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United Nations Decade of International Law: Marking of the end of the United Nations Decade of International Law

17-11-1999 Statement

 United Nations, General Assembly, 54th session, Plenary, item 154a of the agenda  

 Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 17 November 1999  

Mr President,

We would like to begin by expressing the gratitude of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for having been so closely associated to the United Nations Decade of International Law, and its satisfaction at having been given the opportunity to contribute to the Secretary-General's report on the subject (A/54/362).

As the decade draws to a close, we nonetheless owe ourselves the confession of somewhat mitigated feelings. In fact, even though there have been considerable developments in the field of international law, the reality of the international situation shows that there is still a long way to go before an world order founded on law and justice can prevail.

The number and magnitude of the armed conflicts we have had to deplore over the past ten years obviously represent a setback for international law - and the grave and large-scale violations of humanitarian law committed during those conflicts are a equally a setback for that law.

The many situations of conflict in Africa, Asia and Latin America; the tragedies which have unfolded in the Balkans and the Caucasus region; the disintegration of State authority in certain contexts; the international community's belated reaction to the genocide in Rwanda; the lack of coherence and consistency in the use of armed force when hum an rights are violated or when international security is threatened; the controversies surrounding the legality of the use of such force, in particular during the NATO operation in the Balkans: All these examples serve to demonstrate that giving thought to a stronger international order based on a clear and respected international law is even more urgent today than it was ten years ago.

Mr. President,

We must not, however, wallow in an assessment of " catastrophe " , especially since there have also been incontestably positive developments deserving of commendation. For example, the marked increase in the number of cases brought before the International Court of Justice is an encouraging sign, if assessing the progress of international law as a whole. However, we will limit ourselves to a few comments with regard to international humanitarian law, which relates specifically to the role and mandate of the ICRC.

A brief assessment of the subject-matter reveals indisputable progress in the codification of new legal instruments, and a number of recent developments bear witness to this. Among those, we would mention the adoptions of: The Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993; the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons in 1995; the amended Protocol on Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices in 1996; the Ottawa treaty banning anti-personnel landmines in 1997; and the Protocol for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Even of Armed Conflict in 1999. And besides these, of course, there are also the international treaties somehow related to humanitarian law, such as the instruments for the repression of international terrorism, and the 1994 Convention on the safety and security of United Nations and Associated Personnel.

In the area of repression of violations, the establishment of the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (1993) and for Rwanda (1994) also paved the way for the significant advance constituted by the adoption, last July in Rome, of the Statute for the future International Criminal Court (ICC).

Moreover, humanitarian law has been further reaffirmed and clarified with respect to a number of specific issues such as naval warfare, the protection of the environment, internally displaced persons and, more recently, thanks to the initiative of the Secretary-General, the observance by United Nations forces of international humanitarian law.

The ICRC is pleased and proud to have been involved, in its capacity of expert and guardian of humanitarian law, in almost all these developments. In this respect, it is worth mentioning, here, its close cooperation with the San Remo International Institute of Humanitarian Law, in regards to naval warfare; its organization of expert studies and the publication of reports relating to the protection of the environment in times of armed conflict; displaced persons; the Protocols on conventional weapons and the drafting of the ICC Statute; and through its participation in the elaboration of the Convention on the Safety and Security of UN and Associated Personnel.

Furthermore, all through these years, the ICRC has striven to develop a constructive relationship with the States and all those who must see to the application of humanitarian law. To do so, the ICRC set up its Advisory Service to provide technical assistance in the drafting of domestic legislation for the implementation of humanitarian law. It has also pursued its dissemination efforts of humanitarian law, notably among the armed forces and bearers of weapons.

Another ICRC initiative has been the launch of a wide-ranging study on customary norms of international humanitarian law, involving specialists and research teams from all parts of the world, the results of which will be published in the course of next year. This study reflects concerns for gaining a better u nderstanding, beyond the mere texts and thereby going beyond their purely formal framework, of how humanitarian law is actually applied. We trust that the results of the study will give new impetus to the crucial debate on humanitarian law and its implementation.

Along similar lines, the ICRC, with the assistance of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, conducted an in-depth survey focusing, in particular, on several countries having experienced war, in order to gain a clearer insight of the local populations'perceptions of the conflicts they had lived through, and the role of humanitarian law in war. The opinions of these " People on War " , as we have dubbed them, will serve as an invaluable contribution to the debate on humanitarian law and action, and perhaps - let us hope - to the development of an international law and order better able to prevent and contain armed conflicts.

Mr Chairman,

Respect for human dignity in all circumstances, compassion for those who suffer, and solidarity are the principles which are the very foundation of the Geneva Conventions. The fourteen world-renowned signatories of the Solemn Appeal launched in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, among which the United Nations Secretary-General, expressed their conviction that " disregard for these principles sets the stage for war and that respecting them during wartime facilitates the restoration of peace " .

This conviction is also ours, and I have no doubt that it is yours, as well.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

Ref. LG 1999-191-ENG