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

12-10-1999 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 54th session, Third Committee, item 109 and 110 of the agenda. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 12 October 1999

Mr. Chairman,

In the agreed conclusions adopted at the humanitarian affairs segment of its substantive session of 1999, the Economic and Social Council recognized that all humanitarian emergencies have gender-specific impacts. Concern was expressed at the continuing violence against those protected under international humanitarian law, especially women and children. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) fully shares this preoccupation.

Legally speaking, the protection provided to women in armed conflict under humanitarian law is twofold: from its inception, this body of law has accorded women, as civilians, the general protection equal to that enjoyed by men. At the same time it recognizes the need to provide women with special protection according to their specific needs. This special protection is enshrined in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocols of 1977.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has repeatedly expressed its condemnation of the practice of rape in armed conflict, a serious violation of humanitarian law. The ICRC is therefore satisfied to note that the ad hoc Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) consider sexual violence a war crime. This crime is included in the study which was presented last July by the ICRC to the Preparatory Commission for the ICC regarding the determination of the elements of crimes.

These are  significant steps in the battle against impunity. Accountability is essential to bringing an end to s uch violations and these substantial developments in the evolution of humanitarian law should stimulate repression at the national level. However, the occurrence of these violations of humanitarian law directed at women is not due to any shortcomings in the laws protecting them, but to a lack of - or insufficient - respect for these rules. The protection to which women are entitled must become a reality. States are obligated to promote and disseminate the norms of humanitarian law treaties by which they are bound, in order to protect women. They are also under the obligation to prosecute suspected war criminals in their national courts or to extradite them.

Mr. Chairman,

Sexual violence is but one form of suffering engendered by war. The issue of missing relatives is another which predominantly affects women who have survived armed conflict. Humanitarian law recognizes the need and right of families to obtain information regarding the fate of their missing relatives. The ICRC therefore urges all States and parties to armed conflict to lend their cooperation in the tracing of missing persons, in order to alleviate the unspeakable suffering of their family members.

When one thinks of " women " , one also naturally tends to think of " family " . The preservation of the family unit is of crucial importance in times of conflict, when the social fabric is falling apart and there is so much anguish and uncertainty about the fate of loved ones. In its day-to-day field activities and in accordance with its protection mandate, the ICRC takes action to maintain or restore contact between separated family members.

Mr. Chairman,

Throughout the world women have shown remarkable courage, exceptional resourcefulness and resilience in carrying on with the trauma of their loss, the isolation imposed by being a widow and with the difficult tasks of providing an income, s ustaining and protecting themselves and their dependent family members. Such women are challenging, and in some cases redefining, the cultural and social perception and former boundaries of widowhood. Women may for the first time have the opportunity to work outside the home, be the income earner, main decision-maker and head of household, to organize themselves with other women and to go into the public space, which is normally the preserve of men.

The President of the ICRC will be seizing the occasion of the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, this November in Geneva, to renew the Institution's commitment to the effective protection of women. In this forum, a workshop will also be held within the Conference in order to better identify and further examine the coping mechanisms and the ways that programmes of assistance and protection can best take into account the long-term needs of widows for self-sufficiency. Contributions and recommendations gained from this workshop will be used in the ongoing ICRC Study on women affected by armed conflict which aims to produce, in consultation, notably, with the relevant United Nations organs or agencies, operational-legal guidelines aimed at better addressing the protection and assistance needs of women affected by war.

It should be noted that such a cooperation in this domain already exists. Actually, the ICRC, thanks to its status of Standing Invitee within the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), participates in the Sub-Working Group on Gender and Humanitarian Assistance, created in November 1998.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, we hope that this pragmatic approach will allow for a more efficient implementation of the protection conferred upon women by humanitarian law, the prime responsibility for which rests upon the parties to a conflict.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Ref. LG 1999-192-ENG