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Protection of civilians in armed conflict - ICRC statement to the UN

20-11-2007 Statement

By Angelo Gnaedinger, director general of the ICRC, United Nations Security Council, New York, 20 November 2007

Mr President,

Thank you for the opportunity to address the Security Council on protecting civilians in armed conflict. This issue is at the heart of the mandate and operational priorities of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The ICRC would like to congratulate the Secretary-General on his report, which takes an incisive look at the protection of civilians in armed conflict. He presents a sobering picture, emphasizing the disparity between our collective aspiration to protect civilians and the harsh realities. The ICRC both shares his concerns and concurs with the priorities he fixes.

On the basis of what the ICRC observes in the field, it must be stressed that - as we speak right now– hundreds of thousands of civilians are being driven from their homes. Many are being killed at random or simply disappear. Protecting and assisting internally displaced people therefore constitutes the major part of ICRC field operations today, including measures designed to prevent displacement in the first place.

Despite recent initiatives – both at the operational level and in the realm of international legal norms – the world's response to scourges such as forced displacement, forced disappearances and sexual violence remains inadequate.

The Secretary-General points to the "collective failure" to tackle the issue of sexual violence, including in cases where rape is deliberately used as a   method of warfare.The plight of rape victims still stands in stark contrast with all too frequent impunity for their aggressors.

Likewise, the ICRC joins the Secretary-General in voicing humanitarian concern over the impact of cluster munitions. These weapons have severe consequences for civilians both during conflict – owing to the large areas affected by them – and as explosive remnants of war long after the fighting has ended. The ICRC calls on States to immediately end the use of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions and to negotiate a new treaty of international humanitarian law to prohibit their use.

Private military and security companies are increasingly involved in activities that bring them close to the heart of military operations. We call on governments to ensure that these companies operate in full compliance with international humanitarian law.

Mr. President,

The ICRC would like to stress that international humanitarian law is today as relevant in armed conflicts as ever before. The main impediment to protecting civilians remains the lack of political will to make sure it is respected by all. Far too often, parties to conflict disregard humanitarian law and deliberately target civilians. And we are seeing a dangerous erosion of distinction and proportionality as the cardinal principles governing the conduct of hostilities. The ICRC believes that the fundamental values underlying these principles are timeless. During the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which is convening in Geneva next week the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 will be called upon to reaffirm the relevance and validity of these principles.

Achieving the broadest possible support for and compliance with the law must be a priority. Article I common to the four Geneva Conventions clearly stipulates that States have an obligation to both " respect and ensure respect" for international humanitarian law in all circumstances. By means of Article 89 of Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions, the High Contracting Parties have also committed themselves "to act, jointly or individually, in co-operation with the United Nations and in conformity with the United Nations Charter" in the event of serious violations of international humanitarian law. States must employ all appropriate means, including political, legal, economic and security measures, to honour this commitment.

Security Council resolutions now indeed tend to incorporate protection of the civilian population as a standard aspect of peace-keeping operations. In this respect, it should be kept in mind that protection of civilians by UN peace-keepers implies a military and security dimension, which must be clearly distinguished from protection activities carried out by humanitarian actors.

For its part, the ICRC has a mandate under humanitarian law to remind all those using armed force – be they governments or non-State actors – of their obligations under the law and to seek access to people affected by armed conflict. The ICRC's specific contribution to protecting civilians is complementary to protection efforts by other actors, in particular the many measures taken by the United Nations.

In practice, ICRC protection activities are at the core of a constant dialogue with all parties to conflict. Every day, hundreds of ICRC staff have contact with government representatives, military officers and local authoriti es, as well as with leaders of armed groups, in order to preserve the life, health and dignity of civilians and detainees. Their protection needs can best be understood and addressed through direct contact and presence in the field. Only strict adherence to the fundamental principles of impartial, independent, and specifically neutral humanitarian action enables the ICRC to maintain that dialogue and access.

Mr President,

The ICRC is committed to being part of the collective effort to protect civilians caught up in armed conflict; a cause that unites us all. Our failure to act would be intolerable.

Thank you for your attention.