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Some questions and answers regarding the ICRC and preventive action

04-11-1997 Statement

Round Table on "Preventive Action" Copenhagen, 2 - 4 November 1997. Address by Mr René Kosirnik, Deputy Director of International Law and Policy, ICRC.

 What is preventive action?  

In everyday speech the word " preventive " is used with several meanings, only one of which is of interest to us here. For our purposes I would define " preventive action " as follows:

 A set of measures and activities intended to prevent harmful  

 events or to limit their adverse consequences  

Preventive action therefore requires preparation, that is, measures have to be taken before the actual event. This in turn implies the ability to anticipate events. Preventive measures may have one or more of the following objectives:

* to prevent a harmful event from happening

* to limit the scope of the event

* to contain or keep to a minimum the harmful effects of the event.

When the man in the street hears of preventive action he usually thinks of disease control or accident prevention, in particular road safety. It goes without saying, however, that there can and must be preventive action against all evils, individual or collective.

Such evils can range from poverty and hunger to emot ional distress. Going still further, and this takes us to the heart of our topic today, preventive action can aim to prevent war, limit suffering and forestall violations of international humanitarian law.

 What is the purpose of preventive action?  

The simple answer lies in the old adage " prevention is better than cure " .

This saying seems particularly pertinent to the social ills which arise from people's behaviour and the way they interact. In this area of human relations, fate plays only a minor role. What happens depends above all on the way individuals and communities manage their relationships and the decisions they take. A satisfactory result depends on proper preparation and sound preventive measures.

During a recent international symposium on humanitarian action, two eminent participants expressed the following opinions. One declared: " The future lies in preventive humanitarian action " ; and the other said: " Preventive action? I'm fed up with these fashionable notions " .

In reality, preventive action is not a new, " futuristic " approach, any more than it is a " fashion " . It is a necessity and a permanent task. It existed in the past, it is practised today, it has to be pursued in the future. What is changing is the way it is perceived, conceived and implemented.

If we talk more about preventive action today than in the past, it is no doubt because now the world is less embroiled in the turmoil of major conflicts. As a result we are able to stand back and give more thought to ways of improving preventive action. This is good: it is the way forward.

 Since when, and for what reason, has the Red Cross, and more specifically the ICRC, been involved in preventive work?  

Ever since they came into existence. Since the ICRC and the first National Societies were founded in 1863 and the First Geneva Convention for the protection of the wounded and sick in the armed forces was adopted in 1864.

Indeed, the worldwide International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and international humanitarian law are both founded on the conviction that even if war cannot be avoided, it is nonetheless possible, even necessary, to limit the harm and suffering it causes. This new humanitarian initiative, launched some 130 years ago, was based principally on two " pillars " of preventive action:

1. the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which " in peacetime (...)

 shall take steps to ensure their real usefulness in time of war, especially by

 preparing material relief of all sorts and by seeking to train and instruct

 voluntary medical personnel " (Resolutions of the International Conference of

 1863, Article 4);

2. a humanitarian law treaty - the Convention of 1864 - which is a set of rules

 creating rights and obligations designed to prevent and limit excessive

 suffering of wounded and sick members of the armed forces.

The ideal of Red Cross and Red Crescent is expressed today in the Principles of " Humanity " - the first of the 7 Fundamental Principles of the Movement. This declares in particular that the Movement " endeavours to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found... " (NB : The Fundamental Principles were proclaimed by the 20th International Conference of the Red Cross, Vienna, 1965).

As for the ICRC, it has from the outset initiated and promoted both the Natio nal Societies as instruments of humanitarian work and the new body of rules known as international humanitarian law.

Since then, the ICRC's tasks and competencies in the area of preventive action have been clarified, reformulated and supplemented in various statutory texts and humanitarian conventions, which themselves have been revised several times (notably the first Statutes of the International Red Cross, 1928; the Geneva Conventions, 1949; and the Additional Protocols, 1977).

