The critical importance of neutrality: A humanitarian perspective into a multipolar world
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Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
I thank the organizers and our host for the renewed invitation to speak at the Beijing Xiangshan Forum, on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The 10th edition of this Forum focuses on Common Security and Lasting Peace: These topics are of major concern for the ICRC, and the Forum offers a precious opportunity to engage state representatives on key humanitarian issues.
Two months ago, the ICRC President, Mirjana Spoljaric, visited China and met with President Xi Jinping. During the meeting, President Xi referred to humanitarianism as the greatest consensus able to unite different civilizations, further expressing his appreciation for our international humanitarian work. I take this opportunity to reiterate our sincere appreciation for China's enhanced support and engagement on international humanitarian law.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, the International Committee of the Red Cross was founded 160 years ago. The core mandate of my organization is to protect and assist the people affected by armed conflict.
Our mission is also to assist states and the military in meeting their obligations under the Geneva Conventions and – more broadly – under international humanitarian law. These laws of war provide a universal compass, balancing security and military imperatives with the imperative of humanity. This is more relevant than ever, as we count over 100 armed conflicts worldwide today, and we witness a resurgence of international armed conflicts.
Even wars have limits. States have adopted clear rules that apply in situations of armed conflict:
- Civilians and essential services – such as healthcare, drinking water provision, and education – must be protected.
- Indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks are prohibited.
- Prisoners of war and detainees must be treated humanely.
States have also committed to allow and support the work of neutral, impartial, independent humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC.
Today, this remains our main ask to all parties to armed conflicts, be it in Gaza and Israel, in Ukraine, Sudan, Afghanistan, or Colombia.
Ratified by 196 states, the Geneva Conventions commit signatories not only to respect but also to ensure respect for the Conventions. Every state thus can and should exert a positive influence in this regard, especially when they directly or indirectly support a party to an armed conflict.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Conflicts often result in extreme polarization. Everyone is expected to take sides. Yet, the ICRC always strives to preserve a space for neutral and impartial humanitarian action.
Remaining neutral does not mean that the ICRC does not care about the humanitarian consequences of armed conflict, or that we do not take action. To the contrary! Neutrality is what allows us to fulfill our mandate. Remaining neutral is a condition to reach people affected by armed conflict and provide them with assistance.
In times of extreme polarization, there is often misunderstanding about the confidential dialogue that the ICRC – as a strictly neutral and independent humanitarian actor – develops with every party to armed conflicts.
Allow me to highlight three points in this regard:
First, neutrality is the cornerstone of our engagement with conflict parties.
Our teams operate on the ground without armed escort, across the frontlines. We develop a confidential dialogue with parties to armed conflict to be able to prevent and alleviate suffering.
Not taking sides allows us to negotiate with all weapon bearers – from national armed forces to non-state armed groups.
Worldwide, around 195 million people are living in areas outside government control. These people, living under the partial or full control of armed groups, often lack access to essential services. Neutral, impartial, and independent humanitarian organizations, such as the ICRC, can help meet their basic needs.
Remaining neutral has proven time and again that it allows us to maintain access to people in need. It also allows us to maintain a privileged dialogue with the military, whom we assist in meeting their IHL obligations. We do so by sharing legal expertise and practical training based our field-based experience in virtually all armed conflicts.
Neutrality allows us to work with warring parties so that detainees are treated humanely and their families can receive news from them. We also help clarify the fate and whereabouts of civilians and combatants who have gone missing. And we facilitate the return of human remains to their families, sometimes after decades of anxiety, of not knowing.
Second, international humanitarian law and our neutrality can offer important pathways to peace.
By setting limits to armed violence, IHL reduces people's grievances and hatred, which often hamper subsequent reconciliation. Respecting IHL limits the human and the material costs of war – helping to preserve critical infrastructures and essential services including hospitals, schools, water and energy supplies, or power plants and dams.
Respecting IHL also offers opportunities for restoring minimal trust between belligerents. The ICRC has served as a neutral intermediary for many years, giving our organization a unique expertise and legitimacy, for example to facilitate the release of prisoners. Though we do not engage in negotiations, once the parties have agreed, we can facilitate the release and safe transport of prisoners and hostages, as we have recently done in Gaza where we stand ready to do much more. Sometimes, parties to armed conflicts have also asked us to facilitate the transport of their representatives across frontlines for peace talks.
Earlier this year, we facilitated the release of over 950 detainees in Yemen, whom we could safely bring back home to their families in Yemen and the region. These are powerful moments of shared humanity, which can serve as early steps in supporting peacebuilding efforts.
Third, digital technologies in armed conflict raise new risks.
The instant spread of disinformation against humanitarian organizations undermines trust and puts their staff at risk. It jeopardizes the space for neutral humanitarian action.
More broadly, widespread disinformation and hate speech can incite violations of IHL. Cyber-attacks can disrupt essential services and impair critical civilian infrastructures. For us, there is no doubt that IHL applies to new means and methods of warfare as well.
Autonomous weapon systems, powered by artificial intelligence, raise serious legal and ethical challenges. A key question is whether states and the military want to surrender life-and-death decisions to algorithms, without retaining an element of human judgement and control, and allow weapons that have unpredictable impact. Earlier this month, the UN Secretary-General and the ICRC President joined voices to urge political leaders to adopt international rules to regulate the use of autonomous weapons, including specific prohibitions.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
I wish to conclude by saying that neutrality is not an objective in itself. For us, it is a condition to be able to protect and assist all the people affected by armed conflict, including wounded and detained servicemen.
As warfare and geopolitical tensions are evolving fast, IHL remains more relevant than ever. It represents a crucial consensus preserving our common humanity in the worst of times. Together, we can do much in peacetime as well to integrate IHL in legal frameworks, military doctrines, manuals, and training curricula.
Drawing on real-world challenges experienced daily by my colleagues in the field, the International Committee of the Red Cross is ready to continue supporting you in integrating and upholding IHL, for example through practical training and participating in military exercises. This can help prepare your troops for the realities of upholding the Geneva Conventions, on the battlefield, protecting civilians, and integrating humanitarian issues in your exercises.
Upholding international law is a crucial building block in relation to the theme of this Forum: Common Security and Lasting Peace.
Thank you for your attention.