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Regional Conference to address the problems of refugees, displaced persons, other forms of involuntary displacement and returnees in the countries of the Commonwealth of independent states and relevant neighbouring states

31-05-1996 Statement

Statement by Mr Yves Sandoz, Director of International Law and Policy, Member of the Executive Board, Geneva, 30 May 1996.

Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the field daily have to contend with armed conflict situations, which are one of the major causes of displacement. These mass population movements are not only often caused by open or incipient violence, but may themselves represent a potential danger of destabilization or even a factor of considerable importance in negotiations for the settlement of a dispute.

While the raison d'être of the ICRC is to do its utmost to provide assistance and protection to the victims of conflicts and disturbances, its intervention always prompts certain questions. What should be done, first of all, to avoid such situations,   but then also to prevent the violations of international humanitarian law to which they give rise? How are we to determine what the ICRC can do in practical terms to assist displaced persons, while at the same time taking account of the increased needs of the local population which gives them shelter and cares for them, sometimes with great generosity? And how are we to protect displaced people who end up in hostile surroundings, where their presence is often seen as an additional burden in an already very precarious economic situation?

These questions arise for all of us engaged in humanitarian aid, whether as individuals or as organizations. We are all duty bound to help search for solutions in a non-political manner, though aware that such an enormous and complex task cannot be accomplished without the support of the political powers which, in our op inion, have the further duty of addressing the root causes of conflicts and population displacements.

General Assembly decision 50/151 of 1995 requesting UNHCR to convene this Conference on refugees and displaced persons in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States is an appreciable step in this direction.

The ICRC for its part has followed the preparations for this Conference with great interest. It fully endorses its main objectives of establishing an appropriate forum for discussing the humanitarian problems raised by population displacements, clarifying the categories of people concerned and drawing up a Programme of Action.    

Although the ICRC can play but a limited role in preventing conflicts, as a neutral and independent humanitarian agent it renders direct assistance in the heart of the fighting, trying to ensure the survival of all groups of people in need - which naturally include displaced persons - by providing relief supplies wherever necessary.

Yet emergency aid can by definition be only temporary, and care must be taken, especially in conflicts likely to be of long duration, to ensure that it has no destabilizing effects. In planning such aid, parameters valid for the medium and even for the long term must therefore also be taken into account: it must meet the real needs of the victims, with due regard for their culture and local customs, and must be constantly geared to enabling the affected groups to recover their self-sufficiency as soon as possible.

Mr Chairman,

ICRC action is based mainly on international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts. The essential purpose of this law is to limit the suffering caused by conflicts and to prevent the abuses committed during them, either by direct attacks against persons at the mercy of the c ombatants or by conducting hostilities indiscriminately and out of all proportion to the intended military objectives. Strict application of this law should also help to create a climate of trust conducive to making the parties opt for other methods of settling their disputes.

In this context, it may be said that this law also helps to limit conflicts. It is therefore essential to make it known, just like other branches of international law, and we are glad that the importance of this teaching is recognized in the Programme of Action submitted to this Conference. 

Appropriate training for the armed forces is essential in this regard. Humanitarian law must be incorporated in military manuals and must form an integral part of the instruction given to combatants, so as to develop in them a genuine " automatic humanitarian response " towards those protected by humanitarian law - the wounded, prisoners, women and children, indeed the civilian population as a whole.

But this teaching must be prepared in advance and on a broader scale, at the level of national education.

We are glad to be able to mention here the extensive programme for teaching children the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law that the ICRC is helping to establish in the Russian Federation and in other CIS countries. This programme, designed for schools, has been planned in close cooperation with the Ministries of Education concerned and local teachers and is supported by several Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which should help to give it a lasting character.

The Advisory Service set up by the ICRC to give States guidance in implementing international humanitarian law at the national level serves as another example of long-term preventive action: this service, working in cooperation with UNESCO, has in particular organized seminars for the local authorities in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in Uzbekistan for the countries of Central Asia; it has also held a seminar in Latvia for the Baltic countries, in cooperation with the OSCE.

The interest and active participation of these countries in the seminars is a very encouraging sign.

These advisory activities should, in particular, enable the States concerned to enact national laws strengthening the prosecution and punishment of war crimes and ensuring respect for the red cross and red crescent emblems.

Mr Chairman,

May I be allowed to dwell for a moment on the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies which, with due support from States but nonetheless retaining their independence, should be able to play a crucial role.

The National Societies have local committees throughout their national territory which can act on their behalf. In the northern Caucasus, for instance, in the Russian Federation, the ICRC is in close touch with the local committees of the Russian Red Cross Society. In a wider context the National Societies can help to analyse mass displacements and, when these are long-lasting, to set up and implement programmes specially adapted to the developmental, educational and training needs of displaced persons.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement of course cannot solve all these problems by itself, but it can, in concerted efforts, play a significant role in meeting the needs of the people displaced by the recent conflicts between the Republics of Ossetia and Ingushetia and in the Republic of Chechnya. These people account for a major proportion of the victims of these conflicts, whom the ICRC, in accordance with the mandate entrusted to it, must endeavour to protect and assist. It will continue to do everything in its power to carry out this mandate.

Mr Chairman,

It is absolutely essential that vigorous measures be taken to ensure better protection for displaced persons, whether they are covered by international humanitarian law or only by human rights law. Everything possible should therefore be done to increase knowledge of and respect for not only international humanitarian law, but also human rights. Humanitarian organizations have a responsibility in this regard, but they cannot take the place of political action: humanitarian action cannot serve as an alibi for political inaction.

This Conference must serve as proof that action can be taken - action which cannot be effective without adequate support from States.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.