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

31-10-1996 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly 51st session, Third Committee, Agenda item 105 – Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – New York, 31 October 1996

Madam Chairperson,

The exodus of entire populations remains an all too frequent occurrence in today's world. It can be attributed to a wide variety of causes - serious social and economic imbalances, large-scale violations of human rights arising from struggles for power, and above all upheavals engendered by war. Situations of armed conflict are precisely the context in which the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been mandated to provide protection and assistance to the people affected, without discrimination.

Among the countless war victims whom the ICRC seeks to help are persons displaced within their own countries. At this very moment the organization is conducting operations in aid of vast numbers of internally displaced persons on the African continent, in the Caucasus - particularly the northern Caucasus in the Russian Federation - and in countries like Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, to quote the most striking examples. And how can we fail to mention the tragic situation in the Great Lakes region of Africa, where even work of humanitarian agencies is now being hampered?

Alongside its operational activities, the ICRC is contributing to the ongoing debate at the legal level. In this connection we should like to underscore the quality of the "Compilation and Analysis of Legal Norms" protecting internally displaced persons, which the Representative of the Secretary-General, Mr. Francis Deng, has submitted to the Commission on Human Rights. We agree with him that existing international law on the whole affords suitable protection for the internally displaced, although certain specific aspe cts thereof, such as the right to safe return and the question of the restitution of property, should be more clearly defined. The document that is currently being drawn up is both a reminder and a reaffirmation of the principles of protection and should thus also help to clarify needs in that area.

Madam Chairperson,

The fact is, however, that the crux of the problem lies not in the lack of legal provisions, but in a manifest failure to implement the existing rules of humanitarian and human rights law.

International humanitarian law is particularly important where population movements are concerned. Indeed, it serves to protect civilians affected by armed conflict, who obviously include displaced persons. More important still, respect for that law should make it possible to prevent a large number of population movements, since the many violations of humanitarian rules are the principal cause of the exodus of entire populations. Another crucial point to bear in mind is that humanitarian law expressly prohibits forced displacement.

Parties to conflict - government authorities and armed opposition groups alike - must therefore make a special effort to achieve greater compliance with the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977. To reach that goal, it is essential to spread knowledge of humanitarian law among the armed forces in peacetime and to adopt national legislation providing in particular for the repression of war crimes.

And how can we fail to draw attention in this forum to the international responsibility of all the States that have undertaken to ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols?

The Geneva Conventions have long achieved universal recognition, with 188 States party to these treaties. On the other hand, more States should agree to declare themselves bound by the Additional Protocols. Admittedly there has been significant progress in this regard, as 146 States are now party to Protocol I and 138 to Protocol II.

Madam Chairperson,

Better knowledge and more effective implementation of the law in themselves already constitute a preventive effort that should help to reduce the scale of population movements.

In this context, the Conference on the Commonwealth of Independent States held in Geneva a few months ago was a significant event, as its Programme of Action places emphasis on the prevention of displacement. The ICRC welcomes this initiative and stands ready to contribute, within the framework of its mandate, to the efforts being made by UNHCR, IOM and the OSCE to see that this Programme is implemented. The same goes for the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their International Federation. Indeed, the network of National Societies, with their excellent knowledge of local conditions, can efficiently carry out specific activities to that end.

The very topical question of the coordination of humanitarian action also lay at the centre of the Conference's debates. In the ICRC's opinion, coordination requires a closely concerted effort, first and foremost in the field ; it must rely on simple and flexible mechanisms, and the specific role and capacities of each organization must be taken into account, in a spirit of complementarity. The ICRC must nevertheless retain its independence in order to fulfil its mission, which implies having access to the victims on either side of front line s.

In this regard, the ICRC cannot but welcome the constructive dialogue it has developed with UNHCR in the field as well as at the headquarters of the two institutions.

Another matter that deserves special mention is the need to strengthen the link between emergency action and rehabilitation and development work. These different types of activity do not necessarily have to follow each other, but may be conducted simultaneously. The ICRC for its part tries to render the people it assists as self-sufficient as possible, while respecting local customs. Its health and agricultural rehabilitation programmes, and its projects for the distribution of fishing tackle and livestock vaccination are all directed towards that objective.

Madam Chairperson,

There is no doubt that the return home of displaced persons and the repatriation of refugees still remain the best of all lasting solutions. Yet these people must be able to go back of their own free will and the return process must take account of the often precarious situations prevailing in the areas of former residence. Arrangements must be made for the reception of returnees; security conditions must be acceptable and housing facilities decent. Without such preliminary steps, the risk of renewed strife would be all too real.

The existence of a properly functioning and independent judicial system and the restitution of property or fair compensation for the returnees will also help to stabilize this kind of situation.

In conclusion, Madam Chairperson, humanitarian action cannot in itself create the conditions conducive to the return home of refugees and displaced persons. The involvement of the international community in the search for solutions remains indispensable. On the other hand, humanitarian action must be conducted quite independently from political action, and political r esponsibilities must not be passed on to those involved in humanitarian tasks.

Thank you, Madam Chairperson.

 Ref. UN(1996)28,b