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Advancement of women: Implementation of the outcome of the Fourth World Conference on Women

15-10-1998 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 53rd session, Third Committee, item 103 and 104 of the agenda. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 15 October 1998

Mr. Chairman,

In its statement to this Assembly last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) highlighted the situation of women affected by armed conflict. That statement included a brief overview of the protection provided to women by international humanitarian law and the ICRC's approach when undertaking protection and assistance activities on their behalf. The present statement will contain additional observations in the light of recent developments, together with an update on the ICRC's work in this respect.

As a result of the frequent targeting of civilians that has characterized recent conflicts, countless women have become victims of serious abuses. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that women constitute a vulnerable group solely on the basis of their gender. Indeed, experience has shown that women are often able, in exceptionally difficult and dangerous circumstances, to ensure the survival of their families and sometimes entire communities. However, some groups among women – in particular those, such as expectant mothers, who have specific medical needs – may find themselves especially exposed to the effects of armed conflict. In addition, women often suffer from general patterns of discrimination, which may be exacerbated in the event of armed conflict by the direct or indirect effects of the hostilities themselves or by an unravelling of the social fabric.

It is therefore necessary to ensure that women benefit fully from measures aimed at meeting the needs of the general popula tion, and, as reaffirmed by the Beijing World Conference on Women, that specific steps be taken to help those with special needs. In legal terms, this corresponds to the general principle of non-discrimination, which, it must be emphasized, does not preclude different treatment where this is justified on objective and legitimate grounds. Accordingly, humanitarian law also seeks to address the needs of women when it employs broad inclusive terms such as " civilian population " and when it prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex. In addition, humanitarian law contains specific provisions addressing the particular needs of women.

Mr. Chairman,

In the ICRC's experience, it appears that the tragic plight of women affected by armed conflict does not primarily result from a lack of humanitarian rules to protect them but rather from a failure to coherently interpret and implement existing rules. The changing nature of warfare has not rendered those rules obsolete, but it does pose a number of challenges requiring a redoubling of efforts by all engaged in promoting their implementation, including those who spread knowledge of the law's provisions, who intercede with the warring parties and who work to repress breaches. In this regard, the recent adoption of the Statute of the International Criminal Court could prove an important step towards enhancing compliance with humanitarian law. Clarification of the law is but one positive feature of the Statute adopted in Rome. Thus, there is no longer any doubt that rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization and any other forms of sexual violence constitute war crimes. The fact that these crimes, whether committed in international or non-international armed conflicts, also fall under the jurisdiction of the Court is a major achievement in the struggle against impunity.

The multiple and often complex problems faced by women call for a correspondingly multi-faceted and comprehensive approach, in which all concerned should respond according to their expertise and mandates. In this regard, the ICRC will seek to ensure that the principle of non-discrimination, which lies at the very heart of humanitarian action, is adhered to in the application of humanitarian law. Where women face serious and systematic discrimination, the ICRC will need to decide – as always when it finds itself confronted with serious violations of humanitarian law – whether the interests of the victims are best served by its continued presence. Firstly, it is essential that the ICRC be able to carry on its own work in a non-discriminatory fashion. Secondly, a careful assessment must be made of the possibilities for a meaningful dialogue with the relevant authorities, with a view to changing their conduct.

Mr. Chairman,

The sheer magnitude of human suffering makes it necessary to regularly reassess the conflict environment and ways in which humanitarian organizations operate, and to examine whether international law and humanitarian action respond adequately to the needs of the victims. For its part, the ICRC recently completed a detailed analysis of how to best undertake its future work. In so doing, it sought to identify current challenges and to devise ways to better assist the victims. In this context, it has been decided to examine the situation of women in armed conflicts.

Our delegations in the field have for some time been providing gender-specific information on current activities. It is also hoped that relevant data can be collected in connection with the campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Convent ions. As part of that campaign, a questionnaire will be circulated to a cross-section of the population – including war-affected women – in a number of different countries. In-depth group discussions will also be organized. The information gathered will form the basis for an assessment of humanitarian law and operational activities. This may result in guidelines to improve humanitarian action in connection with armed conflict. Naturally, individual experts and experienced organizations will be consulted throughout the process. It may be observed that this initiative is in full accordance with the principle of impartiality. Faithfully applying that principle rules out an exclusively gender-specific approach. At the same time, giving priority to those in greatest need requires that the needs of all victims, including those of women, are well known.

The ICRC hopes that these initiatives will lead to a better understanding of the problems faced by women in the event of armed conflict and thereby contribute to a more effective response by the international community.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman

 Ref. LG 1998-075-ENG