• Send page
  • Print page

Address by the President of the ICRC, Dr. Jakob Kellenberger, Geneva, 3 December 2003

03-12-2003 Statement

28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, 2 to 6 December 2003

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. The challenge is staggering because of the many threats hanging over every human being and, indeed, all humanity, in particular the nature of contemporary armed conflicts.

This morning, I would like to offer an ICRC perspective on our world, working as we do in the midst of armed conflict. I would like to relate to you the view of ICRC delegates working on the ground, reporting on the basis of their daily contact with victims of armed conflicts who suffer, but who also have incredible resources of their own for confronting their ordeals.

The story from our delegates is sadly all too familiar - the suffering engendered by armed conflict remains immense, and often lasting. Although the fundamental nature of war and its consequences are unchanging, wars take on new forms and display new features that expose already vulnerable people to even greater dangers. Many non-international armed conflicts, the dominant forms of conflicts, are marked by recurring attacks on civilians and their property, not only as an indirect effect of combat, but as its very objective. There are many causes for these conflicts, personal struggle for power and wealth remaining one of the most important ones. Increasing polarization in reality is unfortunately also accompanied by increasing polarization on the level of words and notions being used. “Others” – whether they be individuals or an entire people – are no longer perceived as partners and as a source of enrichment, but as adversaries, threateni ng in their strangeness. The lack of dialogue manifests itself not only between countries and between continents, but also within countries and local communities. The readiness to listen to the others does not reflect the popular invitation of a dialogue " between cultures " .

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.

The end of an armed conflict does not, as we all know, necessarily mean the end of the suffering for many populations, which remain marginalized and are forgotten. Their countries’ natural resources often attract more interest than their health or education. The humanitarian organizations that went there in response to the emergency provoked by armed conflict must therefore stay on almost indefinitely, in the “transitional” period, which in fact leads to nothing but further misery and, frequently, the resumption of fighting. The discussion on exit strategies for humanitarian Organizations has to be accompanied by a more systematic discussion on entry strategies for development Agencies.

There are means to alleviate suffering caused by armed conflicts and some progress has been made, it being clear that measures aimed at preventing armed conflicts remain by far the most important task to carry out.

International humanitarian law, provided it is respected 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 instruments, in order to become fully effective in humanitarian terms, have to be incorporated into national legislation and internal military directives and to be effectively complied with on the ground, by States and armed groups.

The ICRC has kept its promise made in 1999 to attend to the special needs of women and girls affected by armed conflict, and to endeavor 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.

And the ICRC continues to draw attention to the risks from small arms proliferation and the development of new technologies liable to be used for hostile purposes. Never before have the means of warfare 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.

These positive points, and there would be some others worth mentioning, can however not mask the scale and the persistence of the suffering caused by far too many conflicts. The agony and the abandonment to their misery of thousands of persons continue to be major concerns to the ICRC, as does the contempt shown for people’s physical a nd 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 attempts may again be made to justify torture. We are all outraged by the murders of ICRC staff, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Society volunteers as well as members of any other humanitarian organization, and by other criminal attacks directed against them.

Much has been said and written about the changes that have occurred in the world these past years, especially since the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001. It is undeniable that these attacks had an impact on international relations, but they also served to highlight pre-existing tensions that continue to characterize the geopolitical landscape. These events came in addition to other human tragedies, some of which, sadly, disappeared from the media spotlight as a result.

Acts intended to spread terror among the civilian population have taken on a new dimension since September 11; consequently the fight against terrorist activities has also taken a new dimension. The struggle against terrorist activities, necessary and legitimate as it is, must not undermine the values on which society must be founded – in particular the preservation of human dignity according to international law. To strike the right balance between State security and human dignity has always been a challenge. It is a particular challenge now and we have to meet it. The fact that terrorism has to be condemned without any reservation does not dispense us either from reflecting upon the reasons for which whole communities tolerate terrorist activities or even support them. 

Unfortunately it is a tradition that the ICRC voices at International Conferences its concern because of the lack of respect for International humanitarian law. I would have loved to deviate from that tradition. It is no t possible, less than ever, not least because its adequacy is sometimes questioned for reasons not always clear to me. The concerns 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 abuse of power, but also against neglect and abandonment. 

The ICRC is convinced that international humanitarian law, in its current form, is, on the whole, adequate as a legal basis for responding to the challenges of contemporary international armed conflicts. Its application 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, to put an end to violations of humanitarian law by interceding with those who have committed them or with those who may have it in their power to stop them. It is not the rules that are lacking, but it is too often the will to apply 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. This statement applies to International humanitarian law as well. Key notions of humanitarian law, interpreted in different ways, have to be clarified and there may be justified claims for updating and development. I am not sure either if the last word has been said on the relevance of International humanitarian law with regard to the struggle between States and transnationally acting armed groups. In the course of the year now drawing to a close, the ICRC has devoted a great deal of energy to the reaffirmation of International humanitarian law. 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”, you have received and had a chance to look over. Its contents will be the subject of our discussions beginning today. My hope is 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 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 better compliance with the rules of International humanitarian law. This work will also be inspired by the study on customary International humanitarian law, which summarizes broad legal research and analysis of State practice. The study to which many experts have contributed will be published in 2004. The study will be an important input for the debate with States. 

