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Humanitarian challenges on the threshold of the twenty-first century

04-12-1995 Statement

Summary of the address by Cornelio Sommaruga, ICRC President, to the first plenary meeting of the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent.

The ICRC President began by declaring: " The world is weighed down by the victims of too many tragedies " , adding that it was " in the name of those victims " that he was addressing the representatives of the States and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. He went on to say that the Movement, which found itself working in situations of ever greater complexity, drew its strength from its solidarity with the victims. That solidarity was expressed through the complementary activities of the Movement's various components: the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, their International Federation and the ICRC. The latter bore historical and legal responsibility for humanitarian action in behalf of military and civilian victims of armed conflict. In order to be as effective as possible the ICRC was working in increasingly close cooperation with the National Societies, whose activities and development must be given unstinting support. The Movement was in greater need than ever of the backing and commitment of governments. As the main multilateral forum for debating humanitarian issues, the Conference was a unique meeting place for the Movement and the world's governments, and the participants had a responsibility not to disappoint the hopes placed in it by the victims of wars and other catastrophic events.

Noting that 50 years had passed since the Holocaust, the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan and the end of the Second World War, Mr Sommaruga recalled that the Geneva Conventions had been adopted in 1949 and their Additional Protocols in 1977 in an effort to ensure respect for certain basic principles of humanity even in the heat of battle.

 Since 1945, 120 conflicts and 22 million dead  

The years since the end of the Second World War had brought a great deal of progress: improved health and living conditions for much of humanity, decolonization and, recently, the end of the Cold War.

Yet the same period had seen 120 conflicts that had left some 22 million people dead. Moreover, mankind was now faced with new challenges such as deterioration of the natural environment, rural depopulation, urban poverty and the reappearance of a number of major epidemic diseases. The chasm between the haves and have-nots was widening daily and would, unless the international community took care, be the cause of tomorrow's conflicts. The world had entered a rather indefinable period in which the parameters had changed, leaving no familiar landmarks. Hopes that an end to the Cold War would bring with it greater unity, humanity and solidarity had been disappointed. While it was true that several conflicts had been settled, many other intractable situations dragged on and new crises had erupted. Mr Sommaruga mentioned in particular events in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and the human tragedies that had followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

 Growing chaos and barbarity  

The demagogic voice of racism and xenophobia was urging people to ever more destructive acts, such as the odious practice of so-called ethnic cleansing. What the world had seen in recent years was nothing short of barbarity, a return to methods that everyone had thought belonged to the dim and distant past. Recent conflicts had been marked by a greater degree of chaos and anarchy than during the Cold War, with the traditional distinction between combatant and non-combatant - the very cornerstone of humanitarian law - a ll too seldom recognized and the elementary rules of humanity often completely disregarded. For the humanitarian organizations, working in such situations had become a highly dangerous and frustrating undertaking.

Faced with such widespread violence, humanitarian law had proved its worth amidst all the fire and the passion. It had rendered and continued to render invaluable services in providing legal protection for war victims. Nevertheless, the ICRC had witnessed innumerable violations directed against both detainees and the civilian population. Methods and means of warfare, including the irresponsible use of anti-personnel mines, were causing tragedy on an ever-growing scale. To that must be added the proliferation of weapons, in particular light weapons obtainable by practically anyone, and the appalling consequences of terrorism.

 Rebuilding our system of values  

 That being said, at a time when genocide could be perpetrated with nothing more than machetes, Mr Sommaruga stressed that what the world was facing was a human problem: progress on the moral level had not kept pace with scientific and technological advances. In those circumstances it was essential to rebuild the system of values that lay at the heart of the Red Cross and Red Crescent ideal: the rights of the victims, their entitlement to assistance, and respect for humanitarian endeavour. The main problem at present was to ensure respect for humanitarian law in internal armed conflicts, and it was therefore important to rediscover basic rules such as Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions, which applied to internal conflicts. Those rules expressed principles that transcended cultural barriers and were common to all civilizations; no one could ever contest them.

