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The new humanitarian challenges

14-10-1997 Statement

Keynote address by Mr. Jean de Courten, Director of Operations, to the Heads of military training, Geneva, 14-17 October 1997.

It is an honour for me to address this conference devoted to the humanitarian challenges, a wide topic of importance for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As a humanitarian organisation, whose mandate is to provide protection and assistance to the victims of armed conflicts and which is operational worldwide, the ICRC is directly concerned with the evolution of the humanitarian environment.

Let me first underline the importance of the task that is yours in training military personnel on rules and behaviours in conflict situations, particularly with regard to the respect of International Humanitarian Law. Your understanding of our main preoccupation will certainly promote the expression of humanitarian purpose in the most effective way possible, through reflection and action alike.

You have invited me here to share with you my concerns about the challenges facing humanitarian action. I am most grateful to you for giving me this opportunity to move forward with you in some analysis at a time when our work in conflict situations is surrounded by dangers so extreme that it is sometimes reduced to impotence despite all the efforts, motivation and courage of those involved. We face these challenges daily.


Wars have always magnified the profound forces which shape, build or tear apart human societies. I think, therefore, that the major challenges now facing our protection and assistance operations should be analysed in a broader social and political context. We have to take a different approach in identifying our prioriti es and devise a new humanitarian strategy which is not reduced to tactical reflexes imposed by the diversity of situations and crises. Seen from that angle, the permanent insecurity which marks virtually every conflict nowadays appears to be a direct reflection of two profound crises which, to varying extents, are unsettling contemporary society as a whole. The first of these is of a moral nature and is expressed by a rejection of the values of tolerance and solidarity. The second, more structural in nature, is political: it is the crisis of the State.

These observations give a better understanding of why international humanitarian law, on which Red Cross action is based, is so often ignored and flouted in present-day conflicts. It is not, as some think, because the law is a thing of the past; it is because the two essential foundations on which respect for it rests are now being challenged. The first of these consists of the values indissociably attaching to respect for the individual. Nowadays such values are being abandoned. The second foundation -a political one- consists of the State, whose only real legitimacy lies in its commitment and its ability to ensure respect for those values and therefore to fulfil the obligations it assumed by ratifying the Geneva Conventions. In the majority of present-day conflicts the State itself is falling apart. To convince ourselves of this we have only to look at the discrepancy between the conduct of belligerents and respect for the most basic human values in a situation where, as a result of the identity-related, ethnic, nationalistic, religious and cultural claims that have taken over from the now defunct Cold War ideologies, nations are being torn apart and States are breaking up and collapsing. This process of fragmentation, triggered in the international arena by the implosion of the former Soviet empire, has not stopped at the frontiers of the former USSR. By a series of chain reactions, it has spread to many Third World States which, a lthough geographically remote, relied heavily on the political, financial or economic support they received from the great powers during the East-West confrontation. That development is having particularly devastating repercussions in many countries of Africa, where the dogma of the inviolability of borders drawn during the colonial era, a dogma that the Cold War helped to perpetuate, is now being called into question.

I see these two interlocking crises as both the cause and the effect of most post-Cold War internal conflicts, which are generally known as wars in failed States. In such civil-war situations, where central authority has broken down or disappeared altogether and armed gangs have taken over from traditional armies, humanitarian action can no longer rely on its traditional methods. To begin with, there are scarcely any authorities left which share its ideals or can even be regarded as credible or reliable. If the ICRC learned from the civil war in Lebanon what a nightmare it is to conduct humanitarian operations and negotiations in an inter-factional war, in many of today's conflicts -and those in Somalia and Liberia are prime examples- the " Lebanization " of warfare is aggravated by generalized criminal behaviour on the part of the protagonists, behaviour which rejects even the principle of the immunity of humanitarian action under the protection of the Red Cross emblem. Denied the economic and military support guaranteed by East-West confrontation, combatants now organize for survival in war economies based on looting. The civilian population is their first victim and, once civilians have been stripped of all they own, the combatants turn on the humanitarian organizations, looting their relief supplies and taking over the logistic facilities they have set up for operational purposes. The Liberian conflict is typical of that development in warfare, but the same scenario occurred in Burundi, for instance, and in most parts of former Zaire.

In brief, I could classify the types of conflicts in which ICRC's intervention is called as follows:

* the now very rare international conflicts between States, the most noteworthy recent example being the 1991 Gulf War;

* conflicts in which governments are confronted by one or more organised armed movements, such as the ideologically-motivated liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Prevalent between 1960 and 1980, this type of conflict has meanwhile virtually disappeared;

* conflicts of the previous type that have continued since the end of the Cold War, but have changed in nature, such as Angola, Sri Lanka and Chechnya;

* the conflict in Afghanistan that had its roots in the previous category but has moved towards the next type of conflict;

* internal conflicts are today labelled as unstructured conflicts like Somalia and Liberia, identity conflicts like Burundi, Rwanda, eastern former Zaire and former Yugoslavia. Other internal conflicts are between nationalists, religious, or ethnic groups, or otherwise spurred by economical interests. As examples we can mention: Tajikistan, Georgia with Abkhazia, Azerbaijan with Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia as well as Colombia. These are currently the most frequent - and often the most tragic - conflicts, which constantly give rise to the same burning question for the ICRC: How can we impart a touch of humanity to belligerents, and how can we assist and protect victims?


