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United Nations Decade of International Law

17-10-1997 Statement

 United Nations, General Assembly 52nd session, Sixth Committee, Agenda item 146  

 Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
New York, 17 October 1997

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has consistently lent, and will continue to lend, its support to the United Nations Decade of International Law, the main objectives of which are closely associated with its own efforts to clarify, develop and bring about respect for international humanitarian law. Since its address to this Committee last year, the ICRC has pursued its work to clarify the content of humanitarian law, to develop this law to ensure that it continue to be adapted to the conditions of modern warfare and, last but not least, to improve the implementation of and respect for existing law. What follows is an outline of our main activities in these three core areas of legal work.

 1. Clarification of humanitarian law  

The ICRC believes that there is a need for further clarification of the rules applicable to situations that are insufficiently or not at all covered by treaty law. Following the recommendation made by the Intergovernmental Group of Experts for the Protection of War Victims in 1995, that same year the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent gave the ICRC the task of preparing, with the assistance of experts representing various geog raphical regions and legal systems, and in consultation with experts from governments and international organizations, a report on customary rules of humanitarian law applicable in international and non-international armed conflicts.

The study is now well under way. Research is being carried out on national sources of some 50 States, on international sources regarding all aspects of humanitarian law covered by the study and into ICRC archives regarding some 50 recent armed conflicts. The research should be completed by the end of this year. In 1998, the Steering Committee will examine all the material gathered and make a first assessment of the practices found. This assessment will then be discussed with governmental and other experts acting in their personal capacity. The ICRC is in charge of drafting the final report, which will be presented to the international community in 1999 at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

 2. Development of humanitarian law  

 Treaty globally banning landmines  

As far as development of humanitarian law is concerned, the adoption by some 90 States in Oslo of a new treaty comprehensively prohibiting anti-personnel landmines was an extraordinary breakthrough in terms of the actual substance of the treaty and of the process which created it. Never before has a weapon in such widespread use by armed forces throughout the world been totally banned as a result of the unacceptable human costs of that use. And never before has the use, development, production, transfer and stockpiling of a weapon been prohibited in one bold step.

This new Convention, which will be opened for signature in Ottawa on 3 December, is the product of a unique process of cooperation between States, civil society and international organizations in response to a global humanitarian crisis. The complementary work of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement ensured that the process benefited from a substantial input from civil society. We take this opportunity to warmly congratulate the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its coordinator, Jody Williams, on being awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

In addition to the clear public abhorrence of a weapon which every month kills and maims some 2,000 people, mainly civilians, one of the reasons the treaty is now ready for signature is that States have moved away from the usual disarmament and arms control practice of awaiting consensus for the adoption of new law to the more traditional humanitarian law process whereby consensus is sought but its absence is not allowed to block all progress. The so-called " Ottawa Process " offers many lessons for the future development of humanitarian law in the face of rapid changes in technology, on the nature of warfare and the role of players on the humanitarian scene.

 Draft Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child  

The ICRC fully supports and takes an active part in the work being done by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on involvement of children in armed conflicts with a view to the adoption of an optional Protocol to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. The ICRC calls upon States to participate constructively in the negotiations on this instrument so that an early agreement may be reached on the text. The optional Protocol should:

 (a) apply to both government and non-government forces in international

 and non-international armed conflicts alike;

 (b) set at 18 the minimum age for recruitment, whether voluntary or compulsory,

 and prohibit any direct or indirect participation in hostilities of children

 under the age of 18.

The ICRC also wishes to assure the newly appointed Special Representative of the Secretary-General to study the impact of armed conflicts on children, Mr Olara Otunnu, of its full support.

 3. Implementation of humanitarian law  

The major challenge facing humanitarian law today is no doubt its implementation. There is a blatant contrast between the highly developed rules of humanitarian law, many of which enjoy universal acceptance, and their repeated violations in conflicts around the world.

 First Periodical Meeting of States party to the Geneva Conventions  

The Swiss Government has convened the first Periodical Meeting of States party to the Geneva Conventions, from 19 to 23 January 1998 in Geneva, to discuss general problems of implementation. Two broad issues have been selected for consideration at this initial meeting, namely the security of humanitarian personnel and respect for humanitarian law in conflicts where State structures have broken down. These are often referred to as anarchic conflicts. The ICRC has prepared two background papers for this meeting outlining the problems, and proposing some solutions. It is hoped that States will take an active part in the meeting and engage in a fruitful discussion on both documents.

In addition, several practical measures are already being taken to increase respect for humanitarian law. Besides the development of new mechanisms to ensure compliance with its provisions by repressing violations of the law, emphasis is being laid on finding new ways of improving national implementation of international norms and the dissemination of humanitarian law.

 Repression of war crimes  

The ICRC is highly interested and has been actively involved in the recent developments regarding the repression of war crimes, a matter directly related to the implementation of humanitarian law. In this context, it welcomed the creation of the two ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.

More importantly, the ICRC continues to fully support the efforts made towards the prompt establishment of an independent and effective permanent international criminal court, which it sees as an important step towards ending the reign of impunity. To that end, the ICRC would like to reiterate the need for this court to have inherent jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. With regard to war crimes in particular, the ICRC has contributed to the Preparatory Committee's work by submitting a list of war crimes which it considers should fall under the jurisdiction of the court. It further wishes to underline the need for the court to have jurisdiction over war crimes committed during non-international armed conflicts.

