Speech by ICRC president to OSCE

Speech by Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, to the OSCE in Vienna, Austria, on 27 October 2016.

Honorable Chair,
Dear colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am grateful to be able to address the Permanent Council of the OSCE today.

The OSCE and my organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have common concerns and common objectives, particularly in regions of Europe and the South Caucasus where we both are active: Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

I commend the OSCE's human dimension and carefully designed toolbox to address security-related issues in Europe in a comprehensive way, to ensure in particular the respect for human rights, and this in multifaceted crises with various layers of challenges. The ICRC, too, is working to continually adapt its humanitarian response on the ground and its diplomatic engagement around the world to deliver pragmatic and effective responses for people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence.

Our humanitarian principles – neutrality, independence, impartiality – and over 150 years of experience in conflict theatres around the world, along with relevant provisions of international humanitarian law position us as a trustworthy and reliable neutral humanitarian intermediary, with the consent of all parties involved, and frequently complemented by your role as peace negotiator.

The recent joint retrieval and transfer of bodies of soldiers fallen on the battlefields of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an excellent example of what we can achieve when we join forces. The loved ones of the fallen soldiers finally obtained certainty and could bury their dead in dignity. But beyond, such incremental progress is also essential for dialogue, and, one day, reconciliation.

I mention Nagorno-Karabakh also because the renewed fighting last spring – following relative calm over the past two decades – and the reportedly increased violations of the cease-fire since mid-September give way to grave concern that the situation could once more deteriorate. Negotiations for political agreement are essential, particularly today.

While the ICRC does not partake in political peace negotiations, we do stand ready to assist through operations on the ground that can foster trust. In this respect, progress on the file of missing people has proved particularly fruitful, with remarkable results emanating from the complementarity of the ICRC and OSCE again on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict where the OSCE Minsk Group was instrumental in mobilizing parties to commit to clarifying the fate of those missing from the conflict in the 1990s, as well as in Georgia where the mechanism on missing persons of the South Ossetia conflicts which the ICRC chairs, has recently recommenced its work. I thank the OSCE for its commitment and valuable help which contributed greatly to this result.

In Ukraine, too, working relations between our organizations are frequent, fluid and mutually beneficial, particularly within the Humanitarian Working Group. Again, your support for our humanitarian objectives – to trace, identify and reunite missing persons with their families and to gain regular and unimpeded access to places of detention – have proven more than helpful, and I thank you for this. In return, we gladly provide our expertise in OSCE-led fora, while of course ensuring that our respective roles remain clearly delineated, so as not to jeopardize the neutrality which enables us to work with all parties, and in all regions.

In Ukraine in particular, the ICRC is the only international humanitarian actor present in some regions. Operations ensuring access to clean drinking water – including ICRC's projects in eastern Ukraine which contribute to ensure access to water for hundreds of thousands civilians on both sides of the contact line - or education programmes in schools – a field in which the ICRC is just starting out – bring immediate relief to people who are suffering from fragility and fighting. All of our activities are designed for the long-term, so as to ensure maximum efficiency for the people who benefit from them, and because we deem it essential to anchor ourselves in the communities we work to help, to really understand their needs and continually adapt our operations to deliver the best humanitarian response possible.

Tension and volatility are given factors in the environments in which we work. But over the past years, increased security concerns and the growing fluidity of non-State armed groups and other actors have led to a number of concerns around violent extremism. We acknowledge these concerns and understand the need to develop measures aimed at preventing and countering this phenomenon. In this regard, the OSCE certainly provides a good platform for States to coordinate their approaches, in full respect of the rule of law as a key element of the human dimension of security.

As far as we are concerned, we aim to contribute to an environment that is favorable to respect for IHL and the rule of law, for the benefit of people affected by conflict and violence. Consequently, we engage with political authorities and weapon bearers - on a strictly humanitarian basis - to see that IHL is respected, and to gain access to victims of armed conflict, but not with the political objective of "de-radicalization" or combating extremism.

We rely on principled humanitarian action to foster trust, consent and acceptance. But humanitarian action cannot be expected to prevent radicalization, although we recognize that our humanitarian activities may sometimes overlap with programmes aimed at countering or preventing violent extremism, as they contribute to preventing and reducing suffering caused by acts of violence, including acts of "extreme violence".

We work for instance in detention places in 96 countries around the world, to ensure respect for the rights and integrity of detainees, in an environment where the issue of radicalization requires particular attention. This exclusively humanitarian work might indirectly contribute to addressing the phenomenon of radicalization as violations of detainees' rights are often presented as a contributing factor.

Overall, the success of our humanitarian work depends on our ability to remain impartial, neutral and independent and it is essential to ensure that P/CVE programmes do not create confusion on the very distinct role of principled humanitarian actors.

It's not new that humanitarian action cannot be a substitute for political solutions. Particularly in the framework of protracted armed conflicts, the kind of which we see more and more, and where immediate and gradual degradation of infrastructure, services and living conditions have tremendous negative impact on affected populations through deterioration of livelihoods, healthcare, food security, water, electricity, education, and law and order, we see radicalization gaining ground, often rotted in deep social and political divides.

What we also see is that a fundamental recognition of the rules of war, of international humanitarian law, helps mitigate the humanitarian risks and consequences of conflicts and violence. We continually work to inform, educate and influence all weapon bearers towards respecting IHL, for the mutual benefit of all parties, of affected populations and detainees.

I would like to ask you to consider four ways in which you could support our actions, for the benefit of people caught up in armed conflicts and other situations of violence:

Greater agility in funding from States to humanitarian bodies such as the ICRC – e.g. multi-year funding and strategic programming – could contribute greatly in bridging the gap between emergency humanitarian assistance and longer-term infrastructural assistance, which strengthens local capacities and develop sustained economic security activities.

Your full support for the respect of IHL and international human rights law and international standards, including through training may contribute to prevent abuses, violations, inadequate treatment and conditions of people detained. This might be the best way to create an environment conducive to respect for the rule of law rather than the use of extreme violence which in turn fuels protracted crises.

Humanitarian action cannot be a substitute for sustainable political solutions. A neutral, independent, impartial humanitarian approach is complementary to the political solutions needed to address protracted crisis and hence, the OSCE has a vital role to play to mobilize States in finding political solutions to prevent durable crises.

The Helsinki +40 final act remains a powerful tool under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter to support the OSCE's work in ensuring a holistic and comprehensive response to prevent, mediate and address crises in Europe, through commitments on politico-military, economic and environmental, and human rights issues. You have the power to make this a reality.

Thank you.