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Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe: Eleventh Meeting of the Ministerial Council

01-12-2003 Statement

Written contribution by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Maastricht, 1-2 December 2003.

 The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) thanks the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) for inviting it to take part in its proceedings on a regular basis and to submit a written contribution to the Ministerial Council. The present document reviews a choice of topics, either of a thematic nature or related to specific field operations.  

Reaffirmation and development of international humanitarian law 

The reaffirmation and development of international humanitarian law are core ICRC activities that the organization has been carrying out since its inception on the basis of its mandates under the Geneva Conventions and the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Reaffirming the law, which is part of the ICRC's ongoing work both in the field and at headquarters, takes a variety of forms such as dissemination, training and teaching activities, monitoring the application of the law b y States and non-State actors and providing legal advice.

The development of international humanitarian law has also been historically inseparable from the ICRC, which played a major role in the adoption of the 1864 Geneva Convention and later took part in drafting the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their two Additional Protocols of 1977. More recently, the ICRC has been involved in drafting protocols and amendments to a range of weapons treaties, and for several months now it has been at the forefront of an initiative aimed at refocusing international attention on the issue of weapons and biotechnology.

The events of 11 September 2001 and the international response to them have made it necessary for the organization to become even more actively involved in the debates that are currently taking place on international humanitarian law. Indeed, renewed interest in humanitarian law by governments and others has been aroused by, among other things, certain queries about the applicability of the law to the global " fight against terrorism " . The international armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have also served to redirect international attention to the rules governing inter-State conflict. Similarly, internal armed conflicts continue to pose considerable challenges in terms of the legal protection afforded to those affected by them. Last but not least, improving compliance with humanitarian law by both State and non-State actors remains a constant concern of the ICRC. 

The ICRC's Project on the Reaffirmation and Development of International Humanitarian Law was set up in October 2002 with the aim of providing a framework within which some current and emerging issues of humanitarian law could be examined, both internally and in consultation with others. As part of this project, seven expert meetings were held in 2003. These meetings are briefly described below.

In June 2003 the ICRC, together with the Hague-based TMC Asser Institute, organized an expert seminar aimed at exploring the notion of " Direct Participation in Hostilities under International Humanitarian Law " . The need for clarifying the status and treatment of civilians who have taken a direct part in hostilities pertains to all types of armed conflicts and has been pointedly raised in the legal debates on the " fight against terrorism " . The participants in this seminar – distinguished humanitarian law experts from all parts of the world – agreed that an effort should be made to clarify the notion of " direct participation " and encouraged the ICRC to organize a follow-up meeting in 2004, which the organization intends to do.

Despite the important successes achieved by the international community in preventing and repressing violations of humanitarian law, there is no doubt that ensuring better compliance with the law during armed conflicts – i.e. seeing to it that States fulfil their obligation to " respect and ensure respect " for the law under common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions – remains a major challenge. In order to generate proposals for improvement in this area, the ICRC, in cooperation with other institutions and organizations, hosted five regional expert seminars on the topic of " Improving Compliance with International Humanitarian Law " . The meetings, which were attended by government officials, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Society representatives, academics and NGOs, were held in Cairo, Pretoria, Kuala Lumpur, Mexico City and Bruges between April and September 2003. Given the wealth of ideas and proposals submitted at the meetings, the ICRC has decided to pursue this work in 2004. 

" International Humanitarian Law and Other Legal Regimes: Interplay in Situations of Violence " was the topic of the 27th Annual Roundtable on Current Problems of International Humanitarian Law held by the ICRC and the International Institute of Humanitarian Law in San Remo, Italy, in September 2003. The discussions, in which more than 200 experts from all regions of the world took part, confirmed that the comprehensive protection of persons in armed conflict required the complementary application of international humanitarian law and human rights law, and also of refugee law where applicable. Participants expressed a desire to continue discussions on this issue at a regional level.

An overview of this and other work planned for 2004 and beyond as part of the ICRC's Project on the Reaffirmation and Development of International Humanitarian Law is provided in an ICRC report on " International Humanitarian Law and the Challenges of Contemporary Armed Conflicts " submitted to the December 2003 International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Among other things, the report outlines the ICRC’s work in preparing its study on customary rules of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts. Promoting the study's findings (which, with the supporting material on State practice, total over 4,000 pages) will be a major focus of the ICRC's activities in 2004 and the years ahead. Several launches, as well as various expert seminars focusing on the study's implications, particularly as regards the rules applicable in non-international armed conflicts, are currently being planned for next year.


The 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent 

The International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is a unique forum which brings together the States party to the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC, the In ternational Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the 179 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The 28th International Conference, due to take place in Geneva on 2-6 December 2004, will address a number of crucial humanitarian concerns and challenges facing the world today. Under the theme “Protecting human dignity”, the Conference will seek to raise awareness of those concerns and challenges, set a number of objectives, and propose action that its members could take to alleviate the plight of people affected by armed conflict, natural disasters and disease.

The Conference will highlight these issues through presentations and reports, including a keynote address by the President of the ICRC on contemporary challenges and protecting human dignity and ICRC reports on topics such as women and war, international humanitarian law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts, and customary international humanitarian law.

