Archived page: may contain outdated information!
  • Send page
  • Print page

Implementation of International Humanitarian Law : the major challenge

22-06-1999 Statement

Centennial of the First International Peace Conference, St Petersburg, 22-25 June 1999. Statement by Pierre Keller, Vice-President of the ICRC

Mr Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to speak on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) before this eminent assembly. Just as it did a hundred years ago, the ICRC will take part with the greatest interest in the discussions which began in The Hague and will now be pursued in St Petersburg. In its capacity as promoter and guardian of international humanitarian law, the ICRC welcomes this opportunity to examine more specifically the question of the implementation of international law, and international humanitarian law in particular.

I cannot begin, however, without paying tribute to St Petersburg, the city which gave birth to the Declaration of St Petersburg in 1868. That was without any doubt one of the very first treaties of humanitarian law. Even more important, the preamble to the Declaration sets forth principles that constitute the absolute essence of humanitarian law, which is why even today the text is referred to in courses on this body of law.

Indeed, the prohibition contained in the Declaration is extremely relevant at present, since the issue of explosive bullets is once again under discussion. Furthermore, the ICRC's " SIrUS " project, which seeks to give a concrete meaning to the notion of " superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering " , is based on the principles set out in the St Petersburg Declaration. The aim of the project is to determine the effects of weapons on health which could subsequently be take n into account in considering the lawfulness of new weapons. 

Mr Chairman,

The centenary of the First Peace Conference offers a unique opportunity to take stock of what has been accomplished and to see what improvements can be made, rather than to celebrate the existence of a body of law which regulates the most inhumane of activities: making war.

The first achievement that comes to mind is the universal acceptance of the Geneva Conventions. As for the 1977 Additional Protocols, they are well on the way to becoming universal, being binding on 154 and 146 States respectively. We earnestly hope that States which have not yet ratified the Protocols will do so in the near future.

Nevertheless, it is quite justified to wonder whether humanitarian law is still geared to today's realities, and still adequate to meet needs in terms of protection. On the basis of our experience of armed conflict, we are convinced that the fundamental principles of humanitarian law retain their relevance even in contemporary conflicts. That does not mean, however, that humanitarian law should not evolve. Indeed, in recent years there have been several propitious developments which have demonstrated its ability to adapt to new needs and hence its dynamic nature. Nevertheless, if we were to pinpoint one area in which improvements would be most desirable, it would be in the law applicable to internal armed conflict.

But the basic problem affecting humanitarian law today remains that of implementation , as Professor Greenwood quite rightly pointed out in his excellent report. It is not so much the rules themselves that are at fault but the lack of will to apply those rules. I would therefore like to draw attention here to three fundamental obligations relating to the implementation of humanitarian law.

 First , there can be no respect for humanitarian law without thorough preparation in peacetime. A whole series of measures needs to be taken on the national level. In particular, States must adopt legislation to ensure the repression of war crimes and respect for the red cross or red crescent emblem. During the last few years the ICRC has been helping States to meet their obligations in this regard through its Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law , which organizes national and regional conferences, encourages the establishment of interministerial committees and facilitates the exchange of information between States. Here I would mention the existence of a documentation centre in Geneva and the forthcoming release of a new CD-ROM on humanitarian law, which for the first time contains the domestic legislation of a number of countries.

Another of the measures to be taken in peacetime is the dissemination of humanitarian law. Although responsibility for this activity falls on States, the ICRC invests a great deal of effort in spreading knowledge of the law among armed and security forces, and also among the general public, especially young people.

 Secondly , when an armed conflict breaks out, States have to be reminded of their obligation not only to respect but also to ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions in all circumstances, as stipulated in Article 1 common to the four Conventions. Thus States not involved in a conflict have a collective responsibility towards the victims. But how can that obligation be discharged? Surely States should show a little more imagination in devising measures to   further the cause of the law . This, I feel, is an area for humanitarian diplomacy that has yet to be fully exploit e d. Furthermore, it would certainly be a welcome development if a larger number of States accepted the competence of the International Fact-Finding Commission provided for in Article 90 of Additional Protocol I, and had recourse to the Commission.

 Thirdly , no legal system can function properly without penal sanctions. The repression of war crimes must be made more effective. I should like to point out here that primary responsibility for prosecuting war crimes lies with States, on the basis of universal jurisdiction. However, the International Criminal Court will be an important - although complementary - factor in the effort to put an end to impunity. That is why we are calling on States to ratify the Rome Statute as rapidly as possible.

On a more general level, it will be recalled that the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have the task of helping their governments to disseminate the law and promote compliance with its provisions, and also to ensure protection of the emblem.

Mr Chairman,

On this centenary of the First Peace Conference, allow me to say a few words about another anniversary which is c losely linked to the former. I refer, of course, to the 50th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

To mark this occasion the ICRC has launched a major worldwide consultation entitled " People on War " . The aim of this unique project is to give a voice to people directly or indirectly affected by war, both civilians and combatants, and to sound out their views on the rules that apply in wartime.

During recent months the ICRC, with the help of National Society volunteers and the support of a specialized polling agency, has been conducting group discussions and thousands of individual interviews. The consultation is focusing on Colombia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, South Africa, Somalia, the Philippines, Lebanon, El Salvador, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Israel and the occupied and the autonomous territories. In parallel, interviews are being held in France, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Russian Federation and Switzerland.

The initial results are now coming in. In general they indicate that the basic principles of humanitarian law are fairly well understood and accepted. This is the case in regard to the principle of distinction , the fundamental and crucial principle requiring that in all circumstances a distinction be drawn between the civilian population and civilian property on the one hand and military objectives on the other. In practice, however, it is evident that the distinction between civilians and combatants tends to become blurred. That happens, for example, when the civilian population actively supports the war effort, whether the logistic support it furnishes is voluntary or otherwise.

The most significant facts that emerge from this project are being published as they come in on a n ICRC Website especially set up for the purpose ( The overall results will be submitted to the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

It is our hope that this consultation, carried out under the slogan " Even Wars have Limits " , will highlight the complexity of war and stimulate wide-ranging debate on the subject, for even the preliminary results offer ample food for thought. In any event, the campaign should help place war victims at the centre of attention and restore their dignity, by demanding respect for the rules and appealing to the public conscience.

Mr Chairman,

In conclusion, I should like to mention that the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, due to take place in Geneva in early November, will certainly be the culminating point of a very eventful year for humanitarian law. It will provide a key opportunity for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to intensify its dialogue with all the States party to the Geneva Conventions with a view to finding better ways of promoting humanitarian law and achieving greater respect for its provisions. It is therefore of the utmost importance that as many States and National Societies as possible take part in the Conference.

Thank you, Mr Chairman. 

LG 1999-110-FRE