The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is grateful to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) for inviting it to take part in its proceedings on a regular basis and, in this instance, to submit this written contribution to the Istanbul Summit.
Everyone's attention is focused on a number of symbolic dates as we are about to enter a new century and a new millennium. For the ICRC, 1999 has been marked by two major events. First, the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 for the protection of war victims, which was celebrated with particular solemnity on 12 August last; and second, the 27thInternational Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which recently took place in Geneva and to which were invited the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, their Federation, the ICRC and the States party to the Geneva Conventions -- among them all the OSCE participating States.
It is not the ICRC's intention here to enter into the details of its relations with the OSCE, a topic on which it has had numerous occasions to express its point of view in recent years -- at sessions of the Ministerial Council and the Permanent Council, as well as at implementation meetings on human dimension issues. The ICRC welcomes the development and gradual strengthening of its relations with the OSCE, both in the field and in various fora, in particular those dealing with human dimension questions. These contacts between our two organizations are based on an understanding of our respective mandates and working methods, and are conducted in a spirit of complementarity.
Rather, the ICRC deems it more pressing to inform the OSCE o f the main points of the appraisal it prepared for the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent regarding the situation of international humanitarian law on the threshold of the third millennium, together with a number of comments on humanitarian action. This appraisal includes a review of developments in recent years, in particular since the OSCE's Lisbon Summit in 1996, followed by an outline of the prospects for and the measures required to ensure the faithful application of this body of law, of which the ICRC is the custodian.
The adoption of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 was a remarkable step forward in humanitarian terms, especially in view of the approval of a new Convention protecting civilians in time of war. It was also a political achievement of the highest order, for in a world that appeared more divided than ever, States, in confirming the significance of the red cross or red crescent emblem and the importance of humanitarian action, succeeded in adopting new regulations for the protection of war victims.
While the 1949 Geneva Conventions saved millions of lives, the division of the world into two antagonistic blocs all too often hindered respect for humanitarian law during the tragic conflicts spawned by the Cold War. Matters were no easier in those days; the obstacles were different, but they were no less real than those that are facing us today.
The Cold War ended ten years ago with the pulling-down of the Berlin Wall, but this did not bring the universal peace that the world's peoples had been hoping for. While political settlements were found for several major conflicts in Central America, South-East Asia and southern Africa, other conflicts have persisted as endogenous factors took over from the former ideological confrontation. But above all, the ending of the Cold War unleashed tension and hatred which have culminated in exceptionally violent conflicts, especial ly in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Although the world has overcome its former divisions and is bound tightly together in an increasingly dense network of exchanges, we are seeing a rise in demands based on the assertion of identity of one kind or another, leading all too often to intolerance, to exclusion, to war -- and sometimes to the ultimate form of intolerance: genocide.
The international community and humanitarian agencies are more and more often confronted with situations marked by a proliferation of players involved in violence, the complete collapse of State structures and the ever-closer intertwining of political and criminal activity.
Although the needs of the victims are perhaps greater than they have ever been before, the work of humanitarian organizations is frequently paralysed by lack of security. In recent years the ICRC, like other institutions, has paid a very high price for its determination to come to the aid of victims of conflict in spite of today's increasingly chaotic environment. Tribute should be paid to its delegates, its locally recruited staff and the first-aid workers from National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies who lost their lives in the course of their humanitarian duties. The ICRC also wishes to express its solidarity with all the other humanitarian agencies that have been the victims of aggression.
Kidnappings, assaults, murders -- sadly, such tragic events reflect a growing disdain for international humanitarian law, for the red cross or red crescent emblem and for the human being. Indeed, day after day the ICRC is faced with serious and repeated violations of humanitarian law.
Rather than enumerating all the situations in which the ICRC is currently at work, suffice it to say that its delegates are present in over fifty countries racked by war, civil war or other forms of violence, in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Europe (including close to 10 OSCE participating States). These figures alone give an idea of the number of conflicts raging in the world today and of the scale of the needs of the wounded, of prisoners and of civilian victims of hostilities.
The features common to all these conflicts give rise to five issues of particular concern:
- The plight of the civilian population: civilians are all too often deliberately picked out as targets; they are deliberately attacked, either to force them to flee or to eliminate them. The recent events in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (but also in Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor) are fresh in all our memories. Such a trend undermines the foundations of humanitarian law and even the very foundations of human coexistence in the cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The international community has reacted with varying degrees of success, often confusing political considerations with humanitarian concerns.
