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Women and armed conflict

09-06-2000 Statement

23rd Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly: "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-first Century" New York, 5 - 9 June 2000. Statement by Mr. Jacques Forster, vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 9 June 2000

Mr. President,

To open this statement the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would like to give a voice to a woman victim of armed conflict, (quote) " war is destruction... our children are lost... our husbands gone... we have nothing... our houses destroyed... what more can I describe? " (end quote). What more need she describe? It is not even necessary to tell you where this woman is from - it could be any of a multitude of countries at war around the world. In fact it was one of a host of war-affected countries surveyed by the ICRC in 1999 as part of a world-wide People on War project   where men and women, civilian and combatant, were given a chance to speak for themselves about the limits in war .  


The impact of armed conflict on women takes many forms, some more apparent than others. One of the most torturous consequences of armed conflict for many women is the issue of missing relatives. Thousands of women are searching for news on the fate of their relatives - generally male - who are missing. The inability to mourn and bury loved ones has an enormous impact on the survivors of war and the coping mechanisms they are able to adopt. This search for missing relatives often drags on long after the end of an armed conflict and can be a lasting impediment to the process of reconciliation. Humanitarian law recognises the need and the right of families to obtain information regarding the fate of their missing relatives. The ICRC urges all parties to armed confl ict to clarify the fate of missing people and to inform their families accordingly.

Women are less often combatants than men and are less often detained for reasons related to armed conflict. However, when they are detained, their conditions may be worse than those of men. Therefore, throughout its visits to places of detention, the ICRC pays special attention to the needs of women and children.

Furthermore, women more often flee into displacement due to the fighting and are more often the victims of sexual violence. Sexual violence is a particularly heinous violation of international humanitarian law. In the ICRC survey previously mentioned, one in nine of all respondents reported that they knew someone who was raped, and nearly as many said the same for sexual assault. This is intolerable. Parties to an armed conflict have a duty to ensure protection and respect for all civilians and persons no longer taking part in the hostilities. This duty must become the reality.

Women are frequently widowed and find themselves forced to take on new and unaccustomed roles - for example, as heads of household. Throughout the world women are continuing to respond to war with remarkable courage, resourcefulness and resilience, confronting the effects of war and the obstacles it imposes on their ability to sustain and protect themselves and their families.

In order to assist in the best possible way, the international community needs to understand the realities confronting all persons not taking part in hostilities, including of course women.

Two years ago the ICRC initiated a study to examine how women are affected by armed conflict around the world and how ICRC's activities are responding to the needs engendered by armed conflict. Some of the findings of this research have already led to a renewal of ICRC activities. This study, which will conclude this year, will form th e background for the formulation of guidelines for the protection and assistance of women and girl children in armed conflict. This ICRC initiative was introduced to States and the members of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement at the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent held in November 1999.

Furthermore, during this Conference, the ICRC President renewed the Institution's commitment to the effective protection of women through a 4-year pledge. This pledge specifically focusses on dissemination, to parties to an armed conflict, of the protection accorded by humanitarian law to women and girls and the issue of sexual violence.

From its inception, international humanitarian law has accorded women general protection equal to that of men. At the same time the humanitarian law treaties accord women special protection according to their specific needs. Both the general and special protection are enshrined in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocols of 1977. The ICRC acknowledges as a positive development the fact that the ad hoc Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, and the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC) consider sexual violence a war crime. The ICRC welcomed the opportunity to present a working paper on the elements of crimes, including that of sexual violence, to the Preparatory Commission for the ICC.

Mr. President,

The ICRC hopes that its recent initiatives will lead to a better understanding of the impact of war on women and a more effective implementation of the protection conferred upon women by humanitarian law. This ICRC statement started with the voice of a woman victim - a woman survivor - of war, asking what more could she describe. To speak on her behalf - one thing is clear which would have helped her and tens of thousands of others: If international humanitarian law was resp ected much of the suffering, loss and destruction that civilians and those hors de combat experience every day could be reduced. The prime responsibility for observing the rules of war rests upon the parties to an armed conflict. The ICRC appeals today for genuine measures of implementation of humanitarian law by States so as to guarantee the protection of women.

Thank you, Mr. President.

Ref. LG 2000-072-ENG