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The reform process of United Nations Peace Operations: debriefing and lessons

03-04-2001 Statement

The UNITAR - IPS - JIIA Conference [1], Singapore 2-3 April 2001. Keynote address by Prof. Jacques Forster, Vice-President, ICRC Geneva.

It is indeed an honour and a pleasure to have been asked to deliver a keynote address at this extremely important and useful Conference on the reform process of United Nations peace operations. I would like to express my great appreciation and gratitude to the organisers of this Conference. Indeed, I have vivid memories of the very focused and constructive debates which took place at the last Conference in November 1999, which were so well reflected in the excellent book on the "Nexus between peace-keeping and peace-building".

This year's theme could not have been more timely, as the United Nations and the humanitarian community at large are presently grappling with both, the best ways and means to implement the recommendations of the report on the Panel on UN peace operations, better known as the Brahimi panel's report [2], and to address some fundamental questions that it raises. This report is indeed a very significant contribution to the fundamental issue of renewing the United Nations' capacity to "secure and build peace", according to the very words of the Secretary General of the UN.

It appears to us that one of the important questions the report raises relates to the necessity to keep separate political processes and military operations on the one hand, and humanitarian action on the other, while at the same time safeguarding the undeniable interaction between them. I am sure that the eminent experts here present, with their in-depth knowledge of the complex issues involved coupled with their impressive field experience, will enrich the discussion by providing crucial insights which would benefit all institutions engaged in the universal humanitarian endeavour.

In this presentation I will therefore focus upon the ICRC's perceptions of UN peace operations in the light of the mandate and approach of the ICRC and of our relations with such operations in the field, rather than engaging in an analysis of what is above all an internal UN process.

It should be noted at the outset that the ICRC - stricto sensu - is not involved either in peacekeeping or in peace-building, and even less in peace-enforcement. The ICRC is a strictly humanitarian and independent organisation; all of its activities are based on certain fundamental premises which are :

  • armed conflict, regardless of its causes or aims, creates suffering for all human beings directly involved or otherwise affected;
  • the unique raison d'être of humanitarian action and its legal bases is to alleviate this suffering;
  • such action is devoid of any other interest and is addressed to all those who suffer, without distinction;
  • it necessarily implies proximity to the suffering;
  • it demands respect by all parties involved or present in the conflict situation by virtue of its strictly humanitarian, impartial and neutral character;
  • it can never remain indifferent to the plight of victims, whoever, wherever and whenever.

In its activities in the field - presently we have operations in some sixty situations of conflict or internal strife - the ICRC has visited more than 200'000 persons deprived of freedom for security reasons and provided assistance to a total of about 5 million victims, most of them internally displaced persons. The ICRC is constantly confronted with violations of international humanitarian law (hereafter IHL). Its approach in dealing with these violations consists primarily of maintaining contacts with all parties to the conflict (including non State actors) and of attempting to put an end to violations through persuasion, solliciting the co-operation of all parties concerned. This is unfortunately not sufficient. We also maintain a dialogue with States and International organisations with whom we share our assessment of the situation and to whom we relay our concerns regarding violations of IHL. In case of serious and repeated violations we call upon States to take action. Indeed, in such situations of grave violations of IHL, States have a responsibility to act (article 1 common to 4 Geneva Conventions + Article 89 Protocol 1) "In situations of serious violations of the Conventions or of this Protocol, the High Contracting Parties undertake to act jointly or individually, in co-operation with the United nations and in conformity with the United Nations Charter".. It must be noted however that IHL provides no indications as to what measures are to be taken by States to put an end to violations. As far as the use of force is concerned, the question is dealt with by the UN Charter. It is quite clear to us, as a humanitarian actor that there are situations where humanitarian action is not able or no longer able to protect and assist victims and where the political actors should act to achieve this objective.

It is not up to the ICRC to specify which means are to be used to put an end to grave violations (as for instance the use of armed force) or to take position on the legality or legitimacy of an intervention. Armed intervention is a "jus ad bellum" issue on which the ICRC - as a matter of principle - never takes any position. This attitude -not always well understood - is warranted by the need for our institution to remain totally independent and neutral and to be perceived as such by all parties to a conflict: this is indeed a condition of access to all victims which lies at the heart of our mission. This access requires the consent of all parties involved.