 National implementation  

The problem of translating States'international obligations into national laws and regulations is common to all areas of international law. The promotion of national implementation measures has therefore been a long-standing concern of the ICRC, which decided to strengthen its capacity to that effect by creating a new unit within its Legal Division, called the Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law . These efforts were endorsed by the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

The Advisory Service comprises legal experts based both in Geneva and in various ICRC delegations around the world, supported by a network of national experts. The Service, working in close cooperation with both governments and international organizations, seeks to raise awareness of the importance of implementation at the national level, to provide specialist advice and to promote the exchange of information and experience. The specific requirements of States must always be taken into account. Particular stress is laid on local expertise and sensitivity to local needs and conditions.

In its first two years of existence, the Advisory Service has reached well over 50 countries, organizing both national and regional seminars and advising them on national legislation. In the first ten months of this year, 17 national and regional seminars have been held around the world. The Service has commissioned a variety of national case-studies on implementation, established a public documentation centre to collect and exchange information on national implementation, and prepared various documents ranging from simple fact sheets to detailed technical guidelines. In 1996 a meeting of international experts was held to examine the work of National Committees for International Humanitarian Law. It was followed this year by a meeting of experts to discuss repression of violations of humanitarian law in national criminal law; a similar meeting for experts from common law States will be held in 1998. The conclusions of these meetings will serve as a basis f or the drawing up of guidelines to assist governments in their important task of national implementation.


In today's situations of tension and conflict, it is as essential to remind those bearing weapons that they may not resort to indiscriminate violence. The primary aim of dissemination work is to avert and to reduce violations of humanitarian law. The second aim is to secure access to victims. This requires that the protagonists understand, accept and respect humanitarian operations.

Providing instruction in humanitarian law for senior officers of the regular armed forces is a priority for the ICRC, which is now developing for the armed forces a model manual on the law of armed conflicts, designed for use at battalion commander level. The manual, which adopts a pragmatic and pedagogical approach, is meant to serve as a reference tool for military commanders to incorporate the norms of humanitarian law in the operational decision-making process. It will include previously developed guidelines on the protection of the environment in times of armed conflict.

Armed conflicts and other situations of violence are, however, changing in nature and are extending beyond the scope of provisions laid down for the conduct of hostilities, such as those contained in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols. In view of the multiplicity of forces deployed to restore internal law and order, the ICRC has expanded its dissemination activities to cover security and police forces as well, and has produced a manual on human rights and humanitarian law for use by such forces. This manual provides the basis for incorporating the fundamental principles of humanity in the training and operations of police and security forces worldwide.

The ICRC's dissemination work must also aim to reach the public at large so as to foster a humanitarian mentality and culture. The ICRC is stepping up its activities in over 150 countries and is establishing an ever-greater number of local contacts. The inclusion of humanitarian law in university programmes reflects this desire to familiarize future soldiers and policy makers with a body of law that is fundamental to respect for human values.

Another challenge is to reach young people. Thinking of children in a conflict generally means thinking in terms of victims. But young people are taking an increasingly active part in violence and even conflicts. While it is important to influence those who enlist them, it is essential to get through directly to the young people themselves and to use appropriate strategies to instil in them the necessary respect for certain rules. In countries hard hit by recent conflicts or still prey to a certain degree of instability, young people must be assisted in their efforts to replace the spiral of violence by a spirit of solidarity which will enable them to reconstruct their physical and psychological environment.

Even though a message is widely disseminated, in order to be assimilated it must be understood by the people for whom it is intended; hence the ICRC's efforts to incorporate local cultural values in its dissemination activities. In addition, the bearer of the message is often just as important as the content of the mesage itself, and the use of national human resources may be particularly conducive to success. The ICRC is therefore tending more and more to encourage dissemination programmes devised and carried out by National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


 4. International cooperation  

During the last year, the ICRC was able to increase its cooperation with international organizations in the field of humanitarian law. It has established closer ties with the United Nations, especially concerning the teaching of humanitarian law, and with the Interparliamentary Union. We also welcome the regular dialogue with regional organizations such as the Organization of African Unity, the Organization of American States, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe. The measures they have taken, including the adoption of resolutions encouraging States to respect and implement humanitarian law on the national level, are all the more crucial as the role of regional organizations in maintaining international peace and security is gaining in importance.


 5. Humanitrian law and the end of the United Nations Decade of International Law  

The closing of the United Nations Decade of International Law in 1999 will not only coincide with the centennial of the First Hague Peace Conference (1899), but also with the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. It is particularly fitting that at the end of this millennium we should take stock of the major contributions of both events to the codification and development of humanitarian law with a view to carrying these achievements over into the next century.

In addition to these anniversaries, the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent will also take place in 1999. This distinct, but complementary event should be yet another opportunity for a constructive dial ogue in order to improve respect for humanitarian law and to promote humanitarian action.

The ICRC hopes that its intensive efforts to clarify, develop and increase implementation of humanitarian law make a useful contribution to the goals of the United Nations Decade of International Law. We are confident that they will enjoy the full support and cooperation of States.

 Ref. LG 1997-106-ENG