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Opening statement by ICRC president, Jakob Kellenberger

26-11-2007 Statement

30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva, 26 to 30 November 2007.

As humanitarians, and as partners in humanitarian work, we join together in the Conference opening today to seek ways of better protecting and assisting the victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence, of providing them with a certain measure of security and of safeguarding their dignity. These are the areas in which the International Committee of the Red Cross has a particular commitment and would like to make its own contribution. But the ICRC is also concerned about other issues this Conference will raise, namely environmental degradation, pandemics, international migration and mounting violence in cities, and is eager to make itself useful in these areas as well.

To say that these topics are complex is no idle pronouncement. Their complexity requires diverse and in some cases multidisciplinary measures. The approach of the Movement’s components is clear: they endeavour to make communities less vulnerable to these humanitarian problems and to help them to cope with the consequences by putting to best use the contributions of each component, complementing the efforts of others, so as to avert or alleviate suffering. The motto of this Conference, “Together for humanity,” here acquires its full meaning. Given the global challenges we face, good cooperation among all participants, including States, is indispensable to face them successfully. Addressing the challenges also requires financial means and therefore solidarity proportionate with the resources of each member of the international community.

Among the topics, there is one which is not completely new but appears for the first time in a prominent way on the agenda of a meeting of the International Conference of the Red Cross and R ed Crescent, the issue of international migration. Tomorrow’s debate should enable us to better distinguish its various forms. It is, after all, impossible to put into a single category the many kinds of people wanting or needing to move from one country to another – or indeed even the needs of these people. Migrants do, however, have certain things in common, such as their suffering, the separation from family members, the difficulty of adapting to a new environment, and the want of security on many different levels. Not infrequently, the people concerned receive insufficient protection even though many rules of human rights law and refugee law are applicable. It is important, then, to see to it that the rules are enforced, with humanity and creativity, and to aid migrants in difficulty, whatever their legal status, especially when they are deprived of their liberty.

The protection and assistance of people displaced within their own countries as a result of armed conflict is a special concern of the ICRC. To quote the slogan used by the ICRC in its campaign to draw attention to displaced people in Colombia, displacement is " not just about leaving home – it’s about losing everything.” In Colombia, Somalia, Sudan and Chad, in Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Philippines, Lebanon and Yemen, to give just a few examples, the ICRC provides needed aid for displaced people, often in areas where other organizations do not venture for security reasons. It is useful to recall that the aim of much of international humanitarian law is to protect the civilian population, which clearly includes displaced people in conflict situations. There is no void in the law in this area. Furthermore, if international humanitarian law were complied with, the civilian population would be protected and spared; there would then be no or less reason for them to leave their homes as a consequence of the armed conflict. The ICRC therefore attempts to tackle the problem at its source, i.e. by doing everything it can to head off displacement, in particular by aiding resident populations, including in areas that are difficult to reach. Whenever security conditions allow, the return of displaced people to their villages and communities should be supported. In this area as in others, the priority, in legal and political terms, consists in having the determination and in taking the necessary steps to bring about full compliance with international humanitarian law.

Population movements involve the splitting up of families, which is a matter of acute humanitarian concern and one of the most tragic consequences of armed conflict and many other disastrous situations. The respect for the family unit is part of respect for human dignity. A person’s well-being depends to a large extent on the ability to maintain links with close relatives, or at least to stay informed about what has happened to them. The ICRC will step up its efforts to help people who are without news of their loved ones. A few years ago, it launched a worldwide initiative aiming to boost the capacity of the components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to restore family links. The strategy it developed for that purpose has just been adopted by the Council of Delegates. In the coming years, the ICRC will implement this strategy both by reinforcing its own operational capacity in the various tasks involved in restoring family links and by supporting that of the National Societies. It also hopes to be able to count on support from governments, which have important responsibilities in this area.

The ICRC’s work is focused on all people adversely affected by armed conflict, including, in addition to dispersed families, those remaining in areas where hostilities rage on, and detainees of all kinds. The ICRC is also carrying on with its efforts to meet the special needs of assistance and protection of women afflicted by war. These are but a few of its worldwide activities, with which you are well acquainted. Many of these activities are carried out in partnership with the National Societies of the countries plagued by armed conflict.

The ICRC is already very active in the area of health, such as in preventive and curative services. Nevertheless it intends in the coming years to boost its capacity to provide high-quality health services in general and medical care in particular. To complement its existing skills applicable in emergency situations like surgery, the ICRC will deepen its understanding of health-care systems, epidemiologic analysis and basic care, and its knowledge of public-health matters in prisons and of hospital management.