At this point, I would wish to make a specific reference to the Brahimi panel's report which, in Section II E. entitled Implications for peacekeeping doctrine and strategy, indicates at paragraph 50, " Impartiality for such operations must therefore mean adherence to the principles of the Charter and to the objectives of a mandate that is rooted in those Charter principles. Such impartiality is not the same as neutrality or equal treatment of all parties.... In some cases, local parties consist not of moral equals but of obvious aggressors and victims, and peace keepers may not only be operationally justified in using force but morally compelled to do so."

Such an approach is clearly very different from, and incompatible with, that of the ICRC and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement as a whole, for whom neutrality as a fundamental principle demands that the components of the Movement do "not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, religious or ideological nature" Our approach also underscores the absolute non-coercive character of humanitarian action. Furthermore, the ICRC would wish to stress that for humanitarian organisations, the concept of impartiality means endeavouring to relieve the victims' suffering without any adverse distinction, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress. Lending another meaning to the term in this context might contribute to a confusion on the part of the warring parties with regard to the nature and work of humanitarian organisations, putting at risk the safety of humanitarian workers and their access to the victims. In the light of ongoing discussions, it appears that this concern is also shared by some other humanitarian actors, including NGO's.

In the view of the ICRC therefore, the political process which should aim at achieving a stable political settlement, and military operations whose primary goal ought ideally to be the stopping of large-scale violations of humanitarian law or maintaining a precarious peace in support of the political process, ought to be kept distinct from strictly humanitarian operations.

This being said, I would immediately wish to add that the sheer dimensions of the human tragedy resulting from the currently raging conflicts in the world go far beyond the capacity of any single organisation. The ICRC cannot but state with deep concern that the plight of those affected by conflict has steadily deteriorated over the recent years. It is appalled by the continuing suffering inflicted on civilians, including women and children, in flagrant violation of the most basic principles of humanitarian law. In too many ongoing conflicts, civilians are increasingly being targeted. They are denied basic resources and their dignity and very survival is threatened. This in turn triggers displacement of important numbers of persons within and across boundaries, in the latter case provoking destabilisation in the neighbouring countries. Children find themselves forcibly enrolled, their lives often irremediably destroyed. Women not only bear the brunt of sexual assault and tragic widowhood. Furthermore in conflict situations, they are called upon to support their dependents, children and elderly people, in the most difficult and dangerous conditions, such as prevail for instance in situations of forced displacement. To make matters worse, the proliferation of armed carriers has aggravated violence and insecurity. Humanitarian action has itself become dangerous to carry out in many contexts.

As a direct consequence, humanitarian needs, in terms of both assistance (medical, nutritional, infrastructural) and protection, have not only increased in a spectacular manner but also become more and more difficult to address adequately. This leaves far too many to their fate, unassisted and unprotected.

It is therefore not only a fact but also a reflection of logical necessity that the number of humanitarian actors in the field at a given moment has increased. Thus, in many situations, the ICRC works alongside UN humanitarian agencies with different mandates (ex. UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP) as well as NGOs. In our view, what is essential in such situations is to achieve the greatest possible complementarity with the other actors in the field, but with due regard to the specific mandates and spheres of competence or expertise and capacity to deliver of each.

Peace operations’ missions should have at their disposal adequate means and resources to ensure the protection of the civilian population - and not merely of the humanitarian action or actors. In terms of protection, the widespread presence of mines deserves particular attention. Mine awareness programmes are necessary but not sufficient. Mine clearance is essential; this is an area where the contribution of the military to restoring secure conditions for the civilian population is essential.

Co-operation between military and humanitarian actors - in particular the use by the latter of resources provided by the former - is of course possible, indeed welcome in circumstances where comparable civilian assets are not available, provided it does not jeopardise the perception by all parties to the conflict of the ICRC's neutrality, independence and impartiality. The same provision applies to the protection of ICRC's infrastructures against criminal undertakings.

In relation to UN peace operations, the ICRC's view is that it is indispensable for military personnel, the police and civilian personnel to be aware of the relevant provisions of IHL. UN peace operations are frequently deployed in situations where peace is not yet consolidated, and where the military contingents might consider it "operationally justified" or find themselves "morally compelled" to use force, to quote the Brahimi report cited earlier. For such troops to respect the rules of armed conflict, they must be familiar with their obligations under humanitarian law and must therefore be adequately trained and receive proper instructions.

