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Address by Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross to the Peace and Security Council of the African Union

09-11-2007 Statement

Addis Ababa – 9 November 2007

Mr President,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am particularly pleased to be here today to learn from you how the African Union is progressing and, more particularly, how this important Council views the advances made towards peace and security and what difficulties and challenges it faces in many of the continent’s countries. I have travelled enough in my present function, both to capitals and more remote areas of this continent, to be aware of its beauty, complexity and diversity. I am all the more eager to learn as much as I can from you in discussing some of the challenges the African Union and the ICRC face when working to improve the situation of people adversely affected by armed conflicts and other situations of violence in Africa.

By creating the Organization of African Unity, now the African Union, you took a step towards unifying the whole continent, in order to strengthen your ties while respecting your diversity. You set for yourself ambitious objectives. Since its inaugural meeting in Durban, South Africa, in July 2002, the African Union has set as a priority the promotion of peace, security and stability on the continent. It would be hard to find a more worthy goal. The endeavours of the African Union and of your Council in Comoros and in Mauritania are proof of your commitment to achieve this goal. The firm involvement of the African Union and the African countries in peace-keeping operations further confirms it, and shows the determination of the Union to make a difference on the ground, for the sake of your people. The ICRC is active in countries suffering from armed conflict or other situations of violence, which are precisely the contexts tha t fall under the purview of the Peace and Security Council. The ICRC's activities on the African continent this year represent around half of its activities worldwide, a proportion which should be similar next year. For example, we have a permanent presence in 11 of the 15 countries composing your Council. According to our projections for next year, Sudan will remain by far our largest operation in Africa. There will be regional differences, however: activities in southern Sudan will wind down with our withdrawal from the Juba Teaching Hospital, while those in the Darfur provinces will be maintained at their current level. A significant curtailment of activities – up to around 30% – is expected in Sierra Leone, Congo-Brazzaville and Angola thanks to the stabilization that has occurred in those countries in recent years, and to the increasing capacity of government authorities and others to respond to people’s needs and expectations. On the other hand, our activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are already being stepped up because of the worrying situation in the east of the country. In the Central African Republic, we anticipate a 50% increase in the budget for 2008 compared to our current commitment. Finally, we are in the process of expanding our activities in the Sahel belt, where we opened a new office in Agadez (Niger).

We are gratified by the way the working relationship between the African Union and the ICRC has developed, as illustrated by the joint AU/ICRC Brainstorming Days on Respect and Implementation of IHL launched back in 1994. Since that time, a rich and structured dialogue has been established, in particular with the Peace and Security Council, the members of the Permanent Representatives Committee (PRC), and the different departments of the AU Commission. More recently, the ICRC has been working with the PRC Sub-Committee on Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced People to prepare the summit on IDPs in 2008. Efforts have also been made to inclu de IHL in the training of the troops making up the African Standby Force. In addition, I understand that a retreat will be held tomorrow with the Peace and Security Department to discuss matters relating to conflict prevention and management as well actions to be undertaken in post-conflict situations. A very busy agenda indeed that shows not only the willingness of the AU members to consider the ICRC as a true partner but also the need for an ongoing dialogue between both organizations if we are to achieve our common goals.

I am convinced that this meeting will fortify this dialogue and I very much look forward to our discussions. Knowing and understanding each other better should help us to achieve our respective aims for the benefit of the people of Africa.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The mandate of the ICRC is to try to protect and assist people affected by armed conflicts and other situations of violence. These can be injured fighters, internally displaced people, children separated from their families, or civilians whose basic needs are unmet. The activities of the ICRC in their favour are based on needs only; the ICRC does not limit its response to one particular domain, like medical services or water, but aims to respond to all the basic needs of people affected by armed violence. Its protection activities specifically seek to ensure that the parties to a conflict meet their obligations and that the rights of individuals under international humanitarian law and other fundamental norms are respected. They focus on preventing violations and abuse, putting an end to them when they do occur and avoiding their recurrence. They also help alleviate the suffering caused by violations and abuse. The ICRC carefully assesses needs in the field. Indeed, it places great emphasis on proximity to the people it sets out to help. Throughout its operations, from the assessment of the situation and the needs, a process in which the beneficia ries are involved as much as possible, to the distribution of assistance, ICRC staff are present in the field, close to the people, striving to understand their reality and their vulnerabilities.

