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Fourth World Conference on Women

04-09-1995 Statement

4-15 September 1995, Beijing, People's Republic of China. Statement by Mrs. Renée Guisan, member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

The International Committee of the Red Cross carries out its mandate to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict and internal violence throughout the world. One aspect of the draft programme of action which has been submitted to the Beijing Conference is of special concern to the ICRC: that aspect is the protection of women against the effects of armed conflicts, and especially against the acts of violence to which women are particularly vulnerable in such situations. Women and the civilian population in general are those who suffer most from the effects of hostilities: they are wounded or killed, driven from their homes, detained for arbitrary reasons, abused, and separated from their families.

Women play an important role as promoters of peace. In wartime they are the mainstay of their families, taking on the responsibilities of their menfolk who have gone away to fight. They shoulder these responsibilities at great risk to their own lives, crossing minefields and braving bombing and shelling as they go in search of food, water, firewood and other means of survival. And this exposes them to yet another type of danger at the hands of undisciplined soldiers who have no respect for women: indecent assault, rape, and other forms of psychological and physical abuse.

International humanitarian law protects women as members of the civilian population, and they are also afforded special protection because of their greater vulnerability. This special protection is enshrined in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocols of 1977. It includes, in particular, legal protection against " any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitu tion, or any form of indecent assault " .

The rules are there, but they are all too often flouted. States lack the political will to adopt effective means of enforcing them. Today, a growing number of conflicts take the form of civil strife in which the rules of international humanitarian law are disregarded. Thus the protection of the civilian population - women and children in particular - is in jeopardy.

In some cases we have even witnessed a deliberate policy of violations of humanitarian law intended to terrorize civilians. Systematic massacres have been carried out with the aim of uprooting and driving out entire communities. And rape has often been part of these policies of terror.

Every effort must therefore urgently be made to curb violence and at least to spread knowledge of the rules of international humanitarian law, especially those that protect women. This is a major goal for the ICRC, which is working to raise awareness among decision-makers and senior military officers.

We welcome the initiative taken by the United Nations to set up international tribunals to repress crimes against humanity, war crimes and acts of genocide, and earnestly hope that an international criminal court will soon be established.

The ICRC also welcomes the provisions of the draft programme of action discussed at this Conference which strengthen the application of international humanitarian law, and trusts that they will be adopted. It has prepared a document detailing its position on various points covered in sections D and E; this paper is available to the participants in the Conference.

In just a few days'time, the Review Conference of the 1980 United Nations Weapons Convention will be meeting in Vienna. The ICRC strongly reaffirms its stance in favour of a ban on anti-personnel landmines, which have claimed so many victims among wo men and children. It is also concerned by the uncontrolled sale of weapons to users who operate outside accepted standards, and by the use of the media - notably radio and television - to spread messages of hatred which have led to indiscriminate violence and in some cases even to genocide.

In conclusion, Madam Chairperson, no one can deny that women bear the brunt of the tragic effects of armed conflicts. States must obviously assume a large measure of responsibility for reversing this trend, but much can be done by individuals, and especially women themselves. The ICRC would like to pay tribute to all the women who play a key role in humanitarian action in general, and in food distribution and the reunification of families in particular. We firmly believe that women are already and will increasingly become the best advocates for limiting violence. 

Finally, Madam Chairperson, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I would remind you that the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, together with the 185 States party to the Geneva Conventions, will also be addressing the issue of protection of women in armed conflict at its 26th International Conference, which opens in Geneva on 3 December 1995.

Ref.: DP(1995)77