• Send page
  • Print page

Keynote address by Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross

31-12-2003 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 852

28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva, 3 December 2003

“Protecting human dignity”, the theme of this conference, was chosen more than two years ago. It could not be more relevant today. Protecting human dignity is a simple objective and at the same time a staggering challenge. The objective is simple because it lies at the very heart of humanitarian law and humanitarian action. But the challenge is immense because of the nature of contemporary armed conflicts and the many threats hanging over every human being and, indeed, all humanity.

What are the consequences of these conflicts, and the threats arising from them? And what are the hopes – what positive action can be taken, by the States and the members of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in particular, to respond to the sufferings of millions of people?

Much has been said and written about the changes that have occurred in the world these past years, especially since the attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001. While it is undeniable that a new dynamic has arisen in international relations, it must also be recognized that the events of 11 September, unique and dramatic though they are, served to highlight already existing tensions. These events came in addition to other human tragedies, some of which, sadly, disappeared from the media spotlight as a result.

How, then, can we give a comprehensive description of the state of the world from the standpoint of a humanitarian organization, working in the midst of armed conflicts? Now as always, my response begins with the victims of war. These are people who suffer, but also who have resources of their own for confronting the ordeals afflicting them. My address is bas ed on their words, as heard and conveyed by ICRC delegates working on the ground in the four corners of the world.

The suffering engendered by armed conflict remains immense, and lasting. Even when conflicts wind down in military terms, they continue to take the lives of people who step on mines, and of people who no longer have access to drinking water or medical care as a result of the fighting. Thousands of families remain without news of relatives who have gone missing. Arbitrary measures, indiscriminate violence, and a tit-for-tat mentality continue to dominate too many conflicts.

To be sure, from the humanitarian perspective, certain older conflicts, as in Angola, Sudan, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have given way to glimmers of hope and the beginnings of peace. Thousands of prisoners of war captured during the Iraq-Iran war, some of whom were held over 20 years, have been able to go home, as have some prisoners – though far too few – in the Western Sahara. But how many other conflicts show no signs of being resolved?

Although the fundamental nature of war is unchanging, wars do take new forms and display new features. Overall there continue to be more internal than international conflicts. Internal conflicts, motivated by politics, economics and crime, are marked by recurring attacks on civilians and their property, not only as an indirect effect of combat, but as its very objective. Many armed conflicts also involve a significant imbalance between the weapons available to the two sides.

The polarization of our world – both between and within countries – takes many forms, and has intensified since 2001. I would add that our age is also marked by a lack of listening. This is not in fact a “clash of civilizations” but the clash of various kinds of ignorance and failure to understand – or an escalation of fear. “Others” – whether they be individuals or an entire peo ple – are no longer perceived as partners and as a source of spiritual or intellectual enrichment, but as adversaries, threatening in their strangeness. The lack of dialogue manifests itself not only between countries and between continents, but even within countries and local communities.

While acts intended to spread terror among the civilian population are far from new, they have taken on a new dimension through the international expansion of the activities of various groups, the linking up of different groups, and the constant threat this poses to our societies. But the struggle against terrorism, however necessary and legitimate it may be, cannot ignore the social and economic conditions that incite individuals and whole communities to tolerate these activities, or even to support them. This struggle must not undermine the values on which society must be founded – in particular the preservation of human dignity.

There is a link between the unprecedented proliferation of weapons and the accelerated development of technologies liable to be used for hostile purposes on the one hand, and the new forms of war and the terrorist threat on the other. Never before have the means of warfare – whether conventional weapons or so-called weapons of mass destruction – been available to such a broad range of groups. The lack of effective controls on the availability of arms and on the development of new weapons constitutes a genuine menace for humanity.

Even some populations no longer suffering the effects of actual armed conflict remain marginalized and forgotten, since their countries’ natural resources arouse more interest than their health or education. The humanitarian organizations that went there in response to the emergency of armed conflict must therefore stay on almost indefinitely, in the so-called “transitional” period, which in fact leads to nothing if not further misery and, frequently, the resumption of fighting.

Is there then nothing that we can do? Is there no way to prevent, or at least to mitigate, the suffering caused by armed conflict? I am convinced that we do have the means. Suffering, or at least some forms of suffering, can be avoided.

International humanitarian law, when implemented on the ground, helps prevent suffering. It is gratifying to note that during the four years since the 27th International Conference, many States have become bound by the relevant instruments of humanitarian law. Today, 191 States are party to the Geneva Conventions, 141 are party to the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel landmines and 92 have ratified the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. These commitments are the reflection of political will. Let us transform that will into reality, by action such as incorporating the rules of humanitarian law into national legislation and internal military directives, to ensure that the States fully meet their commitments.

