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Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe: Eighth Meeting of the Ministerial Council

28-11-2000 Statement

Written contribution by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Vienna 27 and 28 November 2000

In the year that has elapsed since the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) held its Istanbul Summit in November 1999, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has noted with satisfaction that its relations with the OSCE have continued to be excellent, both in the field and in the various forums where the two organizations have met. These naturally include the many meetings to which the OSCE invited the ICRC – among others, the OSCE Summit and its Ministerial Council – but also numerous human dimension seminars and gatherings. We shall return to this later.

Cooperation between the two organizations has proceeded in accordance with the four principles proposed by the ICRC five years ago, namely transparency, communication, trust and absence of competition. Moreover, whether it concerns the Chairmanship-in-Office or the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), for example, we have frequently noted a welcome reflex at the OSCE to consult the ICRC wherever a topic or a situation at least potentially touches on its areas of concern or field of activity.

The changing nature of armed conflicts and humanitarian responses to them over recent years has rendered relief and protection operations extremely complex in many situations. The ICRC is therefore deeply convinced of the overriding importance of strengthening coordination of humanitarian assistance, both to ensure that assistance can be provided in all circumstances and to respond more efficiently to the needs of the victims. To this end, the ICRC is striving to increase the complementarity between its action and that of other relief agencies, whether governmental or intergovernmental. In so doing, however, it must preserve its specific role as a neutral and independent intermediary and insist on a clear line being drawn between political action and humanitarian operations to ensure that the principles and aims of such operations are well understood, and thus accepted, by all the parties concerned.

This paper will focus on the ICRC's major current priorities in various areas of reflection and action, including the field of international humanitarian law, and in several major operational contexts. One of the organization's ongoing priorities is to gain a better understanding of the upheavals taking place in the world so as to be able to pursue its action with total independence, impartiality and neutrality – an effective and indispensable approach to ensuring that it can gain access to the victims.

The ICRC was pleased to see that since last year, which saw the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the international community has devoted much time and effort not only to the legal aspects of protection for civilians in armed conflict but also to the issue as a whole. As the ICRC pointed out to the United Nations Security Council, it believes that full recognition has now been given to the importance of including a human dimension in maintaining international peace and security.

The ICRC's work is based on humanitarian law, and the protection of civilians is a cornerstone of that law (which also protects combatants, in particular those who are no longer fighting). In spite of the many horrors we have recently witnessed and the obvious limits to legal protection, the ICRC is convinced that humanitarian law remains as pertinent as ever. In fact, this was one of the conclusions of the major survey entitled " People on War " which the ICRC carried out last year in a number of countries, most of which have experienced war within their borders. The survey, already brought to the attenti on of the Permanent Council in June 1999, was presented, together with its conclusions, at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting held in Warsaw last October.

At the opening session of that meeting, the ICRC also had the privilege of presenting an introductory report on the implementation of humanitarian law. We believe that the interest shown in the subject at that session and throughout the meeting was an excellent sign. The ICRC is grateful to the OSCE and its ODIHR for having provided it with those opportunities to put across its views and reiterates its support for the idea of addressing the implementation of humanitarian law at upcoming human dimension seminars or supplementary meetings. A possible approach would of course be to emphasize the repression of war crimes, in particular through the new mechanism of the International Criminal Court. The ICRC played a major role in the preparatory work that led to the adoption of the Statute of the Court and is now actively engaged in promoting its ratification and implementation by States.

The ICRC's " People and War " survey strongly reaffirmed the importance of distinguishing between civilians and combatants – a cardinal rule of humanitarian law that tends to be ignored in practice for a number of reasons. First of all, as we all know, civilians are often the main victims and even the target of fighting today, in particular for ethnic, religious, economic and social reasons. Then there is the problem of ill-trained and uncontrollable paramilitary groups. Lastly, we are faced with the troublesome fact that regular troops often receive no pay and therefore commit heinous acts to ensure their own survival.

The aim of humanitarian law is to protect the civilian population as a whole against attacks – whether direct or indiscriminate – acts of violence and abuses of all kinds. It also provides specific protection for certain categories of victims su ch as women, children, internally displaced people, refugees and missing persons. The ICRC's action must be directed at all victims, excluding none, while taking into account the particular vulnerability of each specific category.

