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50th Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

07-10-1999 Statement

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – Statement of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, 7 October 1999

Mr Chairman,

Madam High Commissioner,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), I would like to thank you for giving me the floor at this 50th session of the UNHCR Executive Committee. The theme of this year's discussions is highly topical in view of recent events, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to share with you some thoughts on the crucial issues of protection and partnership.

Allow me to begin with a general comment on our current working environment. Indeed, it can only be described as disastrous. During the past few years attention has been focused on certain conflicts that are of major political significance or have attracted the interest of the media. At the same time, however, equally tragic conflicts, of which public opinion is unaware or which it has forgotten, have dragged on. The services of the ICRC have never been so much in demand; at present it is working in over 60 contexts, including about 20 situations of open warfare. While many armed conflicts still follow a traditional pattern, others are conspicuous for their complete lack of regulation and for the fact that their aim is to assert identity of one kind or another. The civilian population has become a prime target for combatants, in contravention of the most elementary rules providing protection. Elsewhere, minority or immigrant groups are subjected to humiliating forms of pressure which can only result in resistance, revolt and violence. These worrying and complex developments create a multitude of problems, in both operational and normative terms. Our common responsibility towards the victims obliges us to analyse these new trends and seek appropriate responses. Our ability to debate these issues will determine our ability to find the right approach.

In this regard, the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which is due to take place in Geneva during the first week of November, will provide a unique forum for the representatives of 176 National Societies and the 188 States party to the Geneva Conventions to examine the new challenges facing humanitarian action.

Turning now to international law, the rules of refugee law, humanitarian law and human rights law bear witness to the commitment made by the international community, in the aftermath of the Second World War, to abide by universally recognized human values. Today those texts are still irreplaceable tools for anyone whose ambition is to prevent or attenuate violence. The complementarity of these three branches of the law should also be emphasized. Thus, during the discussions held between the ICRC and NGOs active in the areas of humanitarian aid and human rights, it was stressed that " the concept of protection encompasses all activities aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of law, i.e., human rights, humanitarian and refugee law " .

Indeed, it should be pointed out that the large-scale violations seen today are a sign not of any lack of pertinence of the existing rules but of the need to mobilize everyone concerned with their application. Here I would like to draw attention to the ICRC's " People on War " project, under which tens of thousands of people affected by war were interviewed worldwide. The aim of the exercise was to give a voice to those who are seldom heard, to offer them the opportunity to talk about their experience of war and to express their opi nions on the rules that should govern warfare. The results of this study, which will be made public shortly, constitute an invaluable instrument for understanding and reflecting on the validity of the principles that regulate present-day conflicts. Without anticipating its conclusions, it is safe enough to say that implementation of the relevant rules raises major difficulties.

Mr Chairman,

In a context marked by operational complexity and a proliferation of players, partnership, in the sense of complementarity among all those players, is essential if we are to ensure that our efforts have maximum impact, prevent situations from deteriorating, and properly orchestrate, in the long term, the conduct of the whole range of humanitarian activities. Common operational concepts and a concerted approach are of vital importance both for the protection of population groups at risk and for the safety of humanitarian workers.

In my view, effective complementarity depends first and foremost on knowledge of and respect for the mandates, culture and working methods of the other players. Beyond a mere technical coordination mechanism, partnership implies willingness to listen and dialogue with all parties concerned. It also presupposes a shared resolve to transcend, by assuming one's responsibilities, the spirit of competition and the concern for visibility which are still all too characteristic of the humanitarian scene. I feel that this is all the more important at a time when the very principle of the independence of humanitarian action is being undermined by growing confusion with military and political action.

It was the desire to achieve complementarity as well as the wish to share its concerns and its specific experience that prompted the ICRC to take part, on a multilateral basis, in the various coordination mechanisms that have been set up. The ICRC also maintains a bilateral dialo gue with several United Nations agencies and bodies, and particularly appreciates the excellent relations it enjoys with the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. Thanks to years of daily contacts on operational matters, our two organizations have quite naturally gained a better understanding of each other's tasks and this has facilitated the achievement of common objectives. Moreover, on a more structured basis, senior staff of the ICRC and UNHCR meet once a year to exchange views and broaden the scope of debate on new issues that arise in the area of protection.

In the context of assistance to the displaced, I would like to mention the important role played by regional organizations, in particular the Organization of African Unity. This year we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the OAU Convention on refugees, an instrument which considerably expanded the categories of protected persons. Today, as seen from recent resolutions, the OAU is still actively involved in seeking solutions for the diverse problems affecting internally displaced persons. The ICRC greatly appreciates the good relations it has established not only with the OAU but also with other regional organizations, and wishes to express its gratitude for the support it receives.

Within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the Seville Agreement specifies the respective roles of the Movement's different components. The ICRC for its part reaffirms its determination to perform its humanitarian tasks in an independent, neutral and impartial manner, so as to bring protection and assistance to all victims of armed conflict.

Thank you for your attention.

Ref. LG 1999-216-ENG