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Relevance of international humanitarian law to non-state actors

30-10-2002 Statement

Bruges Colloquium, 25 and 26 October 2002. Opening address by Professor Anne Petitpierre, Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross

It gives me great pleasure to open, together with Professor Demaret, this third annual Colloquium on international humanitarian law organized jointly by the College of Europe and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

I cannot launch this event, however, without paying tribute to Professor Akkermans, who died suddenly on 17 June last. Rector Akkermans worked for closer relations between the College of Europe and the ICRC, investing much personal effort in promoting humanitarian law at the College, and the ICRC wishes to express its profound gratitude for his commitment.

The Community of States has given the ICRC the mandate to promote knowledge of international humanitarian law and to contribute to its development. Since its inception in 1863, the ICRC has conducted activities to promote knowledge and acceptance of international humanitarian law among the civilian population, both in schools and universities and among the public at large. Although it attaches particular importance to the effort that must be made vis-à-vis the armed and security forces, in peacetime as well as in times of unrest or war, that effort by no means excludes the need to inform society as a whole. The community of diplomats and of national and international civil servants is also a natural target – indeed a target of choice – for such activities, since it comprises the people who are most closely concerned on a daily basis with the development and implementation of the humanitarian rules. However, owing to the nature of current conflicts and the way they develop, we are having to extend our endeavours to ever-wider circles.

At the first Colloquium that we held with the Co llege of Europe, in this same place, I expressed the hope of seeing the ICRC and the College establish a platform for debate and discussion on the evolution and the future of humanitarian law. To this day that body of law remains the most effective means of ensuring that the victims of armed conflict receive assistance and protection, and of limiting recourse to certain methods and means of warfare. I am particularly pleased today to see not only that are we taking part in the third of these events, but also that every year they are attracting more interest and stimulating more debate. The topical nature of the issues dealt with and the quality of the participants are certainly decisive factors in that regard.

In 2001, when we were considering the subject of " The impact of international humanitarian law on the evolution of security policy " , we saw how essential it is to learn lessons rapidly from the way conflicts develop. Indeed, humanitarian law is neither frozen in time nor static; it responds to the practical reality of human suffering in times of armed conflict. It presupposes a constant debate within the wider context of international law as a whole, and focusing on real conditions in today's conflicts. Working for its development and ensuring that it is geared to the realities of conflict is one of the ICRC's major concerns.

The theme chosen by the ICRC and the College of Europe for the 2002 Colloquium, " The relevance of international humanitarian law to non-State actors " , responds to this concern. Traditionally States, the sole natural subjects of international law, were the only players on the international scene. We surely all agree that this is no longer the case today. In all areas of international relations – economics, ecology, politics, military affairs – non-State actors, be they infra- or supra-State, have assumed increasing importance and have asserted themselves as international players that cannot be igno red.

As early as 1949, and then more specifically in 1977, the Community of States drew up rules of international humanitarian law applicable in situations of armed conflict between a State and a non-State actor, or between two or more non-State actors.  But the role of non-State actors – like that of States – is different today from what it was in 1949, or even 1977. Our perception of the phenomenon has also changed. Does this mean that the instruments of international humanitarian law that we have at our disposal in 2002 are unsuited to the realities of today's conflicts?

This is a question that has been asked by some since 11 September 2001. We have all read the most diverse – not to say contradictory – theories and hypotheses that have appeared in the press, in various journals, specialized and otherwise, and in public statements. Some feel, perhaps understandably, that for reasons of security 150 years of humanist, political and judicial progress can just be swept away. The negation of such achievements, which represent advances of civilization, is dangerous for everyone, beginning with those who are concerned about the constraints imposed by humanitarian law. Such an attitude is in fact the unsatisfactory result of insufficient reasoning based on a questionable assumption. First, it amounts to neglecting the vast majority of contemporary conflicts and focusing exclusively on certain security issues in order to formulate rules purporting to be universally applicable. Secondly, it does not offer any clarification of the rules of law that are applicable in the various situations.

International humanitarian law has always sought to strike the best possible balance between legitimate concern for the security of the State and its citizens on the one hand and the preservation of human life, health and dignity on the other. The same is true today. The problems relating to the pertinence and implementation of international law in general, and of international humanitarian law in particular, are constantly changing. The exchange of ideas that will take place at this Colloquium should give us a clearer picture of the real challenges in today's world, and – I hope – of the most promising avenues of reflection to explore.

The first part of the Colloquium will be devoted to an analysis of developments and prospects in the field of international security and the use of force. We shall then go on to examine the place of non-State actors in current humanitarian law, before concluding this first part with a critical summary and an in-depth discussion of these issues.

In the second part we shall consider two concrete matters of great importance: terrorism and collective security operations. As regards terrorism, in line with a debate initiated in 2001 the speaker will remind us of the legal certainties, but will also draw attention to the fundamental questions it raises with respect to humanitarian law. Collective security operations, whether conducted as part of armed anti-terrorist operations or otherwise, also face challenges in terms of humanitarian law. We shall hear an analysis of those challenges before going on to debate them.

During the third part of the Colloquium we shall see how non-State actors can be bound by the rules of international humanitarian law. We shall examine the mechanisms in international law engaging the responsibility of non-State actors before looking at some past experiences which will certainly provide useful lessons. Finally, to supplement these discussions, we shall review the tools offered in this respect by treaty and customary law.

I shall be especially pleased this evening to welcome, as guest of honour of the College of Europe and the ICRC, Mr Robert Cooper, who is Director-General for External and Politico-Military Affairs at the Council of the European Union. Having been wit h the British diplomatic service for over 20 years, Robert Cooper has long experience of diplomatic relations, on defence issues among others. He has also published a large number of studies and analyses which have earned him the reputation of being the most knowledgeable commentator of our time on strategic matters.

All these contributions will serve as a framework for the discussions allowed for in the programme, discussions that I trust will be numerous, lively and profound, but above all open. The value of this Colloquium lies in the quality of the speakers, but also in the diversity of the participants. It is attended by both specialists and non-specialists, and that is what makes it so rewarding.

As I have done at previous sessions, but with more assurance on the strength of the experience gained, I would like to express the wish that this Colloquium become a recognized meeting place for all those who want the law to remain the only remedial measure proposed by civilization for the suicidal violence of war.

Anne Petitpierre


International Committee of the Red Cross