Speech by ICRC Vice-President at World Humanitarian Day panel

Speech given by Ms Christine Beerli, Vice-President of the ICRC at the World Humanitarian Day panel on "Violence against health care and its implications for affected populations, humanitarian workers and aid".

Director General, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The ICRC is honoured to co-organise with the United Nations Office in Geneva, UNOCHA and MSF this debate on World Humanitarian Day.

The protection of health workers, the sanctity of access to health care for wounded and sick people during armed conflict and emergencies is a core concern of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. But this issue does not belong only to the Movement, nor to humanitarian workers and agencies. It belongs to us all.

It is a particular pleasure to speak at this event following my briefing to the UN Security Council in May where the new Secretary General presented his first report on the Protection of Civilians, putting forward a strategic focus on the critical question of how to prevent and alleviate the suffering of civilians in armed conflicts. Today, World Humanitarian Day, while we commemorate those who dedicate their life to help the others, the urgency to implement concrete measures to protect health-care services as one of the crucial pillars of action to prevent and alleviate the suffering of civilians in armed conflicts cannot be overstressed.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Just a few days ago we received terrible news from Gambo, in the Central African Republic. From the preliminary information we could gather, the security in the area has deteriorated greatly, and beside other incidents we were informed that some armed men had entered a health center shooting indiscriminately at civilians. Around 50 people, women and medical personnel along with 6 Red Cross volunteers were killed but the victims might be much higher. People had flocked to the health centre for refuge. They found death instead. Sadly, this is not a one-off type of event. We are seeing similar cases in many other countries where the ICRC and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement work.

We are seeing not only patients and health workers killed or threatened, hospitals bombed, and ambulances misused, but entire public health systems collapsing. Communities already enduring the brunt of war, are exposed to revivals of epidemics, and succumb to completely man-made catastrophes. This is unacceptable.

A recent example is Yemen where over half a million people are suffering from an outbreak of cholera which has claimed over 2'000 lives to date and 2'000. Since the war started the ICRC estimates there have been more than 160 attacks on health care facilities. Less than half of the health infrastructure is now functioning as a result of these attacks, the lack of fuel and supplies. Less than 30% of needed medicines and medical supplies are entering Yemen spiraling the price of medicine beyond the reach of average citizens. In the worst affected areas, medics are unable to save the lives of their patients due to the absence of critical supplies and vital equipment. The UN estimates that on average 20 people die every day from treatable wounds and curable illnesses.

The single most effective way to reduce the terrible suffering we are witnessing is, without doubt, improving respect for international humanitarian law and the basic principle of humanity.

Working to ensure respect for IHL is at the heart of the ICRC mandate and mission. We engage in a wide range of activities to advise and support parties to armed conflict, both State and non-State, on IHL and its implementation. We train military forces, armed groups, decision-makers and legal practitioners in IHL. Through our "Health Care in Danger" project we've raised awareness at national and global levels and pushed for concrete measures to bring an end to violence against health care.

Of course, we can only be one small part of the solution. Ultimately, primary responsibility for compliance with IHL lies with the parties to armed conflict themselves. There is a need, however, for a broader, concerted international effort to improve compliance with the law.

This means that all States must at all times ensure respect for IHL and do their best to ensure that their partners and allies, do the same. There are countless ways in which they can do this. Supporting and providing IHL training to their partners on respecting and protecting the medical mission, is just one example.

It means avoiding labelling armed groups as "terrorist" simply to deny the applicability of IHL in an armed conflict. And it also means national legislators and courts fulfilling their responsibilities of ensuring that domestic legislation recognises the criminal responsibility of those who violate IHL, and of actually enforcing such legislation. Perpetrators of violations must be held accountable.

Several States have made progress in improving their domestic legislation to protect healthcare and enhance their military policy and rules of engagement. Other States are developing diplomatic networks to build increasing support for Resolution 2286, such as Canada and Switzerland.

There is an urgent need to implement the recommendations made by the UN Secretary-General and by others, including the Health Care in Danger Initiative.

Debates like this can play a part, as well as States reporting voluntarily on their efforts to implement Resolution 2286. But to influence behaviour on the ground, the work needs also continue at national and regional levels. And we can all play a part on pushing for it.

Violence against health care is not an inevitable consequence of war. It's a deliberate choice. As a collective humanity, if we don't stop it, the shame is ours to bear.

Thank you.