The first operational challenge for an institution like the ICRC is to have access to all areas where there are conflicts. I know that this Council is following very closely the situation in the three Darfur states of Sudan. Sudan is the biggest ICRC operation in the world, for the fourth year in a row. We have offices in many towns and villages of Darfur, from Kutum in the north to Gereida in the south. We rely on more than 1,500 Sudanese employees and 150 expatriates. This field presence helps us to build a network of contacts with all armed actors in this conflict: with the government in Khartoum of course, but also with all the armed groups present in Darfur. These contacts are necessary to ensure that they accept our presence and activity, to ensure the safety of our staff, and to enable us to carry out our protection and assistance activities. Gaining and maintaining this access is increasingly difficult when the conflicts are anarchic, as in Somalia, or when armed groups fragment into a plethora of smaller groups as in Darfur. Identifying those in positions of influence, when chains of command are often much more tenuous than ever before, is an enormous challenge, not to mention the banditry and crime that tend to develop in conflict-affected areas.

What are, in our experience, the factors that help the ICRC to gain acceptance? First of all, the difference it makes for those in need, its ability to deliver on the expectations it creates. But also, our strict adherence to the principles on which the ICRC's work is based, namely to carry out its exclusively humanitarian action in favour of all those in need, independently and while remaining neutral. This explains why the ICRC is not ready to be integrated into approaches or operations that have a broad er mandate than an exclusively humanitarian one, for example AMIS in Sudan, the MONUC in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the future operation in Chad and the Central African Republic. The credibility of the ICRC’s independence explains the broad access to victims the organization enjoys; it also enables it to offer its services as a neutral intermediary on issues of humanitarian concern. It allows us to concentrate our work where other organizations have little or no access, such as the rural areas of Darfur, or the camps for internally displaced persons in Chad that are closest to its eastern border. These principles, and our commitment to reaching those most vulnerable, have also allowed us, in some instances, to step in despite difficult security conditions when other organizations have had to leave, for example in Gereida's IDP camp. As a neutral intermediary we have facilitated the release of captured civilians and fighters, as we did this year in Ethiopia, Sudan and Niger, and the repatriation of civilians, for example, between Ethiopia and Eritrea where two weeks ago we helped nearly 900 civilians to return to their home country, with their consent and with the cooperation of the authorities of both countries.

This brings me to the second theme I would like to focus on with you, migration and in particular the protection and assistance of internally displaced people. Migration is a phenomenon of huge dimension in Africa. Whether they move for economic or for security reasons, whether they remain within their home countries or cross over into another one, migrants may put a heavy burden on host communities. In recent decades, African countries have valiantly shouldered a huge responsibility in this regard. The fact that the African Union will organize in September of next year a summit for heads of States dedicated entirely to internally displaced people further underlines the importance of this issue for your continent. Protecting and assisting IDPs are key tasks of the ICRC. During the first nine months of 2007, the ICRC assisted 2.1 million IDPs in Africa alone. IDPs are civilians, and therefore are protected by international humanitarian law. Civilians must not be the object of attacks, and their property must be spared. Unfortunately in today's conflicts, too many civilians are directly targeted by one or several belligerents. The ICRC tries first of all to prevent displacement, for example by providing people living in remote rural areas with tools and seeds to replace those destroyed or looted, and helping vulnerable pastoralist communities by means of livestock-vaccination campaigns as has been the case in Darfur. By so doing, the ICRC effectively helps these population groups to preserve their livelihoods and remain in their homes. If people are nevertheless forced to flee by fear and the havoc wrought by conflict, they are still protected by IHL, and the ICRC will keep working to provide for their needs. In Uganda for example, at the beginning of the year, with the help of the Uganda Red Cross Society, the ICRC distributed seeds and tools to more than half a million IDPs in camps, to help towards sustainable economic recovery. The situation in Uganda is evolving positively. Civilians who had been living in large IDP camps – some for well over a decade – have started to move to smaller camps closer to their home villages or towns. The ICRC has adapted its activities and will continue to do so as the civilians proceed towards their home areas. It will distribute relief items at their new locations and help them to complete their journey home by upgrading health-care centres and water systems, organizing small income-generating projects and providing support for agricultural production.

However, I want to stress that concern for IDPs must not be at the expense of other categories of victims. One should not assume that IDPs are always the worst-affected group, while the non-displaced population is better off. The elderly, the disable d or the wounded for example may be physically unable to leave their homes, whatever the circumstances. The ICRC's approach is therefore to try to address the needs of all categories of people affected by a conflict, be they residents, IDPs or host communities, according to their vulnerability. Last month in Somalia for example, the ICRC distributed food rations and seeds to farmers and displaced families who have access to land, thereby improving food security for more than 160,000 people facing economic hardship. Another example is Côte d'Ivoire: in the north, the ICRC supports four hospitals and 70 water-treatment plants. The water-treatment plants benefit 1.5 million people, residents and IDPs alike.