The main focus of the Conference will be on the following five humanitarian concerns, which will be the subject of a Declaration and an Agenda for Humanitarian Action: 

- protecting human dignity by enhancing respect for international humanitarian law;

- humanitarian aspects of the issue of persons missing in connection with armed conflict;

- the human cost of the use of certain weapons in armed conflict;

- reducing the risk and impact of disasters and improving preparedness and response mechanisms;

- reducing the risks for vulnerable people represented by HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.

Upholding respect for the inherent dignity of the individual is a basic tenet of international humanitarian law and an essential element of the humanitarian mission of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Obviously, full complian ce by all parties to armed conflict with their obligations under this body of law is a prerequisite for its effectiveness in ensuring that conflict victims actually receive the protection to which they are entitled. The Conference Declaration specifically calls for a commitment to “reaffirming and applying the principles and rules of international humanitarian law”.

The missing 

Thousands of families around the globe are suffering the prolonged mental anguish caused by uncertainty about the fate of missing relatives. Such families feel that the death of a relative, however painful, can be accepted, but not knowing what has happened to a loved one is an experience very different from any other encountered in a lifetime. Current methods of dealing with the issue of missing persons and aiding their families and friends are far from yielding the desired results. The ICRC therefore launched a major initiative urging more effective action to ascertain the fate of people unaccounted for in connection with armed conflict or internal violence and to assist their families.

In an initial phase, the ICRC organized a wide-ranging consultative and analytical process involving academic institutions and numerous experts. This resulted in a set of practical recommendations on legal and operational measures that could be taken to help prevent disappearances, ascertain the fate of missing persons and assist their families. The second stage was the convening, in February 2003, of an International Conference of Experts which provided a forum for the sharing of information and further examination of the scale, diversity, and complexity of the problem. The participants included relatives of missing persons, politicians, military personnel, human rights activists, forensic scientists and representatives of humanitarian organizations.

The forthcoming 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent will offer an opportunity to urge more effective action. As mentioned above, the issue of persons missing in connection with armed conflict or internal strife and assistance for their families is one of the five humanitarian concerns addressed in the draft Agenda for Humanitarian Action to be adopted at the Conference. The text includes all the main goals and courses of action identified at the Conference of Experts and during the preparatory work that preceded it. The ICRC will pledge at the 28th International Conference to strengthen its own operational practices and to work more closely with relevant authorities and organizations, in particular to:

- promote the implementation of guidelines on best practice;

- encourage forensic specialists to set standards and draw up guidelines for the collection or exhumation and identification of human remains;

- contribute to the establishment of international mechanisms to support and assist affected families; and

- further develop the network of tracing services run by National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The ICRC will also help strengthen the provisions of international and domestic law designed to protect people from going missing, to ascertain the fate of missing persons, and to enable families to exercise their right to know the fate of their relatives. The ICRC calls on all States to commit themselves to taking appropriate action to prevent and resolve these problems, providing answers for the families of missing persons, and endorsing the ICRC's pledge to the 28th International Conference.


The ICRC continues to work throughout the OSCE region to draw attention to the appalling human cost of anti-personnel mines, encouraging more States to adhere to the Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-Personnel Mines (the Ottawa Convention), running mine-awareness programmes and bringing aid to mine victims in the form of treatment and physical rehabilitation. It commends the OSCE for the support it gives to mine-action programmes in affected States of Central Asia. With regard to the Ottawa Convention, the ICRC notes that 42 of the 55 OSCE participating States are party to this important humanitarian treaty. In particular, Belarus, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Serbia and Montenegro, and Turkey adhered to the Convention over the past year, bringing the total number of States Parties to 141. These steps towards making it a universal treaty are particularly significant in the run-up to the First Review Conference of the Ottawa Convention, which will take place in Nairobi, Kenya, in early December 2004.

After more than three years of work in connection with the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), the ICRC welcomes the conclusion by States Parties of a new international agreement aimed at reducing the post-conflict risks to civilians posed by explosive remnants of war, a term that encompasses the wide range of unexploded munitions left behind after an armed conflict. This constitutes an important development of international humanitarian law, and the ICRC calls on all OSCE States to adhere to the new Protocol to the CCW at the earliest opportunity.

The ICRC also encourages the OSCE to continue its efforts to strengthen controls over the availability of small arms and light weapons through full implementation of the OSCE Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons, which remains one of the most co mprehensive regional frameworks for action in that regard. In particular, States are urged to adopt national policies and laws on arms exports that require careful scrutiny of a potential recipient's compliance with humanitarian law. In this connection, the ICRC welcomes the preparation of the OSCE Handbook of Best Practice Guides on Small Arms and Light Weapons.

The ICRC is pursuing activities further to its appeal entitled “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity”, launched in September 2002. This appeal draws attention to the growing risk that advances in the life sciences might be used for hostile purposes, in violation of international law, and asserts the need for scientists, physicians and those who employ them to reaffirm their adherence to existing norms and commit themselves to preventive action. To this end, the ICRC has proposed that States make a declaration at ministerial level on the basis of the appeal. Furthermore, it has enlisted the support of governments, people working in the life sciences and representatives of industry, academic circles and scientific and medical associations in the effort to prevent hostile use.