The ICRC has kept the promise it made in 1999 to attend to the special needs of women and girls adversely affected by armed conflict, and to endeavour to draw the attention of warring parties to the prohibition on all forms of sexual violence. It did this by publishing a detailed study on the subject in 2001. By integrating the study’s conclusions into its own operational practice through guidelines issued to its delegations, the ICRC has been able to take better account of women’s special needs.

In February 2003, an international conference of experts was held here in Geneva to examine how best to address the issue of missing persons and to help their families. The conference results were important and encouraging, and will contribute to our discussions here over the coming days.

These are positive points. But they cannot mask the scale or the persistence of the suffering caused by far too many conflicts. The agony an d the abandonment to their misery of thousands of persons continue to be of major concern to me, as do the contempt shown for people’s physical and mental integrity and their dignity in so many places, and the criminal blindness of those who commit acts intended to spread terror among civilians. I am also concerned that torture may again be tolerated, or that attempts may be made to justify it. I am outraged by the murders of ICRC staff, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Society volunteers, or members of any other humanitarian organization, and by other criminal attacks directed against them.

My concerns about respect for humanitarian law go even further. They extend to respect for international law in its entirety, especially law devised to protect the wounded, prisoners of war, families of missing persons, refugees, and the defeated, law meant to form a shield against violence and arbitrary exercise of power, but also against neglect and abandonment. Humanitarian law and human rights law – the violation of which often causes the very tensions that lead to armed conflict – together with refugee law thus constitute guarantees against abuses of power, whether they be individual or collective. These guarantees are also a matter of recognizing the genuine aspirations of individuals or communities to be free, and to have their culture, values and land preserved.

I am convinced that international humanitarian law, in its current form, remains more than adequate as a legal basis for responding to the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts. Its complete implementation depends to a large extent on the positive and determined political will of States to entirely meet their responsibility to respect and ensure respect for this body of law in all circumstances. The States have an obligation to take all possible measures, unilaterally or collectively, to put an end to violations of humanitarian law by interceding with those who have committed them or with thos e who may have it in their power to stop them.

To defend the authority of law, or to reaffirm the relevance of international humanitarian law in today’s world, is not to assert that this law is perfect or immutable. Respect for the law is also a matter of interpreting, updating and developing it. This naturally applies to international humanitarian law as well. In the course of the year now drawing to a close, the ICRC has devoted a great deal of energy to this issue. It has consulted many governmental and other experts at various meetings in every region of the world. It has issued a report on “International humanitarian law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflict”, which you have received and had a chance to look over. Its contents will be the subject of our discussions beginning today, and I would hope that some of the convictions that inspire the ICRC will be taken up by the declaration and the agenda for humanitarian action that the Conference will adopt.

The ICRC for its part intends to continue its work, in the legal domain in particular, to identify and promote the most effective means – whether new or already existing – of ensuring thorough implementation of international humanitarian law. This work will be guided by the study on customary international humanitarian law, which summarizes broad legal research and analysis of State practice. The study will be published in 2004, though you have already received a report on it.

I would now like to deal with several points relating to the conduct of humanitarian action, which is often poorly understood and increasingly the object of threats and even attacks. Humanitarian action is placed at risk when the States seek to use it as a tool to further particular policies or partisan interests. When this happens, the distinction between the realm of military action and that of humanitarian endeavour become blurred in people’s minds, especially those of c ivilians affected by the fighting. Indeed, humanitarian action and military intervention are too often perceived as two sides of the same coin – and a foreign coin at that.

I am not here to advocate a total divorce between humanitarian and political endeavour, or between humanitarian and military action. All the ICRC asks is that the States, and their armed forces, respect international humanitarian law, in particular the Geneva Conventions, and support the work of organizations like the ICRC that carry out the tasks laid down by those Conventions in order to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict. Each of us – the governments, the armed forces and the humanitarian organizations – has its own responsibilities in this domain.

In operational terms, there is a need to maintain the distinction between these different spheres. Separate from the action of the States, scope must be set aside for neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian endeavour. Our insistence on preserving this scope is in no way motivated by selfishness; it merely reflects concern that we not be dependent on an ideology, a country or a group of countries. The ICRC’s independence, and the neutrality so closely linked to it, are a means to an end – they are the prerequisites for taking action anywhere and with complete impartiality.

The ICRC wants to stay close to the people it helps, especially when the fighting is worst, as in Baghdad or Monrovia this year. But to stay at the victims’ side you must first have access to them, and that means access to the authorities, to the warlords or to other groups on whom their fate depends. Gaining access to the latter is a complex task, and often a risky one. Some of those we have to approach are known to us. Among those known to us, some are hostile to humanitarian action. Other potential contacts are unknown to us. In such cases we must take a wide range of steps to make ourselves known to and accepted by them. This is the only way of ultimately reaching the people who require help, ascertaining their needs and responding in an appropriate and effective manner.

