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Protection of civilians in armed conflict

10-12-2002 Statement

Statement by Mr Angelo Gnaedinger, Director-General of the ICRC, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 10 December 2002

Mr President,

Let me start by thanking you for inviting the International Committee of the Red Cross to express its concerns regarding the protection of civilians in armed conflict, an important item on your agenda.
The ICRC largely shares the alarming analysis that the Secretary-General made in his three substantial reports on this subject.
With our 10,000 staff in 80 delegations and offices around the world, the ICRC is all too well aware of the unspeakable suffering that armed conflict brings to civilian populations. Indeed, civilians are frequently the prime targets of conflict and suffer genocide, ethnic cleansing, forced displacement and indiscriminate attacks, perpetrated by both regular armed forces and other bearers of weapons. Such acts result in terror, starvation, sexual violence, the use of children as combatants, families being torn apart and forced disappearances.
And yet, Mr President, those are precisely the situations to which international humanitarian law applies, and protecting civilians lies at its very core.

  • If we look at methods of warfare, we see that the cornerstone of all international humanitarian law is the principle of distinction. That principle prohibits all attacks on civilians. It requires parties to a conflict to maintain a distinction – at all times – between combatants and civilians. Only combatants may be attacked.

  • And as far as the means of warfare are concerned, this same principle of distinction prohibits the use of weapons that st rike without discrimination.

  • Furthermore, civilians in the hands of a party to the conflict are entitled to be treated humanely.

At the same time, Mr President, humanitarian organizations are working unceasingly to provide a minimum of protection to civilians affected by armed conflict. Indeed, the task of protection lies at the heart of the mandate conferred on the ICRC by the 190 States party to the Geneva Conventions.
For the ICRC, “protection” covers everything aimed at ensuring full respect for the rights that an individual enjoys under the letter and spirit of applicable law. In other words, protection encompasses all activities aimed at preventing breaches of this law and at ending such breaches and limiting their effects when they occur. The ICRC strives to protect civilians during armed conflict by approaching all parties directly, regardless of the cause they claim to support. By definition, this means we have to talk to many organizations and groups, including those that are not part of any State. This is an essential step in obtaining access to people protected by humanitarian law, regardless of the authority under whose control they find themselves. Not to do so would be to discriminate between “good” and “bad” victims of conflict and to deny help and protection.
The ICRC endeavours to respond to the needs of the civilian population as a whole, addressing the most urgent needs first, in accordance with the principle of impartiality.
This approach allows the ICRC to concentrate on those who are particularly vulnerable, such as displaced persons, children, missing persons and their families, without losing site of the overall picture.
Mr President,
If civilians are protected by a universally ratified law, and if humanitarian organizations are working hard to ensure that these civilians are treated humanely, how come they ar e suffering so terribly?
 a) Is the law inadequate?

We do not think so. Many of the atrocities that civilians suffer every day are already illegal under the binding legislation of international humanitarian law. That branch of the law remains the frame of reference that guarantees effective protection and assistance for civilians caught up in conflict. Furthermore, the norms contained in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols form a cohesive whole, granting unambiguous entitlement to protection and assistance.
Far from being rigid and unchanging, international humanitarian law has changed constantly throughout its history. Many additional instruments now supplement and reinforce the Geneva Conventions of 1949, such as those that prohibit or restrict the use of certain weapons and those that have created judicial institutions to punish grave breaches of international humanitarian law.
However, in pointing out this process of change, the ICRC would not wish to suggest that international humanitarian law is incapable of further improvement.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions, and the ICRC has been looking closely at the extent to which international humanitarian law is able to deal with new types of conflict.
The ICRC will be sharing the results of this study with States and with the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies during the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 2003.
Without wishing to discount the possibility of raising the level of protection provided by existing law, the ICRC believes that the greatest challenge today is not to develop new laws but to ensure better compliance with those that already exist.
 b) Are humanitarian organizations not up to the task?

Armed conflicts are often highly complex. Needs are many and varied. It is impossible for any one organization to meet them all. Coordination is vital if humanitarian activities are genuinely going to help people, and coordination is an integral part of the ICRC’s operational strategy. We work together with other humanitarian agencies through numerous structures and systems, while respecting the mandate, principles and methods of each organization.
On protection, in particular, the ICRC is promoting harmonization in the approaches of the various humanitarian organizations. Since 1996, we have run four workshops on protecting the victims of armed conflict, with the aim of helping humanitarian and human rights organizations to work more effectively. In particular, we need to agree on what we mean by “protection” in the context of humanitarian law, human rights and refugee law.
The effectiveness of humanitarian organizations certainly leaves room for improvement. But humanitarian action, however effective, cannot make up for political in action.
By its very nature, humanitarian action is intermittent. Its purpose is to mitigate the consequences of conflict. It is for political action to prevent conflicts and to resolve them when they occur, opening the way for reconstruction and development.
Mr President,
in conclusion, I should like to finish by drawing two conclusions.
The first is that if the law exists and remains relevant, it follows that the greatest challenge is that of application. This is primarily the responsibility of States and the ICRC therefore encourages the States to promote a culture of compliance. Responsibility for compliance rests not only the parties to a conflict but also with every member of the international community, as all States are bound by the requirement set out in the Geneva Conventions to respect and to ensure respect for those rules in all circumstances.
This implies that we must prosecute those who break these laws. Indeed, a famous philosopher wrote that to ignore the crime was to abolish the law, to which we could add that to ignore the crime is also to deny justice to the victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other atrocities. This being so, the creation of the International Criminal Court represents a major step forward in an environment hitherto characterized by impunity, but a step that will only bear fruit if national legislation and actions become truly complementary to those of the ICC.
My final remark relates to preventive action. More rigorous prosecution of grave breaches of humanitarian law may act as something of a deterrent, and thus help to prevent such breaches. However, respect for this body of law must be born before a crisis occurs, in time of peace. This means we must raise public awareness and mobilize opinion each time the rights of victims are ignored or flouted, we must provide education on humanitarian issues in schools, we must teach humanitarian law in our universities and we must provide proper instruction in our military training establishments. And we must finally realize that protecting the victims of conflict cannot be limited to emergency action, when we know how often such action is doomed to failure.
Thank you, Mr President.