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Fulfillment of the Humanitarian Mandate in the Context of "Peace-keeping"

22-06-1994 Statement

Symposium on humanitarian action and peace-keeping operations, Geneva, 22-24 June 1994. Address by Mr Jean de Courten, Member of the Executive Board, Director of Operations at the ICRC

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends,

On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross I should like to thank you all for taking the time to come to Geneva in order to take part in our discussions, and more especially to share with us your own experiences, the questions they have prompted, your doubts and your convictions. This exchange of views could not come at a more opportune moment. Indeed, it is vital. Initially it will enable us to strengthen our dialogue, which we feel must be open and frank, by giving us a better insight into our respective mandates, objectives, specific roles and constraints. The next step, we hope, will be to draw useful conclusions which will help us improve the coherence and efficiency of future action and enhance complementarity among our respective institutions.

United Nations forces and ICRC delegates have found themselves side by side in a growing number of operational situations, in which the gravity of the victims'plight was matched only by the complexity of the political background, the disappointing and sometimes alarming results of the response offered by the international community, or the ambiguity of that response. I myself have been in a position to appreciate the quality of the dialogue established between the military commanders of United Nations forces and our delegates in the field, as well as the similarity between their respective analyses of the appropriate humanitarian response.

First of all, allow me to draw attention once again to the reservations we have expressed about the subordination of humanitarian action to political objectives during recen t United Nations operations. In our opinion, such situations have given rise to confusion which in turn has had an adverse impact on the acceptability and thus the security of independent and neutral humanitarian action. Mandates, tasks, means and objectives have all been affected by this confusion.

What we seek, therefore, is clarification of and respect for the specific role and the independence of each agency in accordance with the nature of its mandate, its aims and its working principles. Our discussions here will make a contribution by trying to achieve a degree of complementarity between our endeavours and, hence, greater efficiency.

The ICRC for its part has been entrusted with the task of upholding international humanitarian law, whose sole objective is to protect the victims of all conflicts, whatever the reason for or the legality of the use of force and whatever the forces on the ground, even if they are peace-keeping forces. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols confer on the ICRC a unique mandate which makes the institution one of the principal mechanisms for implementation of their provisions. The ICRC's independence ensures its worldwide acceptance, allows it to act impartially and guarantees its neutrality. We are convinced that these fundamental principles are the source of our credibility and effectiveness.

The Red Cross emblem symbolizes the respect due to the law, and hence to the victims and to the humanitarian mission of the ICRC in particular. The emblem signals that this mission has clear intentions, that its sole aim is to protect and assist all victims without regard for any consideration except the urgency of their need, that it is independent of any political power or motivation, and that it would never take sides in the dispute between the combatants.

If we are to gain access to the victims and ease their suffering in the midst of fighting there is no alternative but to obtain the belligerents'consent; unless, of course, we invoke the United Nations Charter and consider resorting to the use of force. But how could we envisage such a step as long as there is still hope of securing that consent? The intangibility of the principles and the mandate I have just described, the clarity of the objective pursued, the openness that characterizes humanitarian activity and the universality of humanitarian law are key factors in every humanitarian negotiation conducted by the ICRC. The obligation incumbent upon States to respect international humanitarian law compels them to consent to humanitarian action. They also have the obligation to ensure that the law is respected. This requires them to support efforts to ensure compliance with its provisions, with the help of the ICRC, and entails an obligation to put an end to violations of the law.

ICRC action certainly does not preclude other forms of activity. On the contrary, it may prove useful in supplementing the international community's efforts in other fields, while maintaining total independence of decision and action.

This is also valid as regards the United Nations approach, outlined in the Agenda for Peace, which makes the humanitarian work of its agencies and, where necessary, military measures an integral part of a politica strategy for the settlement of conflicts. But here I must remind you once again of the reservations we have already expressed about such an approach, which has led to the confusion we are now experiencing between different mandates and activities and to the politicization of humanitarian action. When such action is made subject to certain conditions, its impact is inevitably weakened.

The situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina is a prime example of the limits of that approach and the risks it entails for the integrity of humanitarian endeavour. The political bargaining that has come as a resul t has, moreover, called into question a principle as fundamental as that of non-reciprocity, which is a cornerstone of humanitarian law.

There is obviously a link between humanitarian action, which can help restore dialogue between belligerents and pave the way to peace, and political negotiations or the political settlement of conflicts. But any attempt to give that link formal expression and structure can only lead to the unfortunate results we are witnessing today. Independence enables humanitarian action to initiate a dialogue without compromising either its neutrality or its impartiality.

