Protection of the civilian population in periods of armed conflict

15-09-1995 Report

26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent




The end of the Cold War unfortunately did not herald the general state of peace that was anticipated.

Whereas some conflicts on the fault lines left by former ideological confrontations and struggles for power have been resolved through negotiation or military victory, others have continued and more new conflicts have flared up than those that have ended.

Today conflicts and war are on the increase. In 1995 more than 30 armed conflicts were being fought.

Several common factors can be identified in this outbreak of new hostilities and the growing insecurity and unrest in various parts of the world. These factors, which are often cumulative in effect, all have a major bearing on respect for the civilian population, the spread of violence, and the growing number of violations of international humanitarian law. They are:

 - The expanding arms trade and the proliferation of certain weapons  

For years the control and discipline impos ed by the superpowers in their respective spheres of influence were also reflected in the arms trade. The balance of terror helped to prevent the proliferation of certain weapons, in particular weapons of mass destruction, outside of certain predetermined circles. Since then, the arms trade has increased tremendously. The abundant supply of weapons, supplemented by the considerable stocks built up during the Cold War (and often plundered), has kept factions of all political persuasions and even bandits well supplied. It is a cause of additional tensions which readily turn into full-scale armed conflicts. The resources generated by the arms trade are also regularly used to destabilize other regions.

 - The collapse of governmental structures  

Several parts of the world have experienced a long series of insurmountable and violent political crises which have led to the collapse of States previously considered as stable. There has also been a sudden proliferation of " belligerents " enjoying, by force of circumstances, an extreme degree of autonomy, not to mention a multiplication of apparently uncontrolled marauders and snipers who unscrupulously kill innocent civilians. In many situations this is leading to a resurgence of private warfare. Civil and inter-ethnic wars are devastating vast tracts of land, reducing them to chaos and anarchy fraught with extreme insecurity. With time, the social fabric is destroyed, any form of authority, except that of the gun, completely disappears, and fundamental values are denied. As a result, conflicts are more complex and the suffering of civilians is becoming greater and more widespread. In addition, appeals to respect international huma nitarian law and protect the victims are frequently losing all meaning in the absence of identifiable political and military leadership.

 - The changing objective of war and the causes of conflict  

In many conflicts the warring parties'political objectives are being replaced by hatred, banditry and the arbitrary wielding of power. From the outset, many confrontations seek first and foremost to destroy the other side, for reasons of racial, nationalistic or religious extremism, or even for economic reasons. The other party's presence and right to exist is consequently denied. The civilian population, its destruction or exodus, become the very issues at stake in many conflicts. Hatred and the cruelties that go with it thus no longer stem from war, but become aims in themselves. This development is aggravated by many factors, such as demographic expansion, impoverishment, destitution, inequalities, intolerance, racism, regional aspirations for autonomy, the denial of fundamental political and economic rights, the uncontrolled growth of huge cities, corruption and environmental damage.

 - The intensive media coverage of conflicts  

Media coverage has various positive aspects, in particular that of maintaining awareness of certain situations of distress. The media have a major impact on public opinion and the various leaders. Media coverage bears the risk, however, of making violence a commonplace event and saturating the audience with the daily description of suffering and unbearable atrocities. Cries of alarm repeated too often eventually go unheard. The media also tend to focus on the sensational, the latest news, and neglect tragic conflicts which then persist in an atmosphere of general indifference.

Finally, there is the risk of political manipulation and factual distortion. Some media channels have been directly and decisively responsible for inciting people to hatred and murder.

 - The divergence between reality and declarations of intent  

The leaders of the parties to conflict take part in countless international conferences and meetings. They regularly reaffirm their intention to respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law. Unfortunately the reality in the field all too often belies these declarations. Even when leaders want to honour the commitments they have made they are unable, for lack of sufficient authority over the combatants, to enforce compliance with them.

On a broader scale, disregard for fundamental humanitarian standards, the collapse of governmental structures, disintegration of the chain of command and ignorance of the basic rules of international humanitarian law are making humanitarian missions increasingly dangerous. Personnel engaged in emergency humanitarian operations are faced with hazardous situations which hamper and all too often prevent access to the victims and the passage of relief consignments.

These factors are leading to an increased rejection of all humane principles and a progressive decline in respect for the law. For the past few years there has been a resurgence of sheer barbarity and a revival of methods which were believed long past. Often reality seems to be a nightmare. Admittedly, human memory tends to be selective and short. Particularly tragic and cruel events did, it is true, shake the world on several occasions during the two World Wars and their aftermath in an environment in which the media played a lesser role than today. The polarization of the world into two separate blocs and the priority given to ideological struggle and politically strategic goals certainly caused a slow but steady erosion of international humanitarian law. And yet the feeling remains that the situation is deteriorating and that a long unprecedented level of violence has now been reached. Unbridled hatred prevails in many parts of the world, human values and fundamental humanitarian principles are increasingly being flouted, and the number of victims - essentially women, children and old people taking no part whatsoever in the hostilities - is ever higher.

Such circumstances are aggravating the plight of the civilian population in regions devastated by war, resulting in a large increase in the number of victims.

The most heinous of all crimes, genocide , which is expressly prohibited under international law, has reappeared. Ethnic cleansing - a combination of various forms of persecution ranging from systematic slaughter to the harassment or intimidation of minorities via murder, deportation, large-scale internment, hostage-taking, rape and torture, and inflicted with the aim of uprooting populations - has become a banal daily occurrence.

 Murder, torture , degrading treatment, arbitrary detention , often under conditions of extreme privation, are the lot of countless victims. The civilian population pays with its own suffering the tribute to hatred and intolerance. Hostage-taking is becoming so frequent that this violation of a fundamental rule of humanitarian law is virtually an established practice.

Caught in a hail of fire, the civilian population is increasingly in the very midst of attacks . Acts of war are targeted against civilians, either directly or as reprisals. The population has to hide away i n makeshift shelters. The attackers'purpose is essentially to create a climate of panic, to spread terror and to use starvation as an ultimate weapon, whereas the besieged forces compel the population to take up arms or prevent it from fleeing while it still can, in order to use it as a shield against the enemy.

The exodus of entire sections of the population has assumed dramatic and hitherto unknown proportions, whether they take refuge in another country or are displaced within the national territory. Several sources estimate that there are over 23 million refugees and more than 29 million internally displaced persons. These movements, which are essentially caused by fear and violations of the rules of humanitarian law protecting the civilian population, result in food shortages, long-term economic and social disruption and often numerous deaths by starvation. Choosing to flee is sometimes spontaneous, spurred by panic and confusion, but mostly flight is induced by one or other of the belligerents. Uprooted populations on the move are often turned into bartering chips, a means of exerting pressure or controlling territory, and a source of profit.

Family unity, the cornerstone of any society, is seriously jeopardized and indeed impaired by the misfortunes besetting the civilian population. Families are more and more frequently dispersed, their members separated by force or by events, contacts are severed and there is growing anxiety about loved ones of whom there is no news. Women are frequently the first victims of these situations. Mass rape occurs.

 Children , the most vulnerable of all, are the hardest hi t by these misfortunes. They suffer lasting trauma and are often psychologically scarred for life. Their existence is shattered as they have seen their parents killed before their very eyes, their homes destroyed, their lives ruined. Children are also used as leverage to control territory or to collect spoils. From an increasingly young age, they are forcibly recruited, enrolled, exploited, initiated to violence and encouraged to take active part in it. Snatched from their families, many of them have grown up from their earliest years with no other education than the law of the gun. They thus become veritable armed slaves and their reintegration into civilian life proves extremely difficult. Child soldiers are a tragedy against which humanity is powerless and which is assuming ever greater dimensions.

