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Human rights, mass exoduses and displaced persons

02-04-1997 Statement

53rd Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Agenda item 9 - 2 April 1997. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Mr Chairman,

I should like to begin by thanking you for giving the floor to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Over the past year, the victims of violence have once again been at the heart of the concerns of ICRC and other humanitarian organizations: war victims, the victims of disturbances and repression, the victims of half-war, half-peace situations, which last and tend to be perpetuated indefinitely, and which require a sustained humanitarian presence for many years. Each time, the civilian populations have found themselves defenceless, even when they are not themselves the target of belligerents, as in some ethnically oriented conflicts.

More than ever, human rights and international humanitarian law find their justification. They are all too often flouted, however, undoubtedly out of ignorance, but also, and this is of course much more serious, quite knowingly. Such being the case, we can but issue a solemn and urgent appeal to all belligerents - to government armed forces and to armed opposition groups alike - to spread knowledge of the principles and rules of humanitarian law and to make every effort to apply them.

It must be remembered that, even during internal armed conflicts, the civilian population is entitled to extensive protection and that population displacements are strictly prohibited. Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocol II of 1977 - so far signed by 139 States - contain rules which, if respected, would have the direct effect of significantly reducing the number of refugees and internally displaced persons, and victims in general.

Mr Chairman,

Not only have the civilian populations been the tragic victims of such events; the very people who have brought them protection and assistance have been directly targeted as well. We would therefore also like to appeal for all those who bring assistance to victims to be respected in all circumstances. We must not forget that under humanitarian law victims have the right to be assisted. Access to victims, however, is all too often not possible in acceptable security conditions, or is even refused. The ICRC believes that the international community should then assume its responsibilities and create the appropriate humanitarian space for the various organizations to conduct their respective activities in a coordinated and complementary manner. Among the victims whom the ICRC tries to help, internally displaced persons continue to occupy a major place in its endeavours. In this regard, the ICRC would like once again to welcome the work of Mr Francis Deng, Representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons. The ICRC is pleased to be associated with the preparation of a set of Guiding Principles which reaffirm and specify the rules protecting internally displaced persons. This will undoubtedly be a very useful tool for the promotion of international law, and we sincerely hope that it will be conducive to better implementation thereof. Here, too, what is lacking is not so much the actual rules, as the effective application of the existing law.

Mr. Chairman,

The scourge of anti-personnel mines continues to kill and to maim indiscriminately thousands of innocent civilians every year, and especially refugees and internally displaced persons. Mines are not only a cause of displacement, they also constitute one of the chief obstacles to the return of entire populations once the fighting is over.

Admittedly, the results of the Review Conference of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which ended on 3 May 1996, have been disappointing. The ICRC is convinced that a total ban on anti-personnel mines is the only real solution to the problems of protecting civilian populations. It therefore hails the resolutions adopted by the Sub-Commission and by the General Assembly.

In view of the magnitude of the humanitarian emergency, it is vital that the Canadian Government's initiative of October 1996 in Ottawa, calling for the conclusion of an agreement banning anti-personnel mines before the end of this year, should be supported.

Mr. Chairman,

In most cases, mass population displacements are brought about by violations of humanitarian law committed with full impunity, despite the obligation of States to prosecute persons suspected of having committed grave breaches of humanitarian law. The creation of ad hoc international criminal courts certainly contributes towards a better implementation of the law, but this selective form of justice remains insufficient.

The International Criminal Court must be given sufficient powers to judge the presumed perpetrators not only of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I, but also of other war crimes, and especially those committed in the course of internal conflicts. To that effect, the ICRC proposed a detailed definition of war crimes at the recent meeting of the Preparatory Committee in New York.

The creation of a criminal court raises other fundamental issues, such as referral, inherent jurisdiction and the principle of complementarity. In this respect, it has to be ensured that the court offers full guarantees of independence and impartiality, and that it is endowed wi th the necessary tools to be effective.

Mr. Chairman,

It was essentially to further the prosecution of war criminals by States that the ICRC last year set up its Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law , in the belief that every State should enact legislation to bring such criminals to court. These measures are necessary independently of the establishment of an International Criminal Court, since the latter is intended to be complementary to, and not to replace, national courts. The practical activities of the ICRC's Advisory Services are described in a separate document, which will be distributed as an official document of this Commission.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

 Ref. LG 1997-033-ENG