Serious violations of humanitarian law committed against the civilian population have caused the displacement of millions of people who have been terrorized and forced to flee their homes and are sometimes herded into camps or villages against their will. In the past few months, the international community has fortunately shown renewed concern for people who have been displaced inside their own countries, witness the work of the United Nations Security Council and the Economic and Social Council. Only two months ago in Vienna, moreover, a colloquy was held by the Austrian government and the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, and a human dimension supplementary meeting was organized by the OSCE.

Such gatherings have made it possible to gain a better understanding of the causes of internal displacement and the rules of law and bodies that can help alleviate the plight of its victims. For the ICRC in particular, they have provided an opportunity to highlight the link between violations of humanitarian law and displacement, and to point out that internally displaced persons who have the status of war victims are entitled to protection under humanitarian law and are among those whom the ICRC strives to assist. The ICRC is eager to promote cooperation and coordination between the various humanitarian agencies concerned by this issue, especially given the scope and complexity of the problems caused by internal displacement.

For many years the plight of children affected by armed conflict has been a matter of grave concern to the ICRC and to numerous governments and organizations, whether intergovernmental or not. In this c onnection, pertinent resolutions have been adopted by the United Nations Security Council in the past year and a special session of the General Assembly is to be held in 2001 to discuss follow-up action to the World Summit for Children. The OSCE, for its part, underscored the seriousness of the problem during its Istanbul Summit and devoted a seminar to it in May, which opened with addresses by the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict and the President of the ICRC. A further step forward should be taken during the current Ministerial Council.

Thanks to these efforts, one of the demands put forward by the OSCE in Istanbul has been met through legal channels with the adoption this year of the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, an instrument that raises to 18 the minimum age at which children may take part in hostilities or be recruited into the armed forces. It is now essential to promote the ratification and implementation of these treaties, an endeavour to which the ICRC intends to contribute while at the same time pursuing other efforts on behalf of children, such as the objectives set out in the Plan of Action adopted in November 1999 by the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. At the operational level, the ICRC will continue to assist children by attending to their specific needs within general programmes targeting their families and communities. It also intends to pursue its protection activities for children, whether in relation to their participation in conflicts, the problem of child detainees or the search for missing people. The ICRC will furthermore continue to cooperate actively with States, international organizations and non-governmental organizations in this field and, in its capacity as a component of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, provide ongoing support for the efforts of National Societies to improve the lives of c hildren, for example through psycho-social programmes.

Humanitarian law not only protects women as civilians, the same way it does men, but it also affords them special protection that takes into account their specific needs. Still too often, however, women remain the target of violence. Placing a special emphasis on improving protection for women and girls in armed conflicts, the ICRC launched an in-depth study two years ago which should be concluded by the end of 2000. We intend to use this study in order to draft guidelines on protection and assistance for women that are to be applied in the ICRC's operational activities in armed conflicts. The aforementioned aims and projects were presented by the ICRC in November 1999 at the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and last June at the 23rd special session of the United Nations General Assembly.

For women, children and entire families, one of the most tragic consequences of war is the disappearance of a loved one. In addition to the mental anguish it entails, uncertainty about the fate of a family member can have serious legal and economic consequences. Tracing missing people is an essential aspect of the ICRC's mandate and often becomes, at the end of a conflict, its priority concern. The ICRC pursues this task through its work in places of detention and by handing over to the authorities concerned lists of missing people compiled on the basis of information provided by their relatives.

States should play an active role in this area, especially by gathering the data necessary to establish lists of missing people and resolve certain cases. Their prime responsibility lies in helping to elucidate the fate of people who were or might have been in their hands or living on their territory. The problem of persons still unaccounted for continues to place a heavy burden on several participating States of the OSCE, in spite of progress made in this respect in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. The ICRC believes that the problem of missing people and its role in this field should be systematically included in all peace accords. Indeed, making humanitarian considerations of this kind part of peace negotiations can help strengthen efforts to consolidate peace after a conflict.

At this point we should review a situation on which both the States and the various components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have been working in recent months, that is, the need to find a comprehensive and acceptable solution to the problem involving the emblems provided for under the Geneva Conventions by recognizing a new emblem, in addition to the existing emblems, which is free of any national or religious connotation and may be displayed by States and National Societies which feel that they cannot use the red cross or red crescent.