The ICRC’s involvement and commitment extend beyond its protection and assistance activities. It is also seeking to rally States to ensure respect for international humanitarian law by imposing greater control over arms exports, and to ban the use of certain particularly cruel weapons such as anti-personnel mines and inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions. The ICRC is very concerned about the high number of civilians wounded or killed after hostilities have ended and about the indiscriminate effects of cluster munitions, in particular when they are used against military objectives in areas where there is a concentration of civilians. I therefore consider it vital and urgent to adopt an international treaty prohibiting the use, development, production, stockpiling and transfer of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions and providing for victim assistance and the clearance of unexploded cluster munitions.

Unfortunately, the discussions at the annual meeting of the States party to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which has just ended, did not result in a sufficient basis for achieving this objective in spite of the efforts undertaken. Therefore, as indicated in the Council of Delegates resolution adopted two days ago, the ICRC urges governments that support the Oslo Declaration to continue their efforts to conclude in 2008 a treaty prohibiting the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. The States party to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons should continue their efforts and work towards adoption of legally binding rules on cluster munitions.

To be sure, war has never been a simple matter and humanitarian endeavour has always had to face important challenges. It is no different in conflicts and other situations of violence today. Their diversity and complexity, the interrelation between local, regional and global events and developments, the sheer numbers of entities committing violence, the shifts in short-term alliances, and the atrocity of certain acts draw attention to the continuing importance of humanitarian work guided exclusively by the needs of those afflicted by armed conflict.

Three things need to be added to what I have just said. First, the fragility of many situations in transition between war and peace, involving episodic armed violence or a chronic lack of security, hinders or prevents any real effort aiming at reconstruction and development. Second, a number of situations of internal violence in contexts of poverty, social and economic inequality, strong demographic growth and surging urbanization contribute to the emergence of new forms of armed violence, especially in urban settings, and to increased migration. Third, a rise in the frequency and impact of natural disasters, to some of which climate change is contributing, has aggravated the risk of pandemics in unstable situations and armed conflicts.

Humanitarian activities may run the risk of being exploited or marginalised in connection with political or military actions taken by others. Exploitation occurs when parties to a conflict want to incorporate all humanitarian endeavours into a political strategy – at any cost. Cl early, the ICRC’s exclusively humanitarian, independent and neutral manner of meeting victims’ needs is not the only way of addressing the vast needs of a population afflicted by years of conflict. I acknowledge the importance and merit of other approaches in the areas of security, education and health. But the independence of an organization like the ICRC, its determination and, to a large extent, its ability to remain in contact with all sides in a conflict often allow it to reach areas which others do not enter, and make it in addition a useful and sometimes unique intermediary in humanitarian matters between those involved in an armed conflict. In 2007 alone, the ICRC played this role in Afghanistan, Colombia, Ethiopia, Niger and Sudan.

Diverse situations require diverse responses: this also holds true in humanitarian matters. The important thing, then, is to make sure that there is genuine and realistic coordination, based on the human and logistical resources actually available on the ground and taking into account clear priorities in terms of the contexts in which action must be taken. Rhetoric must never disguise any inability to take action and must not deceive those in need of protection and assistance.

I should also refer here to the work and responsibilities of the National Societies. In many armed-conflict situations, the National Society of the country affected is a vital ICRC partner. The independence of the National Society must also be safeguarded. That is why it is so important to clarify the National Societies’ role as auxiliaries, which is also a topic on the Conference agenda. In particular, the clarification must lead to a better understanding of what is meant in concrete terms by the duty of States to respect at all times the adherence by all the components of the Movement to the Fundamental Principles, in particular to that of the National Societies’ independence.

Marginalization of humanitarian law, or even its exclusion, may occur if might prevails over all else. International humanitarian law is the appropriate solution in the quest for a realistic balance between military imperative and respect for human dignity. International humanitarian law is not the product of naive or unrealistic thinking. The distinction between combatants and civilians, which, as we know, is difficult to establish in every case, remains important, as does respect for the principle of precaution and proportionality in the conduct of hostilities. Humanitarian law is realistic and necessary. It must be known and respected.

It is not easy to determine with accuracy the factors that strengthen or weaken respect for international humanitarian law. Among positive factors, I would like to mention heightened awareness of this body of international law among the general public. In addition, the Geneva Conventions have achieved universal acceptance. Nearly half of all States have explicitly adopted provisions implementing the Conventions and, where appropriate, their Additional Protocols, at the national level.