Over the past year, the victims of violence have once again been at the heart of the concerns of ICR C and other humanitarian organizations: war victims, the victims of disturbances and repression, the victims of half-war, half-peace situations, which last and tend to be perpetuated indefinitely, and which require a sustained humanitarian presence for many years. Each time, the civilian populations have found themselves defenceless, even when they are not themselves the target of belligerents, as in some ethnically oriented conflicts.

More than ever, international humanitarian law finds it's justification. It is all too often flouted, however, undoubtedly out of ignorance, but also, and this is of course much more serious, quite knowingly. Such being the case, the ICRC can but issue a solemn and urgent appeal to all belligerents - to government armed forces and to armed opposition groups alike - to spread knowledge of the principles and rules of humanitarian law and to make every effort to apply them.

Not only have the civilian populations been the tragic victims of such events; the very people who have brought them protection and assistance have been directly targeted as well. The tragic dimension of a growing disregard for the humanitarian ethos was brought home to us by the cold-blooded assassination of three ICRC delegates in Burundi in June 1996 and again by the horrific events that took place in Novye Atagi, Chechnya, on 17 December last year, in the compound of an ICRC field hospital: five nurses and a delegate were murdered in their sleep, in a cowardly attack by a commando of masked men using guns fitted with s ilencers. I would therefore also like to appeal for all those who bring assistance to victims to be respected in all circumstances. We must not forget that under humanitarian law victims have the right to be assisted. Access to victims, however, is all too often not possible in acceptable security conditions, or is even refused. The ICRC believes that the international community should the n assume its responsibilities and create the appropriate humanitarian space for the various organizations to conduct their respective activities in a coordinated and complementary manner.

If not so, do the humanitarian organizations have any choice but to place their operations under military protection? Faced with the urgent needs of hundreds of thousands of starving civilians in Somalia, we took the exceptional decision to place our convoys under the protection of armed militias. That experience taught us that such arrangements could hardly be regarded as a practicable option in the long term; we are now more familiar with all their adverse effects. Indeed, were we to resort to such measures on a more general scale, we would surely forfeit all hope of persuading the belligerents in future conflicts not only to respect humanitarian action but, above all, to respect the civilian population, the wounded and prisoners, who are always defenceless. Moreover, resorting to military protection has its limits. For instance, did the United Nations humanitarian operation conducted in Bosnia under the protection of UNPROFOR prevent massacres, or the ravages of ethnic cleansing? Alas, it obviously did not. The only real course open to humanitarian action, and it is the option we have chosen, is to work tirelessly and resolutely to restore and demand respect for the protective Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems. That is the price of ensuring that humanitarian action loses neither the impartiality it must preserve if it is to operate efficiently on behalf of all victims, nor the corollary of necessary independence from the belligerents. That is one of the major challenges to humanitarian action that we must take up today. I certainly do not include in this reasoning the protection by armed guards of our premises and warehouses, what has been done in the past and may be intensified as a measure against banditry.

However, it is also clear that humanitarian agencies are reaching the outer limits of their operational capacity in the face of anarchy, chaos, and racist and genocidal policies. We saw that in Bosnia, in Liberia, in Rwanda during the genocide, and we see it since the end of last year in former Zaire. Humanitarian action has certainly helped save lives in those situations, but its effectiveness is bound to be limited when it is confronted with policies which are the very negation of every principle of humanity. When violence, as the expression of deliberate policy, reaches such a pitch and the survival of entire populations is at stake, the response to crises can no longer be defined solely in terms of humanitarian action; unless, of course, such action is merely an alibi, a means of keeping a clear conscience. Massacres and genocide, which are first and foremost political crimes, can be effectively combated only through political and if necessary military action, so it is in the United Nations Charter that the international community must seek solutions without delay. Moreover, humanitarian law makes provision for such a course: Article 89 of Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions states that, in situations of serious violations of humanitarian law, States " undertake to act, jointly or individually, in co-operation with the United Nations and in conformity with the United Nations Charter " . Despite the existence of such legal provisions, what transpired in Bosnia, in Rwanda and again recently in former Zaire? In Rwanda, although alerted by the humanitarian organizations, the international community chose not to see the danger looming and, when the irrevocable happened before the eyes of the whole world, was still not spurred into action. On the contrary, the Security Council withdrew almost all the United Nations forces deployed in Rwanda, leaving behind only a symbolic contingent which had no orders to intervene, so whose role was confined to passive observation of the genocide. That failure to act will remain a dark chapter in the history of ma nkind. Yet Bosnia had already taught us the cost, in terms of human lives, of lack of cohesion and political resolve on the part of the international community. For there too, equivocation, sudden changes of policy, endlessly postponed ultimatums and countless contradictory negotiations enabled the instigators of ethnic cleansing to pursue their plans to the bitter end. We had to await the fall of the enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa -which the United Nations had declared protected zones- and the atrocities committed there before we saw the genuine military action that has since proved so effective. Disarray, or deliberate political will?

