Archived page: may contain outdated information!
  • Send page
  • Print page

Going back to Kosovo

07-05-1999 Article, La Tribune de Genève, by Cornelio Sommaruga

Translation of an article published in La Tribune de Genève, 7 May 1999.

 Cornelio Sommaruga is President of the International Committee of the Red Cross  

The International Committee of the Red Cross is negotiating to be back working in Kosovo to assist the victims of the conflict. We expect to be back in Kosovo within the coming days or weeks. This is dependent, however, on ICRC receiving written guarantees from the Yugoslav authorities that the organisation's working methods will be respected. Principal among these is complete freedom of movement and access for ICRC staff and respect for the symbol of the Red Cross. We also have to be convinced that the insecurity that forced the ICRC to pull out in the first place has abated. Security for ICRC staff also means security for the civilian population to be reached. Any return will be done carefully and prudently and fully in compliance with the demands of our credo -- neutrality, impartiality and purely humanitarian approach. In Kosovo, where the rights of civilians as set out in the Geneva Conventions, which fifty years ago set out the rules of armed conflict, have been routinely and breathtakingly violated, this could be a small but perhaps significant moment of progress. There is a vital role for independent and neutral humanitarian agencies to play in this conflict: they will have to be respected by all parties to the international conflict. And let us be clear: this role cannot and must not be taken over by the military. The two must remain separated by a clear firewall.

Although not a new phenomenon in itself, this war -- and we use the word advisedly -- between the Yugoslav authorities and NATO has seen a blurring of roles more than ever before between humanitarian and military players. In the Kosovo crisis, the military has taken on more and more humanitarian responsibilities, activities which by its very nature it can help in but not fully perform. The guiding principle of humanitarianism is attending to the needs of the most vulnerable without taking sides in a conflict. In the early days of this crisis having the resources, supplies and people available to the military to help set up refugee camps was tremendously useful. In a crisis,'all hands on deck'is the right approach, particularly when both military and humanitarian actors were so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the suffering. But that is a temporary phase. Like a good guest, the military must know when to leave as well as when to arrive and what to bring.

The needs of civilians affected by the conflict remain paramount in ICRC's assessment. The condition of the hundreds of thousands of Kosovars still inside their country is not known, but there are enough indications for the organisation to be fearful for their wellbeing. We can be sure that they will need food, shelter and medical supplies, at the very least. And beyond that, evidence of solidarity from the international community -- a sign that they are not to be forgotten or abandoned to their fate. This is the most urgent task for humanitarians now that to some extent at least conditions although still miserable have somewhat stabilised in the refugee camps in Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Damage to such things as water and electric installations in Serbia have made many people newly vulnerable to disease.

In this time of change and disintegration it is ever more important to stick by the principles one holds to be true, hard-won and dear. Whoever they are, whatever they believe and notwithstanding the d emonisation of enemies -- another disturbing trend in this conflict -- civilians should be spared the effects of conflict. This is an international obligation that spares no one. If anyone has forgotten let them hereby be reminded of that. During my recent meeting with President Milosevic, I reminded him that international law made illegal the forceful evacuation of civilians from their homes. We fundamentally disagreed on our analysis of what has been happening in Kosovo over the last weeks but I was encouraged by his readiness to see ICRC return to Kosovo. The precision of some of the weapons deployed by Nato gives it the possibility to take great care in its selection of targets. This is, of course, a welcome development but one that carries with it renewed responsibilities. I have reminded Nato's leadership of the obligation during wartime to restrict attacks to objects or installations which make an effective contribution to the military action of the enemy. The balance between risks to combatants and civilians has surely to be weighted in favour of the latter. Errors and collateral damage are a serious matter to urgently consider because of their humanitarian consequences.

If on the edge of the twenty-first century the world wishes to be less barbarous and more civilised it must accept that wars do have limits and that we are all bound by them. An integral part of that is to afford neutral humanitarian organisations space to work in to relieve the plight of the most vulnerable.