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Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions

07-11-2000 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 55th session, Third Committee, item 109 of the agenda. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 7 November 2000.

Madam Chair,

The issue of displaced persons has remained a major concern for States and humanitarian organizations over the past months. Their concern is amply justified, for a high proportion of displaced persons are still not receiving any protection and assistance, whether because of the inadequacy of the general response to their needs or the prevailing lack of security. As one of the leading humanitarian organizations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is firmly resolved to taking an active part in the discussions under way, and to promoting effective institutional cooperation on behalf of displaced persons. On the operational level, our organization is involved in a wide range of protection and assistance activities aiming to meet the most urgent needs of some 5 million individuals. Providing material assistance, evacuating persons in danger, restoring family links and carrying out preventive programmes to draw attention to the hazards of landmines are just some of the concrete measures the ICRC is taking in response to the needs of the displaced.

Madam Chair,

Large-scale population movements are usually a consequence of conflicts or internal disturbances affecting the entire civilian population. It follows that problems relating to internal displacement cannot be resolved without understanding the plight of the civilian population as a whole and taking steps to improve it. The ICRC, for its part, regards persons who have been displaced owing to a conflict to be civilians first and foremost and, as such, are protected by international humanitarian law. It is also convinced that this body of law, which is legally binding on both States and non-State actors, is perfectly adequate for coping with most of the problems that arise in connection with population movements resulting from armed conflict. The ICRC believes, furthermore, that responsibility for meeting the protection and assistance needs of displaced persons belongs in the first instance to the authorities of the States concerned.

In the context of consultations on the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the ICRC would like to warn against the tendency to consider the situation of internally displaced persons as identical to that of refugees as far as protection is concerned. Although the causes and consequences of displacement may be similar in both cases, certain aspects of the legal regimes applicable to the two categories are different. In particular, persons displaced within a State are its nationals, and as such benefit from the entire range of rights under domestic law as well as under international human rights law and humanitarian law.

Madam Chair,

The question of the security of humanitarian workers has been at the centre of discussions within the humanitarian community and at the United Nations over the past several weeks. Preserving an environment in which humanitarian work can take place, and having it recognized as such and respected by the parties, is essential if humanitarian organizations are to have access to people affected by conflict. With threats and acts of violence against their staff becoming ever more frequent, humanitarian organizations sometimes have to scale down or even suspend their activities; when this happens, displaced persons are usually left without protection or assistance. We take this opportunity to reiterate that international humanitarian law requires States to respect and protect humanitarian personnel working in conflict situations, and that attacks on humanitarian workers, who are civilians, are considered to be war crimes.

Madam Chair,

The complexity and magnitude of the issue of displaced persons oblige organizations to pool their efforts to improve the quality of the humanitarian response. The wish to promote an efficient allocation of tasks in a spirit of complementarity is at the basis of the ICRC's increased cooperation with agencies of the United Nations system. Accordingly, the ICRC takes an active part in meetings of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), where it has the status of standing invitee. It has also lent its backing, through both its headquarters and its field delegations, to the recently created Senior Inter-Agency Network on Internal Displacement. In the same vein, the ICRC continues to be supportive of the important role as catalyst played by the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Internally Displaced Persons. At the same time, the ICRC is firmly resolved to fulfil its own specific role, provided for in the Geneva Conventions, as a neutral and independent intermediary in situations of armed conflict.

Madam Chair,

The need to develop sound management of humanitarian activities means that responsibilities must be assumed by organizations that enjoy a comparative advantage by virtue of their expertise and abilities. Management imperatives also mean that there will have to be innovation within organizations, so as to meet the demands made of them in terms of knowledge of the environment, training and security. The resolution of today's crises will depend to a large extent on the ability of States and organizations to meet these challenges.

Thank you, Madam Chair.

Ref. LG 2000-111-ENG