Today, the ICRC's mandate to carry out preventive activities is summarized in Article 5 of the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement adopted in 1986. Specifically, the ICRC has the following tasks:

 1. With regard to the Movement:  

* to help forge, and act as guardian of, the Movement's code of ethics;

* to recognize new National Societies;

* to contribute to the development of National Societies;

 * to help National Societies to be prepared to cope with emergencies, 

 especially humanitarian needs during armed conflicts.

 2. With regard to international humanitarian law:  

* to propose developments in international humanitarian law;

* to prepare such developments;

* to work for the acceptance of new treaties;

* to promote the adoption of national implementation measures;

 * to disseminate, and ensure the dissemination of, international 

 humanitarian law, in particular by States.

 3. Emergency activities:  

 * to carry out rehabilitation and preventive activities;

 * to run the Central Tracing Agency (CTA) provided for in the Geneva 

 Conventions, which helps people find relatives from whom they have 

 become separated or who are missing;

 * and, last but not least, to " take any humanitarian initiative which comes within its role as a specifically neutral and independent institution and intermediary, and (...) consider any question requiring examination by such an institution " (Article 5 of the Movement's Statutes).

 Doesn't the Red Cross in general, and the ICRC in particular, try to prevent war?  

Yes, they do, but mostly in an indirect way . The Movement is not a pacifist organization in the usual sense, even though it is an ardent supporter of peace.

The Movement's main aim is not to keep the peace, which is primarily a political objective, but to relieve human suffering while remaining entirely impartial. However by carrying out preventive work and alleviating suffering, and by showing compassion and giving assistance to the most vulnerable and needy without discrimination, the Red Cross " promotes mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace amongst all peoples " , to quote the principle of " Humanity " , the first of the Movement's seven Fundamental Principles adopted in 1965.

International humanitarian law is in a similar position in relation to the dialectics of peace and the prevention of suffering. International humanitarian law is a body of law governing war, applicable in war; that obviously does not mean it encourages war. Quite the contrary.

But, let it be said once again, it is the " law of the lesser evil " , the preferred state being peace which, one might say, is temporarily " suspended " when war breaks out. International humanitarian law is what we fall back on to fill the gap. It is better than nothing.

This view is regularly affirmed in various ways in all the preambles to treaties of international humanitarian law. An example is the preamble to 1977 Protocol I, which includes the following:

.... " Proclaiming their earnest wish to see peace prevail among peoples " ,

.... " Believing it necessary nevertheless to reaffirm and develop the provisions protecting the victims of armed conflicts and to supplement measures intended to reinforce their application... " .

At the beginning of my talk I identified three objectives of preventive action. They were:

 1.  - to prevent a harmful event from happening

 2.  - to limit the scope of the event

 3.  - to contain or keep to a minimum the harmful effects of the event.

Ideally, preventive action would progress from point 1 to point 3. The less ambitious but, by necessity, more realistic order of priority chosen by the Red Cross for its preventive activities is to work from point 3 to point 1. To some extent the same applies to international humanitarian law. This is a schematic and over-simplified presentation of the situation, but I believe it has the merit of making it easier for us to visualize the possible angles of approach to preventive action.

The ICRC also proceeds from 3 to 1. Preventive action lies at the heart of the ICRC's mandate, and the ICRC is very active in preventive work designed to contain harmful effects and keep them to a minimum. It is closely involved in efforts to limit the scope of harmful events; the v ery spirit of international humanitarian law is to use force with restraint and in proportion to one's objectives. Only in exceptional cases and/or indirectly does the ICRC try to prevent the occurrence of the harmful event itself.


I will attempt to illustrate the ICRC's policy in this respect by answering the following questions.

 For the ICRC, what are the major challenges posed by preventive action?  

Almost everywhere in the world the fabric of society, the values underpinning it and the balance of power are changing to a greater or lesser extent.

This phenomenon is accelerated during armed conflicts and can be seen in most of today's wars. Often the pendulum swings from one extreme to another without any transitional phase. On the one hand we have " anarchic " conflicts, in which shadowy and ill-defined warring parties are fighting for obscure, selfish or multiple reasons. On the other hand there are fanatical conflicts aimed at eliminating particular population groups, c onflicts which may not lack structure but which know no compromise.