Fostering human dignity is the ultimate purpose of humanitarian law and humanitarian action itself. This goal does not reflect political naivety. 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. To keep this balance needs a real effort. I am convinced that it is possible to ensure the security of a State without violating the basic norms of humanitarian law, 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. We, no doubt, all agree. We no doubt also agree that terrorist acts are the very negation of fundamental humanitarian principles and we are unanimous in condemning the massacre of civilians by such criminal acts. I am sure we also agree we must avoid to being drawn involuntarily or through excessive measures of repression into the dynamic of disregarding the law, humanitarian law in particular.

Some words related to the conduct of humanitarian action seem timely to me. This action is often poorly understood and increasingly the object of threats and even attacks. Humanitarian action is exposed to additional risks when the States seek to use it as a tool to further particular political interests. When this happens, the distinction between the realm of military action and that of humanitarian endeavor become blurred in people's minds, especially those of civilians affected by the fighting.

I am not here to advocate a divorce between humanitarian and political endeavor, or between humanitarian and military action. It is even fair to add that military action can have a humanitarian dimension by ensuring a secure environment where the humanitarians can work. All the ICRC asks is that the States, which, as high Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions, have given the ICRC a mandate for independent and neutral humanitarian action, will support the ICRC in fulfilling this mandate. In operational terms, there is a need to maintain the distinction between political and military activities on the one hand, humanitarian activities on the other hand. Space must be left for neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action. Our insistence on preserving this space reflects concern that we do 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, is a means to an end – they are the prerequisites for taking action anywhere and with complete impartiality.

ICRC's humanitarian action will remain determined by its will to stay close to people in need of protection and assistance, especially when the fighting is worst, as in Baghdad or Monrovia this year. But to stay at the victims’ side the I CRC and other humanitarian organizations 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 is a complex task, and often a risky one. Credible independence is crucial.

Before speaking of ICRC's priorities in the year ahead, I mention, in view of the Conference's Agenda, 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 can you expect from the ICRC in the years ahead? Over the past years the ICRC has in spite of increasing security constraints succeeded in conducting humanitarian operations in just about all conflict areas around the world. Building on this the ICRC will spare no efforts to reach all victims of armed conflicts and situation of violence. The ICRC is determined to do so as a truly independent humanitarian actor. It is convinced that credible independen ce offers that best chance to fulfill its mandate, especially in a more polarized world. 

The ICRC will pursue both its protection and assistance activities with equal importance. The close relationship between the two activities is obvious. Assistance activities are often determing the extent to which the ICRC can carry out its protection activities. The definition of an ICRC policy with regard to transition periods proves to be helpful in this respect. We are just now having a closer look at our assistance policy.

The ICRC, aware of its responsibilities with regard to International humanitarian law, will continue to contribute to the interpretation, clarification and, where proved necessary, the development of International humanitarian law. Measures aimed at improving respect for existing rules of International humanitarian law are, given the daily distressing experiences of its delegates in the field, closest to ICRC's heart. I ask States and armed groups to help us in this respect. Compliance is, as we all know, not only an issue in situations that make the headlines. Compliance with humanitarian law is an issue in most armed conflicts worldwide. The ICRC will not forget this and pay equal attention to situations in and out the headlines. Coherence being an integral part of credibility it will also address similar situations in the same way. We have to speak out and to keep silent in a coherent way.

The ICRC sees the most urgent needs for the development of IHL concerning the rules applicable in non-international armed conflicts. Fully aware of the sensitivity of questions in this respect it will enter into consultations with States on this issue, based on the findings of the report presented to this Conference. The study on customary humanitarian law, will no doubt be a major input of the dialogue with States.

The ICRC will, as reflected in the Agenda for Humanitarian Action, pay particular attention to two areas of activity in the coming years. It will pay particular attention to the tragedy of missing persons and the families they leave behind. A particular pledge will be made at this Conference. It will also pay particular attention to the faithful application of existing rules related to the use and development of weapons and encourage the development of new rules aimed at preventing unnecessary suffering and superfluous injuries. Last weeks adoption of a new protocol to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons on the " explosive remnants of war " was encouraging news indeed. The ICRC is grateful to States for having reacted in such a responsible way to its appeals to take action in order to bring to an end the suffering caused by explosive remnants of war.

The ICRC remains on board for cooperation and coordination with other humanitarian organizations inside and outside the Movement which share its strong commitment to protect and assist victims of armed conflicts and situations of violence. The Movement remains the privileged framework of cooperation for the ICRC. Its attractiveness as a network for cooperation will, as it is the case for all networks, depend on the operational capabilities and the spirit of cooperation of each of its components. 

The ICRC strongly wishes to see the universality of the Movement achieved as early as possible. As soon as external conditions permit, the process aimed at adopting the third additional Protocol has to be resumed with determination.

You will have understood: a well functioning Movement-network matters to the ICRC. The ICRC will continue to invest in this network, mainly by contributing to the strengthening of the operational capacity of National Societies.

The ICRC will also continue to take words seriously. Big and heavy words, aimed at reducing the complexity and richness of the real world to some basic, too basic notions, are shaping the consciousness of human beings as strongly as the facts. They sometimes provide guidance, more often they provoke blindness. They are however part of reality because they have a bearing on the attitude and behavior of human beings. General concepts like " dialogue between cultures " and " clash of civilizations " are misleading. There are dialogues between human beings of different cultures and clashes between human beings of different civilizations and within civilizations. This unspectacular statement is in fact a message of hope. We are not confronted with anonymous entities; we are dealing with individual human beings. The more we are listening to each human being and are sensitive to human aspirations and the need for dignity, the better we can influence developments in direction of a more human and respectful world. I thank you for your support.