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Human rights questions

08-11-1999 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 54th session, Third Committee, item 116 of the agenda. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 8 November 1999

Mr. Chairman,

  • To reject the idea that war is inevitable and to work tirelessly to eradicate its underlying causes;

  • to demand of all those involved in armed conflicts and all who are in a position to influence the course of such conflicts that they respect the essential humanitarian principles and the rules of international humanitarian law;

  • to spare civilians the agony of war;

  • to foster relations between individuals, peoples and nations on the basis of the principles that inspired the Geneva Conventions, namely, respect for human dignity in all circumstances, compassion for those who suffer; solidarity.

This is the tenor of the appeal made to all the peoples, nations and governments of the world on 12 August 1999 by 14 prominent world figures, including the UN Secretary-General, at a ceremony held to mark the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions.

Mr. Chairman,

Last year, it was the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was celebrated.

These two historical milestones serve to remind us, if need be, that international humanitarian law and international human rights law are both complementary and distinct. To borrow an image, they are the two crutches on which the victims of armed conflicts must be able to lean.

The International Committee o f the Red Cross (ICRC) therefore found the report by Mrs. Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, of the greatest interest.

This report highlights the necessary complementarity of our respective organizations, both of which, acting on the basis of their own mandates and using their own working methods, strive to safeguard human dignity. It was precisely to enhance interaction that a high-level meeting, the second of its kind, was recently held with the High Commissioner at ICRC headquarters.

This dialogue made it possible to more precisely define the areas of activity specific to each organization and those in which closer cooperation should result in greater synergy both in Geneva and in the field, to avoid any duplication of efforts and to make the very best use of available resources. We have engaged in this type of dialogue for several years with other UN partners, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Programme and UNICEF. The increasing complexity of the situations in which humanitarian and human rights organizations must work and the deterioration of security conditions in the field have made such a dialogue more useful than ever.

Mr. Chairman,

The implementation of international humanitarian law involves three complementary activities: promoting the law, protecting and assisting war victims and, finally, denouncing and repressing violations.

The ICRC has a specific mandate from States with respect to the first two activities. In situations of armed conflict or internal violence, it must seek to convince all parties to comply with humanitarian law, to stop violating the law or to prevent such violations from occurring. This means that the ICRC must promote knowledge of and respect for humanitarian law, persuade and supervise. However, its mandate does not imply any responsibility for denouncing or punishing violations o r for taking part in repressive mechanisms. The ICRC is firmly convinced that its action, in particular in the areas of protection and assistance, would be seriously hampered if it were to denounce violations or take part in investigations relating to persons suspected of crimes.

Under the terms of the Geneva Conventions and their First Additional Protocol, the ICRC has a right of access to the victims of international armed conflicts. In practice, however, this right depends on the consent of the warring parties. As for the activities which the ICRC conducts in situations of non-international armed conflict and internal violence, many of them depend on its right of humanitarian initiative, which means that the parties involved have, strictly speaking, no legal obligation to allow it to act. If, in contexts that are generally characterized by tension and a climate of suspicion, the ICRC is to carry out the tasks which have been entrusted to it by the international community, it must therefore obtain the consent and trust of all the parties involved and of the victims as well. Any failure to do so could seriously jeopardize or even totally undermine its activities.

Mr. Chairman,

The protection of war victims is at the heart of our concerns. That is why in 1996 the ICRC initiated a process bringing together a number of humanitarian and human rights organizations, including the Office of the High Commissioner, in order to clarify the concept of protection and to devise principles and set professional standards for action in this area.

Such tools should help make better operational decisions, on the one hand, and enhance complementarity, on the other. One of the main conclusions reached at these workshops is that all protection activities must be carried out within the framework of a coherent overall approach. For example, the need to respond to immediate needs arising from a violation of the law d oes not do away with the need to create an environment that will prevent such a violation from recurring.

As you know, Mr Chairman, the ICRC's approach is characterized by its wish to create, maintain and develop a constructive dialogue with all parties to the sole end of providing protection and assistance for all those in need.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Ref. LG 1999-188-ENG