Fostering human dignity is the ultimate purpose of humanitarian law and humanitarian action itself. This goal does not reflect political naivety since humanitarian organizations are fully aware of the need to strike a balance between legitimate security requirements and the equally legitimate need to preserve people’s physical and mental integrity and ultimately their dignity. That balance is fundamental to international humanitarian law itself. I personally am convinced of the need for this balance and believe that it is possible to ensure the security of a State without violating fundamental human rights, that one can control a territory while respecting its population, and that one can detain people who threaten public order while respecting their physical and spiritual integrity and without undermining their dignity.

Failure to comply with the law is dangerous, but so is the questioning – which we see today in some circles – of the very values and principles that underpin international humanitarian law and human rights law. It is obvious that terrorism is the very negation of fundamental humanitarian principles. We are unanimous in condemning the massacre of civilians, and I call on all political, moral and religious authorities to denounce – without any reservation, without any nuance – the use of such criminal methods.

But at the same time I appeal with equal urgency to the governments represented here today, to the various components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, to all the organizations striving to uphold human dignity – I appeal to all of them to avoid being drawn, involuntarily or though an excess of repression, into the dynamic of terroris m by disregarding the law, in particular humanitarian law. To the contrary, I ask you to make use of all the relevant legal instruments to prosecute those who sow terror among civilians and those who support them in these crimes. I ask you to do this without either denying anyone the protection of the law or sparing them the punishment it prescribes. The law, it is true, does offer protection to the accused. But it is by respecting that law that one also preserves one’s own dignity, self-respect and moral authority.

To conclude, and in view of our Conference agenda, I would like to mention two major challenges which we must face both individually and collectively.

The first is the question of what we must do to reduce the scale of suffering due to war. That is, how can we better protect civilians against the indiscriminate use of weapons and combatants against excessively cruel means of killing and injuring? How can we more effectively limit the development of such means, their availability and their use, especially when it comes to new types of weapons? That is one challenge to which we are going to devote much of our time this week.

The other challenge is to find a way to facilitate the work of humanitarian organizations, such as the ICRC, so that they can do their work without having to sacrifice the lives of the people who actually come to the aid of the victims of war. How can these organizations take effective and rapid action while enjoying acceptable security conditions? And once a way has been found to do this, by what mode of communication or negotiation should we seek more flexible and immediate access to the people who need our help?

What does the ICRC plan to do in this area in the weeks and months ahead?

The first thing we will do is remain faithful to our mandate to protect and assist all the victims of armed conflict. This requires great rigour and creativity in the operational choices we make to facilitate access to people in need by making ourselves and our work fully understood and accepted by the warring parties, all this to ensure optimal security for the people we help and for our own staff.

Our mandate involves humanitarian law and we will therefore be stepping up our search for law-related solutions to the challenges posed by present-day conflicts. We will take action in the realm of interpreting and clarifying the law and, where needed, developing it, in particular as regards the rules governing non-international armed conflict. But we will focus on the search for ways to ensure better compliance in international and internal armed conflicts.

In the years to come, we will pay particular attention to the tragedy of missing persons and the families they leave behind. To mark this Conference, the ICRC will make a particular commitment in this area.

We will continue to remind the States of their obligation to faithfully apply and implement the rules of international humanitarian law to limit the effects of war and we will encourage them to develop new rules to put an end to the suffering caused by certain weapons. We will pursue our constructive but firm dialogue with the States as part of our work to raise awareness of the risks associated with the development or excessive availability of certain weapons.

I would like to add how pleased I was to learn of the adoption last week of a new protocol, to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, on the “explosive remnants of war”. This demonstrates that the States are capable of taking action in response to the human tragedy engendered by certain weapons. The ICRC appreciates the responsibility shown by the States in responding to its appeals to do something about the terrible individual and social price being exacted by these murderous devices.

To alleviate t his and other scourges, we will continue working within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to strengthen the operational capacity of the National Societies and thus help them carry out their work more effectively. In addition, the governments and all the components of the Movement must continue striving together to devise a comprehensive and lasting resolution of the emblem issue. You have received a report on this subject from the Standing Commission. For its part the ICRC intends to keep this matter on the agenda and to aid in the search for a solution based on draft Protocol III additional to the Geneva Conventions.

In parallel with impartiality and neutrality, independence and universality are the two principles that the ICRC is determined will continue to guide its work. We are convinced that we must remain committed to independence and universality. In the present international situation, marked as it is by polarization and tensions of all kinds, action guided by these principles is more indispensable than ever, for it provides vital help for those affected by armed conflict. The ICRC is fully aware of the obstacles to its work, but we are also aware that we do not stand alone, that other organizations are striving toward the same objective. It therefore calls for a broad humanitarian front, independent and impartial, in the service of those afflicted by war.

If I may echo the words with which I began this address, our goals may be simple, but achieving them is an immense challenge. The ICRC is determined to meet that challenge and it counts on your support.