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United Nations Decade of International Law

18-11-1996 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly 51st session, Sixth Committee, Agenda item 145. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) New York, 18 November 1996

Mr. Chairman,

On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), I should like to thank you for giving me the floor to make a few remarks on the subject of the United Nations Decade of International Law. As you are aware, the ICRC has always lent, and will continue to lend, its support to the Decade's programme, the main objectives of which are closely associated with its own efforts to promote, disseminate and bring about respect for international humanitarian law.

Since its address to this Committee last year, the ICRC has continued its work to clarify the content of humanitarian law and ensure that it continue to be adapted to the conditions of modern warfare, placing particular emphasis on the applicability of international humanitarian law to United Nations peace-keeping and enforcement operations, on rules applicable to war at sea, and on the prohibition of anti-personnel mines and blinding laser weapons. The ICRC has also set up an Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law, which States may consult for guidance on any measure pertaining to the national implementation of humanitarian law. In addition, the ICRC has increased its endeavours and improved its methods for the dissemination of and training in international humanitarian law; it has, among other things, opened a World Wide Web site on the Internet.

In accordance with General Assembly resolution 50/44, the information I have just mentioned was conveyed to the Secretary-General and appears in his report on the Decade. However, I should like to take this opportunity to outline some of the points raised in that report, especially those concerning ICRC activities for the progressive devel opment and promotion of humanitarian law.

Mr. Chairman,

Efforts have been made to spread knowledge of the Guidelines for military manuals and instructions on the protection of the environment in times of armed conflict , concentrating in particular on helping States to promote broad circulation of their content and to consider the possibility of incorporating them in their respective military instruction manuals, as invited by General Assembly resolution 49/50.

In addition, the ICRC has been developing a model manual for the armed forces on the law of armed conflicts, which is primarily designed for use by senior officers with tactical responsibilities. The manual, which adopts a pragmatic and pedagogical approach, is meant to be a reference tool mainly for the military commander without legal background, thereby facilitating the incorporation of humanitarian law norms, including protection of the environment, in the operational decision-making process.

There has been much discussion lately about the unacceptable effects of anti-personnel mines. However, not much has been said about their negative impact on the environment. In this context, the ICRC fully supports the opinion that landmines may be one of the most widespread, lethal and long-lasting forms of pollution the world has yet encountered. Indeed, these weapons render large tracts of land dangerous and unusable for decades after the end of conflicts, in turn intensifying the use and environmental degradation of other available land. The denial of access to l and and river areas often results in significant economic disruption, and increased hunger and disease in the countries affected. The ICRC seizes this opportunity to reiterate its support for a total ban on the production, stockpiling, transfer and use of anti-personnel landmines.

Mr. Chairman,

The major challenge facing international humanitarian law today is implementation. There is a particularly blatant contrast between the highly developed rules of humanitarian law, many of which enjoy universal acceptance, and their repeated violations in conflicts around the world. The first Periodical Meeting of States Party to the Geneva Conventions, to be convened by Switzerland, the depository thereof, will consider some of the general problems confronting the application of international humanitarian law. I shall focus today on two aspects of implementation: first, the development of new mechanisms to ensure respect by repressing violations of international humanitarian law, and second, new ways of improving national implementation of international norms.

The ICRC is highly interested and actively involved in the recent developments regarding the repression of war crimes , a matter directly related to the implementation of international humanitarian law. In this context, the creation of the two ad hoc Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia was welcomed by the ICRC.

Nevertheless, the ICRC strongly believes that the creation of the Tribunals should be only a part of a process that will hopefully culminate in the establishment of an independent and impartial permanent criminal court. In addition, the ICRC would like to repeat its wish to see a definition of war crimes which would include violations committed during non-international armed conflicts.

Mr. Chairman,

The problem of translating States'international obligations into national laws and regulations is common to all areas of international law. Accordingly, the promotion of national implementation measures has been a long-standing concern of the ICRC, which decided to improve its capacity to that effect by creating a new unit within its Legal Division, the International Humanitarian Law Advisory Service . These efforts were endorsed by the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (Geneva, December 1995).

The Advisory Service, which became operational in early 1996, has a decentralized structure. Besides a team working at ICRC headquarters, it comprises a number of lawyers assigned to ICRC delegations around the world. This decentralized structure is essential, because knowledge of local needs and conditions is of paramount importance. The service, which is working in close cooperation with governments, is designed to raise awareness of the need for implementing measures, provide specialist advice and promote an exchange of information and experience. The specific requirements of States and their respective political and legal systems are always taken into account.

In its first ten months of activity, the service has been able to assist the authorities of more than ten countries in drafting laws for the repression of war crimes and the protection of the emblem of the red cross or red crescent.

Since the beginning of the year, 14 national seminars on national implementation have been organized world-wide in order to exchange views with the national authorities on ways and means of achieving complete implementation. Last month, an important meeting on National Commissions for the Implementation of International Humanitarian Law was held in Ge neva. As an outcome of this meeting, some guidelines will be drawn up on the structure and working methods of these proposed bodies.

The ICRC has considered for some time that further clarification was needed of the rules applicable to situations insufficiently or not at all covered by treaty law. Following the recommendation by the Intergovernmental Group of Experts for the Protection of War Victims, the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent gave the ICRC the task of preparing, with the assistance of experts representing various geographical regions and legal systems, and in consultation with experts from governments and international organizations, a report on customary rules of international humanitarian law applicable in international and non-international armed conflicts. A first meeting took place in June 1996 between the ICRC and legal experts, and the study is now in progress.

The ICRC takes this opportunity to voice the hope that Governments will lend their support to this demanding project which, in our opinion, falls squarely within the framework of the Decade of International Law.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Ref. UN(1996)35,b