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ICRC contribution to preparations for the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

27-04-2001 Statement

57th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Agenda item 6 - 27 April 2001. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Mr. Chairperson,

Thank you for giving me the floor.

The ICRC would like to take this opportunity to briefly examine the link between discrimination and armed conflict and to outline its interest and involvement in preparations for the forthcoming World Conference against Racism that will be taking place in Durban, South Africa, later this year. 

Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance are not just problems that individual nations and the international community need to address in peacetime, but just as importantly, in situations of armed conflict. As a number of recent and ongoing conflicts around the world clearly show, the inequality or exclusion of peoples, groups and individuals is one of the root causes of conflict and, very often, one of its consequences.

Bearing in mind its mandate - which is to protect and assist victims of armed conflict - the ICRC believes that the issue of non-discrimination in armed conflict situations should be given adequate consideration at the World Conference. We have attempted to achieve that aim by participating in all four regional preparatory conferences against racism that took place in Strasbourg, Santiago de Chile, Dakar and Tehran, as well as in the Addis Ababa expert seminar on ethnic and racial conflicts in Africa. We have also submitted concrete proposals for the draft Declaration and Program of Action that the World Conference is expected to adopt. I propose to outline them in the time at my disposal.

The principle of non-discrimination underlies all of international humanitarian law, the primary aims of which are to protect the victims of armed conflict and to limit the means and methods of warfare. Historically, it was the need to provide aid to wounded and sick combatants on a non-discriminatory basis that motivated Henry Dunant, the founder of the ICRC, to spearhead efforts to draft the first international humanitarian law treaty, the Geneva Convention of 1864.

Contemporary humanitarian law - embodied in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocols of 1977 - prohibits discrimination in many specific rules binding on parties to both international and non-international armed conflicts. Thus, article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions applicable in non-international armed conflict provides that persons taking no active part in hostilities and those placed hors de combat must in all circumstances be treated humanely, " without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth or any similar criteria " . Common article 3, which reflects customary international law, is further elaborated in Additonal Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions.

Many rules governing international armed conflicts also prohibit discrimination. It should be noted, for example, that " practices of apartheid and other inhuman and degrading practices involving outrages upon personal dignity, based on racial discrimination " constitute a grave breach of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. The principle of non-discrimination is thus a basic tenet not only of international human rights law, but also of international humanitarian law, obliging parties to an armed conflict to treat victims without distinctions of any kind save those based on the urgency and specificity of their needs. 

Based on what has just been said, the ICRC believes that the proceedings and documents of the World Conference should reflect the importance of non-discrimination as a basic tenet of international humanitarian law. We have recommended that the Conference call on states that have not done so to adhere, without reservations, to the Geneva Conventions and their two Additional Protocols, as well as to other instruments of international humanitarian law.

Mr. Chairperson,

As guardian of international humanitarian law, the ICRC has a particular interest in seeing that its rules are respected and that respect for them is ensured in all circumstances. Respect means that states have a duty to take a number of legal and practical measures aimed at ensuring full compliance with their treaty obligations, including those prohibiting discrimination, before an armed conflict breaks out.

Respect also means that states must take a series of measures once armed conflict occurs, among which are those aimed at ensuring prosecution and punishment of persons responsible for violations. The ICRC believes that appropriate attention at the Conference should be paid to the issue of combating impunity for grave breaches and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. We have therefore recommended that the World Conference call on states to enact national legislation prohibiting and punishing war crimes and enabling the application of the principle of universal jurisdiction in their prosecution. 

Thank you for your attention.