 Constitution of a criminal court with worldwide jurisdiction  

In September 1993, the ICRC President reminded the delegates, Geneva had hosted the International Conference for the Protection of War Victims, following which an intergovernmental group of experts was established to draw up recommendations for consideration by the present Conference. He hoped that the experts'recommendations would be accepted and called on States to ratify the Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions and other instruments of humanitarian law, pointing out that " respect for international humanitarian law depends to a large extent on its universality " . Quoting the Geneva Conventions, Mr Sommaruga went on to recall that the States party to them were required " to include the study thereof in (...) programmes of military and, if possible, civil instruction, so that the principles thereof may become known to all [the ] armed forces and to the entire population " . The States must step up their activities to spread knowledge and promote acceptance of the law. Mr Sommaruga further reminded his listeners that the States party to the Conventions were obliged " to search for, prosecute and try persons accused of having committed or having issued orders to commit any of the grave breaches listed in [them ] " . This was an obligation of solidarity. Citing the examples of the tribunals set up to prosecute large-scale violations of humanitarian law and human rights in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, he called for the constitution of an international criminal court with worldwide jurisdiction .

 Confusion about mandates  

Having discussed legal provisions and the problems of implementing them, the ICRC President went on to deal with the humanitarian action carried out by the ICRC, the National Societies and their Feder ation. The term " humanitarian action " had in recent years acquired a wide range of meanings, with political and military entities launching their own humanitarian operations. There was a degree of confusion within the international community about the respective mandates of the various bodies active in conflict situations, with everything pointing to the fact that international control mechanisms had not yet adapted to the reality of present-day conflicts. Mr Sommaruga reaffirmed in the strongest terms that humanitarian action must be carried out in parallel with political or military action, and that it must not and could not be a substitute for the latter . In particular in the acute stage of a conflict, there was a clear need for a neutral and humanitarian approach and States had to make room for independent humanitarian action. The growing magnitude of the task and the proliferation of agencies made it more necessary than ever to strengthen the process of consultation and cooperation among the various organizations involved in humanitarian work. An effort had to be made to improve the planning of humanitarian action in terms of time and space. Agencies specializing in emergency operations and those concerned with reconstruction and development programmes must come to an arrangement among themselves. The ICRC felt that it was unacceptable to simply abandon the victims of conflict; assistance programmes had to be carried out through to the end. As an independent organization, the ICRC took action in all situations in which human beings were suffering at the hands of their fellows; it could not neglect people merely because they were victims of conflicts that no longer made

the headlines.

Implementing international humanitarian law was a matter for the entire Movement, which, in response to the magnitude of humanitarian needs, had had to adapt to the realities of the moment while reaffirming its Fundamental Princ iples. All the components of the Movement were duty bound to apply those Principles to the letter. For the ICRC, with its specific mandate to help the victims of armed conflict, the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence were crucial. The Movement's role was not limited to emergency and reconstruction work; it also had to take preventive action: by combating all forms of hatred, fanaticism and exclusion it could do more to promote the values of tolerance and respect for others.

 A new contract of humanity  

To ensure that humanitarian action was universally recognized and respected, the ICRC President proposed a new contract of humanity, whereby the international community would undertake to give its unreserved support to efforts aimed at implementing international humanitarian law. That implied, among other things:  

 - speeding up the process of ratification of the existing instruments of humanitarian law;  

 - intensifying efforts to make that law widely known and accepted;   

 - reaffirming that it is unacceptable for rules applicable in international conflicts not to apply in internal  

 conflicts, and therefore applying and ensuring the application of Article 3 common to the four Geneva  


 - doing everything possible in the event of violations of international humanitarian law to remedy the  

 situation, in the spirit of Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions and Article 9 of Protocol I, and imposing  

 penal sanctions on those who commit grave breaches of the law, as stipulated in the Conventions.  

 Finally, it was essential to preserve a space for independent humanitarian action in the midst of armed conflict.