The ease with which any small group can obtain conventional armaments is a direct threat to the civilian population. At the same time the development of new weapons , blinding or lethal, continues.

The general use of mines affects above all the civilian population. Vast tracts of territory are being rendered unusable, and a very large number of civilians, including many children, are being killed or maimed even long after hostilities have ended. The human, social, and economic cost entailed by the use of mines is terrifying.

The particularly devastating means of combat and the way in which the hostilities are conducted in some conflicts often constitute serious threats for the natural environment . Environmental protection, an essential prerequisite for the survival of the civilian population, has suddenly and tragically hit the headlines in recent conflicts.

Operations and attacks ag ainst essential public utilities, in particular the drinking water supply, also mainly affect the civilian population. Supplies are very often cut off, either deliberately or as a side-effect of the hostilities, by the destruction of waterworks or electric power stations. In some conflicts water has become a fearful and particularly cruel weapon, with cities deprived of water for many days.

Similarly, health services are paralysed owing to the destruction of facilities or the disappearance of qualified personnel, and for want of supplies and care the population is left without any means of protection from illness, epidemics and the consequences of injuries.

In general, war and violence have catastrophic effects on the economy . Large areas of farmland are abandoned, livestock is decimated, equipment destroyed, and looting and vandalism are widespread. Powerless, the civilian populations see their country ravaged and come to depend on external aid.

Lastly, humanitarian action is faced with increasing difficulties as a result of the prevailing insecurity. There is consequently a steadily growing number of victims whose existence is known, but to whom the humanitarian institutions do not have access. Deprived of protection and assistance, these victims become hostages of armed individuals or groups.

In any case, humanitarian action cannot possibly suffice to overcome the atrocious suffering which modern warfare inflicts on civilian populations.

The 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is duty bound to find ways of providing the civilian population with better protection from the effects of war.

However, the diversity of situations and the multiplicity of suffering are such that efforts must be concentrated on the most urgent problems. It is therefore proposed that the Conference pay particular attention to the following six issues which are of constant concern in the daily work of the ICRC, the International Federation and the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies:

- the protection of women in armed conflicts;

- the protection of children in armed conflicts;

- the reunification of families dispersed by war;

- famine and war;

- water and war;

- the indiscriminate use of anti-personnel landmines and the development of particularly cruel weapons.

These are the subjects of the following six sections.

Protection of women in armed conflicts

 Protection of women in armed conflicts  



Women suffer from all the ills endured by the whole civilian population during armed conflict: violations of international humanitarian law when they are in enemy hands, such as summary execution, torture, arbitrary internment and forced displacement. They are taken hostage, threatened, and intimidated... Direct or indirect effects of the hostilities include bombing and shelling, which are often indiscriminate, as well as famine and epidemics.

Along with their children, women constitute the large majority of the civilian population, which is often displaced or flees in search of refuge elsewhere. With their husbands away, their social role is frequently transformed: in many cases women take on increased responsibilities towards their children or aged parents, and become the last and only guarantor of family unity.

Expectant or nursing mothers and maternity cases are particularly vulnerable on account of their condition. During periods of armed conflict their death rate frequently rises to an alarming extent.

Women are also all too often the prime victims of specific serious violations of international humanitarian law, such as all forms of rape (actual rape, enforced prostitution, sexual exploitation, enforced insemination). Such violations of their fundamental rights have occurred in all wars, as a sporadic and random result of the guilty negligence of leaders of the armed forces or other armed groups. But the same barbaric acts have also been perpetrated repeatedly, even systematically; in some circumstances women have thus become veritable targets for armed men who attempt, through such practices, to terrorize, humiliate or destroy entire communities.

Under international humanitarian law, which primarily protects the most vulnerable, women are consequently entitled to special protection which the States have the duty to respect and ensure.




 2.1 Principles: non-discrimination and duty to differentiate  

The fundamental principle governing the rights of women during armed conflicts is that of non-discrimination . Civilians, both men and women, have equal rights. (Fourth Convention, Article 27, para. 1; Protocol I, Article 75, para.1).

To ensure that women enjoy the same rights as men, however, they sometimes have to be granted special protection , taking account of factors such as their physical and psychological differences, their increased vulnerability in certain circumstances and their specific needs.

International humanitarian law therefore contains the duty to differentiate; it is incumbent on the States party to the Geneva Conventions and hence all combatants to treat women with due respect.

The special protection which the States have accorded to women, and especially to certain categories of women, thus supplements the general protection to which the whole civilian population is entitled .


 2.2 Specific protection of women under international humanitarian law  


 2.2.1 Rules applicable in periods of international armed conflict  


Women are protected in general, as women, from any attacks on their physical integrity and personal dignity. Other provisions of humanitarian law are designed to protect, through them, their infants or unborn children. By protecting expectant and nursing mothers, maternity cases and mothers of small children, the intention is therefore to safeguard motherhood and family unity.  


 (a) Protection of women against outrages upon their personal dignity  

All women are protected against any attack on their honour , and in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, and any form of indecent assault (Fourth Convention, Article 27, para. 2; Protocol I, Article 75, para. 2, and Article 76, para. 1).

- Women who have been interned, detained, or arrested for reasons related to armed conflict must be accommodated in quarters separated from men's quarters, except in cases when family unity must be preserved. They must in all cases be under the immediate supervision of women (Fourth Convention, Article 76, para. 4; Protocol I, Article 75, para. 5).

- They must in all cases be provided with separate sleeping quarters and sanitary conveniences (Fourth Convention, Article 85, para. 4).

- A woman internee may not be searched except by a woman (Fourth Convention, Article 97, para. 4).

- Disciplinary punishments must take account of the sex of the person punished (Fourth Convention, Article 119, para. 2).


 (b)  Protection of women as mothers or expectant mothers  

 * Protection against the effects of hostilities  

Special coverage for expectant and nursing mothers, maternity cases and mothers of young children is provided by certain measures which the States are strongly encouraged to take to ensure the protection of civilians against the effects, whether direct or indirect, of hostilities:

- Parties to a conflict are strongly encouraged to conclude local agreements to evacuate the most vulnerable categories of persons, including expectant mothers and maternity cases , from conflict zones (Fourth Convention, Article 17).

- Parties to a conflict are strongly encouraged to conclude, in time of peace, agreements to set up hospital and safety zones and localities , away from potential combat zones, to protect the most vulnerable, including expectant mothers and mothers of children under seven (Fourth Convention, Article 14, para. 1).

- Expectant and nursing mothers and maternity cases must be given priority in the distribution of relief consignments . This priority is an obligation for all those responsible for distributing relief (Fourth Convention, Article 23, para. 1; Protocol I, Article 70, para. 1).

* Protection of persons arrested, detained, or interned  

Mothers or expectant mothers arrested, detained or interned for reasons related to an armed conflict are protected by specific rules:

- Expectant mothers and mothers of dependent infants shall have their cases considered with the utmost priority by the detaining authorities (Protocol I, Article 76, para. 2).

- Expectant mothers and maternity cases shall receive additional food , in proportion to their physiological needs (Fourth Convention, Article 89, para. 5).

- Such women must be admitted to any institution where adequate treatment can be given (hospitals, maternity homes, etc.) and must receive care not inferior to that provided for the general population (Fourth Convention, Article 91, para. 2).

- As regards the transfer of internees, maternity cases must not be transferred if the journey would be seriously detrimental to them, u nless their safety imperatively so demands (Fourth Convention, Article 127, para. 3).

- The detaining authorities are strongly encouraged to conclude with the adverse party agreements for the release, the repatriation, the return to places of residence or the accommodation in a neutral country of expectant mothers and mothers with infants and young children (Fourth Convention, Article 132, para. 2).

