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Human rights questions: Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

14-11-1997 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly 52nd session, Third Committee, Agenda item 112e). Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) New York, 14 November 1997

Mr Chairman,

First of all, we should like to congratulate H.E. Mrs Mary Robinson on her appointment to the post of High Commissioner for Human Rights and to wish her every success in meeting this new challenge.

Our purpose today is to help clarify the relationship between the international law of human rights law and international humanitarian law, and to define more specifically the respective roles of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the context of the activities of each on the field. We believe that a clearer understanding in these areas would help strengthen the protection of the individual in all circumstances.

 Human rights law and international humanitarian law  

Mr Chairman,

Human rights law and humanitarian law are two sets of rules which are similar yet distinct. They are similar in that both seek to protect the most basic rights of the individual: the right to life, dignity and a modicum of freedom and justice. Yet they differ in several respects, three of which call for comment.

Based on the Universal Declaration, human rights law seeks to promote the development on the economic, social, cultural, civil, and political levels, of the individual in society. As for humanitarian law, its objective is more limited: As a body of law for use in emergencies, it is applicable solely in situations of armed con flict. Without seeking to improve society, it aims to protect, as far as possible, the life, dignity and physical integrity of the individual against violence and arbitrary behaviour. It also regulates the conduct of military operations and sets out the basic conditions for carrying out humanitarian action in behalf of victims.

The second difference is that whereas human rights law allows for derogations in certain situations and under restrictive conditions, humanitarian law admits none.

Finally, humanitarian law applies not only to States, but to any party to an armed conflict.

Far from conflicting, human rights law and humanitarian law, with their distinct aims and modes of implementation, assure a complementarity in protecting the rights of the individual.

 The ICRC, humanitarian action and human rights  

Mr Chairman,

The ICRC's very existence is closely connected to humanitarian law, which entrusts it with a special responsibility to promote, disseminate, implement, ensure respect for and develop the rules of that law. The ICRC takes action not only in the context of the conflicts covered by the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols but also in situations of internal disturbances and tension and other forms of collective violence. The States party to the Geneva Conventions, also members of the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, have fully endorsed this adaptation of the mandate of the ICRC to the needs of victims.

Since the ICRC's activities are related to a specific context - situations of violence - they reflect the close relationship between human rights law and humanitarian law. For example, when its delegates visit detainees and engage in a regular dialogue with the authorities, they help prevent disappearances and torture, thereby protecting the right to life. The same aim is pursued when the ICRC supplies hospitals with medicines and distributes food and clothing to vulnerable people. Finally, restoring links between relatives separated by violent events helps to preserve family unity. In these various ways, the ICRC's work therefore promotes respect for human rights, which often coincide with the rights conferred by the rules and principles of humanitarian law, whether or not in situations where the latter is applicable.

 Complementarity of operational activities  

Mr Chairman,

Respect for the dignity of individuals and the protection of their fundamental rights can be ensured only in a climate in which violations of the law can be prevented or brought to an end. Such a favourable climate is fostered through a combination of effort and will on the part of all the actors, be they governmental or not. The ICRC commends all endeavours to create such a climate, in particular those of the High Commissioner in her new field operations, which are part of the same dynamic process. In this regard, detailed consultations in the field are essential in order to ensure that humanitarian law and human rights law - and, indeed, any other means of creating a climate favourable to protection activities - complement each other in covering all aspects of the victims'needs. Furthermore, there must be no overlapping and no neglected areas in activities of protection. Complementarity is required at all levels if respect for the dignity of the individual is to be promoted in a coherent and effective manner. This concern should be incorporated particularly into the working methods of the various institutions. The ICRC relies mainly on direct and confidential dialogue in dealing with its interlocutors, be they representatives of a government or of an opposition group. Its means of action are repeated access to the victims, a continued presence and persuasion, complementary to those used by other organizations active in the field of human rights which, generally, place greater reliance on public information.

In the area of detention, for example, this specific approach takes the form of registration of detainees and an individual follow-up of each case until they are released, aiming to bring about changes in behaviour directly within the system responsible for the maintenance of law and order. All too often, the strengthening of national institutions and of the judicial system, including the provision of suitable training, is overlooked. The same goes for the respect for procedural rules and for legal guarantees. In this regard, the concerted approach adopted with the human rights observers in Rwanda was very encouraging: it confirmed the ICRC's role in improving the living conditions and treatment of detainees, leaving the human rights observers to deal mainly with the more specific tasks relating to judicial issues and the respect of the applicable norms. In this context, the increasingly desperate plight of penal-law detainees in a growing number of countries, also merits a deeper involvement.

Humanitarian action and activities in defence of human rights must also complement each other when it comes to protection of the civilian population. The aim of the ICRC's work is essentially to obtain the respect for the lives and physical integrity of civilians, in particular to protect them against indiscriminate attacks; the work of human rights observers has, in addition, more long-term objectives: to re-establish civil society and to restore the population's enjoyment of civil and political rights.

While the ICRC has the latitude to act in situations of armed conflict as a neutral and impartial intermediary, human rights organizations have an important role to pla y, in the period of transition towards pacification, in reinforcing the capacity of authorities to respect human rights. In the build-up prior to conflicts, these organizations could also engage themselves in prevention.

Let us once again stress the importance of respecting the mandates of each. This avoids situations in which the activities of one organization prevent others from carrying out their proper tasks. With this in mind, the ICRC took part in informal talks with the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Colombian Government when the setting-up of a mission by this office in that country was being negotiated. The resulting bilateral agreement confirms the competence of the ICRC as concerns the promotion of humanitarian law, including its dissemination and application and the monitoring of compliance with its provisions.

 Communication between the ICRC and the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights  

Mr Chairman,

Furthermore and apart from field operations, the ICRC considers it important to promote complementary action and mutual support between the office of the High Commissioner and those of the ICRC in tasks pertaining to the dissemination of humanitarian law, its implementation at the national level, as well as in the field of training where the expertise of each must be put to use.

In conclusion, we hope to have demonstrated, through these instances, points that the field activities of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the ICRC have in common. Numerous are the necessary lines of communication open between the offices of the High Commissioner and the ICRC: contacts within the framework of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, and the high-level dialogue established between the two institutions, to mention only a couple. The ICRC is of the view th at by clarifying the respective mandates and modalities of work - taking into account in particular the requirement of confidentiality - we will together be able to better contribute to improve the fate of the suffering and of those who are threatened.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

Ref. LG 1997-122-ENG