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United Nations Decade of International Law

17-11-1998 Statement

 United Nations, General Assembly, 53rd session, Sixth Committee, item 149 of the agenda  

 Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
New York, 17 November 1998

Mr Chairman,

Every year, this item of the agenda gives the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) an opportunity to inform this Committee of activities performed in its capacity as promoter and guardian of international humanitarian law. The 1999 calendar of events promises to be exceptionally rich in events making it possible to appropriately celebrate the close of the United Nations Decade of International Law.

For instance, The Hague will host a diplomatic conference for the adoption of a protocol additional to the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Here in New York, the Preparatory Commission   is equally due to meet as part of the follow-up to the adoption of the Statute of the International Criminal Court. August will mark the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. Finally, the year will end with the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, to be held in Geneva in November.

The ICRC is closely following preparations for the events commemorating the centennial of the First Hague Peace Conference to be held in The Hague and at Saint Petersburg in May and June, respectively. These meetings will represent a unique opportunity to take stock of a century of international law.

The ICRC has studied with great interest the reports to be discussed there, particularly Professor Christopher Greenwood's report on humanitarian law. This document thoroughly and objectively analyses the developments relating to the different facets of this body of law. The ICRC is in agreement with most of the report's conclusions, especially the one identifying implementation of humanitarian law as today's main challenge. The effective implementation of existing law, including the obligation to ensure its respect, is indeed the most pressing matter, rather than the development of new rules. This conclusion counters arguments suggesting that existing humanitarian law is outmoded and inadequate to protect the victims of some of today's conflicts. The ICRC, for its part, is absolutely convinced that humanitarian law remains fully relevant.

Furthermore, Mr. Chairman, the recently observed dynamic development of new norms reflects the willingness on the part of the community of States to constantly improve protection for the victims, for instance by banning - on humanitarian grounds - certain weapons, such as anti-personnel mines and blinding lasers, as well as by creating an International Criminal Court which, in complement to the national courts, will help strengthen implementation of humanitarian law.

Finally, stress should be laid, as it is in Professor Greenwood's report, on the importance of measures States must take even in times of peace to respect their obligations. They must, on the one hand, spread knowledge of humanitarian law by teaching it in an appropriate manner to the armed forces and security forces, in universities and in schools. On the other hand, they have to adopt national legislation and other regulatory measures, in particular those providing for the prosecution of war criminals. In this respect, we recall the availability of the ICRC's Advisory Service and the cooperation offered to assist States in the matter.

Mr Chairman,

In the first half of 1999, the ICRC will be organizing two meetings of governmental and academic experts to discuss the preliminary results of the work carried out by the international group of experts entrusted with the study on the customary norms of humanitarian law. This research, which is important to the clarification of international law, will be on the agenda of the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. This conference – the high point of this exceptionally significant year for humanitarian law – will enable the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to intensify its indispensable dialogue with the States party to the Geneva Conventions in regard to humanitarian action and implementation of humanitarian law.

August 12th, 1999, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions which, with their Additional Protocols, remain the cornerstone of protection for the victims of armed conflict. To mark the occasion, the ICRC has just launched a worldwide survey – the first of its kind – among populations and persons affected by war. Its aim is to make people's voices heard by asking them to describe their personal experiences and express their opinions on the principles limiting the use of force, as well as their expectations regarding what must be done to deal with such situations. We hope that this survey, whose slogan is "Even wars have limits" , will spark a wide-ranging debate, to be carried on at the 27th International Conference and thereafter, on humanitarian law and the suffering caused by war.

Mr Chairman,

The ICRC is pleased to note that humanitarian law has held a prominent place throughout the United Nations Decade of International Law. We would therefore like to reiter ate our proposal put forward last Friday during the debate on the Status of the Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions, namely the necessity of maintaining a forum for discussion of humanitarian law beyond the end of the Decade, and the possibility of expanding the agenda item devoted to the Additional Protocols to include ratification, implementation and promotion of other humanitarian treaties, thereby more fully acknowledging the vital role of humanitarian law in the world today.

Finally, we would like to recall the existence of the ICRC's free Web Site on the Internet, which includes databases containing the texts of international humanitarian law instruments, as well as the commentaries thereon. A repertory database of national measures for implementation of this law is equally available, as well as a CD-ROM.

Thank you Mr Chairman.

 Ref. LG 1998-089-ENG