- The death penalty shall not be executed on expectant mothers or mothers who have dependent infants. Furthermore, it is strongly recommended not to pronounce the death penalty on such women (Protocol I, Article 76, para. 3).

 *  Preferential measures  

Preferential measures are arrangements made in countries at war in favour of persons whose vulnerability justifies special treatment, for example additional food ration cards, ease of access to medical care, special social welfare services, dispensation from certain types of work.

- As aliens in the territory of a party to the conflict, expectant mothers and mothers of children under seven years must  benefit by any preferential treatment to the same extent as the nationals of the State concerned (Fourth Convention, Article 38, para. 5).

- In occupied territory, the Occupying Power is under the obligation not to hinder any preferential measures in regard to food, medical care and protection against the effects of war which may have been adopted in favour of expectant mothers and young children (Fourth Convention, Article 50, para. 4).


 2.2.2 Rules applicable in periods of non-international armed conflict  

The principle of non-discrimination and the special protection stipulated for women are valid not only in international but also in non-international armed conflicts (all four Conventions, Article 3, para. 1; Protocol II, Article 2, para. 1).

The rules are less detailed but the principles to be respected are the same:

- Women are expressly protected against rape, enforced prostitution, and any form of indecent assault (Protocol II, Article 4, para. 2).

- Women interned, detained, or arrested for reasons related to the armed conflict must be held in quarters separated from those of men and must be under the immediate supervision of women (Protocol II, Article 5, para. 2).

- The death penalty must not be executed on pregnant women or mothers of young children (Protocol II, Article 6, para. 4).

Finally, women not taking any direct part in hostilities must, under all circumstances, be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on their sex or any other criteria (Fourth Convention, Article 3, para. 1).



The principle of impartiality requires the ICRC to give priority to the victims of war with the most urgent needs. By virtue of international humanitarian law, special protection for women is a major part of the ICRC's protection and assistance activities.

 Protection of the civilian population  

- Reminders to States, through diplomatic channels or by public appeals, of their obligations to grant general immunity to civilians and special protection to women.

- Role as a neutral intermediary to obtain truces and agreements for the evacuation of vulnerable sections of the population, including maternity cases, from besieged zones. Supervision of such evacuations.

- Role as a neutral intermediary in the conclusion of agreements to establish hospital and safety zones and localities . Administration of these zones.

- Official representations in the case of allegations, recorded by ICRC delegates, of ill-treatment inflicted on women during military operations or while maintaining law and order.

 Protection of persons arrested, detained, or interned  

- Monitoring of conditions of detention by means of repeated visits by ICRC delegates and their interviews without witnesses with women detainees or internees.

- Protection against ill-treatment during detention . Official representations in the case of allegations, recorded by ICRC delegates during their visits, of ill-treatment inflicted on women in detention or during interrogation.

- Supervision of food rations and medical care provided for expectant mothers.

- Monitoring of the transfer to specialized facilities of women internees who are about to give birth.

- Early repatriation of certain women (expectant mothers, mothers of infants or young children), women prisoners of war, and female civilian detainees or internees.

- Financial support for the wives of detainees for visits to places of detention and, sometimes, for their families'upkeep.


- Relief: supplies to besieged or blockaded zones and to displaced persons in camps of medicines, foodstuffs and other supplies indispensable for survival. Expectant and nursing mothers, maternity cases and children are given priority during distribution.

- Assistance programmes for war widows . Supplies of food, soap, cooking utensils, tents, blankets, etc.

- Emergency agricultural and veterinary rehabilitation programmes . In many societies women are responsible for farming and livestock. The ICRC is thus in particularly close contact with them and they are the first to benefit from these programmes.

- Public hygiene : sinking wells to enable women, in some regions of the world, to avoid long and sometimes dangerous journeys to fetch drinking water.

- Medical : women are priority ICRC contacts for all matters relating to the health of their children. The ICRC has also carried out antenatal vaccination programmes on women to prevent trismus nascentium (a form of tetanus in newborn children). It also often provides iodine supplements for expectant mothers to combat certain childhood diseases such as cretinism.

In order to improve the situation of the most vulnerable, the International Federation and the National Societies pay particular attention to the needs of those women who constitute the largest percentage of the most vulnerable everywhere.

The changing nature of both internal and international conflicts is having an increasing impact on civilian populations. It disrupts social and economic structures and can totally destroy basic health, water and sanitation facilities. Women and children are disproportionately affected by the ensuing physical and psychological consequences. In particular, young girls are often the target of sexual violence and exploitation in theatres of armed conflict.

Millions of women suffer as a result of the vicious cycle of poverty and discrimination and, partly because of pre-existing gender inequalities in literacy, health, and income, tend to bear the brunt of armed conflict. Greater efforts are therefore needed to prevent and reduce particular factors that increase the specific vulnerability of women in war and conflict-related situations. Needs and roles of women have to be integrated into all development, emergency relief and longer-term rehabilitation activities.

The International Federation's Secretariat has promoted a wide range of programmes which focus on the special needs of women who are vulnerable or victims of circumstance. These include emphasis on:

a) improving access to health care, including family planning and services related to sexually-transmitted diseases, as well as psycho-social support;

b) providing safe water and sanitation;

c) increasing opportunities in terms of vocational training, access to credit and income generation;

d) promoting female literacy; and

e) developing a community spirit - among both men and women, including those in influential positions as well as young people - in order to increase mutual respect and encourage more positive practices.

Gender issues, including specific references to the special protection and assistance needs of women refugees and young girls who are victims of war, have been incorporated into the training of delegates and National Societies. The International Federation has also recognized the importance of female field staff, particularly to deal directly with special cases such as rape victims and women with ce rtain socio-cultural backgrounds. Many National Societies have established focal points for women's issues and are implementing or supporting programmes aimed at improving the situation of women who have been adversely affected by war and other conflict situations.



Emphasis should be placed on violence of a sexual nature inflicted on women, which is too often passed over in silence. Rape, in all its forms and whatever the name given to it (rape, enforced prostitution, sexual slavery, enforced insemination...) has historically been given the seal of impunity. However, when this crime is committed during an armed conflict it is a war crime, which the States have a moral and legal duty to suppress.

Furthermore, rape has irremediable consequences for survivors. First and foremost physical and psychological consequences: the victim's most intimate privacy and reproductive capacity have been desecrated. And then social consequences: many societies put the blame on the victim who may be rejected by her family and be unable to find a husband or even a job. Finally, account should also be taken of the prospects for a child born as the painful reminder of a traumatic event, as well as the course of the pregnancy, the conditions in which the birth or even an abortion take place, the care and maintenance of the child, and the difficult relations which could subsequently exist between the child and its mother.

Emphasis must therefore be placed first and foremost on the  need for States to halt the sexual violence inflicted on women , in particular by imposing penal sanctions on such acts, as it is their duty to do for any other violation of international humanitarian law. The next step must be to provide  assistance for the survivors of sexual assaults, taking into account the specific nature of such maltreatment and its consequences for the persons subjected to it.

Finally, on a more general level, both the civilian population and the armed forces must be made aware of the rules of law relating to special protection for women in periods of armed conflict , thus helping to reinforce the principle of respect for the dignity of women which exists in all cultures.

Protection of children in armed conflicts

 Protection of children in armed conflicts  



War does not spare children; they are its youngest victims and also those in the greatest need of protection.

Killed, wounded, or torn away from their familiar surroundings and often from their families, children are most vulnerable of all to the violence characterizing present-day conflicts. Disregard for the most fundamental humanitarian rules and, in many cases, indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population bring to light the tragic fate of children caught up in the torment of war.

