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Specific groups and individuals: Mass exoduses and displaced persons

15-04-2003 Statement

59th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Agenda item 14 - 15 April 2003. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Mrs Chairperson,

Armed conflicts are increasingly accompanied by mass movement of populations. This does not mean that displacement of civilians is an inevitable consequence of war. International humanitarian law in both international and non-international conflicts prohibits the forcible displacement of civilians, which should never be one of the objectives of the conflict. Even when civilians are not actually forcibly displaced, it is often violations of basic rules which cause them to abandon their homes, such as the destruction of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian populations including livestock and water supplies. For this reason, ensuring respect for international humanitarian law is essential in order to prevent displacement in the first place.

In case internal displacement nonetheless takes place, internally displaced persons remain entitled to the protection granted by international humanitarian law to civilians, as IDPs are an integral part of the civilian population. They are also entitled to certain additional safeguards in view of their specific vulnerabilities: for example, particular efforts must be made to preserve family unity and they must be provided with shelter and material assistance.

Mrs Chairperson,

With regard to responsibility for meeting the protection and assistance needs of displaced persons, there is a tendency to immediately turn to the international relief organisations. While they do have an important role to play, it must not be forgotten that the primary responsibility for meeting the needs of displaced persons lies with the state in which the civilians find themselves. In situations of occupation, the occupying power has primary responsibility for meeting the protection and material needs of the entirety of the population of the occupied territories. In case the national authorities or the occupying power are unable or unwilling to meet their obligations to protect and assist displaced persons, then relief actions by humanitarian organisations can be envisaged. The complexity prevalent in most crises today and the dimensions of their humanitarian consequences, often lie far beyond the capacity of any single organisation. In order to render the efforts on behalf of the beneficiaries as effective as possible, coordination of humanitarian activities is necessary. The ICRC is in its coordination efforts motivated by the desire to achieve the greatest possible complementarity, by harmonising action and avoiding duplication. It is with this aim in view that the ICRC is engaged in an active dialogue with military actors, governments and humanitarian actors and participates as standing invitee in UN-led bodies and the Unit on Internal Displacement. The same concern to increase effectiveness is at the basis of the ICRCs cooperation with UNHCR. In the case of Iraq, for example, the ICRC and UNHCR have issued a joint note, which provides guidance to both institutions field personnel as regards their respective protection and assistance efforts to IDPs and refugees on either side of the Iraqi borders.

Mrs Chair,

While coordination is of increasing impo rtance to the ICRC, it would like to stress, at the same time, the need to safeguard its neutrality and to preserve its independence, essential for its specific mandate. More in general, the ICRC would like to highlight the need for humanitarian actors to maintain their identity, impartiality and neutrality when relieving the plight of persons affected by armed conflicts. This is essential in order to ensure the safety and well being of beneficiaries as well as the safety of humanitarian staff. In an increasingly complex world, marked by increasingly complex relationships between an increasing number of actors, be they states and their armed forces, organised armed groups, intergovernmental organisations or NGOs, it is crucial to avoid any confusion between these actors and their respective responsibilities. It is extremely worrying to see how in recent times humanitarian aid workers have increasingly become the victim of kidnappings or even killings, resulting from such confusions and a declining acceptance of the presence of humanitarian workers in certain countries. The recent murder of an international ICRC staff member in Afghanistan is a grim reminder of the problems facing aid workers on the ground nowadays, jeopardizing and posing limits to the fulfillment of their humanitarian mission.

To conclude, Mrs Chair, we must strive to ensure that these principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence are transformed into concrete action and we must not balk at upholding them, particularly in times of crisis, when the persons which they were designed to protect are most in need.

Thank you Mrs Chair