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Specific groups and individuals: Mass exoduses and displaced persons

27-04-2001 Statement

57th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights – Agenda item 14 - 27 April 2001 – Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Mr Chairman,

thank you for giving the floor to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).  This statement is being made by the ICRC following consultation with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which has offered some passages for insertion here to save the Commission’s time and demonstrate the complementarity of our two organisations on this important issue.

First of all, we would like to join our voice to that of previous speakers in expressing our gratitude to Mr Francis Deng, Representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons, for his unrelenting efforts in bringing the plight of internal displacement to the forefront of international attention and for having acted as a catalyst for the development of normative and operational frameworks for improving the response to the needs of the internally displaced.

It is a grim reality that a substantial proportion of internal displacement today occurs in situations of armed conflict.  Persons either leave their homes in order to flee from the effects of hostilities or, even more worryingly are forced to flee as they have been specifically targeted by the belligerents.  Forced displacement has today become a method of warfare.

In this context, the ICRC would like to point out that first and foremost, and before being internally displaced persons, or “IDPs”, such persons, provided they are not taking part in hostilities, are civilians.  And as civilians they are entitled to the full protection of international humanitarian law, which is applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts and is binding on b oth government forces and armed opposition groups.

Humanitarian law prohibits conducting hostilities in a manner that does not distinguish between combatants and civilians, as well as making civilians the target of attacks or forcing their displacement.  Violations of these rules are war crimes.  If respected, humanitarian law is a powerful tool in the prevention of displacement.

If, despite these safeguards, displacement nevertheless occurs, humanitarian law continues of course to protect internally displaced persons, among other things by shielding them from the effects of hostilities; requiring parties to a conflict to provide them with humanitarian assistance; and if unable to meet their needs, requiring them to allow humanitarian and impartial relief actions in their favour.

International humanitarian law, a body of rules specifically developed to apply in situations of armed conflict, therefore remains fully adequate to respond to the primary needs of internally displaced persons.  The ICRC takes this opportunity to remind states and armed oppositions groups of their obligation to respect and ensure respect of international humanitarian law at all times.

In addition to humanitarian law, IDPs are, of course, entitled to the protection of human rights and national law without discrimination.

In accordance with its mandate as a neutral intermediary in times of armed conflict or unrest, the ICRC gives priority in its protection and assistance activities to those persons in most urgent needs, in accordance with the principle of impartiality.  Given their precarious situation, internally displaced persons often constitute a primary target-group of ICRC activities.  However, other categories of victims of armed conflicts, such as besieged populations, elderly or sick persons who have been unable to flee their homes may b e in an equally, or even more, difficult situation.  In such cases, it follows from the principle of impartiality underlying the ICRC’s activities, that these persons would also be beneficiaries of its activities.

In close co-operation with the wide network of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the ICRC is presently responding to basic assistance needs of more than 5 million displaced persons in 48 contexts.  Through a sustained dialogue with all the parties and a permanent presence on the ground, the ICRC seeks to prevent the displacement of population, to protect those who are uprooted and to promote return whenever it is adequate.

Following on from this, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies would like to sound a note of caution at what they perceive may be a focalisation of international attention and, consequently, of resources, on internally displaced persons, to the possible detriment of other groups of people who may be equally hard-hit: the civilian population as a whole in states experiencing armed conflict, the communities hosting the IDPs, the long-term displaced, as well as persons whose movement was dictated by economic reasons rather than conflict.

The people concerned may include as well victims of criminality, human rights abuse, development and infrastructure projects as well as natural disaster. They are in fact often displaced by the natural consequences of economic development. As it is now well known, the rate of movement from rural areas to towns has accelerated to the point that by the year 2006 urban populations will exceed rural populations for the first time in the history of the world.

The ICRC, the Federation and the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are tackling the problems these vulnerabilities pose, and are looking forward to opportunities at the forthcoming Istanbul Plus 5 Special Session to focus on the special problems caused by mass relocation to urban areas.  We hope, however, that this Commission will be able to take an important part in the search for new and innovative solutions to the whole range of problems associated with displacement and population movement, including the problems faced by families who host persons in these situations.

It is not a problem which will be solved just by searching for more preventative mechanisms.  Experience so far has shown that most attempts to prevent movement have not only failed, but have usually driven the problem underground and into the hands of traffickers and organized crime, heightening the vulnerability of the unfortunate people themselves.

The ICRC and the Federation consider this issue of internal displacement as a priority and will be doing their utmost to raise consciousness about the scale of the subject in the meetings ahead of us.  We would hope that all governments will join us in taking a fresh look at the causes, patterns and needs involved in their search for solutions.

Thank you, Mr Chairman

Ref. LG 2001-028-ENG