Children born during wartime, or who have spent part of their childhood in conditions of armed conflict, reach adolescence without having known any other environment than one in which the violence of weapons reigns. This has serious consequences for their future development.

Left to fend for themselves, children become easy prey for recruiting into armed forces or factions. They are enrolled younger and younger; and yet a child who takes part in hostilities not only risks his own life, but also the lives of the people who beco me his targets, owing to his immature and emotional behaviour.

Yet protection for children in armed conflicts has been the subject of legislation for decades.



In international humanitarian law children are entitled to general protection as persons not taking part in hostilities, and to special protection owing to their particular vulnerability. Children taking part in hostilities are, however, also protected.


 2.1 General protection of children  

Whether during an international or a non-international armed conflict, children have the right as civilians to humane treatment, which includes respect for their lives and their moral and physical integrity. Moreover, as members of the civilian population, children are also covered by rules stemming from the general principle that the civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, must not be the object of attacks.


 2.2 Special protection for children  

Several provisions of international humanitarian law grant children special protection adapted to their needs.

This special protection derives from the general principle which states that " children shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected against any form of indecent assault" (Protocol I, Article 77), and that they " shall be provided with the care and aid they require " (Protocol II, Article 4).

A series of obligations arise from this general principle acknowledging the need for special protection and make it more specific. Among the most important of these are:

- that children must be evacuated from besieged or encircled areas (Fourth Convention, Articles 14 and 17);

- that they have the right to receive care and aid by the dispatch of medicines, foodstuffs, and clothing (Fourth Convention, Articles 23, 50, 81, 89 and 91, Protocol I, Article 70);

- that they have a right to the maintenance of their cultural environment, to education and to the preservation of family unity (Fourth Convention, Articles 24, 25, 26, 50, 51, 82 and 94; Protocol I, Articles 74 and 78);

- that if detained or interned, they must be held in quarters separate from the qua rters of adults (Protocol I, Article 77);

- that it is prohibited to impose the death penalty on children under 18 years of age (Fourth Convention, Article 68; Protocol I, Article 77);

- that it is prohibited to recruit children under 15 years of age into the armed forces (Protocol I, Article 77; Protocol II, Article 4).


 2.3 Convention on the Rights of the Child  

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1989, covers human rights as a whole - civil and political, social, economic and cultural - and applies them to children. It recognizes the interrelation in the enjoyment of these rights, while laying down the right of children to play an active part in their own development.

As regards children in armed conflicts, this document contains a welcome reminder of the rules of international humanitarian law by stating under Article 38, para. 1 that: "States Parties undertake to respect and to ensure respect for rules of international humanitarian law applicable to them in armed conflicts which are relevant to the child." In addition, under Article 39 States pledge to take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of any child war victim.

An optional Protocol to this Convention, inte nded to improve the protection granted to children, is currently being negotiated by an intersessional committee. Its purpose is to prohibit any participation by children under 18 years of age in hostilities.

It is important to support these negotiations so that the document resulting from them becomes reality and can be applied, for it is just as important that the rules enacted for children are actually respected.



The tragic fate of children in armed conflicts has been of constant concern for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

The very many resolutions adopted both by the International Conferences of the Red Cross and by the Council of Delegates testify to this. These resolutions recall, and in some cases reinforce, the protection granted to children.

The Movement should identify factors conducive to the recruitment of children and set up programmes to prevent it. The ICRC, the Federation and the National Societies should do their utmost to meet the essential needs of children affected by war by providing food, protection and health services. Medium and long-term programmes should focus on educational, psychological and social needs.

In parallel to the Movement's active diplomacy at an international level, the ICRC has consistently sought to give practical effect to the protection to which children are entitled in armed conflicts. Whether in providing food or medical aid, or in protection-related activities, the ICRC and the various components of the Movement have always t aken account of the specific needs of children and have paid particular attention to their protection owing to their greater vulnerability.

To combat problems of malnutrition, the ICRC and the Federation have set up nutritional rehabilitation programmes and other relief operations destined for children, as well as medical assistance programmes in which special care is given to children and infants. During visits to places of detention, ICRC delegates ensure that children are separated from adults, except when they are in custody with their families. The ICRC has also intervened to propose the repatriation or early release of child detainees.

The components of the Movement seek, in general, to protect children from any form of traumatic experience or physical or mental ill-treatment and make every effort to ensure that their development is as harmonious as possible in the difficult circumstances arising from armed conflicts.

The ICRC also seeks to maintain family unity, which is essential for the child's health. Through the activities of the Central Tracing Agency, which are conducted in close cooperation with the National Societies, it helps to reunite families and preserve the children's cultural environment.

In its operations to provide food or medical aid and in tracing missing persons or reuniting families, the ICRC has received the constant support of the National Societies of the countries concerned and those of other countries.

The International Federation for its part has stepped up its support for numerous National Societies by implementing child health programmes (vaccination, control of diarrhoeal diseases and acute respiratory infections, nutrition, and growth monitoring), pursuant to the resolution by its General Assembly (Birmingham, November 1993) calling for these activities to be reinforced and stressing the importance of improving physical, mental and social conditions for children.

A number of National Societies have been helped in their efforts to cover the needs of children in particularly difficult circumstances. Many National Societies have organized activities on behalf of young people (in particular with regard to AIDS). The Federation has also provided large quantities of emergency relief to children, especially child refugees.

The protection of children in armed conflicts requires, however, all the components of the Movement to do even more. They must not only set up a coordinated action programme during the emergency phase and seek ways to prevent children falling victim to armed conflict, but must also engage in rehabilitation, which serves to combat the after-effects of violent situations on children's psycho-social behaviour.

The ICRC and the International Federation are accordingly already implementing programmes to this effect, and in response to Resolution 4 adopted by the Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in Birmingham in 1993. In cooperation with the Henry Dunant Institute and numerous National Societies, they have prepared a Plan of Action for the Movement which is to be submitted to the Council of Delegates. This plan puts forward concrete measures to improve the protection conferred on children by raising the minimum age for participation by children in hostilities and taking steps to render more effective the protection and assistance to which they are entitled.



Too many children are the direct or indirect victims of armed conflicts, even though international humanitarian law contain s provisions granting them special protection.

Evidently, all children's rights must be respected: the right to life, health, medical care, food, education and family reunification. One question, however, calls for particular attention: the protection of children against enrolment and participation in hostilities, for a growing number of children are being induced to join in combat at an ever younger age, yet very often they do not even know what is at stake. Not only does this situation cause children unspeakable suffering and deprivation - including injuries, captivity or death - but many of the innumerable violations of humanitarian law in recent conflicts can also be attributed to it, as children can easily be manipulated and led to commit acts whose seriousness they cannot judge.

It is therefore indispensable to raise the minimum age limit from which children can be enrolled and take part in hostilities, both to protect them and to ensure greater respect for humanitarian law.

Reunification of families dispersed by war

 Reunification of families dispersed by war  




International and non-international armed conflicts all too often disrupt family ties. Family members are separated and contact is lost.

For many years the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has played a major role in preserving family unity and integrity and, in particular in facilitating the reunification of families dispersed by war.

Several resolutions by International Conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (Resolution XX of the 18th Conference; Resolution XIX of the 19th Conference; Resolution XX of the 20th Conferenc e; Resolutions XV and XVI of the 25th Conference) clearly demonstrate the Movement's interest and responsibilities in this respect.

At a meeting in Budapest from 23 to 26 November 1994, 21 National Societies from all continents considered how to improve their services for members of dispersed families. They adopted a resolution which should enable progress to be made in this important part of their humanitarian activities and help solve the problems they face daily.




International humanitarian law tries to address the problem of dispersed families by laying down either general principles or extremely precise rules.


