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Comprehensive review of the whole question of peace-keeping operations in all their aspects

18-11-1996 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly 51st session, Fourth Committee, Agenda item 86 Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 18 November 1996

Mr. Chairman,

In its statements to this Committee over the past years, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has expressed its concerns regarding the applicability of international humanitarian law to peace-keeping or peace-enforcement forces. Indeed, the changing nature of peace-keeping has heightened the need for a clarification of this question.

Along the same lines, the Special Committee for peace-keeping operations last year requested the Secretary-General to " complete the elaboration of a code of conduct for United Nations peace-keeping personnel, consistent with applicable international humanitarian law " . [1 ]

Mr. Chairman,

In conformity with its mandate " to work for the understanding and dissemination of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts and to prepare any development thereof " [2 ] , the ICRC has studied the possible content of such a code of conduct.

To this end, it organized two meetings of experts from military and academic circles, in March and in October 1995. Former commanders of United Nations forces and representatives from the United Nations Secretariat were also invited to give their expert opinions. The participants analysed all the provisions of humanitarian law in order to determine their applicability to peace-keeping forces, and drew up a draft code of conduct.

This project was subsequently reviewed jointly, in a spirit of close cooperation, by the ICRC and the United Nations Secretariat, in particular the Department of Peace-keeping Operations and the Office of Legal Affairs. A final text was drawn up in May 1996, entitled Guidelines for UN Forces Regarding Respect for International Humanitarian Law , the word " Guidelines " being replaced later on by " Directives " . This document sets out the content and scope of the " principles and spirit " of humanitarian law referred to in many status of force agreements. The Office of Legal Affairs is now engaged in a last round of consultations with troop-contributing countries. The ICRC understands that this important text will be finalized before the end of the year.

Mr. Chairman,

These Directives are designed for United Nations forces conducting operations under United Nations command and control when, in situation of armed conflict, they are actively engaged as combatants. They are meant to be used in both peace-keeping and enforcement operations, where the use of force is authorized either in self-defence or in pursuance of a specific mandate from the Security Council.

It must be emphasized that the Directives do not constitute an exhaustive list of the principles and rules of international humanitarian law binding upon military personnel. Rules of engagement, or other relevant directives adapted to particular circumstances, should indeed continue to be issued. It must also be stressed that blue helmets remain bound by their national legislation to respect international humanitarian law, as may be applicable. Consequently, if they violate the law, they may be subject to prosecution in their national courts.

Mr. Chairman,

The ICRC is convinced that sound training in international humanitarian law has preventive value and also offers operational advantages. Both are equally important for military forces. Such training is, without a doubt, the best guarantee that operations will be conducted in compliance with the law, and that United Nations contingents will be in a position to ensure that the warring parties comply with the law. We believe that United Nations troops should be exemplary in this regard.

For this reason, we consider it important that every national contingent receive proper training in international humanitarian law before being deployed. We hope that the Directives will provide an appropriate conceptual framework for such training, and are prepared to contribute our expertise, as far as our means permit, in promoting them.

Mr. Chairman,

The ICRC, weary of seeing the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian work undermined whenever no clear and common understanding or agreement exists with respect to the specific nature of humanitarian operations, has repeatedly called for the preservation of a humanitarian space in situations of conflict. Any understanding of this kind should be based on a clear concept, laid out in the mandate entrusted to the peace-keeping forces by the Security Council.

The sole purpose of humanitarian action is to ensure that the victims are assisted and protected. This is why the ICRC deems it vital that political or military action, including any action undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations, be conceived in such a way as not to erode the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian operations.

Within those parameters, and while maintaining a total independence of decision and action, we frequently talk with peace-keeping forces with a view to clarifying our respective tasks, especially in cases where their mission is to facilitate or ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance or, more generally, where humanitarian issues are at stake. In the course of day-to-day operations, ICRC delegates and members of United Nations peace-keeping forces exchange useful information about the discharge of their respective mandates.

Finally, cooperation and complementarity are more difficult to achieve, or are not even sought, when enforcement measures are adopted. In such situations, the nature of the relationship between the ICRC and peace-keeping troops may change, and the ICRC may be called upon to fulfill its role as a neutral intermediary, for example by visiting persons detained by a peace-keeping force.

Let me conclude by stressing that humanitarian action can run parallel to military or political action, but cannot replace it. Politicization of humanitarian action can only be to the detriment of the victims of armed conflicts, making them hostages to political considerations. Equally risky are attempts, even well-intentioned, to put a humanitarian label on action of a political or military nature. We must, therefore, pursue our common endeavours, in a spirit of cooperation and complementarity, to find the means of fulfilling our respective mandates in the best possible interests of the victims. The ICRC is confident that the constructive dialogue it has developed with the United Nations in this regard will continue.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


1. UN Doc. A/50/230, para. 73.

2. Article 5, para. 2(g), of the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

 Ref. UN(1996)34,b