Universal meeting of National Committees and similar bodies on international humanitarian law. Statement by the ICRC

30 November 2016

Universal meeting of National Committees and similar bodies on international humanitarian law. Speech given by Ms Christine Beerli, vice-president of the ICRC. 

On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross, I would like to offer you a warm welcome to Geneva and to the Fourth Universal Meeting of National Committees and Similar Bodies on International Humanitarian Law. I am delighted to note that many of the 108 national committees on IHL are in attendance. I am also pleased to see representatives of numerous countries that do not yet have a specific body on IHL, as well as many other stakeholders. Your presence here today shows that there is interest in discussing how to enhance protection in armed conflict through domestic law and policy.

The world desperately needs better protection in armed conflict. Far too many men, women and children are being wounded and killed, and far too many communities ripped apart by armed violence. And these armed conflicts show no signs of abating.

The number of people fleeing fighting and violence has reached unprecedented levels. World heritage sites are being deliberately attacked. Hospitals are being bombed, leaving the wounded and sick without life-saving health care.

These issues are cruel realities that our staff on the ground witness on a daily basis in many places the world over. They resonate with all of us. No country is immune from the possibility of being confronted with any or all of them.

As you know, the ICRC works around the world to assist and protect people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence. But it also has a mandate to prevent suffering by promoting and strengthening international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles. The ICRC is convinced that a clear framework of rules at the international level – accompanied by the corresponding rules, policies and enforcement at the national level – strongly contributes to saving lives and reducing suffering.

Because of broadly publicized violations of IHL, some commentators have suggested that the law is failing. Yet I would argue the contrary: never has the normative legal framework been so comprehensive and strong; never have there been so many opportunities to build and strengthen mechanisms to review implementation of and compliance with the law. The ICRC is convinced that IHL remains a critical tool and a universally agreed framework for preserving lives and protecting human dignity in armed conflict. Simply put, IHL cannot exist in a vacuum: if its purpose – to establish limits in war – is to be fully achieved, it must be known, understood and implemented by all States, but also respected by all States and all parties to armed conflict. I thus salute your many efforts to increase knowledge and implementation of IHL. An implementation gap remains, however, and more needs to be done.

Ensuring respect for and protection of the wounded and sick, health-care personnel and facilities and medical transport without discrimination has been at the core of IHL since the adoption of the original Geneva Convention in 1864. And yet, deliberate destruction of hospitals and attacks against health-care workers and ambulances continue to disrupt health-care services where people need them most, depriving the wounded and sick of life-saving treatment. In many countries, the situation is alarming; the images are harrowing.

In December 2015, the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent adopted a robust resolution that calls for continued efforts to protect the delivery of health care and for cooperation to this end between various stakeholders. A few months later, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted the landmark Resolution 2286, which strongly condemns attacks on medical personnel in conflict situations. The resolutions complement efforts at many levels and call for similar action, including developing domestic legal frameworks in line with international law; refraining from attacking the wounded and sick and medical personnel; and ensuring accountability for violations of the law. These resolutions and other efforts must be lauded. But now is the time to take action that will make a difference on the ground.

Internal displacement linked to armed conflict and other situations of violence has reached worrying proportions: by the end of 2015, there were 40.8 million internally displaced people – the highest number on record.

Furthermore, many migrants transit through, and may become stranded in, countries experiencing armed conflict, which may make them more vulnerable. Their vulnerability may arise from not speaking the local language, or from not being allowed access to services such as basic health care and assistance. They may be detained and at risk of being deported in violation of the principle of non-refoulement. Families of migrants in countries of origin and in the diaspora may be desperate to know the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones, in particular when they are caught in a situation of armed conflict.

Internal displacement and migration are defining dynamics of our times – whether in countries facing situations of internal displacement or countries into which people move, at the UN General Assembly, at conferences of the European Union, or on the agenda of the African Union – and these dynamics continue to shape national and international policies and debates.

Just last month, the president of the ICRC addressed the African Union Peace and Security Council to present a report summarizing the outcome of a stocktaking exercise on the implementation of the AU Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (also known as the Kampala Convention). The ICRC conducted the exercise, and a variety of stakeholders were consulted, including the AU, its member States, and regional economic communities. The report confirmed the relevance of adopting normative and policy frameworks on internal displacement at regional and domestic levels to help strengthen protection and assistance of internally displaced people (IDPs). This dialogue demonstrates that actors at all levels are concerned by the plight of IDPs, and that there is value in them engaging with each other.

Recent armed conflicts have seen deliberate destruction of archaeological sites and historical monuments in complete disregard of the well-established rules under international law governing the protection of cultural property in armed conflict. Often this has been a precursor to abuses against civilians.

People are reacting. Last year, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on preserving the cultural heritage of Iraq, and stressed the important role many people and organizations have in supporting the establishment of relevant national legal frameworks and policies, as well as the importance of holding perpetrators accountable. The International Criminal Court heard the message. Recently, in a case concerning the destruction of the mausoleums in Timbuktu, it handed down a sentence that will hopefully have a deterrent effect on others tempted to carry out similar acts.

