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The Millennium Summit of the United Nations

08-09-2000 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 55th session, The Millennium Summit of the United Nations. Address by Dr. Jakob Kellenberger, President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 8 September 2000

Mr President,

Mr. Secretary-General


Ladies and gentlemen,

On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), I thank you for the opportunity to address the Millennium Assembly of the United Nations.

With a staff of almost 12,000 persons, the ICRC is active in practically all armed conflicts and most situations of internal strife which could degenerate into an armed conflict. Its task is to protect and assist the victims.

From such a vantage point, the ICRC unfortunately witnesses disturbing trends in a growing number of conflicts:

  • The number of helpless civilian victims, mainly women and children, is steadily increasing. The civilian population has become the very target in many conflicts. To meet the particular needs of women and girls for protection and assistance will be a priority for the ICRC in coming years. I note with satisfaction that the protection of the vulnerable has been given an important place in the Millennium Declaration;

  • international humanitarian law is regularly flouted in an environment with an increasing number of identity-related and destructured conflicts in eroding State structures. In addition, new perpetrators of violence emerge, sometimes difficult to identify and to get in touch with;

  • access to cheap and more sophisticated weaponry is easy and further facilitated by today's communication networks. This acces sibility and the erosion of State power are the ingredients of many conflict situations. I thank the Secretary-General for having underlined, in his report to the General Assembly, that the issue of the proliferation of light weapons must be urgently addressed;

  • there are correlations between extreme poverty and violence. The eradication of extreme poverty clearly has a conflict-prevention dimension;

  • the dangers inherent to humanitarian action, of which we are sadly reminded this week by the assassination, in West Timor, of colleagues of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). What more must happen for more concrete action to be taken in order to better protect solidly motivated and courageous relief workers ?

  • Lastly, humanitarian activities with a growing number of actors in the field often suffer from a lack of coordination, imprecise mandates and vague principles of action.

An extensive body of international law, in particular the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977, sets out rules aimed at alleviating the suffering engendered by international and non-international armed conflicts. The High Contracting Parties have undertaken to respect and to ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions in all circumstances. More significant steps have to be taken in order to better ensure this respect. The ICRC offers advice and technical expertise to governments. Together with its partners of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the National Societies and their Federation, the ICRC will pursue its dissemination of international humanitarian law and do its utmost to ensure respect for it. It also strives to assure that the rules of humanitarian law governing weapons are updated to take into account the rapid development of new military technology. The efforts of the United Nations in helping develop and promote international humanitarian law, and in part icular the steps taken to afford better protection for civilians in armed conflicts are highly appreciated by the ICRC. Better implementation of existing humanitarian law remains one of my main concerns. A plan of action to improve implementation is part of the ICRC's institutional priorities for next year.

Mr. President, Excellencies,

Today's - and no doubt tomorrow's - humanitarian challenges cannot be met without a strong commitment to improved coordination between humanitarian actors. The ICRC is committed to efficient coordination, efficient meaning that it should amount to the better protection and assistance of victims. This implies that each actor concentrates on his core competences as practically exercised in the field. The ICRC cooperates with UN-led coordination mechanisms. As such, it discusses humanitarian issues and shares information, both in the field and by means of bilateral, high-level dialogue.

There is no contradiction between the ICRC's commitment to coordination and the equally strong commitment to the independence of its strictly humanitarian action, based on the principles of impartiality and neutrality. The credibility of the ICRC as an independent and neutral intermediary in situations of armed conflict, which seeks to obtain access to all victims, certainly is in the interest of all -- the community of States and, above all, the victims of armed conflict themselves.

Mr. President, Excellencies,

You can count, at the dawn of a new century, on an ICRC willing to fulfil its humanitarian tasks through concrete action in the field wherever there are needs for protection and assistance.

My strong hope -- more, my expectation -- is that the community of States will invest more into the prevention of armed conflicts and, should a conflict erupt despite all efforts, make it clear to all parties invol ved that they are expected to respect the rules of international humanitarian law.

The strong, political support given to the United Nations by the Millennium Summit is also encouraging for the ICRC, because it means support for policies aimed at a better protection for the most vulnerable in this world.

Thank you for your attention.

Réf. LG 2000-093-ENG