These reflections take me on to another challenge: peace-keeping, and especially peace-enforcement operations, should be clearly distinct in character from humanitarian activities. Military forces should not be directly involved in humanitarian action, as this would associate humanitarian organizations, in the minds of the authorities and the population, with political or military objectives which go beyond humanitarian concerns. In this respect, your involvement is also of paramount importance to make sure that the forces sent with a multinational force or to serve under the UN flag include in their preparatory training detailed instruction in international humanitarian law.

Humanitarian action is not designed to address the causes of crises or to resolve conflict but to protect human dignity and to save lives. It should move in parallel with a political process aimed at addressing the underlying causes of a conflict and achieving a political settlement. It should not become a tool designed to mask the absence of resolve to take appropriate political action, or to compensate for its inadequacy. There is no substitute for the political will to find a political soluti on. Such political commitment is essential if peace-keeping and humanitarian action are to remain effective. Humanitarian institutions working in situations of armed conflict need to preserve the strictly non-political and impartial character of their mission. The provision of humanitarian assistance must not be linked to progress in political negotiations, or to other political objectives. This would ultimately lead to an unacceptable distinction between " good " or " deserving " and " bad " or " undeserving " victims. Humanitarian aid and political action must not only be dissociated from each other, but they must also be perceived as truly separate.


Emergency operations often attract considerable media attention. In countries at war, the media can be excellent means of promoting moral values and humanitarian principles. But they can also engage in political manipulation and distort facts, sometimes going so far as to fan hatred and incite to murder. Elsewhere, the media limelight focused on certain conflicts can have favourable effects, such as drawing attention to human distress which would otherwise go unnoticed. Yet the influence of the media on public opinion and the resulting pressure on governments can be weakened when the audience becomes accustomed to violence and pictures and accounts of atrocities become daily fare. Moreover, the fact that only a few conflicts are in the headlines at any given time means that others sink into oblivion. Media interest is very selective. Who still wants to know about Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan or Liberia? Audiences have grown tired of them and so they have been consigned to oblivion. Meanwhile the victims of these forgotten conflicts suffer no less, in body and in mind, amidst general indifference as the world tunes in to the story of the day.


It is a truism that the best alternative to intervention is prevention, and I strongly believe that the international community needs to invest a great deal more in preventive measures. Indeed, such measures can potentially save thousands of lives and prevent widespread destruction; what is more, they cost far less than any peace-keeping or humanitarian relief operation.

The challenge of preventive action is to find ways of ensuring that competition for power and resources does not plunge entire communities into a maelstrom of violence. It is to build patterns of development, institutions, political cultures and ethical values. We must foster a culture of respect for basic human values.

This challenge goes far beyond the capacity of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, even though National Societies play a valuable role at the national level in addressing some of the root causes of conflict. As for the ICRC, its main focus in the field of prevention is spreading knowledge of the humanitarian principles, and in particular promoting awareness of and respect for international humanitarian law.

It is my sincere wish that through concerted and collective efforts, based on a clear distinction between the respective roles of political and humanitarian action, we will become more successful in preventing violence and conflict.


Let us reflect for a moment on certain questions:

What sort of world do we want to build for tomorrow? Can we pass from one epoch to another, from the world of the Cold War in which solidarity was imposed on States b y ideological considerations and geostrategic interests, to this fragile new world in which all those checks and balances have disappeared? Is the new world to be one of extreme nationalism, of fanaticism which sees the future in the past? Will it be a globalized economy dominated entirely by the laws of competition and its most dangerous by-product, the code of the survival of the fittest, with everyone for himself? Will it be another bipolar world, with the deprived majority dominated by a privileged few? Surely the present-day indifference to serious violations of humanitarian law and the policy of not rendering assistance to persons in danger, as in the Security Council's failure to react during the Rwandan genocide, are manifestations of a dangerous tendency which it is vital we resist. Beyond their tragic immediacy, the crises in former Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Colombia demand a response from us. What do we make of a world that allows thousands of women and children to die in the forest of former Zaire but rushes into Kuwait, by perfect consensus, to prevent its oil being stolen? In that context, and bearing in mind the particularly serious nature of the events mentioned above, humanitarian action and the debate on its underlying values have clearly moved to the very centre of the major concerns of our time. It is no longer enough as we approach the millennium to simply react to the tragic consequences of war.

I trust that some of the thoughts that I have shared with you will prove useful in the context of this seminar. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to express them here today and wish the conference every success.

Thank you.

[Ref.: LG 1997-111-ENG ]