Relations of the ICRC with the humanitarian system of the UN

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentleman,

I thank the Institute for having invited me to this opening session. Since the number of topics on the Agenda is considerable, I had to make a choice in order to avoid abusing of your time or speaking in overly general terms. Therefore, my observations will focus on the relations of the ICRC with the humanitarian system of the UN in the light of the ongoing discussion on the reform of the UN. You will find my comments on the observance of international humanitarian law by peace-keeping forces in the written text.

We are gathered to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the founding of the International Institute of Humanitarian Law. On this important occasion I wish first of all to convey to the Institute and its President the heartfelt congratulations of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The ICRC has strongly supported the Institute from its founding in 1970 to the present day. Among the Institute's many activities, the ICRC attaches special importance to the military courses: these courses have achieved world-wide fame and constitute an important forum for the dissemination of international humanitarian law among armed forces.

In addition, the annual roundtables organised by the Institute provide valuable opportunities to discuss pressing issues of humanitarian concern, whether in the field of law or in terms of practical action, and to meet friends and experts.

In terms of research conducted under the auspices of the Institute one project deserves to be mentioned in particular: the elaboration of the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at S ea to which the ICRC contributed significantly.

The anniversary of the Institute this year coincides with the 60th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. Both in the field and at headquarters level the cooperation between the UN system and the ICRC has grown and intensified. Cooperation and dialogue took a leap forward when the International Committee of the Red Cross obtained observer status with the UN in 1990: this status made it possible for the ICRC to entertain regular contacts with the Security Council, to be active in the General Assembly and other meetings and as well as to take part in the elaboration of treaties and other instruments. The Security Council is increasingly engaged in efforts to ensure respect for international humanitarian law. The obligation to ensure respect for humanitarian law is, as we are all aware, an obligation for all States, and not just for those involved in armed conflicts.

It is therefore not surprising that the ICRC is following with interest proposals for the UN reform in general, the reform of the humanitarian system in particular. As the first point is concerned we pay particular attention to the discussions on the creation of a Peacebuilding Commission and a Council of Human Rights. We shall have to define our relationship with these bodies once decisions have been taken. Since many of our humanitarian operations take place in so called transitional periods or " post conflict " situations, regular contacts with the Commission will be important and useful for both sides. We can only welcome the ambition to pay more attention to the careful steering of the particularly delicate phase intended to lead from peace agreements to consolidated peace. My additional hope would be that the existence of such a Commission would also be helpful for better coordination between exit strategies of humanitarian organisations and entry strategies of other organizations, development agencies in particular.

The ICRC strongly welcomes the ongoing discussions on the reform of the UN humanitarian system and has participated in the debate in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and its working group. It will continue to participate in this debate in the spirit and framework I shall set out below. The ICRC also made a substantial input to the Humanitarian Response Review commissioned by the Emergency Relief Coordinator, by documenting its capacities in the different fields of activity under consideration. How do we approach this reform debate which we see first and foremost as a debate on the UN-humanitarian system, but which has implications for humanitarian actors outside this system?

1. The ICRC is resolutely positive about this debate because it is no luxury at all to work seriously on the efficiency of the UN-humanitarian system and the whole of the humanitarian network. It is an long-standing request of the ICRC that coordination efforts have to be based on real capacities in the field and not, as has happened to often in the past, on the basis of ambitions for positioning purposes. We welcome therefore a more serious approach to coordination. This is a question of responsibility and accountability. We trust this debate will focus on improved effectiveness and not positioning of individual organisations.

2. The ICRC is ready to intensify its dialogue and cooperation with the humanitarian UN-system and other humanitarian actors to the extent compatible with its own identity and its modes of operation. 

3. The ICRC is willing to play an active role in the efforts to improve interoperability between the UN system, the Red Cross and Red Crescent network and the NGO community. Numerous forms of cooperation already exist between actors belonging to the three circles but there might be scope for more transparent and more efficient arrangements, always to the benefit of those in need of protec tion and assistance. How can we improve interoperability ? By measures facilitating the cooperation between the joint UN logistic centre, the ICRC and other logistic centres, by developing common criteria to assess needs, express activities, measure impact, to mention just a few examples.

4. There are limits how far we can go. These are set by the fact that the ICRC is not part of the UN system, that it has its own specific mandate and modes of action and that it has to assume the role of lead agency in relation to the relief operations of the other components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement engaged in situations of armed conflict. The ICRC is determined to remain a credible independent, neutral and impartial humanitarian actor whose preferred mode of operation is to work bilaterally with States and armed groups involved in armed conflicts. As such it cannot participate in UN integrated missions; it cannot assume tasks such as coordinating other agencies in specific sectors of activity for which it would be accountable to the UN system. Likewise, it cannot be part of funding mechanisms, that are currently being discussed, ranging from " pooled funding " to an expanded Central Emergency Revolving Fund to be managed by the Emergency Relief Coordinator which would provide humanitarian grants for rapid response to quick-impact activities in emergency situations. I would like to stress that we are not questioning the merits of these approaches and we do not see ourselves as the teachers on how humanitarian action should be carried out. We do believe, however, in the value added of independent and neutral humanitarian action as represented by the ICRC, remaining fully aware of the challenge it means to prove this added value in today's world. In Darfour, I think, we met and we are meeting this challenge.