In such conflicts both local traditions and universal values are systematically ignored. Does this still leave room for moral principles, for decency? It is hard to see how. At least not in the midst of the kind of violence witnessed today. However, this conclusion should in no way give rise to pessimism or nihilism. In fact, we most vigorously contest the theories claiming that war, by definition, negates the existence of any values and any respect for others. Self-restraint and respect for others, however, are not necessarily spontaneous, innate reactions. They are created and developed and have to be fostered. They are fragile. And they are never acquired once and for all.

The challenge is therefore to tackle the root of the evil as early as possible.

How can we prevent the disintegration of moral standards in the community?

How can we prevent socio-economic gaps from widening into unbridgeable divides?

How can we prevent the abuse of power?

In essence, how can we take advantage of peace to change behaviour and thus prevent these evils from happening or at least limit their harmful effects?

The ICRC's response is to adopt a two-pronged approach. On the one hand it seeks to promote the whole range of humanitarian values so as to prevent, or at the very least to limit, violations of international humanitarian law during conflicts. On the other, it is always prepared, and to some extent prepares others, for humanitarian action, so that it is ready to step in as effectively as possible when an emergency arises.




 What are the means and methods that the ICRC can and does use?  

There is no time here to give a complete list. I shall therefore concentrate on the four main preventive activities that the ICRC seeks to promote. These are:

 - preventive humanitarian diplomacy;

 - dissemination of international humanitarian law;

 - establishment and functioning of national and international mechanisms

 for the implementation of international humanitarian law;

 - development of the National Societies in general and their emergency

 preparedness in particular.

 (NB: see p. 3 above for the list of tasks set out in the Statutes of the Movement.)  

 Preventive humanitarian diplomacy  

This very general heading covers a wide variety of peacetime tasks and approaches, each of which would merit detailed analysis to give a better insight into their objectives, their level of priority and how they connect with and complement similar work done by others.

The main tasks and approaches are:

 - to analyse the context, local societies and the regional background;

 - to create and maintain networks of contacts;

 - to make governments, authorities and civil society aware of their

 responsibility with regard to international humanitarian law;

 - to identify and train different local partners;

 - to set up or help organize early warning systems.

 Dissemination of international humanitarian law  

Dissemination of international humanitarian law is an enormous challenge in itself, involving education, training and awareness-raising. The ICRC invests a great deal of resources and energy in dissemination, both in peacetime and in time of war. Nevertheless, most of our efforts should be made when peace reigns. At the ICRC we call this dissemination à froid , done while the situation is still " cool " or " lukewarm " , so that our work can promote maximum respect for international humanitarian law and thus limit suffering once a crisis has erupted.

For dissemination to have the desired effect, we must show perseverance, flexibility and adaptability, and be ready to listen to others. These assets have come to be even more crucial as the target groups are no longer as homogeneous and clearly defined as in the past. Today we are addressing new perpetrators of violence, new representatives of civil society, etc.

An effort must also be made to establish links with other branches of international law, notably human rights law and refugee law. However, this should not be a one-way effort. It is surprising and disappointing to see that although the promotion of human rights is always mentioned when an opinion is expressed about the prevention of violence, there are few who also stress the importance of ensuring that international humanitarian law is known and accepted.

Should we perhaps not redefine our priorities?

Let me add that dissemination also entails the promotion of guidelines and codes of conduct for humanitarian action. Given the prevailing confusion and the proliferation of humanitarian agencies, the ICRC believes that its long experience can help make humanitarian action more coherent, credible and efficient.

 Establishment and functioning of national and international mechanisms for the implementation of international humanitarian law  

At this point I wish to highlight two particular aspects of implementation. First, the incorporation of international obligations into national legislation and their conversion into practical measures at the internal level; and secondly the need to prosecute war criminals.

