Protection of civilians in armed conflicts

Mr President,

Thank you for your invitation, which attests to the recognition of the role played by the ICRC in an area at the core of its concerns, the protection of civilians in times of armed conflict. It gives me particular pleasure to take the floor under your chairmanship, Minister Axworthy, knowing that you are a convincing defender of the concept of human security, a concept close to my heart.

The importance of taking the humanitarian dimension into account in maintaining international peace and security is now generally acknowledged. The open debate that took place in March, at the initiative of the Bangladesh presidency, is evidence of firm commitment to pursuing that course. That commitment should be translated into even more tangible measures.

Mr President,

The ICRC's action is rooted in international humanitarian law. As guardian of that body of law, the ICRC endeavours to ensure that it is respected by all parties involved in conflict, whether governments or non-State entities. Through its presence in more than 80 countries, the ICRC establishes a dialogue with all actors in conflicts with a view to creating a relationship of trust, thereby securing the practical implementation of humanitarian law and making sure that we have access to all victims in order to bring them protection and assistance.

The protection of civilians is at the centre of that law. I would, however, like to point out in passing that humanitarian law also protects combatants, in particular those placed hors de combat – prisoners of war, and sick or wounded me mbers of the armed forces.

For this protection to be effective, all States must ratify the humanitarian law instruments, such as the 1977 Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions. Furthermore, it is crucial that States adopt national implementation measures and give instruction in the law, especially to their armed forces. These various aspects of legal protection are vital, and we are glad to see that they are mentioned in the Secretary-General's report.

Despite all the horrors that we witness and are often powerless to remedy, and despite the obvious limits to what is known as legal protection, we are convinced that humanitarian law is as relevant as ever. This was one of the conclusions of a major survey, entitled " People on War " , carried out by the ICRC last year among the population of several countries, most of which had been affected by war. The survey strongly reaffirmed the importance of maintaining the distinction between civilians and combatants, the cardinal principle of humanitarian law.

In practice, however, that distinction is tending to become blurred. Indeed, civilians have become the primary victims and, often, the very object of war. Various reasons, mainly ethnic, religious, economic and social, are put forward to explain this phenomenon. Those causes are compounded by other factors, such as the emergence of paramilitary groups, whose members may have had no proper training and whose actions may be unpredictable. These fighters sometimes commit atrocities and become easy targets themselves. An equally worrying fact is that members of some regular armed forces, without resources because they have not received their pay, may resort to all sorts of excesses in order to survive.

Mr President,

The aim of humanitarian law is to protect the civilian population as a whole against attack, whether targeted or indiscriminat e, and against acts of violence and abuse of all kinds. Humanitarian law also provides specific protection for certain categories of victims, such as women, children, internally displaced persons, refugees and persons reported missing. The work of the ICRC, therefore, cannot be limited to certain categories; it encompasses all victims, while taking into account their particular vulnerability.

 Internally displaced persons  


Violations of humanitarian law perpetrated against civilians cause mass population movements. Millions of people are terrorized and forced to flee for their lives, or are driven from their homes and sometimes resettled against their will in camps or villages.

Today the ICRC affords protection and assistance – often the two cannot be separated – to some five million displaced persons. The problem is particularly acute in Africa.

In Angola the new upsurge in fighting has caused a mass exodus from rural areas into towns. The ICRC is providing aid in the form of food, medical assistance and agricultural rehabilitation for some 330,000 displaced persons and residents in the Huambo and Kuito areas.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the ICRC is supplying about 200,000 vulnerable people with food and other relief, not to mention the support given to the medical infrastructure, the ICRC's efforts to gain access to persons deprived of their freedom, and the distribution of safe water to hundreds of thousands of people.

In Colombia, where it has been working since 1969, the ICRC has set up, in cooperation with the Colombian Red Cross, an aid programme for displaced victims of the internal conflict. In 1999 the ICRC alone gave emergency assistance to some 170,000 displaced people.

To take one last example, in Afghanistan, where it has 70 expatriate staff and over 1,000 national employees, the ICRC is assisting thousands of displaced families and families who have returned to their places of origin, and 23,000 more in Kabul where the head of the family is widowed or disabled. In addition, over 150,000 people receive medical care thanks to the programme of support for hospitals. Altogether, the ICRC provides full or partial support for more than 30 surgical units and runs five limb-fitting centres.