Arms and international humanitarian law will also be one of the key topics on the agenda of the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

Women and armed conflict 

In 1999, at the 27th International Conference, the ICRC pledged to improve assessment of the special needs of women and girls affected by armed conflict, to alleviate their plight and to emphasize the respect that must be accorded to them under international humanitarian law. Today, four years later, the ICRC is evaluating the impact of implementation of this pledge in its fi eld operations and at headquarters. This evaluation should allow it to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the implementation process, and thus help it to shape its future activities for women affected by armed conflict and to tailor policy and programme design to their needs.

In addition, on the basis of its operational experience and of the provisions of international humanitarian law affording protection for women, the ICRC is producing a document containing guidance on protection of and assistance for women affected by armed conflict. The document is designed to serve as a working tool for staff involved in the planning and implementation of humanitarian programmes, and to help them provide appropriate activities and services for, and with, women affected by armed conflict. It will be completed by the beginning of 2004.

Children in armed conflict 

Protecting and assisting children affected by armed conflict is an integral part of the ICRC’s mandate. In particular, the ICRC reunites children who have become separated from their families with their relatives, visits minors in detention and works to ensure that armed forces and armed groups comply with the ban on recruiting children as soldiers. To raise awareness of the plight of children, the ICRC has produced an information kit on children in war, a brochure on child soldiers, a video entitled Child soldiers: The law says no! and a video on a child rehabilitation centre in Sierra Leone.

During the 28th International Conference, a workshop will discuss the topic " Children and armed conflict: Protecting and rebuilding young lives " . The workshop will be organized by the Human Security Network, a group that comprises many OSCE member States, in cooperation with the Canadian Red Cross.

The Russian Federation 

The ICRC remains concerned about the overall situation in the northern Caucasus. In a region where the authorities are endeavouring to normalize the situation, large-scale ICRC operations intended to provide an appropriate response to the most urgent needs of the civilian population remain hampered by volatile security conditions, which oblige the organization constantly to adapt its structures and activities to the changing situation.

The ICRC is willing to strengthen its constructive dialogue with the authorities at all levels and with the Chechen diaspora in order to secure their full support for its operations and thereby facilitate implementation of its programmes. With regard to protection programmes for detainees and for the civilian population, the confidential dialogue established with the relevant authorities will be stepped up.

Assistance programmes for the most vulnerable, focusing on Chechnya, will be consolidated and will continue to provide:

- direct aid (food and non-food) for beneficiaries in accessible areas;

- material support for medical facilities;

- input for the rehabilitation of water and sanitation systems.

In Ingushetia and Daghestan, the main beneficiaries of assistance will be the most vulnerable IDPs.

The ICRC will continue to promote international humanitarian law at the operational level through a full range of preventive and communication activities (dissemination sessions for the armed and security forces, programmes in schools and universities, mine-awareness programmes). In addition, whenever possible the ICRC will provide support for and work in cooperation with the Russian Red Cross and its local branches in the republics concerned, particularly in the areas of assistance and dissemination of humanitarian law.

The Balkans 

The humanitarian situation in the Balkans remains grim, and although lingering problems still persist the exodus of aid agencies continues. Traditional major donors such as the European Union and large bilateral agencies have reduced their assistance to minimum emergency funding and are directing their current efforts towards development activities such as education, local democratization and governance.

The ICRC will continue to provide limited assistance for IDPs in Serbia and Montenegro and in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia throughout next year. The assistance programme, which will be phased out at the end of 2004, will focus on income-generating projects designed to be sustainable and to ensure a measure of self-sufficiency.

The unresolved issue of missing persons in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro, including Kosovo, where thousands of families are still without news of their loved ones, remains high on the ICRC's agenda for 2004. The ICRC will continue working, together with national and international partners, for implementation of the guidelines laid down by the International Conference of Experts held in Geneva in February 2003.

Central Asia 

In its capacity as a neutral and independent organization, the ICRC regularly visited places of detention in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan throughout 2003, reported its findings to the relevant authorities and made confidential recommendations concerning conditions of detention. Offers of services have also been made to the governments of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan with a view to gaining access, in accordance with the ICRC’s customary working procedures, to detainees accused of crimes against State security.

The ICRC's regional delegation in Tashkent works to promote international humanitarian law in cooperation with various partners in the five Central Asian States, including government ministries, the armed and security forces, and universities. The teaching of international humanitarian law is promoted in law faculties and, with the aid of materials prepared in cooperation with the respective Ministries of Education, secondary school students receive imaginative and interactive instruction designed to promote respect for human dignity. Training programmes run for the armed forces improve knowledge of the relevant rules of human rights and international humanitarian law, and efforts are made to include such programmes in the curricula of the armed and security forces. Furthermore, the ICRC assists States in preparing national legislation to implement the provisions of the treaties to which they are party.

In Tajikistan, the ICRC provides support for a government orthopaedic centre, and in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan it regularly conducts mine-awareness activities together with the respective National Red Crescent Societies.