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Report of the High Commissioner for Refugees,questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions

20-11-2001 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 56th session, Third Committee, item 114 of the agenda Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 20 November 2001

Mr Chairman,

Thank you for giving the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) the floor.

Throughout the ages armed conflict has been accompanied by the displacement of civilian populations, and all too often on a massive scale. The potential of today's conflicts are no different in this respect. Despite considerable efforts made by humanitarian organizations, the recent exodus of entire populations has reminded us of the limits of humanitarian action.

The ICRC's mandate is to provide protection and assistance to persons affected by armed conflict. Persons who have been displaced within their country in such situations thus lie at the heart of the ICRC's activities. At this very moment, our organization is bringing protection and assistance to over five million internally displaced persons in nearly 50 contexts, such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sri Lanka, and Colombia, to name but a few. In Afghanistan, during the most recent hostilities, the ICRC's 1,000 local employees continued to carry out essential medical and emergency assistance activities for the civilian population - which includes numerous internally displaced persons.

While the vulnerability of displaced persons is often evident, the difficulties facing local communities that host refugees and internally displaced persons should not be underestimated either. Moreover, in a number of long-standing conflicts, the distinctions between resident and displaced populations tend to be blurred. This is one reason why the ICRC always endeavours to adopt an approach based on actual needs rather than on predefined categories of persons.

The aim of international humanitarian law is to protect victims of armed conflict. In addition to expressly prohibiting the forced displacement of civilians, in both international and non-international armed conflicts, it lays down detailed rules aimed at protecting civilians from the effects of hostilities. These include the prohibition of attacks on civilians, of indiscriminate attacks, and of the destruction of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as crops, livestock or drinking water installations. Other rules aim at securing the provision of humanitarian assistance and protecting civilians against arbitrary behaviour by parties to a conflict. Accordingly, respect for international humanitarian law is of crucial importance, both to prevent displacement and to protect those who are uprooted in a situation of armed conflict.

Mr. Chairman,

A coordinated response by all actors is necessary to address the plight of displaced persons. Not only must those engaged in emergency operations agree among themselves on the best way to respond to needs, they must also strengthen links with rehabilitation and development agencies. Being convinced that a clear division of tasks is in the best interests of the people in need, the ICRC seeks to maintain a close cooperation with other humanitarian actors. It does so within the limits imposed by its mandate, in particular those of preserving ICRC's independence, neutrality and impartiality.

As regards cooperation at the bilateral level, the ICRC would like to take this opportunity to express its appreciation for the good cooperation it enjoys with UNHCR - both at headquarters and in the field. At the multilateral levels, the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies h ave taken an active part in the coordination process initiated by OCHA and the Senior Inter-Agency Network on Internal Displacement, which aims at improving the humanitarian response to the needs of internally displaced persons.

Within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the Council of Delegates, which met in Geneva just last week, focussed on the Movement's response to the needs of refugees and internally displaced persons. On this occasion, the ICRC, the International Federation, and 178 National Societies vigorously reaffirmed their commitment to responding to the needs of populations which have been forcibly displaced, in accordance with their complementary mandates.

In ICRC's view, it is important that the various actors respond in conformity with their respective mandates, areas of expertise and capacity. For its part, the ICRC concentrates on meeting the immediate needs of those who have recently been displaced or who are in most urgent need of assistance, just as it does for other groups of civilians affected by war. Conversely, we feel that other organizations — in particular United Nations agencies and National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies — are often better equipped to meet the needs of other categories of vulnerable people, such as the long-term displaced and migrants living around large cities.

Mr Chairman,

Determined efforts to prevent forced displacement and to alleviate the plight of those affected must continue. It must be underlined, in this regard, that the responsibility to take action goes well beyond humanitarian workers. It is incumbent upon all parties involved in armed conflicts, since their compliance with humanitarian law would by itself bring about a significant reduction in population movements. The international community also has a role to play in this regard. It should further help address deep-seated causes of tension, encourage political solutions when conflicts have erupted, as well as provide adequate and predictable funding to humanitarian organizations and development agencies.

Mr Chairman,

Today, thousands of people are living in fear of what tomorrow might bring. Entire nations feel threatened in what is most precious to us all: life and dignity. During armed conflict, the essence of humanitarian action is to prevent and alleviate the suffering of persons not taking part in hostilities, and to do so without discrimination. These principles are not only fundamental — they are the common heritage of all nations and all civilisations. Today more than ever, they must prevail.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.