When, in 2013, the national IHL committees of the Americas convened – as national committees regularly do – they shared presentations on the state of play of IHL implementation in their respective countries. Several presentations highlighted the concrete measures taken to protect cultural property from the consequences of possible armed conflicts. The peer exchange was further enriched by discussions with UNESCO and the Organization of the American States, which both highlighted the ways they can support the work of national IHL committees. The OAS, recognizing that its IHL-related efforts were complementary to those of national IHL committees, has continued to include the committees to its IHL-related deliberations.

Respecting and ensuring respect for IHL, for which States bear the primary responsibility, is a multidimensional obligation. It includes creating the conditions for and an environment conducive to respect for the law, preventing violations thereof and halting them when they occur and punishing the perpetrators of serious violations, which requires adequate criminal legislation to be adopted. In many countries, national IHL committees have played an important role not only in adopting the domestic measures required to address the three topics under discussion, but also in implementing their States' obligations under IHL generally, and in contributing to broader efforts, including regional and global initiatives aimed at respect for IHL.

I have noted with enthusiasm that a number of national IHL committees are taking on an evolving role beyond what has been their traditional task of promoting IHL knowledge and domestic implementation. For example, in a country where there was already legislation regulating the use of the red cross, the red crescent and red crystal emblems, the national IHL committee met and discussed allegations that the emblem had been misused. This, while the armed conflict was still ongoing. Some committees regularly produce public reports detailing the status of IHL implementation in their country; some support the implementation of their country's reporting obligations under specific international instruments. Others were highly involved in the preparations for or the follow-up to the International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent.

Many national IHL committees have reached out to their peers for support, and many have joined forces. Since the last universal meeting in 2010 we have seen a sharp increase in bilateral exchanges and joint activities. For example, national IHL committees from countries in southern Africa recently created a platform to hold annual meetings, and they are holding their first while they are here in Geneva. Two national IHL committees from another region also met in advance of this meeting to get a head start on sharing experiences. I hope it will be the start of a fruitful cooperation.

Both national and international courts are taking up matters related to protection in armed conflict. Resolutions are being adopted, and discussions are being held in a variety of forums, providing more opportunities to exchange experiences. I am heartened by the numerous efforts and initiatives at all levels to reduce suffering, and enhance respect for the law and the protection under it. We need to build on the complementary nature of the various actions at the domestic, regional, and universal levels.

This collective effort is reflected in what I see as the current global system of respect for IHL, with its strengths and weaknesses, where each player and each mechanism has its purpose and its contribution to make. States are most effective at respecting and ensuring respect for IHL when they act in cooperation with others or collectively. We therefore need to combine efforts on various fronts to secure better protection for men, women and children from the adverse consequences of armed conflict. Regional and universal initiatives only have teeth when they are implemented at the domestic level; and domestic input helps to shape what is discussed and done beyond a country's borders. In short, I am convinced that State authorities and their national IHL committees on the one hand, and regional and global forums on the other, are mutually reinforcing and influencing.

In these difficult times, I find comfort in seeing that a convergence of forces is possible. However, as we speak, cities are burning and millions of people are suffering from the consequences of armed violence. There is an urgent need to step up our efforts. I believe that some elements of the current system of respect for IHL make it fit to address the protection challenges posed by armed conflict. But the current level of suffering and destruction suggests that there is room for further strengthening.

We need to nourish the synergies between the different efforts promoting respect for IHL – or, if you prefer, between the existing elements of the system – and seek to enhance the system by actively promoting the addition of complementary elements.

The 32nd International Conference itself can be seen as an element of the global system of respect for IHL. It adopted several resolutions and served as a platform for reflecting on how to further strengthen respect for IHL. Resolution 2, on strengthening compliance with IHL, recommends that States engage in a State-driven inter-governmental process to examine how to enhance the implementation potential of the International Conference and regional forums. It also provides that States should find agreement on the features and functions of a potential forum of States on IHL. In our view, such a forum would be a useful addition to the global system of respect for IHL. The discussion is ongoing, and I invite you to encourage your governments to take an active part in this process with a view to further enhancing the global system of IHL implementation.

The wealth of expertise and experience in this room should not be underestimated. I hope you will harness this collective knowledge and invite you to use the coming days to brainstorm how your national IHL committees can enhance their role and contribution within the existing system of respect for IHL.

For example, can you seek and fully utilize a right of initiative to proactively advise your decision makers?

Can you volunteer your expertise to alert your authorities when you observe potential violations of IHL or the risk thereof?

Can you increase your level of involvement in your country's reporting in connection with obligations under IHL and other relevant treaties?

Can you increase cooperation between national IHL committees, in order to solidify the emerging network that has formed through regional meetings and peer-to-peer exchanges?

Can you increase your involvement in the International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent?

Are you prepared to be more assertive in your role as promoter of IHL implementation and respect within your respective countries, and be the ambassadors for IHL regional and global initiatives aimed at strengthening IHL respect and protection in armed conflict?

Let me conclude by asking you to make pragmatic use of this opportunity. The global system of respect for IHL is comprised of various efforts taking place at numerous levels. Your role in this system is significant. For the sake of the millions of people who are suffering from armed conflict, I urge you to use this meeting to share with each other the many ways in which you already help to enhance protection in armed conflict, and to identify ways in which you can strengthen your contribution. The ICRC stands ready to continue to support your efforts and those of your national IHL committees, and all endeavours to alleviate suffering resulting from armed violence.