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51st session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

06-10-2000 Statement

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – Address by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, 2-6 October 2000

Mr Chairman,

Allow me on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross to thank you for giving me the floor at this 51st session of the UNHCR's Executive Committee. The ICRC would like to join other speakers in paying particular tribute to the High Commissioner, Sadako Ogata, who will soon be stepping down from her post, for her tireless efforts to help refugees and displaced persons. I am pleased to note the very high level of cooperation that has marked relations between the UNHCR and the ICRC during Ms Ogata's term as High Commissioner.

Mr Chairman,

The 50th anniversary of the Office's founding is a milestone in the organization's history. It causes us to review both past events and the concerns that the UNHCR and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have always shared in a close relationship based on our desire to uphold standards of protection and operational principles.

The excellent document introducing the annual theme enables us to illustrate this relationship and to comment on a few of the challenges it identifies.

 Respect for legal standards:  

Recent years have seen a growing number of conflicts in which the civilian population is used for military and political purposes and in which the law is violated on a large scale. Armed conflict has today become the main cause of population movements, both inside and outside the countries concerned.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Office, the ICRC would like to commend the vital role played by the UNHCR in helping refugees and express the ICRC's own support for the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the principles set out in that instrument.

International humanitarian law, refugee law and human rights law provide essential and complementary protection for individuals. Thus, in the event of armed conflict, both refugees and persons displaced within their countries are protected, as civilians, by international humanitarian law. In addition, several of the protective principles set out in the 1951 Convention – the principle of non-refoulement for example – are also contained in the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

I would also like to take this opportunity to recall the individual responsibility of States which have caused the displacement of the civilians as well as the collective responsibility of all States party to the Conventions as laid down in Article 1 common to the Geneva Conventions. Such responsibility requires States to respect and to ensure respect for international humanitarian law and to prosecute in their own courts persons suspected of grave breaches of that law.

In keeping with its role of promoter and guardian of international humanitarian law, the ICRC is prepared to continue and, if necessary, to step up its specific contribution in terms of cooperation for the implementation and development of the law, and to take an active part in any consultations and discussions that may be initiated in the framework of the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention.


 Ensuring the safety of the humanitarian staff:  


This is a major concern for humanitarian organizations, and the recent murders of four UNHCR staff in West Timor and the Republic of Guinea serve as a reminder of just how tragically topical this subject is. Humanitarian organizations must now devote a major part of their resources to ensuring the safety of their own personnel. Worse still, they are often forced to withdraw their staff, to the detriment of the very people whom it is their task to protect and assist.

How to maintain the non-political and impartial nature of humanitarian endeavour has often featured in discussions between the UNHCR and the ICRC. The failure by many warring parties to recognize and respect a protected sphere for humanitarian actors in the midst of conflict may well make it impossible over time to provide protection and assistance to the victims of armed conflicts and thus to carry out the work which the international community has entrusted to the ICRC and to the UNHCR. It is worth recalling that international humanitarian law requires states to respect and protect persons engaged in relief assistance. Furthermore, humanitarian personnel are civilians, and therefore it is a war crime to attack them.

Mr Chairman, this topic leads us on to another concern, that of

 Cooperation and coordination:  

The number of humanitarian organizations has increased dramatically in recent years, and this has often resulted in poor coordination, vagueness regarding mandates and needless duplication of effort. At the same time, the advent of peace-keeping operations comprising not only a military dimension but also political and humanitarian tasks has brought further complexity and confusion to the humanitarian scene. In order to be eff ective, humanitarian response must be based both on the clear and distinct competences, roles and mandates of States, of the United Nations and of humanitarian organizations, and on a more active dialogue between the key players.

The ICRC's policy of cooperation is guided as much by its desire for enhanced complementarity vis-à-vis other organizations as by its desire to fulfil its own role as an independent and neutral intermediary in situations of armed conflict. The ICRC has established dialogues with political and military organizations, and also with financial institutions such as the World Bank, in order to ensure that it can adopt a long-term perspective and promote durable solutions.

The annual high-level UNHCR/ICRC meeting held last May was devoted exclusively to the issue of displaced persons and to the complementary roles of our two organizations in Sri Lanka, Colombia and Angola. The meeting enabled us to draw demarcation lines for our work on the basis of the situations on the field and our respective abilities and spheres of expertise. In connection with the general discussion on displaced persons, I would point out that the ICRC is considered the organization responsible for responding to the urgent needs of displaced persons in armed conflict as part of its mandate to provide protection and assistance in situations of armed conflict and internal violence.

Finally, Mr Chairman, I would like to mention:

 Humanitarian management  

A complex environment, threats to humanitarian personnel, lack of funds – these are some of the challenges faced by humanitarian organizations. The demands made of humanitarian personnel today in terms of knowledge are considerable: technical and professional skills, knowledge of their own organization and other humanitarian agencies and, above all, knowledge of the political and cultural environment in which they operate. To develop the skills of their personnel and, in particular, to provide suitable training despite reduced resources, today's humanitarian organizations must be highly innovative in their management techniques. Good humanitarian management balances short-term and long-term objectives, ensures that training requirements are met and ensures that what has been learned is applied to new situations. This is a challenge for all of us – humanitarian organizations and our donors – in our endeavour to achieve security, effectiveness and sound cooperation. The ICRC will spare no effort in discharging its responsibilities and striving together with other humanitarian organizations to enhance the quality of its humanitarian response.

Ref. LG 2000-121-ENG