 2.1 Definition of family  

Despite numerous rules intended to protect the family, neither the Geneva Conventions of 1949 nor their Additional Protocols of 1977 contain an authoritative definition.

On one of the fundamental provisions of humanitarian law, Article 74 of Protocol I, the Commentary to the Additional Protocols states the following: " In the narrow sense, the family covers persons related by blood and living together as one household. In a wider sense it covers all persons with the same ancestry. In the context of Article 74 it would be wrong to opt for an excessively rigid or precise definition; common sense must prevail. Thus the word "family" here of course covers relatives in a direct line - whether their relationship is legal or natural - spouses, brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, but also less closely related relatives, or even unrelated persons, belonging to it because of a shared life or emotional ties (cohabitation, engaged couples, etc.). In short, all those who consider  themselves and are considered by each other, to be part of a family, and who wish to live together, are deemed to belong to that family . " Commentary on the Additional Protocols of 8 June 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 , Geneva, ICRC, 1987, p. 859.

In humanitarian law, therefore, a family is considered to be such provided that, objectively, a group of people are living together and, subjectively, they want to live together.


 2.2 Protection of family unity  

The rules applicable to international armed conflicts and designed to protect family rights relate to two fundamental duties: the protection and the preservation of family unity . The protection of family unity is itself subdivided into two duties: not to separate the family, and to facilitate the reunification of individual families should their members become separated.


 2.3 Reunification of dispersed families  

The reunification of dispersed families is dealt with in two provisions, Article 26 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and Article 74 of Additional Protocol I. Whereas under the Fourth Geneva Convention only enquiries made by families wishing to reunite must be facilitated by the parties to conflict, under Protocol I they must facilitate the reunification itself. The work of organizations engaged on this task must likewise be " facilitated " (Fourth Convention) and " encouraged " (Protocol I). Finally, Protocol I assigns these various duties not only to the parties to conflict, but also to all States bound by that instrument.


 2.4 Family rights in non-international armed conflict  


Humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflicts contains two provisions protecting family rights. Both are contained in Additional Protocol II (Article 4, para. 3: family reunification and the protection of children; Article 5, para. 2: authorization to send and receive correspondence).

In addition, the parties to conflict are invited to conclude special agreements between themselves in which, for a purely humanitarian purpose, they decide to bring into force all or part of the provisions applicable to international armed conflicts.

Finally, both the Un iversal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognize that " the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State " .

This very brief examination of family rights protected by international humanitarian law shows the importance which that law attributes to the family as a fundamental social and humanitarian value. In situations of armed conflict, however unsettled, family unity may not be violated except within the strict limits of military necessity. This means that in most cases it should be possible to keep families intact.




To facilitate the reunification of members of dispersed families, it is essential that governments assume their responsibility and act accordingly.

Although grateful tribute should be paid to those governments which have in the past taken the necessary steps to enable families to be reunited, it should nevertheless be stressed that, contrary to international humanitarian law, all too often such reunifications are still being prevented, restricted or delayed.

The various components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement therefore appeal to governments to do everything in their power, in both the political and legal domain, to facilitate the reunification of families dispersed by war.




For over a century, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has played a leading part in reuniting families dispersed by war.

When postal communications are severed - as they almost always are in wartime - the ICRC organizes a mail service between the warring parties both in international and non-international armed conflict. In addition, when postal services have broken down the ICRC, usually with the help of the National Societies concerned, collects and delivers family messages. Such Red Cross messages have thus enabled tens of millions of people to resume contact with members of their families from whom they have been separated by war and to exchange news of a strictly family nature.

When contact cannot be restored by this means, the Central Tracing Agency instituted by the Geneva Conventions conducts enquiries, together with the ICRC delegations based in the warring countries, into the whereabouts of people whose relatives are without news of them.

Finally, whenever possible, the ICRC arranges for members of families dispersed by war to be reunited by crossing borders or front lines, and not only takes charge of registering candidates and settling the formalities with the authorities concerned, but in many cases also organizes the transport and border-crossing. It has often had to negotiate either a truce or transit through a neutral country. Tens of thou sands of people have been able to rejoin their loved ones thanks to these operations.

None of these activities would be possible without the efficient support given by the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies . Thanks to their widespread local branches and sections, but also thanks to the help of their numerous volunteers, the National Societies play a decisive role in collecting and delivering family messages and in searching for missing persons.

In many warring countries National Societies carry out the tasks assigned to national bureaux for information on prisoners of war and civilian internees, either at the request of their respective government or on their own initiative.

Finally, National Societies are particularly well-qualified to help members of families dispersed by war with their enquiries and any formalities to enable them to resume contact with their relatives and be reunited with them.

The International Federation plays an important role in helping National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to develop their own operational capacity, in particular through training courses and support from its delegates. In this way the Federation, too, helps to restore family ties and to bring members of dispersed families together again.

The ICRC, the International Federation and National Societies intend to continue and increase their efforts to help families dispersed by war.



Families are all too often separated as a result of armed conflicts, whether international or non-international.

Ever since it came into being, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has worked to have the right to family reunification enshrined in both international and national legislation. It has regularly and consistently carried out its practical activities to help victims. But there are still too many obstacles of all kinds which limit the effects of this work or simply make it impossible.

The 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is therefore urged:

- to confirm the right of members of families dispersed by war to be reunited;

- to encourage the Red Cross and Red Crescent institutions, to continue, each within its own mandate, their activities for the reunification of members of families separated by war;

- to appeal to the parties to conflict and to all States to do their utmost to facilitate the reunification of families dispersed by war.

Famine and war

 Famine and war  



All wars cause shortages and many result in famine.

Farmers are prevented from cultivating their land, their crops are ruined by troop movements and actual hostilities, irrigation systems are disrupted, transport and distribution systems are paralysed, large sections of the population are uprooted and stocks are plundered or destroyed.

Famine rarely occurs suddenly and is hardly ever due to climatic conditions alone. Usually it is the result of a whole range of factors, compounded by a gradual deterioration in living conditions and leading to large-scale poverty and deprivation. The ultimate outcome is utter destitution and death by starvation.

Most famines - and especially those that kill - strike when a country has to contend with armed conflict. Far more frequently than by climatic or economic conditions, famine is caused by intentional acts. These are mainly of two types:

- displacement of populations, impediment of food production, and intentional destruction;

- obstruction of relief operations.



The purpose of international humanitarian law is to protect all non-combatants, especially civilians, against the effects of hostilities and their consequences.

One of its most important principles is that parties to conflict must at all times respect the distinction between members of the armed forces and civilians, and between military objectives and civilian objects. Civilians and civilian objects must not be the target of attacks. This fundamental principle, which stems from customary law, has been codified for international armed conflicts in Articles 48 ff. of Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions, and for non-international armed conflicts in Articles 13-17 of Protocol II.

In addition there are special provisions intended to protect the civilian population from starvation. Thus:

- Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited (Additional Protocol I, Article 54, para. 1);

- It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive (Protocol I, Article 54, para. 2) .  

Protocol II contains similar provisions applicable to non-international armed conflicts (Article 14).


- the displacement of the civilian population shall not be ordered for reasons relating to the conflict unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand. Should such displacements have to be carried out, all possible measures shall be taken in order that the civilian population may be received under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety, and nutrition (Fourth Convention, Article 49; Protocol II, Article 17, para. 1);

- if the civilian population lacks supplies essential to its survival, parties to conflict have the duty to accept exclusively humanitarian, impartial and non-discriminatory relief operations on its behalf  (Fourth Convention, Articles 38 and 59; Protocol I, Article 70; Protocol II, Article 18) .  

Finally, special provisions restrict recourse to blockades (Fourth Convention, Article 23).

