United Nations, General Assembly, 53rd session, Plenary, item 164 of the agenda
Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
New York, 9 October 1998
As you know, the mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is to prevent and relieve the suffering caused by war. Sadly, Africa is the main arena for its activities today. The ICRC has 19 operational and regional delegations and some 3,000 staff on the continent, and its work in Africa accounts for almost half of its operational budget. We therefore felt closely concerned by the Secretary-General's report on the " Causes of conflict and the promotion of durable peace and sustainable development in Africa " , which reflects a number of our own preoccupations. We had the privilege of taking the floor before the Security Council during the open debate that took place last spring, and now we consider it important to make a brief contribution in this plenary meeting of the General Assembly, before the entire community of States.
Since the publication of the report, we cannot but deplore the human suffering engendered by the new eruption of conflicts - in Guinea-Bissau, between Eritrea and Ethiopia, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, quite recently, in Lesotho - adding to the already heavy toll caused by existing conflicts.
Working for conflict victims is the ICRC's raison d'être . Today more than ever, this work would be inconceivable without the permanent dialogue it maintains not only with the United Nations but also with the Organization of African Unity, which has also granted it observer status. This close cooperation, especially in the framework of the Commission on Refugees, Displaced Persons and Returnees, is indispensable for gaining a better understanding of the contexts in which we have to operate, and that understanding is further enhanced by a valuable network of contacts required to increase our efficiency.
We shall limit our remarks to two main areas: reaffirmation of the relevance of international humanitarian law, and the need for truly humanitarian action in aid of conflict victims, that is, action that prepares the ground for reconstruction and creates 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 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. Furthermore, it should be remembered that the non-governmental actors appearing on the scene in increasing numbers are also duty bound to observe minimum humanitarian standards.
The ICRC can therefore 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 authori ties have little or no influence.
Africa is rich in tradition imbued with profound 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 young, the vital force which makes up three-quarters of the continent's 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 States Members of the United Nations have undertaken not only to respect but also to ensure respect for the humanitarian treaties. This is a universal collective obligation vis-à-vis all conflict victims. It concerns each and every one of us.
The African countries have embarked on a process of legislative reform, with the technical assistance of the ICRC's Advisory Service, so as to incorporate in their national legislation the measures necessary to implement international humanitarian law, and in particular to ensure that anyone who violates that law is prosecuted. It is unfortunately a well-known fact that most of the time war criminals manage to avoid being brought to justice. In this regard, the creation by the Security Council of the ad hoc Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda was a first step forward in the repression of war crimes. The adoption in Rome of the Statute of the International Criminal Court has given further grounds for hope, especially because it covers violations committed during non-international armed conflicts and includes war crimes such as the recruitment in armed conflicts of children under the age of 15, rape and sexual slavery .
There are other reasons for hoping that the numbers of conflict victims will decline in the years to come. Of the 45 States party to the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel landmines, 12 are African and we have no doubt that others will follow their lead in the near future. Subsequently, all concerned will have to join forces in taking practical measures to eliminate these weapons. In his report, the Secretary-General raises the issue of the proliferation of light weapons, which certainly account for many of the innumerable violations of humanitarian law today. The proposal put forward by Mali to declare a moratorium on the manufacture, export and import of light weapons in West Africa is a pioneering initiative in this respect.
The Secretary-General has stressed the need 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. Indeed, the ICRC has noted with increasing concern the tendency shown by certain States in recent years to resort to humanitarian action instead of taking political or even military action whenever it is justified within the framework of the relevant international instruments. The events in Central Africa bear witness to this trend.
However, nothing can replace the political will to tackle the underlying causes of conflict and the human suffering it brings in its wake, using the whole range of legitimate means available, including measures to restore law and order. 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 the resident, refugee and displaced populations of the Great Lakes region provides a prime illustration 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 remain at the core of its concerns and its operations.
When the international community imposes sanctions, for instance, these can, as the Secretary-General points out, affect victims who are not their target, and the ICRC has always spoken in favour of exemptions on humanitarian grounds. In this connection we are pleased to note that more sensitive indicators capable of assessing and even anticipating the impact of sanctions on the population are being developed.
The above comments do not mean 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 adverse effects because it has - unintentionally - served the purposes of war. In this regard the ICRC shares the Secretary-General's concern about emergency situations which attract a multitude of aid agencies with divergent objectives and working methods. In such circumstances it is essential that these agencies harmonize their action and avoid duplication of effort. Moreover, this is vital for the safety of all concerned.
The report highlights the need to integrate and establish links between the notions of assistance, rehabilitation, recons truction and development and between the activities relating each of these phases. 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 assistance, by involving them as closely as possible 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 repair water-supply 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 conditions; indeed, several of them have lost their lives in the course of their duties on the African continent.
Providing people with aid without taking steps to protect them 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 same time preserving their human 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 exercise of civil, political, economic, social and cultur al rights.
Thank you, Mr President.
Ref.: LG 1998-074-ENG