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Specific groups and individuals: mass exoduses and displaced persons

23-04-2002 Statement

58th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights – Agenda item 14 - 23 April 2002 – Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Mr Chairman,

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

In the past year, the ICRC has continued to conduct operations in some 80 countries, providing protection and assistance to millions of people, displaced, disabled, wounded or separated.  An increasing number of ICRC activities for victims of conflict and internal strife are implemented jointly with Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies.

The Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which was held in Geneva in November last year, focused on the Movement's response to the needs of refugees and internally displaced persons.  At this meeting the components of the Movement – the ICRC, the International Federation and an impressive network of 178 recognized National Societies – vigorously reaffirmed their commitment to responding, in accordance with their complementary mandates, to the needs of populations which have been forcibly displaced.

In our statement to the Commission this year we wish to address two specific issues of immediate relevance to refugees, internally displaced persons and other persons on the move: first, the report on sexual violence and exploitation in refugee camps in West Africa.  Secondly, the strain which the tragic events of 11 September and their aftermath have put on international law and the repercussions on already vulnerable populations.

The ICRC is shocked by the recent allegations of sexual exploitations in refugee camps in West Africa.  Though the ICRC itself is not implicated in this affair, it is not more immuned than other organizations from misconduct of its delegates and it believed crucial to re-examine the rules of conduct of its staff on assignment.  Indeed, the ICRC has a code of conduct which regulates the behaviour of its staff and is signed by all staff members.  These rules are further addressed in training courses.  In the field, heads of delegation have to make sure that theses rules are fully respected.  If not, sanctions, including dismissal, are taken.  The serious events in West Africa get us once more to question ourselves about our rules of behaviour and improvements needed to prevent misconduct, in terms of training and field staff management.  The ICRC issued strict instructions to its delegations to be particularly vigilant about all activities that place humanitarian staff in contact with minors and women.  In parallel, discussions are going on with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as well as with NGOs and UN agencies, notably in Interagency Standing Committee (IASC) meetings.

We are aware that the issue raised by the UNHCR and Save the Children/UK's report goes far much beyond the simple transgression of rules of behaviour by humanitarian workers or other agents in a specific part of the world: it goes beyond the confines of Africa and affects all continents.  It touches upon the mere principle of respect of human being and the requirement for all staff, especially humanitarian personnel, to act in accordance with the basic rules of humanity.  It is therefore a basic responsibility of all humanitarian agencies to take the necessary measures to ensure that their programmes are not being used to abuse and exploit victims instead of helping them and protecting their dignity.

The ICRC study " Women fac ing War " , published in October 2001, discussed the risk that victims of armed conflict may be exploited in exchange for food and other aid.  One of the measures suggested for improving the situation is to increase the number of female staff involved in aid programmes and to integrate them at all stages in planning, implementing and monitoring programmes.

Turning to the second issue, it is essential that renewed efforts to combat terrorism do not undermine existing international law and the protection it affords to vulnerable individuals.  In his statement to the present Commission Mr Ruud Lubbers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, warned that the global fight against terrorism must not be allowed to weaken the international refugee regime.  The same risk of erosion of the law is equally real with regard to human rights and international humanitarian law as ICRC's President firmly reaffirmed in his statement before this assembly.

One very specific manifestation of this risk has been the perception that asylum seekers and other persons on the move pose a threat to the security of host states.  This perception has often lead to the detention of such persons.  This reaction has merely exacerbated an already existing trend in receiving countries to detain asylum-seekers and social or economic migrants who arrive without appropriate documents pending the review of their applications.  The procedures for determining status can be lengthy and in this period applicants remain in a trying state of ignorance and helplessness, often in conditions of detention which are intended to deter more arrivals.

In certain contexts National Societies have already been providing assistance and engaging in protection activities for the benefit of detained asylum-seekers and migrants.  Recognizing the acute vulnerability of such populations the ICRC, the International Federation and National Societies have commenced a process of consultatio n in order to share expertise in the protection of persons in detention and the provision of services of fundamental importance at such a time such as family reunification activities.

The components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement hope that their efforts will contribute to the humane treatment of detained asylum-seekers and migrants and to the promotion of tolerance, respect and acceptance of persons from other cultures in accordance with the principle of humanity.

Thank you Mr Chairman.