These provisions, like all those which provide general protection for the civilian population against the effects of hostilities, are based on the principle that the belligerents do not have an unrestricted choice of means to crush their adversary.



Despite the precise, mandatory provisions of international humanitarian law, armed conflicts all too often result in famine, either deliberately caused by the belligerents in violation of their obligations, or as an indirect outcome of the destruction wrought by war.

Relief consignments and their distribution have traditionally been considered the most appropriate form of assistance for civilian victims of famine during armed conflict.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent institutions have acquired first-hand experience in this field in almost all major conflicts since the First World War.

The ICRC carried out relief operations for the civilian population after the First World War and during the Spanish Civil War.

During the Second World War, however, they grew to such a spectacular extent that the ICRC became the largest civilian transport company in Europe: in 1943-44 some 2,000 wagonloads were received and dispatched by rail each month. The most notable of all was the operation for Greece, where people were dying of starvation as a result of the blockade and the destruction of agriculture. This relief operation, carried out in conjunction with the Swedish government, enabled 735,435 tonnes of foodstuffs to be distributed.

A new peak was reached during the civil war in Nigeria (1967-1970) when the ICRC distributed some 60,000 tonnes of food to the starving population. For the first time the ICRC was confronted with the problems caused by a blockade in a non-international armed conflict.

Then came the conflict in Kampuchea (Cambodia) where, in the space of a year and a half (summer 1979 to the end of 1980), no less than 369,500 tonnes of food were distributed in the joint ICRC - UNICEF relief operation.

Since then relief operations have progressively increased in number. The following are particularly worthy of mention:

- Angola: 70,000 tonnes distributed from 1975 to 1991;

- Ethiopia: 205,000 tonnes distributed from 1983 to 1986;

- Somalia: 238,000 tonnes distributed in 1992 and 1993;

- Rwanda: 144,000 tonnes distributed in 1992 and 1993;

- former Yugoslavia: 61,000 tonnes distributed in 1992 and 1993.

In Somalia, so that civilians were not held to ransom on leaving the distribution centres, the ICRC organized more than 900 community kitchens where over a million people received a hot meal every day. This relief operation would not have been possible without the remarkable and efficient cooperation of the Somali Red Crescent Society.

At the same time, since 1979 the ICRC has been setting up large-scale agro-veterinary programmes designed to revive agriculture, stockbreeding or fishing: seed and implements are distributed, livestock is vaccinated, fishing tackle is provided, etc.

The ICRC has paid particular attention to situations which required its intervention as a neutral intermediary, in particular sieges or blockades.

It thus interceded to ease the effects of blockades in Biafra, Angola, Ethiopia, and Somalia, but also in the case of Iraq. In Sri Lanka the ICRC transports and guarantees the neutrality of food consignments from Colombo to Jaffna.

Since its creation in 1919 under the name " League of Red Cross Societies " , the International Federation has consistently provided food aid to refugees or displaced persons who have fled from combat zones. These international operations by the Federation are an essential supplement to the work of the ICRC in the combat zones, as are the very many operations carried out nationally by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The food distributed during its operations is bought with funds provided by the National Societies, but also frequently by States, specialized UN agencies or regional organizations. But in each case the Red Cross/Red Crescent volunteer or staff member is the final link between the donor and the recipient.

Furthermore, the International Federation and the 163 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have often gone well beyond the logistics of emergency aid. Along with the ICRC, they have fought for the victims'right to access not only to emergency aid but also to activities with long-term benefit. Thus in many situations the Federation and the National Societies, in cooperation with other organizations, promote measures which have more durable effects than emergency aid alone.



Experience has shown, however, that famine or the suffering it brings can never be eliminated by food aid alone, which always falls short of the victims'needs and cannot in itself resolve their situation.

The processes leading to famine in periods of armed conflict must therefore be analysed to gain a better understanding of its true nature and to define appropriate humanitarian action to address it.

In brief, the following causes can be identified:

- population displacements, whether by force or to flee the fighting;

- limitation of production, in particular by internment, by restrictions on movement or by the indiscriminate use of mines which prevent farmers from cultivating their land;

- destruction of irrigation systems and crops;

- severance of lines of communication;

- pillage and destruction of reserve supplies;

- obstruction of emergency relief operations intended to combat the effects of food shortages.



The conclusions are as follows:

a) respect for the relevant provisions of international humanitarian law remains the first and foremost means of preventing famine and limiting its effects in armed conflict.

b) it is imperative that belligerents refrain from taking any action which prevents the civilian population from producing the food it needs to survive;

c) belligerents must in particular refrain from causing population displacements, unless absolutely necessary for the security of the population itself, being aware that any forced displacement deprives it of its means of survival and leaves it prey to starvation;

d) belligerents must allow the free passage of relief consignments for the civilian population - even that of the enemy - when it lacks supplies essential to its survival;

e) as the International Court of Justice pointed out in its judgment of 27 June 1986, "the provision of strictly humanitarian aid to persons or forces in another country, whatever their political affiliations or objectives, cannot be regarded as unlawful intervention, or as in any other way contrary to international law" . (Judgment of 27 June 1986, ICJ Report 1986, p. 124.).

Water and war

 Water and war  



Water is a source of life and no one can survive without it. It is indispensable in all circumstances and must be protected both in peacetime and in war.

However, despite the protection afforded them by the rules of international humanitarian law, civilian objects are not always spared by military operations. It is impossible to ignore the serious consequences attacks on such objects have on the living conditions of the civilian population, especially when those indispensable to survival such as water and food are affected. Experience from certain recent or ongoing conflicts has unfortunately shown that damage by hostilities to the water supply has dire consequences for the civilian population and its means of survival. Not only can thirst be deadlier than weapons, but by causing people to be displaced and giving rise to illnesses and epidemics, the destruction of water supplies threatens populations, livestock and crops.

The intention here is not to deal with water as a cause or means of warfare , but to examine the main aspects of protection for it, under international humanitarian law, as an essential resource for the victims of armed conflicts and the civilian population . The work carried out during or after armed conflicts to repair the water treatment and distribution systems will also be mentioned and a number of solutions to the main practical problems will be put forward.




National and international regulations on water basically come within the domain of peacetime law. This resource, vital as it is for everyone, everywhere and at all times, is mentioned in only a few provisions of humanitarian law, in terms of the latter's chief purpose: the protection of certain categories of persons and objects. These provisions primarily relate to three specific areas:

- limits imposed on belligerents in the conduct of hostilities;

- role of civil defence organizations; and

- water supply for protected persons.


 2.1 Limits imposed on belligerents in the conduct of hostilities  

Referring to the customary rule whereby the right of belligerents to choose means of harming the enemy is not unlimited, international humanitarian law includes a series of prohibitions which also apply to water. These are as fo llows:

- the use of poison or poisoned weapons is prohibited  

(Hague Regulations, Article 23 a);

- the destruction of enemy property, except in cases of imperative military necessity, is prohibited and may be punished as a war crime  

(Hague Regulations, Article 23 g; Fourth Convention, Articles 53 and 147);

- pillage is prohibited  

(Hague Regulations, Articles 28 and 47; Fourth Convention, Article 33, para. 2; and Protocol II, Article 4, para. 2 g);

- the destruction of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population and attacks on works or installations containing dangerous forces are prohibited, both in international and non-international conflicts  

(Protocol I, Article 54, para. 2, and Article 56; Protocol II, Articles 14 and 15).

Furthermore, the law of international armed conflicts prohibits reprisals against objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population and against works and installations containing dangerous forces (Protocol I, Article 54, para. 4, and Article 56, para. 4).


