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Fundamental Standards of Humanity

14-04-2000 Statement

56th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Agenda item 17 - 14 April 2000. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Mr. Chairperson,

The issue of fundamental standards of humanity has been on the international agenda for several years now because of a perception that already existing norms of international humanitarian law and human rights law fail to adequately protect persons caught in the " gray zone " between peacetime and situations of armed conflict. The ICRC believes that a lack of legal standards is not the primary reason for numerous violations and abuses perpetrated in these situations. The reason must rather be sought in the non-compliance, by state and non-state actors, of the principles and rules of international humanitarian and human rights law. An examination of the reasons for non-compliance with already existing law should therefore be the main focus of our work on fundamental standards of humanity going forward. We would welcome further discussion and study of the causes of non-compliance, by all actors, with international humanitarian and human rights norms already in force and of ways of effectively strengthening such compliance.

The ICRC's preference for a focus on the implementation of existing law is based on several developments that seem to obviate the need for elaborating new international standards. These developments were thoroughly examined at an expert meeting recently hosted by the government of Sweden, to which we express our appreciation and gratitude.

The first of these developments is the establishment and ongoing work of the two UN ad hoc international criminal tribunals whose jurisprudence has set important markers for the behaviour of both state and non-state actors. The second is the adoption, in 1998, of the Rome Statute for a permanent International Criminal Court which defined genocide, war crimes - including those committed in non-international armed conflict -  and crimes against humanity as serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole, and reaffirmed the principle of individual criminal responsibility for such acts. The third development is the Human Rights Committee's current work on the drafting of a General Comment to article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which is expected to shed more light on the issue of non-derogable rights and provide an authoritative interpretation of states'obligations in times of emergency. The fourth development is the emerging application by states of the principle of universal jurisdiction, which is provided for both in treaty and customary law, for several categories of crimes under international law including grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and of Protocol I  to those Conventions. Last, but by no means least, is the ICRC's own study on customary rules of international humanitarian law applicable in international and non-international armed conflicts.

The study, which was commissioned in 1995 by the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, is in the final stages of preparation and will be published early next year. It will be of relevance to a further examination of fundamental standards of humanity because it will, inter alia, identify a range of customary law rules binding on the parties to internal armed conflicts, based on an extensive examination of state and other practice in these situations. Given the current paucity of treaty law in this area - which was one of the main reasons the study was commissioned in the first place - it will undoubtedly contribute to the enhanced legal protection of persons affected by internal armed conflict.

Mr. Chairperson,

The ICRC fully agrees with the conclus ions of the recent expert meeting held in Stockholm, according to which there are no substantive gaps in the existing legal framework for the protection of persons that may find themselves in the " gray area " between peace and armed conflict. We also concur with the view that any further work on fundamental standards of humanity should be seen as a process, aimed at reiterating existing international humanitarian and human rights norms with a view to facilitating their dissemination and implementation.

Until such work is further pursued, we call on governments to take all feasible steps to strengthen the protection of persons in both peacetime and situations of armed conflict by ratifying the relevant international treaties and ensuring their full implementation. We particularly call on states to abide by their obligations under the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their two Additional Protocols, to make war crimes offenses under domestic law and to provide for universal jurisdiction over acts constituting war crimes. We also urge states to ratify the Rome Statute for an International Criminal Court, thereby providing the international community with a mechanism for punishing and deterring war crimes, as well as other crimes under international law.

Thank you, Mr. Chairperson.

Ref. LG 2000-042-ENG