Latin America and the Caribbean: protecting people in situations of internal violence

30-06-2008 Interview

In January 2008, the head of the ICRC’s regional delegation in Buenos Aires, Michel Minnig, addressed the Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs of the Organization of American States on the subject of internal violence. In this interview, he reviews the main points of his statement.


  © CICR    
  Michel Minnig    


Why is the ICRC worried about situations of internal violence in the region?  


The number of armed conflicts in Latin America and the Caribbean has fortunately diminished significantly, but situations of internal violence are becoming a source of concern for both the public and the authorities due to their serious consequences in humanitarian terms. Situations of violence can occur in both urban and rural areas (where they may involve indigenous communities). The ICRC is increasingly worried about the situations ari sing in the cities, because of the threat to inhabitants’ safety and the humanitarian consequences.

 What are “situations of internal violence”?  

There is no legal definition, but we sometimes refer to them as internal disturbances or internal tensions in order to be able to better identify them. They may take the form of clashes, in the countryside or in cities, between security forces and demonstrators, between different groups in the community, between the security forces and armed groups, or between illegal forces.

Yet however useful these descriptions may be, the ICRC must not become locked into definitions which could limit its ability to provide humanitarian assistance. The ICRC prefers to determine what action to take in a situation based on the humanitarian needs, rather than on the particular category applied to the situation.

 What are the humanitarian consequences of internal violence?  

The humanitarian consequences of internal violence include: death or wounding, including of agents of the State; detention; displacement; disappearances; threats; abuse; destruction of property or homes; slowing of the economy; and trauma.

 What is the basis for ICRC action in these kinds of situations?  

The ICRC is well-known the world over for its humanitarian work in armed conflicts, which are governed by the rules of international humanitarian law. However, people are perhaps not so familiar with its position on situations of internal violence, nor with the action it can take.

The impetus for ICRC action in these situations comes from the magnitude of the humanitarian consequences; from the unique contribution we can make, due to our experience, our capabilities and our status as a neutral, impartial and ind ependent organization; and from the extent to which we are accepted by the authorities.

For the ICRC, these situations of internal violence, which cannot be classified as armed conflicts, clearly fall outside the scope of international humanitarian law. The rules of international human rights law therefore apply, which govern the use of force by agents of the State and provide a series of basic guarantees. These basic rules of international human rights law can also be described as “humanitarian principles”, given that the rights to life and to human dignity are found in both international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

In a situation of internal violence, to which the provisions of international humanitarian law do not apply, the humanitarian work of the ICRC is based on the right of initiative contained in the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement adopted by the International Conference, which brings together representatives from the components of the Movement and the States party to the Geneva Conventions every four years.

 What action does the ICRC take in situations of internal violence in Latin America and the Caribbean?  

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the ICRC works in several countries affected by different situations of chronic or intermittent violence, including Haiti, Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The ICRC's humanitarian response to internal violence involves two parallel approaches, one of which may be deemed " preventive " and the other “operative”.

“Prevention” includes cooperation with the security forces. The aim here is to revise and adapt all operational and pedagogical guidelines concerning the rules of international human rights law applicable to the use of force. We also work with secondary school pupils to raise awareness of v iolence and its consequences.

On the operative side, the following activities are carried out: bilateral dialogue with the authorities regarding the consequences of the inappropriate or disproportionate use of force; helping National Red Cross Societies boost their capacity to provide first aid and evacuate the wounded; visiting people deprived of their freedom as a result of these situations in order to assess their detention conditions and their treatment; helping prison authorities better manage places of detention; and/or the implementation of medico-social programmes by the National Red Cross Societies in areas affected by situations of violence.