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

15-11-2002 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly,57th session, Third Committee, item 104 of the agenda Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 15 November 2002

Mr. Chairman,

Armed conflict represents one of the major causes of forced displacement, across international borders and, to an even greater extent, within countries. Given that those uprooted are often particularly exposed to life-threatening deprivation and violence, it is but natural that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) does it utmost to ensure that they be properly respected, protected and assisted. It is important to underline that States have the primary responsibility in this regard, and that humanitarian organisations, such as ours, can only play a supportive role, albeit often vital.

It is generally recognised that a better respect for international humanitarian law would significantly reduce the need for people to flee their homes, and hence would significantly reduce the numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons. It is also true that humanitarian law provides extensive protection to those who are displaced, through numerous rules aimed at sparing civilians from the dangers of military operations and abuse of power, as well as ensuring that those in need can be provided with essential assistance.

However, the situation does not allow for complacency. Indeed, current figures of displacement are indicative also of the current disregard for existing rules, and of the imperative to do more to ensure that they be properly respected. The ICRC plays an important role in this regard, notably by reminding parties to a conflict of their obligations under humanitarian law.

Mr Chairman,

The above explains why the ICRC devotes a considerable part of its attention and resources to millions of internally displaced persons, in more than fifty countries across the world. However, this should in no way be seen as a shift away from its long-standing policy of seeking to help the civilian population as a whole, towards tending primarily to the needs of one group of victims. The ICRC has always had clear reservations in this regard. Thus, while a particular attention towards specific categories of civilians, such as displaced persons, can be warranted to better identify their particular needs, there can be no justification for ignoring the situation of others, such as residents who have remained trapped in dangerous zones, or who have been further impoverished by sharing their already meagre resources with those who arrive in total destitution.

A global, sustained, and holistic approach, geared towards the entire population is therefore required, to apprehend the overall situation, to better detect specific problems as they arise, and to respond in an impartial manner, so as to avoid discrimination between persons who find themselves in equal distress and danger.

Evidently, it would be preposterous for any organisation to claim that it could alone address the immense, complex, and durable consequences of armed conflicts. This has led the ICRC to actively cooperate with humanitarian partners, both through multilateral coordination mechanisms, such as the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, and through bilateral contacts with operational agencies, chief amongst which is UNHCR.

A few examples will serve to illustrate the many instances when we are called upon to cooperate. Thus, as regards the protection of refugees - for which UNHCR has a primary mandate - there are cases where ICRC also has a role to play, typically when refugees are caught up in a conflict zone, or when family members have been separated and need support to re-establish contact or reunite. Conversely, while the ICRC has a natural mandate wi th respect to internally displaced persons in situations of armed conflict, as it has for all civilians affected by such situations, there are instances where UNHCR extends its services to cover also their needs, for instance when refugees and internally displaced return to the same areas.

The above should suffice to indicate how there is an evident need for close consultations, to agree on an effective repartition of tasks, taking as a starting point the respective mandates conferred upon each of our institutions. We are pleased that such cooperation takes place on a daily basis, both in the field and at headquarters, to resolve questions of an operational nature. Our institutions have also regularly collaborated in the elaboration of policies and in standard-setting, most recently in the context of the Global Consultation on International Protection, where the ICRC has been associated with the preparation and follow-up to the " Agenda for Protection " . A forthcoming juncture will be the conference organised by the ICRC on the missing, for which we count on UNHCR's active participation and insights.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.