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Violence against women

07-04-2000 Statement

56th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Agenda item 12 - 7 April 2000, Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Mr Chairman

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has repeatedly expressed its concern about the continuing violence against persons who are protected under international humanitarian law. Violence against women in situations of armed conflict - be they captured combatants or civilians - is a violation of this law and must continue to be condemned.

Violence against women takes many forms, some more apparent than others. One of the most painful consequences of armed conflict is the number of women searching for news on the fate of relatives - generally male - who are missing. The inability to mourn and bury their loved ones has an enormous impact on the survivors and the coping mechanisms they adopt. Humanitarian law recognises the need and right of families to obtain information regarding the fate of their missing relatives. The ICRC therefore urges all States and parties to armed conflict to clarify the fate of missing people and to inform their families accordingly.

Throughout the world women are continuing to show remarkable courage, resourcefulness and resilience when confronted with the effects of war and the obstacles it imposes on their ability to sustain and protect themselves and their families. As one former combatant in Bosnia-Herzegovina stated, when asked his opinion on war and its effects for a recent ICRC People on War survey, " I was fighting to preserve physical life and she was fighting to preserve her family. "

The protection provided to women in armed conflict under humanitarian law is twofold: from its inception, this body of law has acco rded women, as civilians, the general protection equal to that enjoyed by men. At the same time it recognises the need to provide women with special protection according to their specific needs. Both the general and special protection are enshrined in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocols of 1977.

Mr Chairman

The issue of violence against women is of particular pertinence in light of some current initiatives undertaken by the ICRC. At this Commission last year, the ICRC announced that it was examining the situation of women affected by armed conflicts. This Study will be concluded this year and will form the background for the formulation of guidelines for the protection and assistance of women and girl children in armed conflict. States and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement requested the ICRC to formulate these guidelines at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Conference held a few months ago.

Furthermore, at this Conference the ICRC President renewed the Institution's commitment to the effective protection of women through a 4 year pledge specifically focussing on dissemination of the protection accorded by humanitarian law to women and girls and the issue of sexual violence.

Sexual violence is a particularly heinous violation of international humanitarian law. During the recent People on War survey undertaken by the ICRC in countries which had been or are still at war, one in nine of all respondents reported that they knew somebody who was raped, and nearly as many said the same for sexual assault. This is shocking. States have a duty to ensure protection and respect for all civilians and persons no longer taking part in the hostilities. The full implementation of this law must be made a reality.

The ICRC is pleased to note that the ad hoc Tribunals for the f ormer Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) consider sexual violence a war crime. This violation is included in the working paper which was presented by the ICRC to the Preparatory Commission for the ICC regarding the determination of the elements of crimes. These are significant developments in the battle against impunity. 

Mr Chairman

The ICRC hopes that these recent initiatives will allow for a more effective future implementation of the protection conferred upon women by humanitarian law, however, the prime responsibility rests upon the parties to an armed conflict to observe the rules, and upon States to bring the perpetrators of violations of these rules to justice.

Ref. LG 2000-052-ENG