The third point I would like to raise with you is the challenge of improving respect for international humanitarian law, or IHL. Conflicts will always bring suffering and destruction. However, increased respect for IHL would prevent a lot of this suffering. The responsibility to respect IHL lies first and foremost with the parties to the conflict, both governments and non-State armed groups. Various factors can come together to improve respect for IHL. On some of them, the ICRC can have a positive impact, for example by improving knowledge of IHL or by making its Advisory Service on IHL available to States to facilitate the drafting of laws implementing IHL at the national level. On others, the ICRC can have no influence, for example the chain of command of an armed group in the field; if it is not strong enough, there is little chance that instructions to respect IHL will be passed down by the commander and respected by the rank and file.

In my view, the development of international criminal jurisdictions over the past 10 years constitutes an important and positive step towards improved respect for IHL. Several of the jurisdictions concern Africa, for example the ICTR, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and the Special Court set up in connection with the conflict in Sierra Leone. The first countries to make use of the International Criminal Court have been African countries, and the first case it has started to try concerns the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The ICRC hopes that these developments and the trials of people accused of war crimes will eventually build a momentum conducive to better respect for IHL. It therefore strongly supports them.

However, as you know, the ICRC does not cooperate with these courts and tribunals – nor with national courts or tribunals – in the sense that it does not report its findings to them. It takes this line in order to preserve its ability to work in the field and talk to all actors. The ICRC's preferred mode of action remains confidential bilateral dialogue with all parties to a conflict. This dialogue is based on the ICRC's observations in the field, for example when civilians have been killed, or following a visit by ICRC delegates to a place of detention. The aim of this dialogue is to persuade the authorities to take the necessary measures to ensure that IHL is respected. In return for the confidentiality with which the ICRC handles its representations to States and other armed actors, it expects that they will enter into a meaningful dialogue with it and act upon its recommendations. It is crucial that governments and armed groups demonstrate a political commitment to respecting IHL on the ground, and that other actors in a position to bring influence to bear on them, foremost among them the African Union, support this goal through strong diplomatic efforts. In this regard, you surely know that the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent will take place in Geneva at the end of the month. One of the draft resolutions aims at reaffirming the importance and validity of IHL, and I call upon all the member States of the African Union to support its adoption.

IHL is not a static body of law. On the contrary, throughout history, it has been regularly adapted to changes in the nature of conflict. Let me take this opportunity to emphasize two developments in this field. Two weeks ago, in a statement to the Permanent Missions in Geneva, I called upon governments to negotiate a new international treaty prohibiting inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions. Although Africa is not the continent that has suffered most from the effects of these weapons, I urge you to join the efforts to end the humanitarian problems they cause. African governments should participate in the international discussions on cluster munitions. They may also consider developing a common position on these weapons. The common African position on anti-personnel mines was instrumental in the negotiation and adoption of the Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-personnel Mines and in helping to end the suffering caused by those weapons.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is the availability of weapons, in particular small arms and light weapons. These are the weapons most commonly used in the conflicts in Africa. They are also the weapons with which most violations of IHL are committed. In a report in 1999, the ICRC documented the consequences, in humanitarian terms, of the unregulated availability of weapons. Since then, several comprehensive and legally binding agreements on small arms control have been adopted, three of them in Africa. It is most encouraging that Africa, as one of the continents severely affected by unregulated availability of arms, is at the forefront of such efforts. I understand that throughout 2008, efforts will be pursued at the level of the African Union towards the development of an African international treaty to address the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. Let me assure you that the ICRC is ready to support these efforts to the best of its ability.

The last issue I would like to touch upon with you today is the added value of neutral and independ ent humanitarian action in periods of transition. By transition period, I mean a period of indeterminate duration that follows an armed conflict or another situation of violence and in which armed violence has ended or at least entered a period of remission. Fighting may not yet be totally over, but a process of stabilization has been set in motion. We prefer the notion of " transition period " to " post-conflict situation " because, as many examples have shown, it is an open question if such a period will lead to consolidated peace or to a new conflict.

During a transition period, international humanitarian law should remain a key parameter for humanitarian action. Indeed, when active hostilities come to an end, States remain subject to numerous obligations such as caring for the sick and wounded and ensuring that the people still held in detention are treated in conformity with international humanitarian law. New obligations also take effect for States at that point, for instance to throw light on what has happened to those whose disappearance has been reported by the adverse party and, in international armed conflicts, the release and repatriation of prisoners of war. The African Union adopted its post-conflict and reconstruction policy at its Banjul summit in 2006. Since then, the ICRC and the Commission of the African Union have started to work on guidelines regarding the rules of IHL applicable during transition periods.