As has been the case in previous years the present Roundt able addresses international humanitarian law, human rights and refugee law. These branches of international law are complementary bodies of law that share a common goal, namely the protection of the lives, health and dignity of persons. They form, as we have seen two years ago, a complex network of complementary protections that interact in practice.

Let me therefore say a few words about the ICRC's contacts with the UN bodies entrusted with the promotion of refugee law and human rights, which are represented here today.

Many of our activities in the field provide internally displaced people and refugees with protection and assistance. It is therefore natural for us to have close contacts with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees often working in the same context. This cooperation can be on legal matters. In recent years, for example, we have worked together to determine the legal framework regulating the separation and internment of combatants who cross borders with refugees in situations of mass influx and the development of guidelines for its implementation. We regularly train one another's staff in international humanitarian and refugee law.

Obviously, our cooperation is close in operational contexts as it must be in order to ensure a coherent and comprehensive response on the ground. Such interaction can be quite formal and take the form of a Memorandum of Understanding like the one concluded in March 2003 to allocate responsibilities and tasks for possible population flows from Iraq. Interaction also takes place on a day to day basis in the field. In Iraq today, where UNHCR currently does not have an expatriate presence, we are working together to try to find practical ways of dealing with third country nationals in hands of multinational forces who cannot be released in Iraq and who have indicated their fear of being repatriated. If the UNHCR, inside the UN system, should assume additional responsibilities with regard to internally displaced persons, the cooperation between the UNHCR and the ICRC, which has important responsibilities in the field of protection and assistance of IDP's, will no doubt further intensify. Given the good experience in working together with the UNHCR, I like this perspective.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, monitoring bodies and the Commission on Human Rights, where the ICRC has observer status, are increasingly addressing international humanitarian law in both country and thematic work. Where appropriate, the ICRC provides informal expert advice on international humanitarian law. To give but one example, earlier this year the Commission on Human Rights adopted the Basic principles and guidelines on the right to a remedy and reparation for victims of gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law. The ICRC participated in the expert meetings leading to the adoption of this instrument and provided legal input on the international humanitarian law dimension. To the extent the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights is extending its field presence, dialogue and cooperation will no doubt intensify in order to ensure complementarity in situations where both are being active. My feeling is that the High Commissioner Louise Arbour and myself see eye to eye on this issue.

Given the extent of our relief operations, I should not close this overview without mentioning our cooperation with the World Food Programme, with whom the ICRC has a good and long-standing relationship. Through a new exchange of letters in 2004, the World Food Programme and the ICRC have reinforced their level of cooperation and exchange among their respective experts and staff in charge of operations.

I now come to my final point: peacekeeping operations mandated by the Security Council and in particular how international humanitarian law applies to them.

All parties to an armed conflict are bound by international humanitarian law. The principle that civilians must be spared from the effects of hostilities is set out and developed in numerous clear and categorical prohibitions. These prohibitions are, however, all too frequently wilfully violated.

It is frequently in situations of widespread attacks on the civilian population that peacekeeping forces are deployed to prevent further violations. As long as these forces are not drawn into the fighting, they too are protected and should not be targeted. In its dialogue with warring parties the ICRC regularly reminds them of the provisions protecting civilians and peacekeepers.

As recognised by the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, the distinction often drawn between Chapter VII peace-enforcement operations and Chapter VI peacekeeping operations is to some extent misleading. Admittedly, in the former there is an expectation from the outset that the robust use of force is integral to the mission, while in the latter there may be a reasonable expectation that force may not be needed at all.

The reality is, however, to quote the High-level Panel, " that even the most benign environment can turn sour " . In these circumstances, the multinational forces, if themselves drawn into violence of a duration and intensity amounting to armed conflict, are also required to respect international humanitarian in responding to the attacks against them. As always, the nature of the situation and, consequently, the applicable law must be determined on the basis of the facts on the ground rather than the formal mandate given to the force by the Security Council.

If the violence in which the multinational force is involved amounts to an armed conflict the provisions of international humanitarian law apply. The ICRC therefore believes that it is essential for personnel deployed in peacekeeping missions – and a fortiori in peace-enforcement missions – to be adequately trained in intern ational humanitarian law. In this respect I would like to highlight the value of the Bulletin on Observance by United Nations Forces of International Humanitarian Law – issued by the Secretary-General in 1999. This instrument summarises the key principles and rules of international humanitarian law and declares these to be applicable to UN troops engaged in enforcement actions or in peacekeeping operations when the use of force is permitted in self-defence.

Let me now briefly leave the theme of the day to mention a priority issue for the ICRC and the entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. I refer to the proposal to adopt a Third Additional Protocol introducing an additional emblem whose main purpose is to reach universality of the Movement. A next round of consultations, convened by Switzerland, as depositary of the Geneva Conventions, will take place beginning next week in Geneva. I sincerely hope that they will comfort the convictions of those who feel that the time is ripe to hold the foreseen diplomatic conference at the end of October. I equally hope that those who feel time is not ripe will explain why they feel time is not ripe. Looking at the issue from an exclusively humanitarian angle, and fully aware and respectful of the different feelings this issue arouses and the different ways of looking at it, I have the strong conviction that time is ripe. The issue has remained unresolved for too long. It can and must be resolved now.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I do sincerely hope that the discussions in the coming days will enhance our understanding of the challenges ahead and strengthen our resolve to work on a humanitarian response that will protect and assist all those in need as efficiently as possible.

Thank you for your attention.