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Protecting and assisting internally displaced persons in situations of armed conflict

07-10-2005 Statement

56th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, address by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, 3-7 October 2005

Mr. Chairman,

On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), I would like to thank you for giving us the floor at this 56th Session of UNHCR's Executive Committee.

The ICRC wishes to take this opportunity to share with you some comments on its response to the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in times of armed conflict, and the way it coordinates with other humanitarian actors.

The ICRC has repeatedly underlined that international humanitarian law (IHL), which is legally binding on both state and non-state actors in situations of armed conflict, remains fully adequate to address the majority of problems of internal displacement associated with situations of armed conflict. As already mentioned by a number of speakers at this ExCom, primary responsibility for protecting and meeting the needs of IDPs in situations of armed conflict lies with the party to the conflict in whose hands they find themselves.

IDPs are not expressly mentioned in any instrument of IHL. However, provided that they do not take a direct part in hostilities, IDPs are civilians entitled to the full protection of IHL in a state experiencing armed conflict – be it international or non-international.

IHL operates to prevent displacement and to afford protection when displacement nevertheless occurs. Explicit prohibitions against the forcible displacement of civilians are found in both international and non-international armed conflicts. Violations of these prohibitions are war crimes under the Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Alongside this explicit prohibition are the numerous rules aimed to protect civilians from the effects of hostilities, such as the prohibitions on targeting civilians and civilian objects, or against indiscriminate attacks. If respected, these rules can prevent displacement in the first place. Moreover, IHL requires that parties to an armed conflict respect the integrity of protected persons, and meet their basic needs in terms of food, shelter and medical care.

Improving compliance with IHL remains an important challenge.

Mr. Chairman,

As a rule, the ICRC always tries to establish a permanent presence on the ground, as close as possible to the persons affected by armed conflicts and situations of internal disturbances. It does so in order to assess and understand their situation, and to monitor whether their rights are being respected and their needs fulfilled. Concentrating its priorities on the most vulnerable persons or groups, the ICRC endeavours to address their needs for protection and assistance according to the specificities of the situation. Faithful to its principle of impartiality, the ICRC does not base or limit its action to pre-defined categories of victims of conflict.

In 2005, the ICRC has carried out activities in favour of IDPs in more than 35 contexts worldwide, on many instances with Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies. These activities have sought to find a balance between cases where IDPs are best assisted and protected through targeted actions, and those where they are assisted and protected through more general efforts aimed at broader segments of the population. Major considerations underlying ICRC programs are to promote the self-reliance of affected communities, to ensure that existing coping mechanisms used by IDPs are preserved in order to avoid increasing the disparities between various segments of the population, or to facilitate return if the circumstances allow.

The ICRC has at its disposal a broad range of means, skills and competences that it can mobilise according to its objectives and operational strategies in a given context, combining modes of action that range from:

  1. reminding the authorities of their responsibilities through persuasion;

  2. the provision of support to these authorities;

  3. substitution when the relevant authorities are unable or unwilling to meet the needs of IDPs;

  4. mobilisation of third parties;

  5. public denunciation in exceptional circumstances.

Mr. Chairman,

Given the size and scope of the issues at hand, no single humanitarian agency can respond alone to the needs for protection and assistance to IDPs. Humanitarian coordination is therefore a tool through which the ICRC systematically pools efforts with other humanitarian organizations.

Coordination must aim to meet all the needs of those affected by conflict by promoting complementary roles among humanitarian organizations, for example avoiding duplications or gaps. As humanitarian coordination is never an end in itself, only a reality-based and action-oriented coordination can fulfil this condition.    

As mentioned by a number of speakers at this ExCom, the ICRC has its own mandate and its specific mode of operation. The ICRC will continue to follow with interest the reforms of the UN humanitarian system and to take part in the discussion within the framework of the institutional and operational coordination mechanisms which it is part of. Based on the mandate given to it by the States party to the Geneva Conventions, and in its role of lead agency of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in times of armed conflict, the ICRC reaffirms its commitment to reinforce the principle of " complementarity "  and will continue to contribute to this reform according to its specificities.

Mr. Chairman,

As already stated in past ExCom, UNHCR and the ICRC have long enjoyed a close relationship based on their common determination to uphold standards of protection and operational principles. The connection between our two institutions is firmly anchored in their historical and legal aspirations to improve the plight of millions of persons who need assistance and protection. The ICRC looks forward to continue with the new High Commissioner a relationship that has strengthened throughout the years our two organizations'mutual understanding and respect.

I thank you for your time.