International solidarity and the globalization of responsibility in meeting today's humanitarian challenges

 Geneva, 5 October 1998  

First of all I would like to say what an honour and a pleasure it is for me to speak to you today at the opening of your Executive Committee meeting, and to thank you for inviting me as your special guest. The ICRC welcomes the opportunity offered by this forum to share with you some thoughts on the matters you will be discussing over the next few days.

During the Conference on refugees held under the auspices of the ICRC in January 1920, my illustrious predecessor, Gustave Ador, suggested that all issues relating to assistance for refugees be brought under the authority of a single body. Following this suggestion, the League of Nations decided to appoint a High Commissioner for Refugees, in the person of Dr Nansen. 

Today, by associating the ICRC in such a significant way in your discussions - and through the ICRC the entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement - you are in fact acknowledging the close relationship between the work done by UNHCR and the action of our Movement, whose fundamental humanitarian mission is to prevent and alleviate human suffering and to afford protection and assistance to the most vulnerable.

As you know, each component of our Movement - the National Societies, the International Federation and International Committee - performs a range of tasks in aid of refugees, in close cooperation with the programmes run by UNHCR. The legal and ethical frames of reference that guide our complementary activities in the field are indeed based on many similar principles, including that of solidarity in all its manifestations.

What, then, are the major challenges that we - governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations and civil society - have to face together in the current humanitarian environment ? I can see three principal issues: the globalization of international responsibility, reaffirmation of the relevance of international humanitarian law in dealing with displacement caused by violence, and the need for efficient humanitarian coordination.

Today's world has indeed become a global village. This is illustrated by three phenomena: the tendency for the traditional institutions of national sovereignty to lose their supremacy in favour of supranational, regional and local mechanisms; the growing interdependence between the centres of political, military and economic power; and the rapid expansion of transnational networks of influence, such as the media, religious circles and organized groups in society.

Consequently, global responsibility for humanitarian problems has never been such a pressing issue. It needs to develop along the lines of a shared solidarity that does not diminish the responsibility of States but encourages and strengthens it through the expectations and combined responses of other centres of power.

This need for decisive international mobilization arises from several challenges facing us today. The first is to guarantee that population groups are afforded effective protection against violations of their rights, in particular to prevent forced displacements. The second is to ensure that the burden of receiving asylum-seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons is shared, and that they enjoy safe and dignified living conditions both during their exile and after their return home. The last challenge is to find a lasting settlement for their situation.

In this regard, the principles of international refugee law, international humanitarian law and international human rights law all tend towards a common goal. They proclaim that no one can remain indifferent to the distress of his fellow human beings, and that international cooperation is essential in affording the necessary protection and assistance to the most vulnerable. The respect due to these ethical standards of solidarity represents a common heritage of humanity which we are all bound to preserve, for the sake of both moral duty and collective interest.

The foundations of these protection mechanisms should thus be regarded as those of an impregnable fortress. And yet, at the dawn of a new millennium, with all its promise of scientific and technological progress, these beacons of hope are alas being undermined by an erosion of values. As we all know, the growing trend towards asserting individual and collective identity at the expense of others may lead to a resurgence of the worst forms of intolerance.

We are witnessing conflicts whose very aim is to exterminate certain communities or ethnic groups, and in which the most atrocious crimes - including attacks on humanitarian workers - are committed as part of the war strategy. Surely this demonstrates that fanaticism is threatening to take us back to the time of homo homini lupus , an age of wars knowing neither law nor mercy. We can never allow ourselves to accept this state of affairs, not even out of fatigue or resignation, but must resis t and work together to repel such forces.

The responsibility of the international community does not stop at attending to the vital needs created by these crises by providing the humanitarian organizations with the funding they need to carry out their mandates. On the contrary, States also have a duty in terms of preventing and resolving conflicts, and must firmly repress the violations committed in these situations. Their duty is not confined to respecting the law - pacta sunt servanda. They must also show the political will to ensure it is respected, as required of them by Article 1 common to the four Geneva Conventions.

Preventive action must be taken so as to avoid situations that can lead to violations of the fundamental rights of individuals, and, where it has failed, to limit the scale and seriousness of such violations. Law enforcement measures must be taken to repress war crimes and other such offences using all available national and international mechanisms, including the International Criminal Court whose Statute has just been adopted in Rome.

As for measures aimed at settling conflicts and dealing with their underlying causes, these must be implemented by the existing mechanisms that international bodies have at their disposal for maintaining peace and security.

Among recent cases in point are those of Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where human tragedy on a vast scale could have been avoided - or better dealt with - had the above-mentioned measures of preventive action, international law enforcement and conflict resolution been implemented in a timely and courageous manner, with a clear line being drawn between initiatives of a political and military nature on the one hand and humanitarian action on the other.

The norms and principles of international humanitarian law, of which the ICRC is the traditiona l guardian,   should, if respected, make it possible to prevent a large proportion of the population movements generally caused by armed conflicts and similar situations of violence.