- Anti-personnel mines: the ICRC must continue to speak out against these weapons that strike without discrimination, that maim their victims for life, and that continue to cause casualties long after hostilities have ended. The adoption of the Ottawa Convention was a victory, but the treaty still has to be universally ratified -- to date no more than 89States are bound by it (including 29 OSCE participating States) -- and its provisions still have to be respected.
- The trade in light weapons, which cause unspeakable suffering and destabilize countries into which weapons flow without any control: exporting States and firms share responsibility with the combatants for the use made of such arms. The ICRC is gratified to note the OSCE's interest in this matter and welcomed the opportunity of informing it of its study on the issue.
- Children caught up in the turmoil of war: child soldiers include all those children who are sometimes forcibly enrolled and often sent on the most perilous missions as they cannot measure the danger involved. Many are killed or mutilated; all are deprived of their childhood. It is also necessary to denounce the assaults made on children -- the murders, the rapes and the violence that no argument can possibly justify. The ICRC further welcomes the interest that the OSCE has shown in the problem in recent weeks, and stands ready to take part in any effort aimed at achieving progress in this area.
- The plight of women: the ICRC has solemnly undertaken to devote particular attention to women who are victims of armed conflict, in all its activities -- in its dissemination programmes, its protection work and its relief programmes.
There does not seem to be much prospect of a new international order emerging in the near future; it appears more likely that the current period of transition and instability will continue, giving rise to new conflicts and causing even more victims than in the past, if only because of demographic growth and the increased vulnerability of population groups (as a result of urban development, the deterioration of the natural environment and above all the proliferation of weapons of all kinds). Internal conflicts are likely to be far more numerous than conflicts between States, with a much greater number of players involved in the violence, which in some cases may lead to the complete collapse of State structures.
Whatever the outlook, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, refusing to give way to pessimism or resignation, submitted to the 27th International Conference a plan of action designed in particular to strengthen the protection of war victims by ensuring greater respect for humanitarian law. The Conference -- and hence the States present -- ado pted by acclamation this plan based on the conviction that it is necessary to try and prevent violence from breaking out, rather than to react to a mounting tide of wanton violence.
The measures proposed require universal recognition of the humanitarian law treaties, the incorporation of these treaties in the domestic legislation of States, the adoption of various mechanisms to ensure that those who must respect humanitarian law are well informed of its provisions, and finally, efforts to prevent and repress violations of the law. Several particularly important points deserve mention here:
- The ICRC has set up an Advisory Service on international humanitarian law to provide States with expert advice on implementation of this body of law. In several paragraphs of the Code of Conduct on Politico-Military Aspects of Security, the OSCE participating States undertake to spread knowledge of the law and to ensure that its provisions are implemented.
- Supplementing the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, which stipulate that all States Parties must prosecute any grave breach defined by those Conventions (or hand the suspect over to another State for trial), the international community recently acquired means of repressing, at the international level, crimes committed in times of armed conflict, by establishing the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda and by adopting the Statute of the International Criminal Court, which represents a decisive step forward in this field.
- By adhering to the Geneva Conventions, States have committed themselves not only to respecting these Conventions but also to ensuring compliance with their provisions under all circumstances. Hence all members of the international community have undertaken to see to it that these treaties are universally respected and to employ all the means at their dispos al to achieve that goal -- diplomatic pressure, pressure within the framework of international organizations, and economic pressure, insofar as exceptions are made in favour of the most vulnerable population groups. Does this obligation go so far as to authorize the use of force? International humanitarian law does not provide for this, but nor does it rule it out. This is an issue that needs to be resolved in the light of the provisions of the United Nations Charter.
As the consultation of over 20,000 victims of war carried out by the ICRC over recent months has shown, every one of those victims is aware of the need for rules that limit violence in war, even if ideas differ as to the content of these rules.
What victims and humanitarian organizations expect from governments is not so much that governments should substitute for humanitarian agencies by setting up their own relief operations, but that they should see to it that the rules to which they have subscribed are respected. It is up to States to ensure that there is universal compliance with the treaties to which they are party, and it is by doing this that they can make a decisive contribution to the protection of the victims of war.
The 27th International Conference sent a clear message to the world that there was a need to restore respect for humanitarian law. It further stressed that human beings and respect for human dignity had to be placed back at the heart of political thinking and decision-making.
Ref. LG 1999-182-ENG