In terms of challenges for international humanitarian law, you will not be surprised, to hear me say once again that today’s conflicts are for the most part non-international and that the treaty-based law applying to these situations is inadequate. The ICRC has organized several round tables at regional level devoted in large measure to increasing respect for IHL in non-international armed conflicts. Subsequently it has issued a publication on ways of improving compliance with international humanitarian law in these conflicts, which you will find with the report on the challenges for humanitarian law prepared by the ICRC for this Conference. In addition, the study carried out by the ICRC these past years on customary humanitarian law demonstrated that, in practice, many rules relating to international armed conflict are deemed applicable to non-international armed-conflict situations. This is a very positive observation, but we must further examine and reflect on the need to clarify or supplement codified law in the light of contemporary armed conflict.

It has to be recognized that today’s armed conflicts present a certain number of challenges involving a legal dimension. So-called asymmetrical conflicts, while not being the only situation in which violations of humanitarian law can occur, provide a good illustration of one of these challenges. In a strongly asymmetric power relationship, the party perceiving itself to be militarily weaker may be tempted to contravene humanitarian law systematically so as to compensate for this real or imagined weakness. The stronger party may then, in turn, decide not to comply with its obligations or at least to take them less seriously. In this kind of situation, which can lead to a downward spiral of reciprocity or – worse – to a denial, pure and simple, of humanitarian law, it should be pointed out forcefully that parties to a conflict have the same obligations and may not invoke reciprocity as an argument for not fulfilling them. This principle is at the very heart of humanitarian law. Rejecting it would have disastrous consequences for that body of law and for the people suffering the effects of conflict. Accordingly, everything possible must be undertaken to ensure that humanitarian law is complied with in practice by all parties to conflict.

Similarly, the phenomenon that I call, for want of a better name, the systematic criminalization of the adversary could also weaken humanitarian law. In an armed conflict, to see the adversary only as a criminal or even as a terrorist, to fail to recognize that, because he is involved in an armed struggle, the adversary is himself bound by a certain number of rules, to take away from him so to speak his rights and duties as a combatant – all of this can result in his being pushed even further in his lack of compliance with humanitarian law. Ever y combatant has duties and therefore also a certain number of rights. I insist here in particular on the obligations, such as those set out in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. I believe it is important to reiterate this point at the beginning of a Conference that will, I hope, reaffirm the importance of humanitarian law and of paying constant attention to respect for the fundamental guarantees protecting individuals set out within that body of law.

Terrorism, however, like the organized fight against it, has prompted new thinking on the scope and application of international humanitarian law and of other bodies of law. The report on challenges for the law that the ICRC is presenting at this Conference devotes extensive passages to it, especially in connection with the fundamental guarantees protecting detainees. It should be pointed out that humanitarian law is not the only – or, in general, even the first – legal instrument to turn to in addressing terrorism. We know that it is forbidden under humanitarian law to commit any terrorist act during an armed conflict. But terrorism goes well beyond the scope of armed conflict – the only situation in which humanitarian law is applicable – and it is by means of other legal instruments and by yet other means – political, financial and law enforcement – that it must be addressed. These instruments and means do not come within the mission of the ICRC or, more generally, of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

International humanitarian law remains an apt instrument for addressing the challenges of contemporary conflict. Apt does not mean perfect, or clear about everything. There are things that need to be clarified, especially in connection with the conduct of hostilities. There is also a great deal that still needs to be done in terms of ratifying existing international instruments and implementing them at the national level. The greatest challenge for States, and more generally for those involved in situations of armed violence, remains the effective application of international humanitarian law, including prosecutions and sanctions in the event that its rules are violated. I appeal especially to States, all of which are party to the Geneva Conventions and are thus bound to respect and ensure respect for the Conventions in all circumstances.

I have spoken of humanitarian law as of an instrument for granting a certain measure of security to persons not, or no longer, taking part in hostilities. Human security – the security of each individual – ought to be our concern in the other discussions we will have together as well. Respect for human dignity, respect for humanitarian law and respect for human rights are in my opinion long-term investments in security. This is also the way in which the notion of protection, which the ICRC places at the centre of its activities, should be understood, i.e. as a multitude of activities intended to induce public authorities and other entities to fulfil their obligations in terms of the security, well-being and dignity of persons adversely affected by armed conflicts or other situations of violence. By standing up for the victims against the dangers and abuses of power to which they may be exposed, and by stepping in with tangible aid, the ICRC is committed to championing their rights, relieving their suffering, and preserving or restoring their dignity.

This commitment, along with respect for the essential elements of an international community that is considerate of each individual is representative of values that I would like to see this Conference share.

The ICRC will remain an active component of the Movement as a network grounded in solidarity in which each component, in accordance with its responsibility and capacities, is expected to carry out its humanitarian work, with full respect for the Fundamental Principles, in favour of all those in need of protection and assistance.

Thank you.