The situation in Africa

 Statement by the ICRC at 3875th meeting of the Security Council  

 New York, 24 April, 1998  

Mr President,

On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) I should like to thank the Security Council for giving me the opportunity to take the floor in this debate on the Secretary-General's report on the causes of conflict and the promotion of durable peace and sustainable development in Africa.

The whole issue of armed conflict lies at the very heart of the concerns of the ICRC, an organization dedicated to preventing and relieving the suffering caused by war. Africa is the main arena for the activities of the ICRC, which has 19 operational and regional delegations and some 3,000 staff on the continent, and whose work in Africa accounts for almost half of its operational budget.

Mr President,

We have no intention today of embarking on a detailed analysis of this excellent study. The ICRC hopes to have the opportunity to expand upon these initial comments in the framework of its ongoing dialogue with the United Nations, as well as with the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

We shall confine our remarks to two principal themes: reaffirmation of the relevance of international humanitarian law, and the need for truly humanitarian action in aid of conflict victims which would pave the way for reconstruction and create the conditions necessary for sustainable development.

Like the Secretary-General, we too have noted the sharp decline in the level of adherence to humanitarian norms in crisis situations. In view of the abuses and atrocities committed against civilians, particularly against women and children, and against refugees, displaced persons, detainees and prisoners, restoring respect for the universal humanitarian principles on the part of all those bearing weapons is absolutely essential.

The ICRC can only endorse such a clear diagnosis and such a pressing appeal in these times marked by the proliferation of conflicts in countries where State structures have collapsed and by the emergence of struggles aimed at asserting identity of one kind or another, in which the annihilation of communities regarded as rivals is the principal objective. A new dimension has been added with the " privatization " of war and the appearance of forces depending on private groups or individuals over whom State authority has little or no influence.

Mr. President,

Africa is rich in tradition imbued with deep-rooted human values very close to those of humanitarian law, which can be found in the codes that traditionally governed the conduct of hostilities. The challenge before us all is therefore to revive those values, especially among the youth, the vital force which makes up three-quarters of its population.

This mobilization calls for a long-term preventive effort to make everyone aware of the fact that, whatever the situation, there are limits to violence, and that neither those who order acts of violence, nor those who carry them out, nor those who tolerate them can say " we didn't know " . All the Member States of the United Nations have undertaken not only to respect but also to ensure respect for the treaties relating to humanitarian law. This obligation is binding on each and every State vis-à-vis all conflict victims. It concerns every one of us.

It should als o be pointed out that every State has the responsibility to incorporate in its national legislation the appropriate provisions relating to humanitarian law, and to prosecute anyone who violates them. The African countries have set in motion this process of legislative and statutory reform, along with the technical assistance of the ICRC's Advisory Service.

Mr President,

Sadly, it is a well-known fact that most of the time war criminals manage to avoid being brought to justice. In this connection, the creation by the Security Council of the ad hoc Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda constitutes a major step forward in the repression of war crimes.

Today all concerned must work actively towards the establishment of a permanent international criminal court so as to put an end to impunity. A court free of all political pressure, whose competence would be universally recognized and which would offer the maximum guarantees of fair trial, would usefully complement national legal systems. It would convey to all perpetrators of crimes under international law the clear message that impunity will no longer be tolerated.

Mr President,

The Secretary-General has stressed the necessity for the international community to use in a consistent and coordinated manner all the mechanisms at its disposal to find comprehensive solutions to conflicts. Lasting results will be obtained only if those solutions take political, social and economic factors into account. The ICRC has noted with increasing concern the tendency shown by certain States in recent years to resort to humanitarian operations instead of taking political or even military action whenever it can be justified within the framework of relevant international instruments. The events in central Africa bear witness to this trend.

However, nothing can replace the political will to ta ckle the underlying causes of conflict and the human suffering it brings in its wake, using the whole range of legitimate means available, including force. Humanitarian assistance cannot be a substitute. Supplying the victims of conflict with aid is the business of organizations whose aims and working methods are genuinely humanitarian. The issue of the safety of refugees in the Great Lakes region provides a prime example of this principle, and today the tragic consequences of the failure to apply it are only too evident.

Acknowledging the need for a strategic approach, political, military and humanitarian players therefore have to harmonize their action. They must seek to create synergy between their activities, with due regard for their interdependence but also for their respective mandates and specific roles. This approach, however, must not subject all humanitarian action to political interests at the expense of the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. For the ICRC, the best interests of the victims are at the core of its concerns and its operations.

That is not to say that humanitarian action has no political dimension or that it never has any impact on the course of a conflict. The presence of humanitarian agencies has sometimes had an adverse effect because it has served the purposes of war. Such was the case in Liberia in 1996, when rivalry among the organizations on the ground contributed to prolonging the conflict and thus seriously aggravated the plight of the victims.

Mr President,

The ICRC shares the Secretary-General's concern about emergency situations which attract a multitude of aid agencies with widely divergent objectives and working methods. In such circumstances it is essential that these agencies streamline their action and avoid duplication of effort. The advantage of this kind of coordination is that, in a volatile context that is often rapidly changing, various activities can be orchestrated in space and in time; indeed, on such arrangement depends the safety of all concerned.

The report highlights the need to integrate and establish links between the concepts of assistance, rehabilitation, reconstruction and development and the activities relating thereto. The ICRC fully endorses this opinion. In its aid operations it has opted where possible for an approach aimed at helping the individuals or communities in question to regain their self-sufficiency and free themselves of dependence on outside aid, by involving them closely in the planning and implementation of programmes.

With this goal in view, the ICRC is working in many parts of Africa to restore the means of production - agriculture, stock-raising, fisheries, crafts - of population groups which have suffered the effects of war. Similarly, it is running programmes to restore basic health services, fit the war disabled with artificial limbs and other appliances, and put back into operation safe water distribution networks and sewage and waste disposal systems.

In conducting its operations the ICRC mobilizes all available local partners. For both the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the network of African National Societies provides invaluable support. Their volunteers often work in extremely difficult circumstances. Indeed, several of them have lost their lives in the course of their duties in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo.

We feel it is also important to stress the other crucial aspect of the ICRC's work: protection. Providing aid without protection would be absurd, even counterproductive. Any operation carried out for war victims must not only bring them the material assistance they need but also protect them from the dangers that prolong and exacerbate their suffering, while at the sa me time allowing them to preserve their dignity.

The aim of the ICRC's protection activities is essentially to ensure respect for the lives and physical integrity of individuals. This endeavour is inseparable from work to defend human rights, whose ultimate purpose is the smooth functioning of civil society and the enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

Mr President,

In conclusion, allow me to say how deeply the humanitarian organizations are concerned about the safety of their staff working in conflict situations. Over and above the usual threats and customary dangers, the changing nature of warfare, the increase in perpetrators of violence, the diversity of their roles and interests and the general spread of banditry further limit the extent to which the authorities can exercise control over the various players and increase the vulnerability of aid workers. You will all remember the murders in Burundi, the rapes in Sierra Leone and in what was then Zaire, and the hostage crisis in Sudan. An African proverb goes, " only man is better than man, only man is worse than man " . We have the firm conviction - and the Secretary-General won't disagree with us - that " the better " in each one of us is an inexhaustible source of energy and hope. Today, ten Red Cross and Red Crescent staff have just been released after being held for ten days by their abductors in Somalia.

Thank you, Mr President.

 LG 1998-033-ENG