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

07-12-2004 Statement

Written contribution by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Sofia, 6-7 December 2004

 The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) values highly its relationship with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and thanks it for the opportunities afforded over the past year to participate in a number of OSCE events including the Annual Security Review Conference, the Annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the annual session of its Parliamentary Assembly and thematic meetings on issues such as weapons and internally displaced persons. Grateful for the invitation to submit a written contribution to the Ministerial Council, the ICRC reviews in this document its work on a range of themes and contexts relevant to the activities of the OSCE.  


  • Reaffirmation and development of international humanitarian law
  • International Customary Law
  • Promotion of IHL treaties and national implementation of IHL within the OSCE region
  • Weapons
  • Persons deprived of liberty
  • The Missing
  • Children in armed conflict
  • South Eastern Europe
  • The Russian Federation
  • The South Caucasus
  • Central Asia
Reaffirmation and development of international humanitarian law 

The ICRC, in its position as the organization of reference in the area of international humanitarian law (IHL) promotion and development, continues to actively involve itself in key debates on issues of IHL that have arisen following recent international developments. 

The events of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent international response provoked a renewed interest in IHL by governments and others which was generated by certain questions on the applicability of IHL to the global " fight against terrorism " . The international armed conflicts that took place in Afghanistan and Iraq 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 of persons affected by them. Improving compliance with IHL by both state and non-state actors also remains a constant ICRC preoccupation.

The ICRC's " Project on the Reaffirmation and Development of IHL " was established in October 2002. In 2004, a number of activities were undertaken within the Project:

  • A Second Informal Expert Meeting aimed at exploring the notion of " Direct Participation in Hostilities under IHL " .

  • Ongoing work on a study of mechanisms that may be employed to improve compliance with IHL in non-international armed conflicts, particularly by non-state actors, which is to be completed in early 2005.

  • The 28th Annual Roundtable on Current Problems of International Humanitarian Law, " Strengthening Measures for the Respect and Implementation of International Humanitarian Law and Other Rules Protecting Human Dignity in Armed Conflict " .

  • Active contribution to the Expert Meetings on " International Humanitarian Law and Air and Missile Warfare " sponsored by the Harvard Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research.

International Customary Law 

In December 1995, the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent officially mandated the ICRC to prepare a report on customary rules of international law applicable in international and non-international armed conflicts. After input from an expert group of academics, and from researchers in over 50 countries, the report is due to be published in early 2005. The purpose of the study is to enhance respect for IHL and thus offer greater protection to victims of war. Customary international law can fulfil a crucial role in bridging the gaps in the application of treaty law, gaps due to lack of ratification but also due to lack of substantive coverage. The study will show that 2 5 years after their adoption, the essential rules of the 1977 Protocols I and II additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions have become part of customary international law and bind all states and all parties to all armed conflicts be they international or non-international. Promotion of the study's findings in a large variety of fora, including the OSCE, will be a major focus of the ICRC's activity in 2005 and beyond.

Promotion of IHL treaties and national implementation of IHL within the OSCE region 

For IHL to be fully respected and enforced, it is of paramount importance that states adopt domestic legislation to implement its rules. Both at ICRC Headquarters and through its Delegations in the world, the ICRC Advisory Service on IHL encourages states to become party to the various IHL instruments in order to promote their universal acceptance, and to adopt the range of national legal and practical measures these treaties may require.

As far as the OSCE region is concerned, the ICRC Advisory Service on IHL entertains a sustained dialogue with concerned authorities in all participating states with a view to:

  • promoting accession to a wide array of IHL treaties

  • providing assistance in amending or adopting new legislations on the repression of war crimes and other serious violations of IHL and the protection of the red cross and red crescent emblem.

  • supporting the establishment and activities of national inter-ministerial commissions on the implementation of IHL, as exist today in 22 participating states of the OSCE


The ICRC appreciates the continuing commitment of the OSCE to addressing the problem of the proliferation and availability of small arms and light weapons and hopes that the OSCE will play a leading role in encouraging its participating states to intensify their efforts to implement all aspects of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons in advance of the Biennial Meeting of States in 2005.

The ICRC continues to work throughout the region to draw attention to the appalling human costs of anti-personnel mines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) and was grateful to have the opportunity to address a joint meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council and Forum for Security Co-operation on this subject last March. In addition to running mine risk education programmes and bringing aid to mine victims in the form of physical rehabilitation, the ICRC continues to encourage all OSCE participating states to become party to the relevant treaties, namely the Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-Personnel Mines (the Ottawa Convention) and the new Protocol V on Explosive Remnants of War to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

The recently concluded Nairobi Summit on a Mine-Free World affirmed that the Ottawa Convention is a success story among recent multilateral agreements in the field of IHL but that states will have to increase their efforts even further in the coming five years if commitments on mine-clearance and care of victims are to be fulfilled. The ICRC notes that 43 of the 55 OSCE participating states are party to this important humanitarian treaty bringing the total number of states parties to 144. 

Under the'Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity'appeal, the ICRC continues to call upon states and all actors within the life science community to acknowledge their role within a multi-layered preventative framework to pr event advances in the life sciences being used for hostile purposes. Throughout 2004 the ICRC has engaged states, international organizations and members of the life science community, from industry to academia, on the issues surrounding potential for misuse of the life sciences and has recently developed a set of Principles of Practice and accompanying Action Points designed to build a bridge from pertinent ethics and laws to best practice.

