IHL seeks to limit the humanitarian consequences of armed conflicts

A statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delivered by Laëtitia Courtois, Permanent Observer and Head of Delegation to the UN, to the United Nations General Assembly, 78th session, plenary meeting of the coordination of humanitarian and disaster relief assistance of the United Nations, including special economic assistance.

Mr President, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates,

We meet this year at a time of significant humanitarian challenges, and armed conflict is at the heart of these challenges.

Thousands of our colleagues are mobilized in contexts around the world to reach out to those in need and uphold the principle of humanity.

The provision of humanitarian relief by impartial humanitarian organizations is essential to reduce the suffering in armed conflict.

This year, we wish to highlight three important issues that continue to affect our operations.

First, compliance with IHL in armed conflicts is not optional.

We have heard many States echoing this as a political priority: it is now imperative to make it an operational reality.

IHL seeks to limit the humanitarian consequences of armed conflicts. Better respect for IHL means making sure that civilians are never directly targeted, that loss of civilian life and damage to civilian infrastructure are minimized. It means also that violence to life and person, the taking of hostages, and outrages upon personal dignity are prohibited. 

Those obligations may not be conditioned on the behavior of one of the parties; IHL must be respected in all circumstances, even if it is violated by the adversary.

Better respect for IHL also leads to better humanitarian outcomes, limits suffering on all sides and preserves a pathway beyond the conflict. When rhetoric dehumanizing the civilian population associated with the opposing side is amplified, we see significant humanitarian impacts and long-term risks.

Disinformation and misinformation campaigns against humanitarian actors put those trying to help and those who need this help, at direct risk. In light of the dangerous consequences of dehumanizing language in armed conflict, we urge political and military actors not to resort to or endorse such practices.

Member states have a critical role in the preservation of the humanitarian space, and we ask your support to ensure it is upheld, even in the most polarized crises.

Secondly, ensure better humanitarian access, in particular in urban areas.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been carrying out neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action since 1863 – for 160 years. In 1992, the General Assembly adopted a resolution outlining similar ways of working for the United Nations and its implementing partners. These modalities are key to gain the confidence of the parties to an armed conflict. Assistance must be provided, and solely on the basis of need.

Access and space for impartial humanitarian organizations and their personnel, including experts able to repair essential services and infrastructure may not be unlawfully denied by warring parties.

Today, we are losing precious time in negotiations around the modalities of humanitarian responses, yet it is particularly as crises become more acute that needs are most desperate and thus timely access most critical.

Respecting IHL means ensuring that humanitarian assistance is provided to the civilian population. The parties to a conflict have the primary responsibility to meet the basic needs of the population in areas under their control.

But where they are unable to do so, impartial humanitarian organizations must be able to do their work, including throughout the hostilities, and not just when those have ceased. Without this immediate access, humanitarian consequences will be far greater and more difficult to address.

Under IHL, civilians and civilian objects must be protected against direct attack, including in urban settings. When an attack against a military objective is expected to cause civilian losses greater than the anticipated military advantage, it must be suspended or cancelled. And the parties to an armed conflict must do everything they can to minimize civilian harm.

It is critical that the Declaration on Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, the EWIPA Declaration, signed by 83 States, is implemented, in order to see a change in warring behavior.

And we would ask Member States who have not signed it to consider doing so. It is also more essential than ever that states with influence do what they can to ensure better respect by their partners and allies, fulfilling their obligations to both respect and ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions.

Thirdly, understand the limits of humanitarian action.

Humanitarian action is vital, but it cannot be the only answer. We encourage political actors to engage towards political pathways that will ensure life with dignity and development for their peoples. Without that, humanitarian responses quickly reach their limit. Three years ago, we highlighted the fact that we had been in our 10 largest operations an average of 36 years.

We therefore also encourage political and development actors to prevent development reversals, especially when a crisis hits, and find a way to stay engaged in fragile settings. Ensuring that populations affected by conflict can meet their needs and rebuild their lives in the long run cannot be done solely by humanitarians. Essential public services and systems of entire countries need to be maintained no matter the circumstances.

As conflicts continue to be increasingly protracted and affect a variety of countries, the resources and capacities of the entire aid ecosystem must be harnessed into wider systemic responses to increasingly complex needs in crises.

This is a humanitarian imperative for affected populations which requires action by a variety of actors – and above all a political commitment from states.

Excellencies, distinguished colleagues,

Now is the time to redouble diplomatic efforts to put our shared humanitarian values at the center of international cooperation.

Multilateralism matters. IHL and humanitarian principles matter. It is through renewed collective action that we will preserve our common humanity and make a difference in the lives of millions of people affected by armed conflicts and other humanitarian emergencies.

Thank you.