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Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions

07-11-1995 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly 50th session (1995), Third Committee, Agenda item 109, Tuesday, 7 November 1995 – Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

Mr Chairman,

War continues to be one of the principal causes of population movements. In pursuance of its mandate to help the victims of armed conflicts, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) endeavours to protect and assist displaced people.

Whenever the signing of a cease-fire agreement or the opening of political negotiations seem to indicate that a conflict is coming to an end, whether in Afghanistan, in the Caucasus, in the former Yugoslavia or in Rwanda, special attention must be paid to two crucial humanitarian matters.

First of all, the ICRC asks the parties concerned to notify it of all detainees held in connection with the conflict and to grant it unrestricted access to them before arrangements can be made for their release and return home. The ICRC's second major concern is to initiate an active search for all persons unaccounted for. Our Central Tracing Agency has a key role in this particular task.

Even when a political settlement is in view, the ICRC and other humanitarian agencies that work in emergency situations still have an important part to play. In its emergency operations the ICRC always bears long-term rehabilitation needs in mind. But there is another dimension to the problem: the question of the repatriation of refugees and displaced people.

In our opinion, a cease-fire is not enough to create conditions in which people can be repatriated safely and with dignity. Hasty decisions might be prejudicial to the peace process, and a premature repatriation carried out in adverse material and psychological conditions might heighten tension and could even lead to renewed conflict. A system must be set up to settle disputes that might arise in connection with the recovery of the returnees'property and to provide people with fair compensation for what they have lost. Repatriation should therefore be carried out in stages, and according to a timetable drawn up in advance. Moreover, it is essential that repatriation be voluntary.

Mine-clearance is a crucial factor in this regard. Here the failure of the Vienna Conference to reach agreement on measures to solve the problem of landmines can only be deplored.

Mr Chairman,

For the ICRC, " protection " means first and foremost respect for the rules of international humanitarian law. The 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols are designed mainly to protect people who are not or no longer taking part in hostilities, and civilians in particular. As the promoter and guardian of international humanitarian law, the ICRC constantly reminds the parties to a conflict of their obligation to apply its provisions.

If the integrity of the victims of armed conflicts is to be guaranteed, protection and assistance must always go hand in hand. Access to victims is therefore more vital than ever. To guarantee such access, humanitarian action must be neutral, impartial and independent. It must also be perceived that way. Moreover, coordination of humanitarian work among the various agencies involved must take protection activities into account.

We are forced to acknowledge that, despite an international presence that was meant to ensure their protection, thousands of people have been massacred this year in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, to mention only two such cases. This fact demonstrates that such a presence is not in itself a sufficient guarantee. It is therefore important to define more clearly what is meant by protection and to agree upon the various tasks and responsibilities involved.

A better division of responsibilities would make it possible to avoid any duplication of efforts, which could weaken the protection provided. Activities undertaken to protect and assist refugees and displaced persons come within the purview of several areas of international law. The ICRC for its part has special responsibility under international humanitarian law. Today, it is important for humanitarian agencies acting on the basis of different bodies of law to clarify the concept of protection and to coordinate their action in practical terms. In Rwanda, where the ICRC is involved in a major effort to assist some 60,000 detainees, the pressing need for such a step is urgently felt.

It is true, of course, that effective protection does not depend on humanitarian organizations alone; it depends mainly on the political will of States to respect international law. In this connection it should be pointed out that the compliance with humanitarian law would forestall population displacements, and that all States party to the Geneva Conventions have a duty to ensure respect for them.

Mr Chairman,

In regard to the matter under discussion, we should like to mention the work accomplished by Mr. Francis Deng, the United Nations Secretary-General's Representative on displaced persons. As for the ICRC, it recently held a symposium on the same issues and thus contributed to the ongoing debate.

There will be discussions on the subject at the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, due to be held in Geneva in early December. The Conference will be attended not only by the components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement but also by the 186 States party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The participants will endeavour to find appropriate responses to the enormous humanitarian challenges f acing all of us today.

Greater commitment on the part of the international community is more necessary then ever.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

(Ref.:UN(1995)24b)