The need for relief often continues after the end of active hostilities. During the immediate post-conflict period, emergency relief is required, for example, in the event of food shortages or when humanitarian actors have had no access to particular groups during the fighting for security reasons. A relief action by humanitarian actors may well have to extend beyond the immediate " post-conflict " stage in order to avoid a gap between the phasing out of humanitarian action and the phasing in of development activities. Development operations may be put off for security reasons or because financial resources have not yet been committed or cannot be disbursed. From the ICRC point of view, humanitarian organizations should not seek to engage in development activities that are not compatible with their time horizon and require specific skills and experience. But nor should humanitarian actors be pressed to leave when there is no other way of helping people to live in dignity, either because there are no international development actors to replace them or because the empowerment of local or national actors has not yet taken place. In such cases the ICRC is certainly not prepared to let down people in need of medical care, the amputees it has fitted with prostheses, or IDPs that still require assistance. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, for example, the ICRC is still reuniting children with their families. In such situations of transition, it endeavours to implement assistance strategies that constitute a sound basis for future development strategies, including supporting systems and processes, instead of merely distributing assistance to individuals. Unlike Darfur, where the ICRC directly treats patients with its mobile surgical unit, the ICRC's activities in the field of health in Liberia aim instead at supporting the Ministry of Health. It has also helped to upgrade the skills of over 100 traditional midwives. In its water-related activities, besides building or repairing wells, the ICRC also sets up water and sanitation committees composed of members of the local community. Another illustration of ICRC involvement in the transition process is our work in Burundi, where the ICRC, with the status of an observer, is actively contributing to the new mechanisms put into place by the UN and the Burundian authorities in the framework of the Peace Building Commission in order to help the Burundian people to further consolidate a fragile situation.

So what is the added value of independent, impart ial and neutral humanitarian action in contexts of transition? I shall limit myself to two remarks:

The presence of a neutral go-between is still necessary in a society fraught with tensions, and in which many people continue to suffer physical pain and psychological distress. It may be difficult for former enemies to co-exist peacefully at a time when the fate of the missing has not been elucidated; all prisoners have not returned home; internally displaced people and refugees are coming back to shattered houses. A humanitarian organization that has not taken sides during the conflict and has steadfastly endeavoured to be present in order to provide protection and assistance to population groups affected by that conflict, may benefit from an accumulated stock of trust in communities where antagonisms persist. This is useful when it comes to carrying out projects involving former enemies, which may contribute to reconciliation.

Secondly, an independent and neutral humanitarian organization such as the ICRC is best placed to alleviate the plight of some of those who are living in a hostile environment and exposed to acts of vengeance perpetrated by their former enemies. Such acts may be aimed at them personally or at the community to which they belong. Often, people at risk such as former detainees, returnees and members of minorities do not benefit from the minimum protection they should be afforded by the forces of law and order, because institutions are still in the making. Some prisoners are at the mercy of an authority they have opposed or that still sees them as a threat. Again, the presence of non-partisan humanitarian actors bringing aid and making representations to the authorities when needed eases tension. Furthermore, activities such as ascertaining the fate of missing persons may contribute to reconciliation. The ICRC's expertise in terms of visits to places of detention, even in situations where IHL is not or no longer applicable, can b e useful for both the authorities and the detainees. This is the case for example in northern Africa, where the ICRC carries out such visits in Tunisia, Mauritania and Algeria, and is endeavouring to extend such visits to other countries.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Both the action of the African Union, in particular in the field of peace and security, and the activities of the ICRC concur to limit the suffering that armed conflicts inflict on people. But your action is political and deploys its effects in this area, while ICRC operations are exclusively humanitarian. Political action to address the roots of a conflict, to reach a peaceful settlement and to consolidate peace is the best way to avoid suffering for people caught in the maelstrom of violence. On the other hand, humanitarian action during the conflict saves lives, mitigates suffering, protects the dignity of people and can help defuse tension; improving respect for international humanitarian law can prevent abuses from breeding hatred in a never-ending vicious circle of reprisals and counter-reprisals; humanitarian action in a period of transition can help stabilize communities, rebuild the social fabric and help people to become self-sustaining again.

Political settlement as such is not the direct goal of humanitarian action, whose exclusive purpose remains to alleviate the plight of people. Nonetheless, humanitarian action can also help to foster a consolidated peace. It is therefore essential that when political actors negotiate cease-fire agreements or peace treaties they should propose solutions for humanitarian issues still pending, such as the repatriation of refugees, the release of prisoners or the elucidation of the fate of people who have gone missing. Burundi and Sierra Leone should be mentioned in this regard. As I observed in my introduction, we therefore have everything to gain from a better knowledge and understanding of each other, and I am looking f orward to having the opportunity today to converse with you and to listen to your views on how best to preserve the people of Africa from the suffering brought to bear by armed conflicts.

Thank you.