In its capacity as depositary of the Geneva Conventions, Switzerland submitted to the States Parties a draft Protocol III additional to those Conventions on 12 October 2000. A diplomatic conference was convened for the end of October with a view to studying the draft, but postponed to early in the new year, largely owing to the situation in the Near East.

Ever since the First World War, the ICRC has endeavoured to ensure that restrictions and prohibitions on certain arms are included in the rules of humanitarian law. In recent years there has been a growing awareness of the consequences of the easy availability of conventional weapons. In July 1999 the ICRC distributed to the OSCE participating States a study that it had published on the subject, which calls attention to the serious implications for humanitarian law and relief efforts of unregulated arms availability.

We urge States to take into account the consequences in humanitarian terms of the proliferation of a rms and to include criteria based on likely respect for international humanitarian law by recipients in national and international policies, laws, and codes of conduct governing arms transfers. We specifically encourage the OSCE to develop norms in this field and to ensure that criteria on respect for humanitarian law are included in any norms adopted by the 2001 United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons. It should be pointed out that the ICRC took part with great interest in a seminar held by the OSCE last April on small arms and light weapons, at which it was able to put across its views on measures and conditions that should make it possible to contain arms transfers.

Lastly, attention should again be drawn to an old problem that has re-emerged in recent years, that of unexploded ordnance, in particular hidden munitions that continue to endanger the civilian population long after the end of a conflict. The ICRC recently convened a meeting of government experts to study this problem and it has proposed that a new protocol on explosive remnants of war be considered in the context of the 2001 Review Conference of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

* * *

Humanitarian needs stemming from armed conflicts around the world remain enormous. Since direct access to the victims and maintaining a presence in the field continue to be at the heart of the ICRC's mandate, the organization must be able to deploy its staff effectively in the countries where it is called upon to act. While the constraints it faces in terms of security, human resources and financing cannot be overlooked, they have not changed the ICRC's strategy of remaining close to the victims – this is why the organization has staff working on a permanent basis in 61 countries. On 6 December the ICRC will launch its headquarters and emergency appeals for 2001, which amount to almost one billion Swiss francs. Th e ICRC is deeply grateful for the support that member States of the OSCE have shown for its action in the past and wishes to underscore once again that it could not accomplish the task entrusted to it by the States party to the Geneva Conventions without their generous and ongoing financial support.

Central Asia is among the many parts of the world where the ICRC and the OSCE are working side by side. There, as elsewhere, the two organizations maintain frequent contacts and share similar concerns. The ICRC has been present in the region since 1992, mainly conducting programmes aimed at promoting international humanitarian law – whether by assisting States in their efforts to introduce pertinent rules into national legislation or by spreading knowledge of those rules and encouraging compliance with them among the armed forces. It also runs programmes designed to instil respect for human dignity in young people and teach humanitarian law in universities. In December 1999 the ICRC received permission from the Kyrgyz authorities to visit persons detained in connection with events in the south of the country. As regards access to places of detention in Uzbekistan, the ICRC is very pleased to have opened a dialogue with the authorities and hopes to reach an agreement in the near future.

The ICRC and the OSCE are working together in the Caucasus as well, in accordance with their respective mandates, in close cooperation and with a view to achieving complementarity. This can be seen in connection with the conflict in Nagorny Karabakh, where the ICRC's humanitarian concerns about persons detained or unaccounted for are given due consideration by the OSCE – in particular by the Co-Chairmen of the Minsk Group in their efforts to resolve the conflict. In the northern Caucasus, the OSCE is paying close attention to the difficulties encountered by humanitarian organizations and to humanitarian issues in general. With the situation there remaining highly unstable, the ICRC has decided to increase its assistance programmes in 2001, especially in Chechnya. It is also determined to pursue and step up its efforts on behalf of persons detained in relation to the hostilities and for the promotion of international humanitarian law, in particular among the armed forces.

The ICRC and the OSCE have developed a very good working relationship in Kosovo. Their shared concerns are primarily the protection of minorities and finding out what has happened to missing persons. There is regular interaction between the two organizations at all levels in the field, in particular regarding missing persons. The ICRC has the lead role in this matter, centralizes all data pertaining to persons unaccounted for and remains in close contact with their relatives. Meanwhile, the OSCE has played an active part in more technical domains, such as identifying mortal remains, while closely coordinating its work with the ICRC. In addition, information is regularly shared between the two regarding the situation of minorities and the functioning of the judiciary system.

Ref.LG 2000-122-ENG