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Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions

12-11-1998 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 53rd session, Third Committee, item 105 of the agenda Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 12 November 1998

Mr. Chairman,

In most situations of armed conflict and internal violence, the plight of refugees, displaced persons and returnees is a major source of concern for the international community in general and, more particularly, for humanitarian organizations. The report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) highlights the gravity and persistence of the problems affecting people who have fled war, persecution or widespread insecurity. More and more often, entire populations in danger are compelled to leave their homes for another destination, chosen or not, either within their own country or across borders. Others return to their places of origin with no guarantee of a safe and stable future. Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and the African Great Lakes region, notably in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are cases in point.

The lack of respect for the most basic rules of humanity in armed conflicts has had dramatic consequences these last few years. Atrocities committed against defenceless civilians, including women, children, refugees, and the displaced, reflect a total contempt for principles common to all mankind. This alarming state of affairs is even more evident in ethnic conflicts, where the civilian population becomes the target of the belligerents; it is equally the case in " destructured " conflicts marked by the disintegration of State structures, the collapse of chains of command and rampant banditry in the guise of political action.

Mr. Chairman,

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) should like to draw attention to the relevance of international humanitarian law, which protects all persons who are not, or no longer, participating in the hostilities, hence the civilian population. Internally displaced persons, refugees, and returnees, are thus entitled to the immunity afforded by humanitarian law. Indiscriminate attacks on civilians, the taking of hostages, policies of starvation, the misappropriation of humanitarian aid, and a great deal more exaction committed against them gravely violate the general principle of protection this body of law guarantees. Respect for it should prevent a considerable portion of population movements related to situations of conflict and of violence, and guarantee the safety of those who would find themselves forced to leave their homes.

Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions today enjoys a universal acceptance. It demands that all persons not, or no longer, taking part in hostilities be treated with humanity. Furthermore, Protocol II additional to these Conventions, which is now binding on 144 States, prohibits forced displacement and establishes that victims have the right to assistance.

In the discharge of its mandate, the ICRC does its utmost to protect and assist all victims of war and of armed violence. In so doing it endeavours not only to maintain living conditions allowing civilians to remain in their places of residence but also, in cooperation with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, to take action on behalf of the millions of " internal refugees " in need of protection and assistance.

The ICRC has followed with interest the work of the Secretary-General's Representative on internally displaced persons, in particular his efforts to analyse and clarify the provisions of international law relevant to their protection. The ICRC is pleased to have been associated with the drafting of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement which Mr. Francis Deng submitted to the last session of the Commission on Human Rights. This succinct and practical document contains the rules applicable to every stage of displacement, and includes those providing protection from arbitrary displacement. Although not legally binding, the text is a broad reflection of current international law - including humanitarian law - and, without modifying or replacing its provisions, offers useful pointers for its interpretation. The ICRC considers the Guiding Principles to be a valuable tool for promoting these norms among all implicated actors and shall not fail to circulate this document among its delegations and in its main theatres of operations.

Mr. Chairman,

A great deal of humanitarian actors are trying to respond to the many challenges generated by the situation of displaced persons. Efforts aimed at ensuring the existence of an adequate coordination of initiatives in the field are obviously necessary. For this reason, the ICRC welcomes the initiative taken by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in creating a platform to debate the question of the displaced and of setting up a database.

The ICRC works in close coordination with the UNHCR in a mutual respect for principles of action and legal and statutory bases. This cooperation covers all manner of questions, thematic and operational, anytime there is a risk of overlap between respective programmes. Frank discussions at headquarters level as well as in the field generally allow for satisfying solutions. Cases such as Kosovo, Sri Lanka, or Colombia illustrate this clarification of responsibilities aimed an efficient use of resources.

Mr. Chairman,

We cannot conclude without having mentioned, within this fo rum, Vincent Cochetel, head of the Northern-Caucasus UNHCR office who was abducted almost 11 months ago now, and all the other members of humanitarian organizations all over the world who have found themselves taken hostage. The issue of the safety of personnel is at the heart of our common preoccupation. The taking of hostages has become a growing danger which can have the consequence - or even as its ultimate goal - of distancing us from the principal field of action where humanitarian organizations are often the last impartial actor and witness to the unfolding dramas.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

 Ref. LG 1998-087-ENG