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Advisory services in the field of human rights

22-04-1999 Statement

55th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Agenda item 19 - 22 April 1999. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Madam Chair,

Another important anniversary for the rules designed to protect human dignity will be observed this year. Indeed, on 12 August 1999, the four 1949 Geneva Conventions for the protection of war victims will be 50 years old. These instruments have now been universally accepted, and together with their 1977 Additional Protocols they are the cornerstone of contemporary international humanitarian law. Many other treaties supplement the rules for the conduct of hostilities and protection of war victims set down in them.

It is important that this body of law be consolidated through its universal acceptance. Its rules should be widely disseminated, and compliance should be ensured by putting them into practice at the national level and incorporating them in domestic legal frameworks and procedures.

To support the efforts being made in these areas by a growing number of States, the ICRC's Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law continued last year to seek dialogue with government authorities on their obligations under humanitarian treaties and to offer practical advice and technical assistance on implementing the treaties at the national level. In addition, a number of national and regional seminars were organized to assess the steps that need to be taken for treaty implementation and to prepare plans of action.

Repression of war crimes and of other serious violations of international humanitarian law continued to be a pri ority issue for the ICRC's Advisory Service. Since a process of legislative reform in the field of criminal law and procedure is under way in many States, the Advisory Service carried out in-depth analysis of proposed reforms to ensure that sanctions for war crimes are included in penal codes and domestic criminal legislation.

A report on the meeting of experts convened in 1997 on national repression of violations of international humanitarian law was recently published [1 ] . There have since been two further meetings of experts on this topic. The first was held in Geneva in November 1998 and dealt with " Enforcing international humanitarian law through criminal law and procedure " in common-law countries. The second, which took place last month in Madrid and brought together experts from Spain and Latin American countries, was devoted to the question of how to amend domestic legislation to allow war crimes to be punished by national courts and to permit ratification of the 1998 Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court. After taking note of the points raised in discussion during these meetings, the Advisory Service has begun to draw up and publish basic principles that can offer lawmakers practical guidance on various technical questions relating to the repression of war crimes.

Technical advice has also been given on drafting national laws to prevent the misuse of the red cross, red crescent and other emblems protected under international humanitarian law. Such misuse can lessen respect for the emblems, erode their protective value, and endanger the lives of those legitimately entitled to employ them. Considerable attention has also been devoted to the drafting of implementing legislation for the 1997 Ottawa treaty on anti-personnel landmines.

The ICRC's Advisory Service is working to facilitate exchanges of information on measures already taken by States to implement international humanitarian law, in the hope that this may encourage further legislative activity. In particular, a database of such measures and other related documents is being set up which will be open to consultation by any interested party. This new database complements the existing database on international humanitarian law. A first version will be included in the 1999 edition of the CD-ROM on international humanitarian law and will soon be available on the ICRC Website.

The measures which States must take to meet their treaty obligations under international humanitarian law are varied and complex and involve many areas of State activity. An increasing number of States — at present they are 47 — have set up national interministerial committees to advise their governments on issues relating to the implementation and dissemination of humanitarian law treaties. These usually have a consultative status and bring together representatives from government departments, the armed and security forces, national institutions, professional experts and the National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society. In some cases the task of advising the government on issues relating to international humanitarian law is entrusted to the national human rights body. Experience has shown that such specialized committees can contribute to genuine progress in implementing international humanitarian law. The Advisory Service has therefore continued to support efforts to set up these bodies and to promote their work by providing technical advice and facilitating exchanges between them. In this context, meetings between the existing national committees on international humanitarian law were arranged in western Africa in 1997 and in Central America in 1998. This week, the first meeting of national committees on international humanitarian law from European countries is being held in Brussels, where representatives of more than 40 countries are sharing their experiences in disseminating and implementing humanitarian law.

Madam Chair,

The ICRC's Advisory Service seeks to coordinate its activities with other organizations which offer advice to States on the fulfilment of international obligations. It has had the opportunity to cooperate with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and with national human rights organizations in the field of dissemination and education. The ICRC would like to intensify this cooperation and develop other existing channels for consultation, dialogue and concerted action with the Office of the High Commissioner as well as with regional and national bodies working in the field of implementation of international treaties, both at their headquarters and through their respective delegations, missions and representatives in the field.

The activities of the ICRC's Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law are clearly complementary to those of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. To achieve the common goal of more effective respect for human rights and humanitarian law it is important that efforts be joined and all available legal and practical expertise put at the disposal of those who can take action to ensure full implementation of human rights and international humanitarian law. The Advisory Service will do its utmost to ensure that its activities are coordinated with those of other organizations so as to avoid duplication of efforts in assisting States in this field.

Thank you, Madam Chair.

[1 ] Répression nationale des violations du Droit International Humanitaire (Systèmes Romano-Germaniques), Rapport de la Réunion d'Experts, Genève, 23–25 septembre 1997, préparé par Cristina Pellandini, CICR, Genève, 1998.   Available in French and Spanish .