross, page 27).
“The principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality have become even more acute,” notes Kosirnik. “The need to have these principles implemented, lived by the National Society, known and understood by partners and the population is essential.”