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Human rights, mass exoduses and displaced persons

10-04-1996 Statement

52nd Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Agenda item 9 - 10 April 1996. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Mr Chairman,

Thank you for giving the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) the floor.

The ICRC was most interested to hear the various statements made in support of greater respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The fact that several of these statements raised the issue of internally displaced persons was certainly no coincidence, as this problem is currently the subject of broad debate within the international community.

 Internally displaced persons  

This debate is centred on two principal issues: the question of institutional responsibility and the legal aspects of protection for people displaced within their own country.

As regards the protection and assistance afforded to the displaced, the ICRC agrees with Mr Deng that existing organizations must step up their activities, while closely coordinating their work with the other players on the humanitarian scene. It is essential that such coordination be conducted in all transparency and in a spirit of complementarity, and that due account be taken of each organization's mandate and specific role.

The ICRC, for its part, protects and assists internally displaced persons insofar as they are victims of armed conflicts or disturbances. Depending on the situation, aid to such people may therefore constitute a major component of the organization's work for the civilian population as a whole, as is for example the case of its operations in the South of the Russian Federation, especially in the Chechen Republic, Afghanistan, Burundi, and Sri Lanka.

To move on to legal matters, I should like to discuss a few aspects of the compilation and analysis of legal norms protecting people displaced within their own country, which Mr Deng has just submitted to the Commission. First of all, allow me to express the ICRC's appreciation for the extensive work done by the authors and for the quality of the results. We now have a working instrument which will undoubtedly serve as a reference document. The ICRC has carried out an analysis of this report; its conclusions are set out in a separate document, which is at your disposal should you wish to consult it.

The compilation examines several branches of international law, namely human rights law, international humanitarian law and refugee law.

We should, however, bear in mind that armed conflicts are unquestionably the main cause of displacement, and that the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols, of which the ICRC is both the custodian and the promoter, contain detailed provisions that cover the specific needs arising in wartime. To afford the best possible protection to conflict victims, humanitarian law protects the civilian population as a whole. Its numerous rules therefore also cover people displaced within their own country. They include the protection of physical and moral integrity, and the principle of non-discrimination, which is vital as regards internally displaced persons. This is why the ICRC remains convinced that an approach based on situations - for example that of armed conflict - is more appropriate when it comes to meeting the specific needs of victims than an approach based on categories of individuals, regardless of the situation in which they find themselves.

However, as stated in the report's conclusions, there are areas where the specific requirements of internally displaced persons are not sufficiently taken into account. One of these areas concerns the right of these people to return voluntarily to their places of former residence. It is crucial that their return should take place under acceptable conditions, in terms of both security and human dignity. Moreover, the displaced must be entitled to the restitution of property they have lost, or otherwise to fair compensation.

Another very important question is that of official documents for internally displaced persons, who must for example be able to register births and marriages and to receive identity papers. This concerns the fundamental right of the individual to enjoy legal personality.

As regards the suggestion to establish a set of principles, a code of conduct or a declaration relating to people displaced within their own country, the ICRC is of the opinion that such a document would serve primarily to clarify the above issues and to reaffirm existing rules. Obviously it could not replace existing legal instruments or effective implementation of the law. This should be taken into account if the document is drawn up, so as to avoid creating several standards of protection and thereby weakening the rules already in force.

It should, moreover, be emphasized that international humanitarian law prohibits forced population movements and that respect for its provisions should, generally speaking, help to prevent the displacement of civilians as a result of hostilities. In order to stengthen respect for humanitarian law and thereby take preventive action, States must fulfil their obligation to promote wider knowledge of its rules, in particular among their armed forces, and adopt national measures for its implementation. In this connection it should be recalled that States have a collective responsibility to ensure respect for humanitarian law in all circumstances.

By organizing a symposium on the subject of internally   displaced persons at the end of last year, the ICRC wished to contribute to the general debate on the issue. Mr Deng honoured us with his presence, and we should like to thank him for taking part in this meeting. The 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, held in Geneva last December, also discussed the question of people displaced within their own country, which is of concern to the entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Mr Chairman,

 Anti-personnel landmines  

Anti-personnel mines are one of the causes of forced population movements - be they of internally displaced persons or of refugees. Moreover, during the post-conflict phase these same weapons prevent civilians from returning to their land and villages.

Anti-personnel mines wreak havoc among the civilian population, since they strike indiscriminately and kill or maim countless people. Often they are even targeted at civilians.

The need to eliminate this scourge calls for a mobilization of the entire international community.

The ICRC, for its part, is resolutely committed to obtaining a total ban on anti-personnel mines. It has taken this stand within the context of the Review Conference of the 1980 UN Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons.


Like anti-personnel mines, terrorism strikes blindly and indiscriminately. Here again, the crucial principle that a distinction must be made between combatants and military objectives on the one hand, and civilians and civilian objects on the other, is totally annihilated.

Yet this principle lies at the heart of international humanitarian law, and systematic disregard for it would divest it of its very substance, with untold consequences for the victims.

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols categorically prohibit acts of terrorism. Under international humanitarian law, acts of terrorism may constitute war crimes and must therefore be repressed with the utmost determination.

Mr Chairman,

 International criminal court  

The perpetrators of violations of humanitarian law must absolutely be prosecuted, wherever and whenever such violations may have been committed.

It should be recalled that international humanitarian law obliges States to repress the grave breaches it defines and to prosecute their authors wherever they may be. If the mechanism established by the law of armed conflicts were actually put into effect, it would ensure that grave breaches were dealt with impartially and in all circumstances. The reality is, however, quite different.

The ICRC therefore greatly welcomed the creation of the ad hoc Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda by the United Nations Security Council. That being said, the establishment of these tribunals constitutes but one step - albeit an important one indeed - towards the setting up of an international criminal court, which is essential if the international community truly intends to limit abuse against the civilian population, wherever it may occur.

An international criminal court is the only mechanism that will have a definite deterrent effect and can at the same time contribute to the stability and coherence of international jurisprudence. The ICRC's hope is that the court will remain free of all political pressure, thereby permitting a fully independent exercise of justice. Universal participation in the court would also be advisable, so as to ensure that it is truly at the service of the international community.

Each time the opportunity arose, the ICRC strongly recommended the establishment of an international criminal court. Recently the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in its Resolution 2 urged States " to increase international efforts to bring before courts and punish war criminals and those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law [and ] to establish permanently an international criminal court " .

The work being done within the United Nations, in particular that of the Ad Hoc Committee which is now meeting in New York with a view to drawing up the statute of an international criminal court and whose efforts are actively supported by the ICRC, demonstrates the firm resolve of the international community to make headway in this regard.

I should like to conclude by saying that there is a complementary relationship between international justice and humanitarian action, although a clear distinction must be maintained between the two.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

[Ref.UN(1996)4,b ]