Protection of civilians in armed conflict: an ICRC perspective

22-11-2010 Statement

Statement by Yves Daccord, director-general of the ICRC. UN Security Council, New York, 22 November 2010

Yves Daccord. ICRC's director-general

Mr. President  Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The protection of civilians in armed conflict has been high on the international agenda in the last decade. On one level, progress had been impressive. Never before have there been so many policy statements and resolutions, so much global information and advocacy, and such a proliferation of actors professing to carry out protection work.

Sadly, as we all know, these fine words and good intentions are rarely matched by the reality on the ground.

While there may still be divergent views as to what protection actually is, there can be little doubt about what happens when there is no protection. This is the reality facing the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in our daily work in far too many armed conflicts and other situations of violence around the world.

... the lack of respect for international humanitarian law by states and non-state actors, coupled with a prevailing culture of impunity, is the main cause of the large-scale human suffering we are witnessing.

The reality in some places is men, women and children being killed or raped, being forced out of their homes and losing all their possessions, living in a state of fear. It is hospitals being bombed and health workers being attacked.

Beyond the deliberate targeting of civilians, the reality is also the countless numbers of other – often forgotten – victims who are equally in need of protection.

The reality is that in war, people go missing. The plight of these people and their families is a major concern for the ICRC. People have the right to know what happened to their missing relatives. Governments, the military authorities and armed groups have an obligation to provide information and assist efforts to put families back together.

In addition, the hundreds of thousands of people imprisoned or detained in armed conflict must not be forgotten. Ensuring their humane treatment and detention in acceptable conditions is another of the ICRC's main concerns and core activities.

So why is the reality on the ground so often dismal compared to the great progress we see in policy and doctrine?

Mr. President, the fundamental reason is as obvious as it is challenging. It is of course the lack of respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) by states and non-state actors. This, coupled with a prevailing culture of impunity, is the main cause of the large-scale human suffering we are witnessing.

Various factors compound this challenge. The increase in non-state armed groups in some contexts is one. When armed actors are motivated by crime or banditry it is harder to talk to them about their obligations to protect civilians. The constant evolution in the means and methods of warfare – sometimes accompanied by a reckless disregard for the protection of civilians – is another factor. Waging battle in the midst of a densely populated urban area – sometimes with highly explosive weapons – is just one example that comes to mind here.

Yet despite – or rather because of – the flagrant violations committed by parties to conflict around the world, the ICRC firmly believes that the relevance and importance of IHL is reaffirmed rather than weakened. Indeed, this is echoed in the five core challenges set out by the UN Secretary-General in his 2009 and 2010 reports on the protection of civilians.

Working to ensure respect for IHL in situations of armed conflict remains at the heart of our mandate and our mission, and this is reflected in how we aim to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict.

Indeed, for the ICRC, protection and assistance go hand-in-hand. Our operational presence in diverse situations of armed conflict or other violence ensures our proximity to the victims. We engage in confidential dialogue with state and non-state actors to uphold the rights of people affected, aiming as much as possible to prevent violations. Such dialogue is facilitated by strict adherence to a principled approach. We remind the parties of their obligations to protect civilians and we promote compliance with IHL at all levels. This includes supporting authorities to incorporate IHL into national legislation and into army training manuals, for example. It also includes working to clarify or develop certain aspects of IHL, requiring extensive consultation with states and other stakeholders.

At the same time, the ICRC works to address victims' needs – be they food, water, shelter, other essential items or medical care; tracing missing family members and re-establishing links between them; or ensuring that people in detention are well-treated. Protection can facilitate assistance, and vice-versa.

Of course the ICRC's approach is only one of many among an increasing number of civilian and military actors with different mandates, objectives and ways of working.  But an effective protection response requires adequate professional competencies from all involved. With this in mind, ICRC developed a set of commonly agreed, minimum professional standards in 2009. These standards are considered essential for more effective interface and complementarity among humanitarian and human rights actors. Importantly, these standards affirm that persons at risk must be at the centre of any action taken on their behalf, playing a meaningful role in analysing, developing and monitoring protection responses to the threats and risks they are facing. (See: Professional standards for protection work)

... in any event, men, women and children in need of protection must truly be at the centre of any action that is undertaken.

Mr. President, the UN has gone a long way in including protection activities in the mandates of its peacekeeping missions, and in improving protection for specific groups such as women and children, refugees and IDPs. The ICRC will continue to work for the protection of civilians within the limits of our mandate and expertise, based explicitly on a neutral and independent approach. Other actors will continue to operate according to their own particular mandates and approaches.

True consensus on the meaning of "protection" among all actors may be hard to achieve. However, it is essential to have clarity and transparency on the objectives of different actors, be they civilian or military, and a clear distinction between the two. To avoid unrealistic expectations, it is important to distinguish between physical protection (which humanitarian actors cannot provide) and protection by promoting compliance with the law. And in any event, men, women and children in need of protection must truly be at the centre of any action that is undertaken. The challenge of turning words and intentions into concrete, meaningful action – where it counts – is one we all face.

Mr. President, that challenge ultimately rests with states – and non-state actors – both bound by IHL. I end by making a sincere plea to them – and to this Council – to show the necessary political will and good faith needed to turn legal provisions into reality, to take seriously the obligations to protect civilians. That would be the most meaningful progress of all.

Thank you.