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Update on the third Wolfsberg Humanitarian Forum

11-06-1999 Report

 Wolfsberg Humanitarian Forum (25-27 May 1999)  

The third annual humanitarian forum organized by the ICRC was held 25-27 May in Wolfsberg, near Zurich, in eastern Switzerland. It was opened by Mr Joseph Deiss, the new Swiss Minister for Foreign Affairs, who came to welcome the participants. This year, the central theme was the protection of the victims of armed conflicts, against the backdrop of the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. In his opening address, the president of the ICRC Dr. Cornelio Sommaruga emphasized that, at a time when everything is " humanitarian " , it is imperative that we redefine the specific tasks of the various actors (political, military and humanitarian) in a global context. The keynote address by Mr. Salim Ahmad Salim, Secretary General of the OAU helped from the very start to direct the talks onto a more general level than just the Balkan question. The discussions were then organized according to the three themes: protection as seen by the victims, by humanitarian organizations, and by the governments.

 Protection as seen by the victims  

The first section saw a presentation by the ICRC of the “People on War” project, a world-wide consultation of the general public, which it is conducting as part of the campaign for the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. Civilians and combatants alike are asked how they view their experiences of war, what basic rules they expect to apply in war, why these rules sometimes break down and what their expectations for the future are. ICRC staff and Red Cross volunteers, under the guidance of opinion researchers, are conducting the consultation   in a dozen conflict-affected countries and five non-affected countries. The data available so far make clear that the basic principles of international humanitarian law are generally known and recognized, but that they are often violated for reasons which can already be partially identified. Thus the first reaction of almost all those interviewed is that one must make a distinction between combatants and civilians, and spare the latter from the effects of the combat; meanwhile, in many concrete situations, this clear distinction becomes very hazy, for example when civilians constitute -- voluntarily or no -- the logistic support of the enemy combatants, or when the leader of the opposing party, generally considered to be the aggressor responsible for the conflict, enjoys wide support among the civilian population. The rules aiming to protect civilians are thus felt to be considerably less relevant and one often slips towards an antithesis between innocent civilians and guilty civilians.

 Protection as seen by humanitarian organizations and governments  

The respective points of view of humanitarian agencies and governments were presented by Mr Michael Aaronson of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, and by Ms Hilde Frafjord-Johnson, Norwegian Minister for Development and Human Rights. From the ensuing debate it became clear that the government representatives, who are in charge of humanitarian affairs in their respective governments, and the representatives of humanitarian organizations often have the same vision of things. Topics discussed were: the confusion between humanitarian, military and political action when all three are labelled " humanitarian " ; the attachment to certain principles; " protection of the protectors " ; and the necessity, beyond a certain i nsecurity threshold, to withdraw expatriates from the field and to try to maintain limited activities by means of local organizations. One of the fundamental questions raised was: under what circumstances is it legitimate to resort to violence in order to put an end to violence. The difficulty of clearly distinguishing civilians from combatants in certain contexts was also dealt with at length, although no new solutions were reached. Other participants drew attention to the fact that in the Balkans today the military is much better protected than the civilian population.

 Justice and violations of humanitarian law  

The vast problem of justice and its relationship with measures of national reconciliation after a conflict was widely discussed, the general conclusion being that the two are not necessarily opposed. It is in any case not up to humanitarian organizations to plead for impunity. Another interesting question examined was whether one should not resort to other mechanisms to bring violations of humanitarian law out into the open, and whether certain NGOs should not get a better grip on humanitarian law in order to complement the activities of the ICRC by running public advocacy campaigns, as is already done with human rights.

The formula of the Wolfsberg Humanitarian Forum has by now proven itself: the participants (around sixty) represented the major humanitarian organizations -- both United Nations agencies (UNHCR, UNICEFF, WFP, DPKO) and NGOs (ICVA, INTERACTION, Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response) -- and senior officials responsible for humanitarian affairs in the main donor governments. In addition, officials from various regional organizations (NATO, Council of Europe, European Commission) participated, as did a number of individuals chosen either for their specific area of expertise or because they would lend a less European/North American perspective to th e talks. The discussions were as usual informal, thus favouring a greater freedom of tone than is usual in other fora. While presenting the conclusions of the Forum, the president of the ICRC informed the participants that this year's Wolfsberg Forum would be his last, but that the next one will, in principle, take place at the end of May 2000.

 LG 1999-079-ENG