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United Nations as Peacekeepers and Nation-Builder : Continuity and Change - What lies ahead ?

29-03-2005 Statement

Session II: A Review of Past Practice Peacekeeping and Nation-building, Organized jointly by UNITAR and the Institute of Policy Studies of Singapore March 2005, Hiroshima, Japan. By Jean Abt, member of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

 In Memoriam: Sergio Vieira de Mello  

I would like to join previous speakers in paying tribute to Sergio Viera de Mello, a man we remember for his professionalism and commitment to humanitarian action and whom we sorely miss.


 The Humanitarian Perspective  

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure and an honour for me to address you today. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been a longstanding participant in UNITAR and IPS events. The previous sessions were marked by lively and constructive debates on topics of great interest to the ICRC.

Although the focus of the present workshop are the United Nations, and ICRC is not part of the UN family, the topic is of relevance to us, at a practical level, because it relates to activities carried out in countries involved in armed conflicts or emerging therefrom, where the ICRC is often active, and also at a policy level, as it relates to matters such as the law regulating multinational forces, which the ICRC has to address.

I would therefore like to express my warm thanks to the organisers for inviting the ICRC to take such an active part in this event.

Although the title of the present panel is " A Review of Past Practice – Peacekeeping and Nation Building " – many of the points I will raise remain current and future realities and challenges.

 1. The International Committee of the Red Cross  

It is worth recalling right at the outset that the ICRC does not engage in peacekeeping or in peace-building, and even less in peace-enforcement. The ICRC is an impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mandate, given to it by states, is to protect the lives and dignity of persons affected by armed conflict and to provide them with assistance.

It carries out its activities in accordance with universally recognised humanitarian principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.

The ICRC is an operational agency. Currently, we have some 12,000 staff members and a permanent presence in over 60 countries experiencing armed conflict or other forms of violence and conduct operations in about 80. To obtain access to populations in need it is essential to maintain a dialogue with all warring parties. This can only be done if we actually act in accordance with the Fundamental Principles and are perceived as doing so. A perception of neutrality and independence is as important as its reality – and this is a point I will come to later in relation to integrated missions.

The ICRC's action is rooted in international humanitarian law. As guardian of that body of law, by engaging in dialogue with all relevant actors, the ICRC endeavours to ensure that it is respected by all parties involved in conflict, both states and organised armed groups.

 2. The role of peacekeeping operations in the protection of civilians in situations of armed conflict  

In recent years, the Security Council has increasingly directed its attention to the plight of civilians in situations of armed conflict, recognisin g that this is an important dimension of its responsibility to maintain peace and security. One of the ways in which it has done so is by expressly incorporating measures aimed at enhancing the protection of civilians in the mandates of peacekeeping missions. This recognition of the importance of the human security dimension of peacekeeping work is extremely important and must be welcomed.

The challenge now is to ensure that forces participating in these missions have a clear and shared understanding of what is meant by " protection of civilians " and of the precise nature of their responsibilities. Similarly, in order to develop this valuable tool to its full potential and to turn policy into a protective reality on the ground, the exercise of such " protection of civilians " mandates must be monitored and the Security Council must receive regular reports on successes and obstacles encountered.

A second challenge is ensuring that personnel with the relevant expertise is deployed, in accordance with the specific activities for the protection of civilians to be undertaken under the mandate. For certain activities – " such as ensuring the protection of civilians under imminent threat of physical danger " - the appropriate personnel may be armed forces. For other activities, like assisting the local state with law enforcement for example, it may be civilian police officers. The two have different training, backgrounds and experience. They are not interchangeable.

 3. Respect for international humanitarian law  

My next point is a matter at the heart of the ICRC activities and of my personal interests and background: knowledge and respect of international law humanitarian law – by parties to a conflict where peacekeepers are de ployed but also, in certain circumstances, by the peacekeeping forces themselves.

 a. By parties of conflict in areas where peacekeepers operate – towards civilian population and peacekeepers  

All parties to an armed conflict are bound by international humanitarian law. The principle that civilians must be spared from the effects of hostilities is articulated and developed in numerous clear and categorical prohibitions. Prohibitions that are all too frequently wilfully violated.

