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Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

15-10-1997 Statement

Delivered by Jean de Courten, ICRC director of operations.

Mr Chairman,

Madam High Commissioner,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, I should like to say how much the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) values the relationship it has established with UNHCR. Our daily contacts at all levels bear ample witness to this relationship, as did the fifth annual meeting of the heads of our two organizations last August. Better knowledge of our respective mandates and a clear division of tasks can only lead to greater efficiency in the conduct of operations.

Close cooperation between agencies is one of the key requirements if we are to provide an appropriate humanitarian response to the needs of the victims. In today's changing world, only a continuous dialogue at all operational levels can help us afford more effective assistance and protection to people fleeing zones of conflict.

Mr Chairman,

The plight of civilians driven from their homes by violence and war remains one of the most acute humanitarian issues of our time. More and more frequently, civilians flee not merely because they find themselves in areas where fighting is raging but because they themselves have become the main targets of the hostilities. Yet international human itarian law expressly prohibits forced population movements. The 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Protocols forbid the warring parties to inflict discriminatory treatment founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criterion.

The task of the ICRC is to bring assistance and protection to war victims both by taking practical action and by drawing up legal rules. In the course of this past year, it has pursued its activities for refugees and internally displaced persons affected by armed conflict, notably in the African Great Lakes region, the Caucasus, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Mr Chairman,

Repatriation admittedly offers a lasting solution to the problem of refugees, but it should not be carried out unless certain specific conditions are fulfilled. The primary condition is that repatriation should take place on a voluntary basis. To avert the risk of large-scale human tragedy, it is crucial to remind States that the principle of non-refoulement remains more valid than ever, despite the heavy burden placed on countries that are faced with a massive influx of refugees. The entire international community must support any action taken to assist civilians fleeing armed conflict; the burden shouldered by the host country must be kept to a minimum.

The authorities of host countries are responsible for ensuring that refugee camps are located in safe areas and are not used as military bases. The refugee population must not become hostage to armed groups. The disarmament and internment of such groups are one of the prerequisites for the application of the basic principles of refugee law.

The ICRC is also of the opinion that, in the absence of satisfactory political settlement of a conflict, repatriation is not advisable. The return of those who have fled their homes must be organized in stages and carefully planned. It must not be hampered by discriminatory administrative procedures, other bureaucratic difficulties or any pressure that might influence the decisions of the individuals concerned. The existence of an independent judicial system and the restitution of refugees'and displaced persons'property, or fair compensation, all contribute to creating a more stable environment for returnees. Before the actual repatriation, at least some rehabilitation work must be carried out in areas where housing, hospitals, schools, water supply and sewage systems have often been completely destroyed. In such cases, there must be a smooth transition from emergency action to development work.

Another issue that must be emphasized is the considerable threat posed by anti-personnel mines during repatriation operations. Although we all welcome the progress made towards a ban on these weapons, it should be borne in mind that mines not only prevent people from returning home in secure conditions but also constitute an obstacle to economic development, which is a crucial requirement for a successful return. Moreover, the presence of mines in areas of receiving returnees spells disaster and constitutes a long-term hazard for the civilian population. The ICRC takes this opportunity to congratulate the International Campaign to Ban Landmines on being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr Chairman,

Finding a lasting solution to the problem of refugees is not sufficient. Any approach to that problem must take account of the need for preventive action. Promoting better awareness and more effective implementation of existing law is in itself a preventive measure.

The ICRC considers it its duty to reaffirm that all the States party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols are under an obligation to apply these instruments scrupulously and to work to ensure compliance w ith their provisions. Faithful application of these treaties is an effective means of curbing population movements.

The ICRC has contributed to the major document entitled " Guiding Principles for Internally Displaced Persons " , drawn up by the Secretary-General's Special Representative, Mr Francis Deng. It hopes that this document will lead to more effective protection of civilians. As you know, the issue of the internally displaced remains high on the agenda for discussions between our two organizations.

If humanitarian action is to achieve its objective it must adopt a consistent approach. Constant consultation between humanitarian agencies is essential for efficient coordination of operations in the field.

The increasing number of serious security incidents affecting humanitarian personnel is a source of growing concern. Any attack on humanitarian action negates the very foundations of assistance and protection work. This is a problem that concerns us all. Players on the political scene are equally involved, and the issue calls for a concerted response. In this connection, the ICRC wishes to remind this assembly that the matter will be on the agenda of the first Periodical Meeting of States party to the Geneva Conventions, scheduled for January of next year.

In responding to crises in today's world, humanitarian organizations and those involved in political/military action operate more and more frequently in the same working environment. Humanitarian activity must, however, be able to preserve its autonomy. This is the only way for it to maintain its neutrality and independence, and thus to succeed in safeguarding the dignity of every individual and in alleviating the suffering endured by the victims.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

[Ref.: LG 1997-118-ENG ]