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Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe: Seventh Meeting of the Ministerial Council

03-12-1998 Statement

Written contribution by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Oslo, 2 and 3 December 1998

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) thanks the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the participating States for inviting it once again to attend the Ministerial Council and to submit a written contribution. The ICRC welcomes the gradual strengthening of its relations with the OSCE, particularly as regards human dimension issues. Indeed, it regularly takes part in meetings organized by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which are a most appropriate forum for conveying its concerns, activities and plans.

In the ICRC's view, there are three major challenges facing governments, international and non-governmental organizations and civil society in the current environment in which humanitarian action takes place. Firstly, the international community must share responsibility in this sphere. Secondly, it is necessary to reaffirm the relevance of international humanitarian law if we are to deal with the problems arising from large-scale displacement caused by violence. And thirdly, there is a need for effective coordination of humanitarian endeavour.

Decisive action must be taken in three specific areas. To begin with, the individuals and population groups concerned must receive effective protection against violation of their rights, in particular to prevent them from being forced to flee their homes. There is also the burden of assisting asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons, which must be shared equitably, while steps need to be taken to ensure their safety and dignity, both during their exile and after they return home. Finally, lasting solutions must be found to the problems facing these people.

The emergence of conflicts whose very purpose is to exterminate an ethnic or other population group and in which the most appalling crimes - including attacks on humanitarian workers - are committed as part of a military strategy threatens to result in wars that are waged pitilessly, without the slightest rules. This is unacceptable. The atrocities and lesser excesses perpetrated against refugees, displaced people and other civilian victims of conflict, particularly women and children, and against persons captured or imprisoned clearly demonstrate the need to reaffirm that everyone - bearers of weapons and unarmed individuals  alike - must respect the universal humanitarian principles.

In this connection, it should be recalled that the four Geneva Conventions, which have been ratified by 188 States, including all the OSCE participating States, have a common provision, namely Article 3, which applies to non-international armed conflicts. For its part, Protocol II additional to the Geneva Conventions, which develops and refines the rules set out in Article  3, is now binding on 144 States, including 48 OSCE participating States. This treaty lays down rules protecting all persons not or no longer engaged in hostilities and enshrines the right to impartial assistance for all those affected by the fighting.

In view of the scale of the suffering endured by the victims, however, it is crucial to determine whether international humanitarian law and humanitarian action are in fact adequate for meeting the needs of those caught up in armed conflicts. The ICRC, which has a mandate to promote compliance with humanitarian law, places special emphasis on the development of more effective mechanisms for implementing this body of law.

For example, the ICRC is actively engaged in promoting worldwide endorsement of the Statute of the new International Criminal Court, adopted last July in Rome. The International Court, which will compleme nt national judiciaries, represents an important means of enhancing implementation of humanitarian law, as it has jurisdiction over a large number of war crimes, including those committed in civil wars. An active role on the part of the Court should help bring the current reign of impunity to an end.

It should further be mentioned that the States party to the Geneva Conventions were invited by Switzerland, which is the depositary of these treaties, to a meeting in January this year to discuss means of implementing international humanitarian law. Another meeting of experts was held last October to examine problems in implementing the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The ICRC is, moreover, carrying out a major study on customary international law, with a view to ascertaining which internationally recognized customary rules apply in non-international armed conflicts. The study is due to be completed in 1999.

In addition, the organization is closely concerned with other issues, such as the protection of women and children caught up in armed conflicts, the problem of displaced persons, ethnic and anarchic conflicts, the protection of humanitarian personnel, forced disappearances, terrorism, mercenarism, economic sanctions, rules relating to peace-keeping forces, the fundamental humanitarian rules, compensation for victims of violations of the law, and new weapons.

The ICRC is also continuing to study the serious problems stemming from the unregulated proliferation of light weapons, which all too often results in violations of humanitarian law and heavy civilian casualties. In particular, it followed the work done on the subject in Oslo. It is, moreover, actively promoting adherence to the Convention banning anti-personnel mines, done in Oslo and opened for signature in Ottawa. The treaty will enter into force on 1 March 1999.

The ICRC in fact works continuously to promote adherence to all humanitarian law treaties and the adoption by all States of legislation and other measures aimed at implementing humanitarian law at the domestic level. Its Advisory Service on international humanitarian law provides governments with technical advice as to the most effective means of meeting their crucial obligation to implement the law.

Several events in 1999 will afford opportunities to promote international humanitarian law. The 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions and the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which will be attended by the States party to the Conventions, are among the most significant.

It is the ICRC's hope that all these initiatives will lead to a mobilization on the part of the world's States, which are duty bound to respect and ensure respect for humanitarian rules. The OSCE participating States have clearly manifested their intention to do so in the Code of Conduct on Politico-Military Aspects of Security, several paragraphs of which oblige States to take steps to promote knowledge of those rules, in particular among the armed forces, and to ensure that they are implemented. The ICRC further hopes that the draft Charter for European Security will take the humanitarian rules into account where necessary.

Among the crisis situations in which the ICRC and the OSCE are active at present, special mention should be made of the situation in Kosovo. The ICRC has been working in the region since 1989, and in March the following year it started visiting security detainees held in connection with the disturbances in Kosovo, in the then Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It established a permanent presence in the country in 1991, with the opening of its delegation in Belgrade. In view of the unrest in Kosovo, early this year the ICRC expanded the set-up it has maintained there since 1991.

Pursuant to the Sevill e Agreement on the Organization of the International Activities of the Components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the ICRC has taken on the role of lead agency in directing and coordinating the Movement's international relief operation. It maintains an ongoing dialogue with the Yugoslav authorities and the representatives of the Albanian community with a view to finding the most appropriate humanitarian response to the crisis. It therefore places special emphasis on ensuring the physical safety of ethnic Albanians and Serbs who do not, or no longer, take part in armed confrontation, particularly unarmed civilians, detainees and the wounded. It is also doing its utmost to establish the conditions required for medical personnel to work without any political pressure. In other parts of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia the ICRC conducts its activities in cooperation with the Yugoslav Red Cross, which it supports together with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

In recent weeks the ICRC has been in close contact with the OSCE regarding the situation in Kosovo, with a view to clarifying the two organizations'respective mandates and to setting up the necessary consultation mechanisms. It appreciates the attention and understanding it has received in this regard and is very pleased to be able to contribute in various ways to the training of Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) staff.

Ref. LG 1998-104-ENG