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ICRC action in connection with internal disturbances


Extract from an article published in the International Review of the Red Cross, May-June 1993, No 294

Internal disturbances are marked by serious disruption of domestic order resulting from acts of violence which do not, however, have the characteristics of an armed conflict. They encompass, for example, riots by which individuals or groups of individuals openly express their opposition, their discontent or their demands, or even isolated and sporadic acts of violence.  They may take the form of fighting between different factions or against the power in place.[1 ]

For a situation to be qualified as one of internal disturbances, it is of no consequence whether State repression is involved or not, whether the disturbances are lasting, brief with durable effects, or intermittent, whether only a part or all of the national territory is affected or whether the disturbances are of religious, ethnic, political or any other origin.

The bases for the ICRC's intervention in situations of internal strife are Article 5, para. 2(d), of the Statutes of the Movement referred to above, certain resolutions of International Conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent [2 ] and traditional ICRC practice, [3 ] accepted by a large number of States

In situations of internal disturbances, the rules of international humanitarian law can only be invoked by analogy.  On the other hand, States must respect certain universally acknowledged humanitarian principles, and the human rights instruments to which they are party, in particular the rights for which no derogation is permitted, even when the life of the nation is threatened by an exceptional public danger. [4 ]


1  A description of int ernal disturbances was given at the first session of the Conference of Government Experts on the Reaffirmation and Development of International Humanitarian Law applicable in Armed Conflicts, held in Geneva from 24 May to 12 June 1971 (Document submitted by the ICRC, Vol.  V: Protection of victims of non-international armed conflicts, Geneva, January 197 1, pp. 79-85).

The Diplomatic Conference on the Reaffirmation and Development of International Humanitarian Law applicable in Armed Conflicts (1974-1977) explicitly excluded from the scope of application of the Protocol situations of internal tension and disturbances, which it did not define, but of which it gave examples.  These are presented as follows in the Commentary to Protocol II: " riots, such as demonstrations without a concealed plan from the outset; isolated and sporadic acts of violence, as opposed to military operations carried out by armed forces or armed groups; other acts of a similar nature, including, in particular, large scale arrests of people for their activities or opinions " (See the Commentary on paragraph 2 of Article I of Protocol II in the Commentary on the Additional Protocols of 8 June 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, International Committee of the Red Cross, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Geneva, 1986, paras. 4471-4479, pp. 1354-1356).  The Commentary on the Protocol takes up the 1971 definitions, specifying that they form part of ICRC doctrine and that they are designed for practical use.

In this article, the presentation of internal disturbances, while based on that of 1971 and the examples of such situations given in Protocol 11, takes account of observations made by the ICRC in the course of its work.  First, internal disturbances, formerly qualified as " confrontation characterized by a certain seriousness or duration " may be brief or chronic and may give rise to lasting humanitarian problems.  Secondly, internal disturbances may take pla ce without any government intervention to restore order.  Disturbances sometimes take the form of clashes between factions, without any direct State participation.

2 In particular, resolution XIV of the 10th International Conference of the Red Cross (Geneva, 1921) and Resolution VI of the 24th International Conference of the Red Cross (Manila, 1981), which made a solemn appeal " that the rules of international humanitarian law and the universally recognized humanitarian principles be safeguarded at all times and in all circumstances and that the International Committee of the Red Cross be granted all the facilities necessary to discharge the humanitarian mandate confided to it by the international community " .

3 The first ICRC visits to security detainees took place in Russia (1918) and Hungary (1919), but it was mainly after the Second World War that ICRC visits to persons detained in their own countries became widespread.

4 There are inalienable rights which are considered as universal standards, having customary status: the right to life, the prohibition of torture and of cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment or treatment; the prohibition of slavery and servitude; the principle of legality and non-retroactivity of punishments.  In addition, certain judicial guarantees must be respected at all times in order to prevent the violation of lights to which no derogation is permitted.