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

10-11-1998 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 53rd session, Third Committee, item 110(e) of the agenda. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 10 November 1998

Mr. Chairman,

In a month we will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Next August will be the 50th anniversary of the four Geneva Conventions. As many speakers have already pointed out, human dignity is blatantly disregarded around the world; there is therefore no reason to celebrate neither. We should therefore reflect on the past 50 years and look ahead to determine how we can work together to better protect fundamental rights and freedoms, through both law and action.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has a mandate to work for the faithful application and appropriate development of international humanitarian law, the branch of international law designed specifically for situations of armed conflict. The United Nations, for its part, began its involvement in humanitarian law in 1968 at the Tehran Human Rights Conference, by introducing the concept of " human rights in armed conflict " to refer to it. Since then, the provisions of these separate bodies of law have been an influence on each other. For example, the two 1977 Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions contain a number of rules taken from human rights instruments. Likewise, some human rights provisions, such as Article 38 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, reflect humanitarian law.

Although human rights law in principle remains applicable in the event of armed conflict, we believe that good reasons exist for applying both sets of rules as separate bodies of law rather than viewing them as a whole. Experience gleaned from working in connection both with armed conflict and with violent situations to which humanita rian law is not applicable has shown the utility of specific rules created for specific circumstances.

Effective protection of victims of armed conflict requires that they enjoy not only the basic rights of all human beings at all times, but also that they benefit from additional rights precisely because these individuals are affected by an armed conflict, such as medical care, the right of detainees to correspond with their families and, more generally, protection from the effects of hostilities. These are areas in which the provisions of humanitarian law go further and enter into more detail than those of human rights law. On the other hand, humanitarian law is silent as regards some rights protected by human rights law, such as freedom of thought, association or expression, or the right to development.

Humanitarian law and human rights law overlap in what is often referred to as " hard core " rights, for instance the right to life and the right not to be subjected to torture. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights is considering the possibility of identifying so-called fundamental standards of humanity common to both bodies of law and applicable in all situations. In connection with this and with the drafting of new international instruments, the ICRC stresses the necessity of safeguarding the existing hard law provisions of both humanitarian law and human rights law. Indeed, their complementary natures and degrees of precision stem to a large extent from their specific features, thereby ensuring a better legal protection of fundamental rights. Confusion between these separate bodies of law could weaken existing safeguards and prove harmful. It would not be productive in all cases to rely on human rights law in situations to which humanitarian law applies, such as the use of force by parties to an armed conflict. Conversely, resorting to humanitarian law outside its field of application could prove detrimental to the protection of funda mental rights. Humanitarian law is less suited to matters such as basic law-enforcement operations outside the realm of war.

Today there are situations of exacerbated armed violence in which the distinction may be blurred between the traditional tasks of the armed forces and those of the police and other security forces, with one assuming the responsibilities of the other. The ICRC has recognized that, in order to ensure that people affected by such situations are adequately protected and assisted, attention must be focused on all such forces, which is why both humanitarian and human rights law are covered in its work to promote knowledge of the law among armed and security forces.

Mr. Chairman,

As part of its mandate the ICRC traditionally acts to promote compliance with humanitarian law, while respect for human rights has been monitored by international organizations such as the United Nations and by regional bodies and specialized non-governmental organizations. Violations of humanitarian law are increasingly being discussed in international fora, such as the Commission on Human Rights and this Committee. The Security Council also frequently invokes it in its resolutions, and new mechanisms to punish perpetrators of violations have been set up in the past few years. The ICRC welcomes this growing interest.

In addition to investigative missions in the field by experts of the Commission on Human Rights, the 1990s have seen the development of new means of protection, such as the continuous presence of international monitors, in particular those of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and of the Department of Peace-keeping Operations.

Although the proliferation of humanitarian actors working in situations of armed conflict allows for an increased action in favour of the victims, there has also been a certain overlapping of mandates and sometimes duplication of activities. The diversity in working methods, in particular regarding public denunciation versus confidential reporting, is not the problem. On the contrary, different modes of action can complement each other, ultimately benefiting the victims. The most effective type of action should nevertheless be taken to protect people in accordance with the best adapted legal references, principles, and type of action. The need must therefore be stressed for action that is based on thorough consultation between actors and an in-depth understanding of the standards which should guide activities. In this regard, the ICRC has organized workshops open to all interested organizations.

There has been progress in the area cooperation. In Rwanda, for example, guidelines were jointly instituted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the ICRC delegation there concerning their respective activities in places of detention. Another example is the agreement between the Colombian government and the High Commissioner, in which reference is made to the mandate of the ICRC. In general, agreements between organizations should reflect not only their mandates as such but also the particular expertise and capacity for action of each.

At headquarters level, an ongoing dialogue now exists between the ICRC and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Discussion touch upon working methods and modalities of action in certain countries, as well as possible ways to optimize the use of advisory services and technical assistance, training and measures to promote compliance with the law.

To sum up, effective inter-agency consultation is an ethical, legal and operational necessity imposed by the fact that all victims entitled to maximum protection. Such consultation is intended to avoid duplication of activities, and thus wasting of resources, as well as to resolve blatant and counterproductive contradictions between organizations, particularly regarding representations made to the authorities.

Mr. Chairman,

Human rights law and humanitarian law are solid foundations upon which we must continue to build together, in order to obtain a deeper respect for the human being in all circumstances, in the hope that future celebrations hold a more profound and concrete meaning above and beyond mere symbols.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Ref. LG 1998-086-ENG