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Violence against women

13-04-1999 Statement

55th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Agenda item 12 - 13 April 1999, Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Madam Chair,

The title of the agenda item before us reflects a concern which lies at the heart of both international human rights law and humanitarian law, namely the fundamental principle of non-discrimination. As is well known, this principle prohibits differentiated treatment between persons in a similar situation, and, as a corollary, allows for different treatment where this is justified on objective and legitimate grounds.

The corresponding challenge for the ICRC, as a humanitarian organization governed by the principle of impartiality, independence and neutrality, is to ensure that all victims of armed conflict receive protection and assistance in accordance with their needs. With respect to women, this challenge is twofold; on the one hand, it consists of ensuring that women fully benefit from measures aimed at meeting the needs of the general population, and on the other hand, that specific steps be taken to help those with special needs. This in turn requires that the needs of all victims, including tho se of women, are known to our institution.

A number of recent conflicts are characterized by a blatant disrespect for elementary rules of international human rights and humanitarian law, in which civilians are deliberately targeted. As a result, millions of women suffer extreme hardship. It appears that their plight does not primarily result from a lack of humanitarian rules to protect them but rather from a failure to coherently interpret and implement existing rules. The multiple problems experienced call for a multi-faceted response, in which relevant actors have a responsibility, in accordance with their capacities, mandates and expertise not only to assist the victims, but also to impress upon the parties to a conflict the need to respect the law. The ICRC, for its part, seeks to promote implementation of international humanitarian law through an ongoing dialogue with the relevant authorities and all the parties involved, insisting in this respect on the need for the institution to carry out its work in a non-discriminatory fashion.

The ICRC welcomes the clarification of the law in the International Criminal Court Statute with regard to sexual violence in its different manifestations. The fact that these crimes fall under the jurisdiction of the Court, also when committed in non-international armed conflicts, should also help combat impunity.

Important as it is, sexual violence is but one of the multiple problems faced by women affected by armed conflict. Although progress has been made to better analyze their situation, notably through the work of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, much remains to be done. As we know, women are often called upon to assume new roles in periods of armed conflict. Frequently, in addition to their traditional tasks, they have to assume full responsibility for the survival of their family, when the men have left to participate in the armed co nflict, been killed, or simply disappeared. Not only are the women sometimes unprepared for these new functions, the conflict may in certain contexts aggravate the discrimination they experience already in peacetime. A better knowledge of the problems experienced by women in such situations, and the way women have made use of their resources to overcome these problems, would provide a basis for an improved response to their plight, allowing for an examination of whether international law and humanitarian action respond adequately to the needs of these victims.

The ICRC last year concluded a thorough internal review of how best to undertake its future work, seeking to identify current challenges and devising ways to improve its response to victims. In this context, it was decided that the situation of women in armed conflicts should be further examined. To this end, our field delegations have been requested to periodically provide gender-specific information on their activities. It is also hoped that insights on the situation of women can be gathered through the campaign marking the 50th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. As you may know, this campaign includes an ongoing consultation through the circulation of a questionnaire to a cross-section of the population, and the organization of in-depth group discussions in a number of different countries. These activities are of course intended to include war-affected women.

The information gathered should improve our understanding of the problems faced by women in the event of armed conflict and form a basis for assessing the adequacy of humanitarian law and our operational activities. It could also result in the development of possible guidelines, elaborated in consultation with individual experts and experienced organizations, to improve humanitarian action in connection with armed conflict. Madam Chair, the ICRC hopes that these initiatives will contribute to a more effective response by the int ernational community.

Thank you Madam Chair.

 Ref. LG 1999-131-ENG