Both issues call for heightened awareness of the problem, the political will to take action and the adoption of appropriate mechanisms in peacetime.

Some ten years ago the ICRC realized that it was not dev oting enough resources to advocacy and advice in relation to one of the weakest links in the implementation chain, that is, national implementation measures. Indeed, a treaty which is not incorporated into the legislation and everyday reality of individual States is a dead letter, a facade without substance. Too many States had contented themselves with the facade of ratification.

Four years ago the ICRC launched a veritable implementation campaign by setting up a new unit of legal advisers. In several regions the response of governments has been encouraging. This momentum has to be maintained, because we are only at the beginning of what will be a long-term process.

The second aspect I wish to emphasize is the absolute necessity to bring those who commit grave breaches of international humanitarian law - or war crimes - before national courts or before an international tribunal. It would be futile to think that persuasion alone can stop large-scale violations of international humanitarian law. There is also a need for real, systematic and effective penal sanctions. The tragedies in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia served to highlight this issue. In response, two ad hoc international tribunals were created. This is a step in the right direction, but only a partial and temporary one. A comprehensive response has to be twofold.

First, States have to meet the obligation incumbent on them under the Geneva Conventions, that is, existing law, to prosecute war criminals falling within their jurisdiction, whether or not they are nationals of the country concerned. Secondly, a permanent international court has to be established and accepted by all.

We are on the right track, but there is still a long road ahead of us.

 The development of the National Societies in general and their emergency preparedness in particular  

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has at its disposal a truly unique worldwide network of representatives of civil society, namely its 173 National Societies. They are an asset that must be utilized and strengthened.

Even though the two international Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations, the Federation and the ICRC, have their own specific areas of responsibility, they rarely work alone. The National Societies are ideally placed to serve as their partners on the national level.

A brief look at National Societies around the world shows that they differ vastly in terms of efficiency and the scope of their activities. National Societies range from organizations that to all intents and purposes exist only on paper to extremely sound structures which offer essential social services to their communities.

One of the tasks of the two international Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations, first the Federation and then the ICRC, is to help strengthen the weaker links in the Movement so as to bolster the National Societies'capacity to respond to outbreaks of violence and to promote humanitarian values. This is a vital task because a strong and influential National Society is synonymous with effective preventive action, that is:

* giving assistance to the most vulnerable groups and thus helping to prevent the gap between rich and poor from growing even wider;

* spreading the humanitarian message and joining in efforts made by ordinary citizens to ease tension in periods of social crisis or reconciliation;

* being prepared to respond rapidly and adequately to urgent needs arising from war or other disasters.

 What does the ICRC recommend in terms of complementarity and synergy with other  

 humanitarian agencies?  

Everybody knows, everybody has to know, that we live in a global village. This is reflected in interdependencies, networks and direct communication which we can no longer ignore; quite on the contrary, we have to take advantage of them in our approach to preventive action and in the implementation of preventive programmes.

Recognizing this reality, the ICRC established its network of what it calls regional delegations. The raison d'être of these delegations is to carry out preventive activities over as wide a geographical area as possible, usually in peacetime. It is primarily the regional delegations that have the task of making authorities and other governmental and non-governmental partners more aware of humanitarian problems and needs. They also identify, set up and train contacts to perform these tasks on the spot, and prepare or help prepare a network of structures capable of proper response in the event of an emergency.

Indeed, the coordination of emergency activities has to be prepared in peacetime. Although such coordination is not the exclusive preserve of the ICRC, the organization should certainly play an especially active role in this respect on the basis of its mandate under international humanitarian law, its status as a " specifically neutral and independent institution and intermediary " (Article 5 of the Movement's Statutes), its contribution to establishing a code of ethics for humanitarian action, and its wealth of field experience.

All this is by no means a comprehensive response. The seminar itself will no doubt fill in the gaps. After all, its aim is precisely to improve our understanding of the relationship between preventive work and the partners involved, and thus to promote synergy.

* * * *


 Ref. LG 1997-127-ENG