It is often in these situations of widespread attacks against the civilian population that peacekeeping forces are deployed to prevent further violations. As long as the peacekeeping forces are not drawn into the fighting, they too are protected and should not be targeted. In its dialogue with warring parties the ICRC regularly recalls the protections to which civilians and peacekeepers are entitled.

b . By peacekeeping forces themselves if drawn into hostilities  

As recognised by the High-Level Panel of Experts, the distinction often drawn between Chapter VII peace-enforcement operations and Chapter VI peacekeeping operations is to some extent misleading. Admittedly, in the former there is an expectation from the outset that the robust use of force is integral to the mission, while in the latter there may be a reasonable expectation that force may not be needed at all. And often it is not.

But the reality is, to quote the High Level Panel of Experts, " that even the most benign environment can turn sour " . In these circumstances, the multinational forces, if themselves drawn into violence of a duration and intensity to amount to armed conflict , are also required to respect international humanitarian in responding to the attacks against them. As always, the nature of the situation and, consequently, the applicable law must be determined on the basis of the facts on the ground rather than the formal mandate given to the force by the Security Council.

If the violence in which the multinational force is involved amounts to an armed conflict it will be regulated by international humanitarian law. If the multinational forces are fighting a state, the rules regulating international armed conflict will apply, while if they are fighting an organised armed group it will be the rules regulating non-international conflicts.

The ICRC believes that it is essential for military personnel deployed in peacekeeping missions – and a fortiori in peace-enforcement missions – as well as by police and civilian personnel to be adequately trained in international humanitarian law. In this respect would like to highlight the value of the Bulletin on Observance by United Nations Forces of International Humanitarian Law – issued by the Secretary-General in 1999. This instrument summarises the key principles and rules of international humanitarian law and declares these to be applicable to UN troops engaged in enforcement actions or in peacekeeping operations when the use of force is permitted in self-defence.

Primary responsibility for ensuring the proper training – and discipline – of troops lies with troops contributing states. The UN should nonetheless require common minimum levels of training from all contingents. 

Recognising the crucial importance of awareness of the law, the ICRC carries out dissemination activities both with national troops before their secondment and with UN and regional multinational forces both prior to and during their deployment.

Just by way of example, as we really do have a very developed network of contacts, pre-secondment sessions were held with Australian and Thai troops who went to East Timor, and forces from Benin prior to their secondment to ECOWAS. In terms of multinational forces, the ICRC carried out dissemination to SFOR, KFOR, UNMEE, UNMIL, MINUC, MINUCI as well as to SADC and ECOWAS troops. The aim of these sessions is to recall the basics of international humanitarian law and to present the ICRC, its activities and its approach to civil-military relations.

Training, although an essential first step, is not sufficient. Respect for humanitarian law by multinational forces must be monitored and violations suppressed. 

The same holds true for sexual exploitation of the very civilians that forces have been mandated to protect. The proper behaviour of troops at all times – during operations and outside operations – is a matter of basic discipline for which troop-contributing states but also the UN have legal, moral and political responsibility.

 4. ICRC interaction with peacekeeping forces  

The final part of my presentation focuses on the ICRC's interaction with multinational forces. A distinction must be drawn between operational interaction in the field and interaction at what I will refer to as " headquarters " level.

 a. Interaction in the field  

With regard to interaction in the field, as stated at the outset, the ICRC is an independent, impartial and neutral organisation with the exclusively humanitarian mission of protecting and assisting persons affected by armed conflict.

ICRC strives at all times to operate on the basis of the Fundamental Pr inciples and, in particular, independence, impartiality and neutrality. In this respect a perception of action in accordance with these Principles is as important as reality. Allow me a few words on the interpretation of these principles and of their operational consequences for the ICRC.

