Speech given by ICRC president at Human Rights Council, 2016

01 March 2016

Speech given by Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC, at the 31st session of the Human Rights Council.


One of my first field missions as president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in September 2012, brought me to Syria.

The popular uprising had turned into a violent civil war, and Syrians were seeing their normal lives slip away. Normal life, in peacetime, meant children going to school, parents going to work, people haggling at the market.

I went back to Syria last week, and there is nothing normal there anymore.

Shelling has destroyed electricity networks and water purification systems. Fighting has destroyed transport routes for fuel and food. Bombs have destroyed hospitals and schools. The scourge of siege warfare across the country is cutting people off from the rest of the world, without access to basic services or life-saving aid.

And Syria is just one example where we see the excruciating cumulative effects of protracted conflicts on people's lives.

The impact of armed conflicts and violence today is systemic and all-encompassing in too many countries: from the implosion of essential public services like health, electricity, water and sanitation to the eradication of what keeps a society growing – education for its children, jobs for its adults, security for its most vulnerable. The longer wars and other situations of violence last, the deeper the crippling effects of war economies. Within just a few years, decades' worth of progress and development are wiped out.

Where protracted conflicts, persistent violence and widespread insecurity prevent a lot of development agencies from working and where there is no foreseeable end to the hostilities in sight – in Somalia, Afghanistan, South Sudan or Iraq, to name but a few countries – we as humanitarians take on the role of mid- to long-term stabilizers, vaccinating cattle, facilitating business creation, and supporting health and water facilities for ever longer durations.

Ensuring that essential infrastructure and services continue to function properly during armed conflicts and situations of violence not only helps prevent suffering but also lays the foundations for post-conflict recovery; it is a key part of respecting people's rights.


When international humanitarian law is not respected, life – dignified life – becomes impossible.

When fundamental human rights are not respected, people lose hope.

The best way to counter the long-term impact of protracted conflicts, which can affect whole generations of whole nations, is to prevent violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

It is your role, as States, to maintain, to protect and to support public services, even – and above all – in times of war and violence.

The vicious cycle of violence, poverty and underdevelopment spins faster when basic infrastructure is destroyed, when access to health care is made impossible, when all the basic necessities for dignified human life are denied – and of course when fundamental rights are disregarded. Rights are not abstract norms, they are the foundation of life. Systematically and seriously violated rights make it impossible to live a dignified life.

This is why I am asking you to do everything in your power to make sure that the dignity and rights of men, women and children are respected, by ensuring they have unimpeded access to basic services, like health, water, shelter and education.


I encourage you to see this 10th anniversary of the Human Rights Council as an opportunity to celebrate its achievements, but also as a moment to inspect where we stand today in our quest to create the conditions for dignified human life.

We all know that this body was created with some inevitable contradictions: as both a political forum for human rights and a space for evidence-based interaction amongst peers and experts. Throwing political weight behind an evidence-based approach to human rights has allowed progress in many areas over the last decade, imperfect though such progress may have been at times.

The consistent refinement of the Universal Periodic Review demonstrates this Council's promising powers of persuasion as well as States' readiness to engage, and I commend you all for that.

I am here to assure you that the ICRC continues to stand ready to support the HRC in its aim to protect dignified life, through better respect of the law, particularly in times of armed conflict and other situations of violence and the fragility resulting therefrom. I believe that we have an important contribution to make in developing mechanisms to this end.

The ICRC is present in the most violent and fragile societies worldwide and we know that when international humanitarian law is violated, then international human rights law will follow a close second.


It seems to have become fashionable to lament the erosion of international law and its protective capacity. I would argue the contrary: never has the normative legal framework been so strong and comprehensive, never before have there been so many opportunities to build and strengthen mechanisms to review the law's implementation and respect.

The paradox is one of perception.

It is precisely because the law has never been stronger, that we are more sensitive to violations and transgressions, and rightly so. It is because we know its protective capacity, that we are so outraged when it is violated, when civilian communities are forcibly displaced or trapped in lengthy sieges, when schools are unlawfully attacked, when detainees are denied procedural safeguards, kept in inhumane conditions, tortured or summarily executed.

Last year, the ICRC visited almost one million detainees across the world. Our experience, and our global presence, allows us to see which patterns drive which developments.

We see where systematic ill-treatment and abuse lead to the radicalization of detainees.

We see where a chronic failure of the administration of justice – the lack of judges, of resources, of appropriate infrastructure – leads to inhumane conditions of detainment.

Investing in a functional, independent justice system is one of the best choices a State can make to yield long-term societal benefits. Such a system means that international law is respected, that armed forces are trained in their legal obligations, that national institutions promote the law and that people are aware of the law's deep roots in their cultures and societies.


The Human Rights Council has tremendous added value to bring to the world: it can create and protect the conditions conducive to the dignity of human life. This is no mean feat, quite the contrary.

I trust that you will continue to act on this mandate and mission, and to do your utmost, for people everywhere.