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The protection of civilians in armed conflict

12-02-1999 Statement

United Nations Security Council, 3977th meeting. Statement by Dr. Cornelio Sommaruga, President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 12 February 1999

I should like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak here today. This is clear evidence of the complementarity that exists between the Security Council's political action and the humanitarian, independent, impartial and neutral work of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

I am delighted to be able to say this. Just as I am delighted that a consensus emerged from your meeting on the 21st of January, when your guest was the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. We should take encouragement from the reaffirmation that political and humanitarian action need to follow clearly distinct paths. As we seek to fulfill our respective goals, we must all renew our efforts to protect and assist all those, in every part of the world, who are not, or are no longer, active participants in the conflicts which are devastating the planet and making victims of them.

Nonetheless, I feel obliged to echo certain concerns which were expressed here on the 21st of January. This interest in humanitarian affairs displayed by the Security Council, does it not mask a certain feeling of impotence at the magnitude of the task which confronts us? We all know that those organizations which are striving to deliver protection and assistance to victims of armed conflicts are unable to cope on their own with situations whose very size and extremely complex nature are beyond them.

The topic which I should like to address today, " the protection of civilians in armed conflicts " , is at the heart of our concerns. This year, during which the 50th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions will be commemorated, it is more crucial than ever that we reflect on this theme.

The ICRC is faced today with 20 open conflicts all around the world, in many of which civilians are the first and principal target. Women and children, the elderly, the sick, refugees and internally displaced persons have been attacked in large numbers and methodically driven from their homes. Every conceivable means, even the most abject, has been and is still being used against them.

Genocide, ethnic cleansing, attacks on humanitarian personnel and the repudiation of the principles of humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality have become increasingly prevalent. At the same time, the politicization, " instrumentalization " , and devaluation of humanitarian action are making it more difficult than ever for us to assist all victims. This insidious trend has been observable in the Great Lakes region, in West Africa, in the Balkans, in the Caucasus, and in certain Asian countries. The full horror of the consequences is familiar to us all. The unimaginable pain borne by the populations in these areas can leave none of us indifferent. Not only that, it compels us to take action on their behalf.

And then, as in the Caucasus, there are situations where neither war nor peace prevails and millions of people are unable to return to normal life. Driven from their homes, forced to live on whatever humanitarian aid trickles through to them, they have been waiting for years for a negotiated solution to put an end to their misery. The basic infrastructure required for daily living either does not exist or no longer works properly. The land cannot be cultivated because it is mined or too close to the front lines - or both. The political, economic and psychological consequences of these stalled conflict s must not be underestimated. They will ultimately lead to new cycles of violence whose principal victims will once again be civilians. If there is no sustained effort to make peace, the slide back into war seems inevitable. We need only think of the recent return to hostilities in Angola or between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

When negotiations are getting nowhere it takes a lot to convert a cease-fire into lasting peace. And the same tragic situation could easily be repeated tomorrow in another part of the globe.

Furthermore, there are conflicts where humanitarian action has always been or has recently become impossible because governments or other parties to the fighting see humanitarian aid as interference in their internal affairs or as dictated by political concerns. Worse still, the presence of humanitarian organizations is sometimes refused so that there will be no witnesses to mass slaughter. In such cases, humanitarian workers are no longer seen as bringers of help but as unwelcome observers.

Sadly, the same workers are more and more frequently prevented from doing their job when they themselves come under serious assault. There is no question of our becoming resigned to such incidents, in which so many people engaged in humanitarian endeavour have been injured or even killed, because these incidents, too, are serious violations of international humanitarian law. I have said this many times before, and I wish to reiterate it here and now: such conduct is wholly unacceptable. This point cannot be made often enough to all those concerned, just as they need to be reminded that the protective emblems of the red cross and red crescent must be respected at all costs.

The 21st of January, in this Council, the importance of basing humanitarian work on the principle of impartiality was rightly underlined. Humanitarian assistance cannot be used as an instrument for bringing political pressure on any party to a con flict or for supporting just one side. It is indeed my wholehearted conviction that humanitarian work is most effective when free of all political bias. The ICRC took this stance in Somalia. It is taking the same stance in Afghanistan, where our institution, with the support of numerous National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, is the only international agency reaching out to all victims in every part of the country. The same is true in Sri Lanka and Congo-Brazzaville, to name just a few examples.

To conclude this part of my intervention, I believe that it is also important to consider the phenomenon of economic globalization and the privatization of tasks which were previously the responsibility of individual States. These factors too have brought about new situations and raised several burning issues. What, for example, are the duties of economic groups which raise security forces to protect their own interests? What political responsibilities do States have when such economic groups encroach on their areas of jurisdiction? There is no easy answer to these questions, but it must be recognized that the authority of the State and the notion of collective security, which is a cornerstone of the Charter of the United Nations, are dangerously weakened by such developments. In this connection I welcome the fact that Secretary-General Kofi Annan is calling economic players not to remain indifferent to the problems caused by this new state of affairs, as I did it at several occasions.

These rather pessimistic observations must not be a cause for gloom. On the contrary, they are a reminder that the ICRC, notwithstanding the difficulties, is able each day to offer protection and assistance to hundreds of thousands of people. They should also give us pause for thought on what can and must be done if the plight of civilians caught up in armed conflicts is to be alleviated. Allow me to look briefly at a few of these issues.

