Nearly 180 national Red Cross Societies have gathered in Geneva to outline policy priorities for the next two years.This content was published on November 6, 2001 - 16:26
The General Assembly of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is being held against the backdrop of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan. But the fight against HIV/AIDS, access to affordable medicines and the role of volunteers will be among the main topics discussed.
The assembly offers the opportunity for the many national societies involved in coping with the Afghan refugee crisis to coordinate their work. But the federation says that, to all intents and purposes, the Red Cross movement's operation in the region is already in place and "prepared for the worst".
"Certainly Afghanistan is one of the major issues, and this assembly allows national societies to discuss it further, but there are a lot of other humanitarian agenda items that we need to discuss," says Chris Sorek, the federation's head of communications.
The General Assembly, composed of delegates from the 177 national societies, is the federation's supreme governing body and meets every two years to determine the organisation's key policies.
"The assembly gives national societies the chance to devise policy, which then becomes action at a local and regional level," Sorek told swissinfo.
What is likely to emerge from the assembly is a scaling up of the federation's programmes to combat HIV and AIDS, and a call for poor countries to be given greater access to affordable drugs.
Such moves would send a strong message to this week's World Trade Organisation ministerial conference in Doha. Poorer countries argue that WTO intellectual property regulations prevents them producing or importing cheap generic drugs to combat diseases like AIDS.
Officials at the federation's Geneva headquarters point out that the national societies have a special lobbying role with their governments. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are, under national law, the official auxiliaries to their governments in humanitarian matters, which allows them to bring their influence to bear in advocating Red Cross policy.
Setting an agenda
"The assembly can put issues like the availability of low-cost drugs or improved HIV/AIDS programmes on the agenda for national societies around the world," Sorek says.
This year has been designated International Year of Volunteers by the United Nations, and one of the central themes of the general assembly is the role of the 97 million volunteers who work for national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world.
The American Red Cross will give a special presentation about the contribution of volunteers in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
"Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organisation. They play a critical role in delivering services at the community level," Sorek says.
However, there has been an overall decline in volunteering, and the Red Cross movement will be emphasising the role the public - especially those with specialist knowledge - can play in its work.
"The type of volunteers we need has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. We need people with specific skills like water sanitation, psychological support, disaster relief and so on," Sorek explains.
One of the most contentious issues facing the Red Cross movement - the admission of the Israeli Red Shield of David, or Magen David Adom, and the adoption of an additional emblem - will be raised at the assembly, as will the possible future membership of other countries, like Eritrea and Kazakhstan.
However the issue of Magen David Adom and the additional emblem will be discussed in greater depth during the Council of Delegates - a convocation of all national societies, the federation and the International Committee of the Red Cross - which is held in the days following the assembly.
by Roy Probert