Furthermore, in cases where UN missions are given the mandate to consolidate a peace agreement by training local military and police forces, such training should also include humanitarian law, so that national authorities are capable of complying with their legal obligations when maintaining law and order. In this context, I would wish to underline the excellent co-operation between the ICRC and the UN secretariat since 1995, which resulted in the decision by the Secretary-General to issue a bulletin in August 1999 on observance by UN forces of international humanitarian law. The bulletin sums up the essentials of this law and declares these to be applicable to UN troops 'in enforcement actions or in peacekeeping operations when the use of force is permitted in self-defence'.

Allow me now to cite briefly some concrete examples of co-ordination and complementarity between the ICRC and UN peace operations and agencies in the field. In the context of the conflict between Ethiopia and Erithrea, the ICRC's traditional mandate with regard to international armed conflicts is fully recognised and respected by the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Erithrea (UNMEE) [3]. The ICRC met with the Ministries of Defence and the Staff of the troop-contributing countries to brief them on its mandate, its activities and the applicability of IHL. In the field, the Mission benefited from ICRC legal advice and practical experience when faced with issues such as the recovery of mortal remains from between the front lines. In terms of clarity and of mutual respect of mandates, the ICRC is able to carry out in a totally independent manner its repatriation of POWs and its assistance operations in the formerly occupied territories.

In Kosovo, the ICRC has considered right from the outset (June 1999) UNMIK [4] as the authorities and has consequently co-ordinated its activities with it as appropriate. Thus, lists of the missing are handed over to UNMIK officials who are in turn requested to provide the ICRC with information on disappearances, mainly of Serb Kosovars, while lists of missing Kosovo Albanians were handed to the authorities in Belgrade. The UNMIK police has been requested to supervise and co-ordinate the exhumation and identification process of bodies of missing persons. Responsibility for the food assistance programmes hitherto conducted by the ICRC has now been handed over to the Ministry for Social Affairs. Good co-ordination exists with the UNHCR, which has asked the ICRC to assist civilians now fleeing from the Kosovo-Macedonian border region. With regard to KFOR and SFOR [2], the ICRC has continued to hold regular dissemination sessions on humanitarian law to all troops. Furthermore, all detainees are regularly visited by the ICRC, be they under the custody of KFOR or of the UNMIK police. Such positive experiences show, if need be, that peace-keepers and humanitarian actors do very well complement one another and that a good knowledge of each others’ tasks and constraints is a prerequisite for fruitful co-operation.

I would like to end by coming back to the statement I made at the outset when I said that the ICRC is not involved either in peacekeeping or in peace building. Although my initial statement remains valid from the strictly political and operational point of view, flowing from the ICRC's adherence to its fundamental principle of neutrality and the non-coercive character of humanitarian operations, it is equally unquestionable that the very essence of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement's mission is "to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found...". In the context of armed conflicts, the ultimate goal of humanitarian law is but to inject a minimum of humanity into the tragedy of war and prevent it from turning into barbarity. It is towards this end alone that it seeks to assure humane treatment to all those detained, to maintain contact between them and their families, to release and repatriate them at the end of conflict, to ensure that the wounded and sick are cared for and that civilians, especially women and children, bear not the brunt of violence or the pangs of hunger. By the very virtue of its attempt to restrain indiscriminate violence, humanitarian law is conducive to efforts aiming at restoring peace. Furthermore, respect by all parties of this law, coupled with recourse when appropriate to the ICRC's services of neutral and independent intermediary, cannot but contribute to maintaining a dialogue between the warring parties, which is an indispensable prerequisite to peace.

What can be done to prevent the atrocities which take place in conflict situations? When speaking of prevention, it is important to make a distinction between two distinct objectives:

  • that of preventing conflicts and
  • that of preventing violations of IHL.

The first is of course of paramount importance. It is the responsibility of all political, economic and social actors to address the root causes of conflicts and to deal with the economic, social, political and cultural factors which nurture tensions within societies. This task is of course not within the scope of IHL, but the basic values of humanitarian action - particularly the requirement to respect the integrity and dignity of all human beings in all circumstances - convey a message of tolerance and contribute to counter the pulsions of fear and hatred which fuel conflicts.

The complementarity between peace operations and humanitarian action which I highlighted in my remarks can thus also be extended to the area of long-term prevention, a task at the heart of the UN, which strives - and I quote the Brahimi panel's report - to extend "a strong helping hand to a community, country or region to avert a conflict or to end violence”.


1. The UNITAR - IPS - JIIA Conference : http://www.unitar.org/ny/web2002/unitar/en/library/peacekeeping.htm

2.SFOR : http://www.nato.int/sfor/docu/d981116a.htm