The St ates party to the Geneva Conventions have undertaken in common Article 1 to respect the Conventions and to ensure their respect.

This article is in every way the primary expression of the respect due to those who are not, or who are no longer, taking an active part in hostilities. While it is addressed to the individual States party to the Conventions, it also concerns their collective action under the auspices of the Security Council.

The early 1990s saw more and more instances of peace-keeping forces being deployed by the United Nations or regional organizations. Despite the many intrinsic advantages of such interventions, it is my view that they have sometimes led, as a political, military and humanitarian amalgam, to a certain amount of confusion. They have also demonstrated how crucial it is to make peace-keepers familiar with the relevant principles of human rights and international humanitarian law. A Secretary-General'bulletin on the observance of international humanitarian law by members of UN forces has been prepared by the Office of Legal Affairs jointly with the ICRC. I hope that it can be promulgated before the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions.

You will agree that this is just as much a legal as an ethical issue. Legal, because of the undertakings of the States party to the Geneva Conventions. Ethical, because troops deployed by the United Nations are required to set an example by scrupulously complying with international law. In order to respect and to ensure respect for the law, one must first understand it. Through its programme of dissemination to the armed forces, the ICRC has for many years been training and raising awareness among those who bear arms all over the world. It has been doing the same for civilian populations, with a particular emphasis on targeting young people.

What is needed, then, is to remind all States and all parties to conflicts, of their du ty to protect civilians from the effects of war. And we must not overlook the major responsibility of the Security Council in this domain.

If the principles of humanitarian action are to be fully respected, aid workers must have access to people affected by conflicts. Where these people are also suffering from economic sanctions imposed on their country, caution must be exercised. Nothing can justify punishing an entire population for its government's misdeeds. It is not ICRC's place to comment on the use of economic sanctions per se; however, it is duty-bound - a duty which it has frequently carried out - to request exemptions to sanctions so that needy populations can receive humanitarian assistance. I am in full agreement with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who has said that sanctions are known on occasion to have tragic consequences for civilian populations. The ICRC welcomes the fact that the Security Council has instructed its Sanctions Committees to examine the humanitarian impact of sanctions on the most vulnerable groups.

The ICRC's 1999 operational budget is marginally lower than last year's. This fall is no cause for celebration, since it does not indicate that the needs of populations in conflict zones have declined. On the contrary, it is caused by the fact that, in a number of conflicts where our work and our principles are rejected out of hand, as is the case in Sierra Leone, the ICRC is finding it increasingly difficult to gain access to the victims whom it seeks to protect and assist. What is more, far too little political attention is being given to conflicts in certain parts of Africa and Asia.

We must take care to avoid classifying victims as " good " or " bad " . It may seem self-evident, and yet we must constantly bear in mind one basic fact: irrespective of where a given conflict is taking place, there will always be human beings who are suffering and who r equire protection and assistance.

It still happens rather too frequently that the principles of humanitarian law are flouted on the basis of their supposed interference with the pursuit of certain military goals. And yet the law was set in place by governments, who often exploit it to reassert their moral authority: it is therefore their duty to comply with it.

The bottom line for any action by humanitarian organizations is that it must have received the consent of each and every party concerned.

This is why the ICRC seeks to establish, maintain and consolidate close contacts with all belligerents, both government forces and otherwise. The purpose is to engage them in constructive dialogue as to their duty to respect the rights of protected persons. It is therefore very disturbing to note that there is an ever greater tendency to demonize the enemy. This is dangerous and makes the work of humanitarian organizations even more hazardous and problematic. Once again, our activity must not be influenced by partisan interests; we must aim to serve only those people towards whom we have an obligation : the victims.

There is a need to examine potential sources of conflict and take whatever measures are necessary before it is too late. I am convinced that conflicts can be prevented, if full compliance with human rights instruments can be guaranteed. The ICRC has neither a mandate nor the resources to devote itself to this task, but it is doing its humble best to promote the elementary rules of international humanitarian law and their core underlying principles among those who hold the key to the world's future - our children. The Executive Director of UNICEF and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children in Armed Conflicts will certainly address this topic later on.

I cannot close without recalling again that 1999 is the 50th anniversary of the si gning of the modern Geneva Conventions now ratified by 188 States. To mark the occasion, the ICRC has opted for a project involving the consultation of a large number of people caught up in conflicts. By speaking out, they should emphasize the fact that there are rules and that even wars have limits. I have no doubt that they will remind politicians and humanitarian players alike of their responsibilities.

The 12th of August 1999, which is the anniversary date, will be the ideal time to launch a call for humanitarian law to be strengthened. Though it may not be perfect, this law does exist and remains entirely valid.

Finally, this autumn in Geneva, the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent will give the whole Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and all the States party to the Geneva Conventions an opportunity to recommit themselves wholeheartedly to rules which are universally recognized.

What suffering civilians are expecting from us all is that we provide incontrovertible proof that all our declarations on the importance of and compliance with existing law are being translated into fact. " Res non verba " must be our motto. Let us leave to our children and our children's children the prospect of life in a world where greater justice prevails.

 Ref. EXSO 99.02.12-ENG