If there were no indiscriminate attacks on civilians, no policies of taking them as targets or hostages, no forced displacement or " ethnic cleansing " , no deliberate starvation and no misappropriation of humanitarian aid, such conflicts - however violent - would largely spare non-combatants and avoid their being driven almost systematically onto the cruel road to internal or external exile.

Promoting and respecting humanitarian law is thus of paramount importance in preventing forced displacements: its provisions also apply, let us not forget, to refugees, internally displaced persons and returnees, as civilians threatened by hostilities.

The issue of internally displaced persons is of particular relevance.   As a matter of fact, the ICRC has been working for a long time on behalf of this category of individuals as " victims of war " , striving to ensure that they benefit from the existing rules of protection that apply to all those who are not, or no longer, taking part in the hostilities.

As for non international conflicts, it is worth recalling here that Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions has been ratified by 188 States; moreover, Protocol II additional to the Conventions, which expands and clarifies the rules contained in common Article 3, is now binding on 142 States. This instrument clearly prohibits arbitrary displacements and proclaims the right of those affected by such practices to receive impartial assistance.

We do welcome the outcome of the work carried out by the Representative of the Secretary General on IDP's, Mr. Deng, and in pa rticular the " Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement " which were presented earlier this year to the Commission on Human Rights. We have collaborated in this effort by sharing our operational experience and our expertise on humanitarian law, whose norms have been duly taken into account.

Although they are principles, and not law, these guidelines throw valuable light on the way existing rules must be interpreted and put into practice, with particular emphasis on the primary responsibility of States. We shall not fail to circulate this document among our delegations and in our main theatres of operations.

I would like to stress once again the ICRC's special duty to work for the implementation of international humanitarian law, and hence its intention to continue to develop its independent action in order to reach all victims suffering the effects of armed conflicts and violence, including the internally displaced. Furthermore, the ICRC fully intends to assume the special responsibilities it bears by virtue of its independent status and its recognized role as a neutral and impartial intermediary, which allows it to deal and work with all parties.

The question of humanitarian coordination is also of vital importance if we are to maximize the effects and the efficiency of the work done to meet the needs created by so many emergency situations. In fulfilling its " global responsibility " , the international community must succeed in organizing its tasks harmoniously and in allocating its resources rationally. The humanitarian organizations for their part have to maintain strict control over their expenditure and use appropriate mechanisms to evaluate the impact of their programmes . All duplication of effort and " aid gaps " must be eliminated, and the different facets of our work have to be adequately coordinated in both time and space.

This means not only that the immediate needs of the victims must be properly assessed and covered, but also that the strategies which will enable them to regain their autonomy be prepared as from the emergency phase. This is the course to which we are clearly committed. It will help ensure continuity between emergency aid, rehabilitation, post-conflict reconstruction and development. 

As regards inter-agency coordination mechanisms, we feel that these must focus on the quest for complementarity and added value, taking into account the specific responsibilities of each organization. The ICRC participates in the various fora set up both within and outside the United Nations, in a spirit of constructive consultation and in the clear understanding that its independence - which is essential for fulfilling its mandate - will not be compromised.

I should also like to make brief mention of the coordination between UNHCR and the ICRC. The structured dialogue we have maintained for several years now has become more systematic, centring around our annual meetings which are attended by all the senior management, the thematic and operational meetings held as necessary and, of course, our day-to-day consultations in the field.

When it comes to operations, we feel that the frank discussions we hold on a bilateral basis or with our partners generally enable us to find satisfactory solutions, for example when there is a risk of overlapping. Kosovo, Colombia and Sri Lanka are just a few cases that illustrate how we are working towards a clearer division of responsibilities in order to achieve maximum complementarity and effectiveness in the use of resources, taking due account of our respective missions and areas of competence.

As this century draws to a close, globalization is gaining ground in all spheres of activity, and humanitarian action is no exception. Today's unsolved problems carry the seeds of future crises which will strike, directly and severely, countries that are at present spared the evils of war, disasters and under-development. This international solidarity, this burden-sharing that you are about to discuss, are thus supremely topical issues.

The key instruments of the three systems for protecting the individual which were codified after the Second World War will very soon be celebrating their first half-century of existence: the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Let us think together, therefore, about how to breathe new life into these mechanisms, and especially into the universal values underlying them. For surely they are an affirmation of the triumph of civilization over barbarity, and of humanity and solidarity over selfishness and indifference.

This indispensable globalization of solidarity should be brought about by means of a sort of " acquisition of holdings " , with shares being held by all players within the framework of a new contract for humanity. Together, we can make a difference: the adoption in Ottawa of the treaty banning anti-personnel mines, whose fortieth ratification took place only a few days ago, has proved it.

For our international Movement, the next International Conference, which will be held in this very place in November 1999 with representatives of the governments of the States party to the Geneva Conventions, should provide an opportunity to project the spirit of these treaties into the future, in order to convince the world of their validity and their value for everyone, at all times. More than ever before, as proclaimed by Dostoyevski, " each one of us is responsible to all others for everything " . This motto is engraved only a few steps away from here, at the entrance to the International Red Cross and Red Crescen t Museum. I invite you to subscribe fully to this solemn commitment.

 Ref.: EXSO 98.10.05-ENG