 2.2 Role of civil defence organizations  


It should be noted in particular that one of the humanitarian tasks of civil defence organizations , as specified by the new provisions of 1977 Additional Protocol I, is the emergency repair of indispensable public utilities . Other explicitly mentioned tasks on behalf of the civilian population are fire-fighting, the provision of emergency accommodation and supplies and the preservation of objects essential for survival. Even if civil defence personnel carry out their tasks only on national territory, whether occupied or not, these provisions reinforce the protection granted to objects of a civilian nature and, if faithfully applied, can make a valuable contribution to the assistance provided for the civilian population. The role of the civil defence organizations in safeguarding reservoirs and other water supply systems must be emphasized and encouraged (Protocol I, Article 61 a , vii, x, xii, and xiv, in particular).


 2.3 Water supply for protected persons  

The basic needs of any human being cannot be met without water. Care and help without water are inconceivable, no matter who the beneficiaries or the extent of the humanitarian assistance. If it was not deemed necessary to lay down detailed rules on the subject, the reason was that water is evidently indispensable in all circumstances. However, certain situations require special rules which the parties to conflict have to respect. Thus, by virtue of the Third Geneva Convention, when evacuating prisoners of war the Detaining Power is obliged to provide them with drinking water and food in sufficient quantity, clothing and medical care. The same applies to transfers of civilian internees. The provisions relating to food supplies for these two categories of persons also refer to the water the Detaining Power must provide for them (Third Convention, Article 20, para. 2, Article 26, para. 3, and Article 46, para. 3; Fourth Convention, Article 89, para. 3, and Article 127, para. 2).



Power stations are often put out of operation in armed conflicts, thus disrupting the water distribution and sewage systems. This in turn increases the risks of epidemics. When pumping stations are targeted, not only is the civilian population deprived of an essential resource, but repairs are also long and costly.

The use of water as a means of warfare has consequences of serious humanitarian concern. The ICRC therefore strives to ensure that objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population are protected, and works to preserve health during periods of conflict. To this effect it employs sanitary engineers and public health experts with two main tasks: to repair damaged installations and sewerage systems and, in acute emergencies, to see that water is distributed and public hygiene facilities are restored so that the population can survive and is protected from epidemics. As access to water remains difficult even when hostilities have ended, the ICRC usually has to continue its assistance to meet u rgent needs. 

The National Societies , which are often already working in the public health field before conflict breaks out, continue that work and can give the ICRC valuable support during the hostilities. Several of them have qualified staff capable of repairing supply systems, though as yet the need for such staff to deal with the problems encountered is greater than the number available. The National Societies also help to solve urgent water distribution problems and to maintain supplies of this vital resource beyond the emergency period. For without drinking water public health services are brought to a standstill, and without public health services, even the best primary health care programme is doomed to failure. 

The protection of water as a resource indispensable to life everywhere and at all times cannot be ensured by one organization alone. It requires the efforts of everyone, and especially concerted action by all the Movement's components.

With the support of their International Federation, the National Societies have a major role to play in consolidating the results obtained in primary health care and building upon what has already been achieved. In situations where there are many displaced persons or refugees, the Federation and the National Societies play an important part in ensuring that they have adequate access to water. Besides emergency activities, preventive action is also required so that shortages do not give rise to widespread epidemics, unrest and even conflict.




By its very nature and purpose, humanitarian law cannot be applied to the whole issue of water resources, which are regulated in principle by national and international agreements initially destined for peacetime. In humanitarian law, the protection of persons entails the protection of objects, and all the rules briefly mentioned are intended above all to serve the humanitarian interest of protected persons . Though their scope may seem limited, full compliance with the relevant provisions is nonetheless prerequisite for the protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. Water is of paramount importance, and water resources and installations intended for civilian use must be kept clear of military operations, or else entire populations will suffer.

For the said provisions to take effect and serve the humanitarian ends for which they are intended, the Contracting Parties, and the belligerents in particular, must fulfil their obligations. One of these is precisely access by the population to indispensable objects . This access must not be hindered and those whose task it is to repair and operate the civilian water supply systems and installations must be protected . By taking preventive measures in peacetime, such as dissemination of knowledge of the rules applicable and instruction for the armed forces, the Contracting Parties will help improve the implementation of humanitarian law. At another level, coordination and cooperation between bodies in charge of repairing the water supply systems are necessary to limit the damage caused by armed conflicts.

In view of the many difficulties already mentioned, the activities carried out by the Movement's components, separately or jointly, are far from exclusive. Cooperation must be extended to include external expertise in order to prepare action programmes suited to the various circumstances and to seek joint solutions where appropriate. This cannot be achieved without continuous efforts to inform, consult and coordinate , efforts which, in many situations, are crucial for the survival of the civilian population.

Mines and blinding weapons

 Mines and blinding weapons  



Landmines violate international humanitarian law every day. More than 100 million mines lying in wait around the world have no commanders, no training in humanitarian law and no ability to distinguish a child from a soldier. During the week in which the Red Cross and Red Cross Movement gathers for its 26th International Conference some 500 persons, mostly civilian, are expected to be killed or wounded by landmines. During the same week another 40 to 100 thousand mines will be laid, adding another five to twelve months to the 1,100 years it will already take, at the current rate, to clear the world of mines.




Of the 500 people victimized by mines during the week of the 26th Conference a large proportion will never make it to medical care. Those who do will often travel many hours under difficult conditions. Those who survive will begin an arduous process of treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration into their societies. The children who are lucky enough to obtain artificial limbs will need them replaced every six months until adulthood and every few years thereafter. During the week of the 26th International Conference the $750 million needed for surgery and lifetime support for current mine victims and the $33 billion needed for mine clearance will increase by tens of millions of dollars. It should be remembered that in addition to the population of the mine-affected country, there are many victims among personnel of humanitarian organizations, United Nations peace-keeping troops and, of course, mine clearers.

The medical aspects must be specified here. A person who stands on a buried anti-personnel mine usually has his/her foot or leg blown off. Earth and fragments of the shoe and contact foot are driven up into the other leg, genitals and arms. If the victim survives and reaches hospital, the surgical care needed to amputate the affected limb and to excise all the dead and contaminated tissue requires considerable expertise and a disproportionate use of operating theatre time, blood transfusions and occupation of hospital beds. When the wounds are eventually healed, the victim is left with severe lifelong disability. Rehabilitation of people with such disability is rarely available in those countries most affected by mines.

The effects of landmines are not just immediate. Long-term consequences include the social cost to a comunity of look ing after amputees for their lifetime as well as the psychological trauma those amputees have to deal with. Anti-personnel mines also affect local communities, taking large areas of otherwise productive land out of use where farmers fear the risk of injury.




 3.1 Action by the ICRC and National Societies  


The ICRC surgical hospitals treating wounded from the Afghanistan conflict alone have treated more than 12,000 mine-injured in the last ten years; this is a small proportion of the total mine-injured in that country. Likewise, the 13,000 limb prostheses manufactured each year worldwide by the ICRC orthopaedic centre help to rehabilitate only a small proportion of the amputees that are affected by the global mine problem.

The Medical Division of the ICRC has recorded its experience of anti-personnel mine injuries, particularly from Cambodia and Afghanistan. This record has served to pass on the experience gained of this difficult surgical problem to others who have to treat mine victims. The data collection has also given impetus to the campaign to ban anti-personnel mines by showing that non-combatants are affected by mines (up to 40% of mine victims may be women or children) and that mines are a considerable risk to a migrating refugee population.

As ICRC surgeons and deleg ates began to realize the magnitude of the landmine problem and its appalling consequences for civilians, an international symposium was convened in Montreux in April 1993. The meeting brought together military strategists, manufacturers, mine clearance specialists, experts in international humanitarian law or disarmament law and ICRC surgeons and delegates. Further to one of the recommandations of the Montreux symposium, the ICRC subsequently held a seminar in January 1994 devoted to examination of the military utility of anti-personnel mines.