Persons deprived of liberty 

Asserting the relevance of IHL to contemporary forms of armed conflict and, more critically, ensuring respect for its provisions by all parties to armed conflict is more important now than ever. The ICRC fully recognizes that states have a responsibility to ensure the security of their citizens. However, it is also the ICRC's firm view that it is possible to do this while upholding the rules designed to protect human dignity and by living up to the obligations set forth in international conventions.

The ICRC admits that it is not an easy message to pass in an environment marked in particular by hostage-takings and the inconceivable suffering of numerous families. Yet it is precisely in situations like these that a set of fundamental guarantees must be applied at all costs, in particular with respect to people deprived of their liberty regardless of how one defines their legal situation. The ICRC rejects the use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment under any circumstances. Under international law, the prohibition of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is absolute.

The ICRC will actively pursue its action in favour of persons deprived of liberty. It will actively participate in efforts to prevent and put an end to all forms of ill-treatment, in particular by obtaining access to and visiting prisoners and detainees in order to monitor their treatment. Whenever appropriate it will not hesitate to raise awareness among different stakeholders on issues regarding its access to persons deprived of liberty and their treatment.

The Missing 

Thousands of families in the OSCE area and around the globe are suffering the prolonged mental anguish caused by uncertainty about the fate of missing relatives. Besides being confronted daily with a host of difficulties, the families'suffering and relentless quest for information often leads to their social marginalization, with all the consequences that this may have on society, not to mention the obstacles placed in the way of peace and reconciliation.

The 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 2003, comprising not only the Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies but also all states parties to the Geneva Conventions, confirmed its commitment to the objectives outlined by the International Conference on Missing Persons and their Families organized by the ICRC in February 2003. Adopting by consensus the Agenda for Humanitarian Action, conference participants undertook to " Respect and restore the dignity of persons missing as a result of armed conflicts or other situations of armed violence and of their families " .

For its part, the ICRC pledged to strengthen its operational practices, to work with relevant authorities and organizations, notably in implementing the recommendations and best practices identified, and to contribute to the strengthening of relevant international and domestic la w. The ICRC has already included in its operational instructions the recommendations and best practices issued by the two conferences mentioned above and has drawn up a plan of action for the years ahead on promoting these best practices among all relevant actors.

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. Unfortunately, children are still recruited. And during the last years, ICRC has been more and more involved also in demobilization of child-soldiers.

South Eastern Europe 

Events last March in Kosovo illustrated the continuing fragility of the situation in the former Yugoslavia. The ICRC continues to monitor the situation and will maintain a capacity to react to unforeseen humanitarian emergency situations. To this end it has pursued its efforts to strengthen the capacity of National Societies in the region in order to enable them respond to humanitarian needs. With the support of the ICRC, National Societies have also continued to take on more responsibilities in the field of mine risk education, missing persons and promotion of IHL.

After many years of significant assistance programs in the Balkans, the ICRC assistance programm e for IDPs in Serbia and Montenegro and in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, will come to an end by December 2004.

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, remained high on the ICRC's agenda in the region. It has accepted to chair the Working Group on Missing Persons in Kosovo which first met in March of this year.

The ICRC continues 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).

The Russian Federation 

The ICRC remains concerned about the overall situation in the northern Caucasus. 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.

Regarding its Protection programme, the ICRC is currently facing difficulties in carrying out visits to detained persons under conditions that are in accordance with the visiting principles it applies worldwide. As a result, no detention visits have taken place since September 2004. The ICRC is currently reviewing this issue with the Russian authorities and hopes to be able to resume its visits in the near future.

The ICRC continues 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 risk education programmes). In addition, whenever possible the ICRC continues to 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 South Caucasus 

In Georgia, the ICRC stepped up its activities in South Ossetia following the increase in tensions there over the summer of 2004. An office was opened in Tskhinvali in order to better address the situation. In Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, the ICRC continues to support the authorities in bringing under control the life-threatening epidemic of tuberculosis (TB) in the penitentiary system. In the three countries, protection activities, in particular in the field of detention, are continuing. There is also a focus on the issue of missing persons. In Azerbaijan, the ICRC is monitoring the situation of communities along the Line of Contact and cooperating with the Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society in creating " safe play areas " for children that are free of the risk of injury from landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW).

Central Asia 

During 2004, the ICRC continued its visits to places of detention in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In Kyrgyzstan, the ICRC conducted a detailed assessment of the problem of tuberculosis in places of detention and in close cooperation with the authorities and other actors plans to provide practical support to the efforts of the penitentiary authorities to tackle this issue.

At the beginning of 2004, the Government of Tajikistan accepted the ICRC's offer of services to visit detainees and the first rounds of visits took place. Discussions between the authorities and the ICRC continue regarding the next steps. During the course of 2004, the Government of Turkmenistan and the ICRC initiated discussions on the possibility of ICRC visiting, in accordance with its usual working procedures, detainees in that country. 

In the five Central Asian states, the ICRC's regional delegation in Tashkent works to promote international humanitarian law in cooperation with various partners, including government ministries, the armed and security forces, and universities, as well as assisting 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 risk education activities together with the respective National Red Crescent Societies.