Neutrality requires the ICRC not to take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, religious or ideological nature. Neutrality is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a mode of operation that the ICRC uses to ensure access for concrete action.

There are times when other actors in the field are not neutral – including peacekeeping forces and, even more clearly, peace-enforcement forces. As we have seen, they may be party to a conflict. Even when they are not actually party to a conflict, the UN is a political actor and, consequently, not necessarily neutral or perceived as such.

Impartiality requires humanitarian action to benefit people without discrimination, and that the ICRC's response be prioritised solely on the basis of need.

Independence requires the ICRC's humanitarian action to be distinct - and to be perceived as such - from any political or military interests. The reason for working independently is simple: parties to an armed conflict are likely to reject humanitarian organisations that they suspect of having ulterior political motives. As we have all too tragically realised, rejection can take extreme forms.

For these reasons, the ICRC insists in emphasising the different identities, affiliations, mandates and operational approaches of organisations working in situations of armed conflict.

In practical terms, this means that while the ICRC will have significant contacts in the field with other actors and will coordinate the humanitarian response, it will not work with them.

 UN integrated missions  

These considerations are also at the root of the ICRC's reservations about integrated missions. Peacekeeping forces are often part of a UN integrated response that combines political, military, reconstruction and humanitarian tasks under a single leadership.

Such an approach cannot be reconciled with the principles of neutrality and independence as understood by the ICRC. Accordingly, the ICRC cannot and will not subscribe or participate in them.

We recognise – indeed, we have been told very bluntly! – that integrated missions " are here to stay " . We accept this reality, and our position has moved from calling upon the UN to adopt a neutral and independent approach to its humanitarian action to demanding that our approach be respected.

I reiterate: the ICRC fears that an integrated approach may jeopardise delivery of independent humanitarian aid. This is a concern based on principle but also based on experience in a number of contexts.

 The ICRC and civil-military relations  

For the same reasons, and time prevents me from discussing this topic, the ICRC takes an equally cautious approach to civil–military relations more generally, including with peacekeeping forces.

 Interaction with peacekeeping forces  

I do not want to give the impression that the ICRC believes that it does not need to interact with other humanitarian actors or with peacekeeping forces. This is far from being the case. In today's complex emergencies no single actor can meet all needs and it is essential that coordinat ion take place to ensure that needs are not forgotten, efforts duplicated and that the most is made of each actor's expertise and strengths.

Turning to peacekeeping forces more specifically, I would like to give a couple of examples of interaction in addition to the training that I mentioned earlier.

In some instances, the ICRC can provide expert advice on legal matters. This was the case in Sierra Leone with UNAMSIL on the question of interned combatants from Liberia, and with UNMEE in regard to the drafting of the force commander's instructions on detention.

On other occasions, in view of the nature of the multinational forces'operations, the ICRC has interacted with such forces in the exercise of its traditional activities in situations of armed conflict. It regularly reminds multinational forces of their obligations under international humanitarian law, both pre-emptively when the force is established and, if necessary, reactively in response to resort to armed force or allegations of violations. The ICRC has also visited persons deprived of their liberty by multinational forces, such as UNOSOM, UNMEE and UNMIK, to name but a few.

In both situations the ICRC's dialogue with multinational forces has been positive and constructive.

 b. Interaction at headquarters level  

Finally, a few words on interaction at headquarters level and on questions of policy. This interaction is less fraught with potential risks and very well developed. The ICRC is in constant dialogue with the UN departments and agencies that deal with multinational forces and the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

For example, the ICRC participated in the drafting of the Secretary-General's Bulletin on Observance by United Nations Forces of International Humanitarian Law . It regularly participates in the activities organised by OCHA as part of its work on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts. Finally, just a few weeks ago, the ICRC submitted extensive comments on the draft Guidelines on Disarmament, Demobilization and Rehabilitation that DPKO is developing.

I would like to end by reiterating the ICRC's firm commitment to dialogue with all actors, including peacekeeping forces, in order to help render humanitarian action more effective, complementary and safe.

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