On the other hand, we do understand that the approach described above arises from a completely different responsibility incumbent on States, namely that of maintaining international peace and security by virtue of the United Nations Charter. Complementarity proved satisfactory in the case of Cambodia, where the parties agreed to the deployment of peace-keeping forces to ensure compliance with a cease-fire. We look forward to hearing your observations and comments on this subject.

Complementarity is more difficult to achieve, however, when the Security Council decides to impose peace by use of force in a situation which it considers a threat to international security. This is an instance where, by definition, the consent of all the parties cannot be secured. It is obviously not up to the ICRC to judge whether the decision is an appropriate one or, of course, to challenge its legitimacy. Here we find ourselves in the realm of what lawyers call jus ad bellum, in other words the right to resort to force by virtue of international law. On the other hand, in such situations the ICRC will - as I have just said - take steps to ensure compliance with the law of armed conflicts, or jus in bello. The victims of the conflict will need the ICRC as a neutral intermediary that has succeeded in maintaining its independence and neutrality vis-à-vis all the parties, and the United Nations as well, so as to be able to come to their assistance.

A case in point is the United Nations intervention in Somalia. The ICRC was able to play its traditional role as a neutral intermediary, including between the United Nations forces and the various Somali factions. Our delegates visited people captured by UNOSOM II and those held by certain factions, and came to the aid of victims of fighting between troops operating under the United Nations mandate and those factions. The ICRC is doing the same in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where for the same reasons it has distanced itself from the integrated action of the United Nations.

The ICRC therefore refuses to have recourse to the protection of United Nations armed escorts, which can on no account constitute an alternative to the authority of humanitarian law, to negociation or to the consent of the parties.

This does not, however, mean that the ICRC will not call upon United Nations forces in certain situations and on certain conditions, within the framework of the complementarity I mentioned previously and indeed welcome.

This was the case when, in accordance with Security Council resolution 776, the ICRC asked UNPROFOR to escort convoys carrying released prisoners through areas where their lives may have been at risk from the local population. This request was made with the full agreement of the parties. The ICRC may also request United Nations protection - as it would ask for the protection of any other organized force - when the lives of its delegates are threatened. Again, it may request military logistic support. UNPROFOR gives us such assistance in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and we are very grateful for it.

The ICRC was also in favour of setting up safe areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The concept we had proposed, inspired by international humanitarian law, was in many respects different from the one eventually adopted, since it required that the parties give their consent and that the areas be demilitarized. But once such areas are set up, their protection must be assured and guaranteed. Let us not forget, it is victims rather than convoys that need to be protected. It is attacks against civilians in protected areas that should prompt a riposte, and not only those against United Nations forces. The issues of consent and impartiality are therefore crucial.

Let me make myself perfectly clear. Humanitarian action is obviously not an end in itself. For that very reason it cannot serve as a substitute for the States'political responsibility to restore peace, or be used as a stop-gap measure or a subterfuge to mask the absence or ineffectiveness of political will. It must not become a mere bargaining point in political negotiations or made dependent on them, as was unfortunately the case in Angola or in Liberia. Otherwise, if political negotiations fail, humanitarian action is also paralysed and its impartiality compromised. In any event, it will be politicized and weakened.

The use of force may help to create an environment favourable to the conduct of humanitarian operations. It may also, on a wider scale, help create the conditions necessary for a settlement of the conflict. The ICRC must stress that for this to come about United Nations contingents in the field must be familiar with and abide by international humanitarian law and the law governing the conduct of hostilities. They will thus have a much better knowledge of our mandate. At the same time, our delegates will acquire a much better knowledge of yours. And that can only result in greater harmony.

I should also like to mention that such use of force is sometimes the heavy price that the international community must pay for having failed to prevent the conflict or to settle it by other means. It may also be the only way of putting an end to genocide, of not sending entire populations to their death, as in Rwanda.

Our main concern in all our discussions here should be to defend the interests of the victims.

Their interests are best served by respect for international humanitarian law. In this regard, the States'obligation to respect and ensure respect for the law is of capital importance.

They are also served, of course, by the search for peace. The same States, acting through the United Nations and by virtue of its Charter, assume that responsibility. They have at their disposal a whole range of coercive measures to maintain or impose peace, including the use of force. If the latter option is adopted, international humanitarian law must be known, applied and respected by the United Nations forces. The ICRC, in its capacity as independent and neutral intermediary, will monitor such respect.

Lastly, the victims'interests will benefit from a clarification of roles, the search for efficient complementarity between operations of the United Nations and those of the ICRC. This is why our dialogue must be pursued and strengthened. This gathering is a vital step in that direction.

Ref. DP(1994)58b