Discussions and reports of the working groups in Montreux provided the basis for concerted action by the ICRC, National Societies and other humanitarian organizations in the following years. Since 1993 the ICRC has become one of the leading international sources of information and analysis of the global landmine problem. The organization's widespread field experience and medical and legal expertise has meant its views are considered well grounded and credible.

The 1993 Council of Delegates adopted a resolution calling on both governments and National Societies to undertake various actions to improve the level of ratification of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons,The full title of the Convention is " Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects " . to provide more help to the victims of mines and to undertake the necessary measures to achieve a much stricter regulation of the use of mines in the 1980 Convention.

Many National Societies have been active in helping the victims of landmines, organizing mine-awarness seminars for populations at risk, raising public awareness of the issue and bringing the attention of their governments to the need to take firm measures to eradicate this problem. In particular, the Afghan Red Crescent, the Cam bodia Red Cross and the Mozambique Red Cross Society are actively involved in dealing with the consequences of anti-personnel mines.


 3.2 Response to the call for a ban  

In response to increasing public awareness and pressure, States Parties decided in late 1993 to convene a Review Conference of the 1980 U.N. Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons which governs the use of landmines. In February 1994, on the eve of the first meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts preparing the Review Conference, the ICRC launched an appeal to the international community to enact a " total and absolute ban " on anti-personnel mines, a step which it said was the only effective solution to the global landmine crisis from a humanitarian perspective.

The ICRC's call for a total ban was followed by similar appeals by the U.N. Secretary General, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF and many leading humanitarian agencies. As of April 1995 the appeal for a total ban has also been supported by eleven States.

The Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, made up of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Caritas Internationalis, International Save the Children Alliance, Lutheran World Federation, Oxfam and the World Council of Churches have also been active in lobbying and information/dissemination, as has the The International Campaign to Ban Landmines conducted by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, Handicap International, Human Rights Watch, Medico International, Mines Awareness Group and Physicians for Human Rights.

At the national level the campaigns undertaken by National Societies have led to some impressive results, with an number of countries now supporting a total ban on the use of anti-personnel mines. The case of Belgium, which has passed legislation prohibiting the use, import, export and stockpiling of anti-personnel mines, merits particular mention.



The ICRC was invited to participate as an observer in the Group of Governmental Experts and was asked by this Group to prepare background documentation and proposals both on landmines and on other issues which the ICRC felt should be addressed by the Review Conference. The ICRC was the only non-governmental body permitted to play an active role in the four meetings of the Expert Group in 1994 and 1995.


 4.1 Proposals of the Group of Governmental Experts  

At its final meeting in January 1995 the Group of Governmental Experts sent a set of proposed amendments, reported below, for consideration and adoption by the Review Conference of the 1980 Convention scheduled for 25 September to 13 October 1995 in Vienna. (It is unlikely that significant changes will be introduced at the Review Conference. However a report on the new measures adopted will be sent to delegates to the 26th International Conference in November 1995).  

The proposals which received the most support in the Group of Experts and which will be before the Review Conference are as follows:

- All anti-personnel mines must be detectable;

- Remotely-delivered mines must contain a self-destruct mechanism;

- All hand - or vehicle - emplaced anti-personnel mines used outside of marked, guarded and fenced minefields should have a self-destruct mechanism; and

- Restrictions on the use of landmines should be extended to apply to non-international armed conflicts.


 4.2 Position of the ICRC  


The decision to extend Protocol II annexed to the 1980 Weapons Convention on certain conventional weapons to non-international armed conflicts was particularly welcomed by the ICRC, as most indiscriminate use of landmines in recent years has occurred in internal conflicts. However, despite the considerable progress made by the Group of Governmental Experts, there are several serious weaknesses to their proposals relating to the Protocol on landmines:

- it will be difficult to enforce the restrictions on hand - or vehicle-emplaced mines, as the continued use of " dumb mines " (lacking self-destruct mechanisms), which are such a threat to civilians, will still be permitted. As the sale of " dumb mines " will continue it will be difficult to enforce the rule that they indeed may only be used in ma rked, fenced and guarded minefields, particularly among non-State forces in internal conflicts;

- the regime may contain a provision, accepted by consensus from among the expert group's recommendations, which suspends the guarding and fencing obligations for fields of dumb mines " in situations where direct enemy military action makes it impossible to comply " . This will, in practice, have the effect of undermining the proposed rule that all mines used outside fenced and guarded areas must be self-destructing mines;

- owing to the opposition of some States, the Protocol may not specify precisely a minimum metallic content sufficient to ensure that mines can be detected by currently available means;

- it will be difficult to ensure the reliability of self-destruct mechanisms and many States may not develop or buy them in the near future. Some have stated that they will need a'grace period'of 10-20 years to implement this requirement;

- owing to objections by several States there may be no requirement that anti-tank mines must also be detectable and not contain devices which cause them to explode when detected. Such mines will in practice threaten the lives of mine-clearing teams;

- there may be no provisions limiting the export of landmines;

- the Protocol is likely to lack verification and enforcement provisions.

The ICRC is concerned that the new restrictions on landmines which are likely to emerge from the Review Conference will be both too complex and too weak. When combined with the likely absence of effective verification and enforcement measures, there is a real danger that the   new rules may not substantially strengthen the protection of civilians from the suffering   currently bein g inflicted on them by the indiscriminate use of mines. Although it will welcome incremental improvements in existing law which will reduce civilian casualties, the ICRC, supported by many National Societies, remains convinced that a total ban on mines is the only effective means of containing the current global disaster.  

Recognizing that a total ban on anti-personnel mines must be a long-term goal which needs to be pursued with determination and firm commitment over a period of years, the ICRC intends over the next few years to further raise public awareness of the landmine crisis and build an international momentum towards the goal of stigmatizing and eventually outlawing these indiscriminate weapons.

The ICRC invites governments and National Societies to join with it in mobilizing their human, financial and political resources in a long-term commitment to achieving:

- the stigmatization and eventual total prohibition of anti-personnel landmines;

- a significantly increased commitment, by the Movement and national and international bodies, to the care and treatment of victims of landmines; and

- a major increase in national and international mine-clearance programs.




Resolution VIIB of the 25th International Conference of the Red Cross invited the ICRC to keep the Movement informed of the development of new weapons technologies, in addition to mines, the use of which could be prohibited under existing international law. Pursuant to this request the ICRC convened four meetings of experts between 1989 and 1991 on battlefield laser weapons and an additional expert meeting in 1994 on other weapon systems of possible concern. Based on the information assembled on laser weapons, the ICRC concluded that the large-scale production of laser weapons suitable for permanently blinding large numbers of soldiers or civilians could occur by the mid-1990s and that, because of the severity of blinding as an injury, the anti-personnel use of such weapons would violate the principle of unnecessary suffering. The experts consulted in these meetings also stressed that portable laser weapons would inevitably proliferate and therefore be frequently used indiscriminately.

In 1994 the ICRC proposed the elaboration, within the framework of the 1980 U.N. Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, of a fourth protocol prohibiting intentional blinding as a method of warfare. At its final meeting in January 1995, the Group of Governmental Experts agreed to send for consideration by the Review Conference the text of a new draft Protocol which would prohibit the use of laser weapons to blind persons as a method of warfare and prohibit the use of anti-personnel bli nding laser weapons. The text reflected consultations among a wide range of States favouring a ban on laser blinding. As of April 1995, twenty-five countries Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific have supported the proposed fourth Protocol. The decision of the Review Conference on this matter will be transmitted to delegates to the 26th International Conference in a supplementary report.