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Statement by Mr Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the ICRC, at the meeting of Permanent Representatives, ICRC Headquarters

18-12-1996 Statement

The ICRC is in a state of shock.

In welcoming you to ICRC headquarters today, you who are the High Representatives of the States party to the Geneva Conventions, I can only tell you that the profound grief we have felt since yesterday morning prevents me from giving you the traditional review of the suffering endured by conflict victims around the world in 1996, and from outlining our fears and hopes for the year to come.

You will have found on your seats the ICRC's appeals for funds for its work in 1997, in the order of 142 million Swiss francs for the headquarters budget and 618 million for the field budget (the emergency appeals). The two budgets show little change in comparison with the estimates for the current year. Your Ministers for Foreign Affairs will receive, via your Permanent Missions, my letters of appeal in the next few days.

I must say, however, that our financial situation this year is a source of concern for me, as we need to raise another 54 million Swiss francs within the next two weeks if we are to close our 1996 accounts without a deficit. Moreover, we have to ensure that pledges amounting to 60 million francs, so far unpaid, are honoured. My staff will give you further details after our meeting. 

I have no wish to dwell any longer on figures and contributions, which are nonetheless vital to our humanitarian work in behalf of the victims of armed conflict.

Instead, I should like to go back to yesterday's tragic events.

You are all certainly aware that yesterday at four o'clock in the morning, at the ICRC hospital in Novy Atagi, four nur ses and a delegate from the National Red Cross Societies of Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway and an ICRC nurse of Spanish origin were murdered as they slept by a group of armed and masked men. The death of these five women and their male colleague while serving the humanitarian cause has come as a terrible shock to us all. Today the ICRC, all the National Societies and I am sure the entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are in mourning, horrified by this revolting massacre, this vile, barbarous and cowardly act which brings infamy on its perpetrators. Every one of us feels deep in his heart the dreadful blow dealt so brutally to the victims'families on the eve of the festive season.

Here before you all, on behalf of their friends and colleagues at the ICRC, I would like to pay tribute to them and to express our profound sympathy to their families and to their respective National Red Cross Societies.

Their commitment to their work was also an expression of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement's solidarity with the victims of the conflict in Chechnya. Their death casts a tragic shadow over our entire Movement.

It is an outrage which strikes at the very foundation of the ICRC's action. It strikes at the very foundation of what the Red Cross originally set out to do: to care for the wounded. 

This tragedy is unacceptable. The field hospital we set up last September in Novy Atagi, some 25 kilometres from the capital Grozny, with logistic and material support from the Norwegian Red Cross and Government, was a place of peace and compassion. The staff who had chosen to work there despite the difficult living conditions had made it a haven of hope and humanity, in the true Red Cross spirit, for the wounded and the sick in a country devastated by months of fierce and often merciless fighting.

Someone wanted t o crush that hope.

The hospital, which was open to everyone without discrimination, had been installed with the agreement of all the parties concerned. Whatever the difficulties we encountered, and certainly aware of the danger all around, we never for a moment imagined that such a crime could be committed, especially since the fighting had ceased. At present we have no indication as to the identity of the killers. The authorities in Chechnya and of the Russian Federation have unreservedly condemned the attack. We have been officially informed that an investigation has been opened and that we shall be notified of the results. 

As you know, this sad event is, alas, not an isolated incident. I cannot help seeing a link with the brutal murder of three of our staff in Burundi on 4 June this year. The context of wanton violence in which the ICRC increasingly has to operate, and the repeated violations of the Red Cross emblem that we are witnessing, raise some very grave issues.

The murder of our colleagues in Novy Atagi was carried out with ferocious determination. It was a manifestation of barbaric violence.

But should it not be seen as part of the much wider tragedy that the civilian population of Chechnya has endured over the past few years?

Can we still speak of violations of humanitarian law, or is this more a negation of the values that the international community regarded as fundamental?

Indeed, what has just happened in Grozny can be compared with barbaric acts seen recently in other parts of the world.

We have been forced to call a halt to our activities in Chechnya for the moment, but we are determined not to give up. For how could we ever bring ourselves to abandon the victims of the situation? 

If we accept that such intolerable behaviour will continue in a climat e of indifference, then the intolerable will become the rule. Yesterday's tragedy must be seen from this perspective if it is to have any meaning. It is a challenge to us all: governments, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations alike.

This breakdown of moral values, these war crimes that are becoming commonplace, must surely lend a new urgency to the ongoing discussions on the establishment of an international criminal court.

There are clear choices to be made, and clear messages to be given.

While it is too early to take any definitive decision about the future of our humanitarian action, and in particular about our presence in Chechnya, the reactions of your Governments and their support will certainly make a vital contribution to our common effort to preserve an oasis of humanity in the very midst of conflict. 

It is by pursuing that effort that we shall honour the memory of our colleagues who have given their lives for the humanitarian cause.

Only with the help of men and women like yourselves, distinguished Representatives of the States party to the Geneva Conventions, who understand, support and share our aims, will we be able to play our part in alleviating human suffering and keeping hope alive. The ICRC is infinitely grateful for your help and I am confident that, together, we can rise to the challenges of 1997.

Geneva, 18 December 1996

Assassination of ICRC personnel in Chechnya