These needs are so enormous that they could never be covered by a single organization. The ICRC, concerned to achieve maximum efficiency, takes part in the examination and formulation of strategies designed to strengthen consultation and cooperation with other humanitarian actors, in particular OCHA, the United Nations'specialized agencies and others, so as to ensure complementary action and avoid duplication of work. This cooperation and this coordination take place laterally and on the operational level in the field.

The ICRC endeavours to promote harmonization of the approaches of the various humanitarian agencies. Since 1996 it has held four workshops on the protection of victims of armed conflict to help enhance the effectiveness of humanitarian and human rights organizations. The main thrust of this initiative is to clarify the concept of " protection " as understood by humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law. In regard to displaced persons, the ICRC has drawn attention to the untoward consequences that can result from the simple transposition of long-term solutions appropriate for refugees onto persons displaced within their own countries. That being said, I remain convinced that cooperation and coordination between the different humanitarian actors can and must be improved. In this effort, you can count on the ICRC to act in the interest of the victims without compromising its independence, neutrality and impartiality.

These principles have no merit on their own. Observing them allows us to do our job in the field as efficiently as possible and, through our presence on the spot, to have an adequate early warning capacity.

 Women in war  


The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols afford women, as civilians, the same general protection as men. However, these instruments recognize the necessity of offering women specific protection because of their special needs. Despite these rules women continue to suffer and, all too often, to be the targets of violence in armed conflicts. The parties to conflict are under an obligation to ensure protection of and respect for women. It is high time that such protection became a reality. Improving the protection of women and girls in times of armed conflict is a priority for the ICRC.

Indeed, this resolve has taken shape in a project entitled " Women affected by armed conflicts " . The ICRC is currently drawing up guidelines for its operational activities relating to protection and assistance for women in such circumstances. This commitment takes the form of a four-year programme covering, among other things, the dissemination of the rules of humanitarian law protecting women, and the issue of sexual violence. The ICRC has also undertaken to make sure that all its activities take account of the needs of women and girls, on the basis of a study which is nearing completion. An intensive awareness-raising campaign is under way in the media. Before Beijing+5, a film produced jointly with the BBC, a radio programme and a new brochure on women in war will be prepared.

 Protection of children  

It is impossible to broach this matter without recalling Canada's special commitment to the issue, and the role played by the Canadian government and Red Cross Society during the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The plight of children in times of armed conflict has been a source of concern for the ICRC for many years. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols afford children general protection as members of the civilian population. There is also a large number of provisions affording them specific protection. All our field operations comprise activities aimed at protecting children and ensuring their health and safety. Examples of these activities are the identification and registration of unaccompanied children and follow-up of their cases, representations to secure the release of children held in detention, physical or psychosocial rehabilitation, and the restoration of family links.

1The ICRC cooperates and intends to continue to cooperate in an effective manner with other agencies in the field and with governments. The ICRC and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will carry on working to improve the situation of children in times of conflict, in accordance with the Plan of Action adopted at the 27th International Conference.

 Tracing the missing  

For families, one of the most tragic consequences of war is not knowing what has happened to loved ones. Apart from the mental suffering caused by this uncertainty, there can also be serious legal and economic implications. Tracing missing persons has always been at the centre of the ICRC's mandate, and in the aftermath of fighting it is one of its priorities.

One practical way of ascertaining the fate of persons reported missing is to negotiate access to places of detention with the autho rities concerned and to hand them lists drawn up on the basis of statements made by the missing persons'families. In this task the ICRC is often aided by the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which are invaluable partners both within the country concerned and abroad.

Humanitarian law bears witness to the importance that States attach to the issue of missing persons, but the relevant rules have yet to be properly applied in all conflict situations. The ICRC commends the efforts made by the international community in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Kosovo, and after the Gulf War, but urges it to heed the plight of families in other contexts which may attract less attention from the media. Indeed, the ICRC suggests that the issue of persons unaccounted for and its own role in that regard be systematically included in peace accords. The ICRC is convinced that the incorporation of humanitarian issues such as missing persons, prisoners of war, and detainees can strengthen post-conflict peace-consolidation efforts.

 Role of the Security Council  

Mr President,

When you invited me to speak before the Security Council today you asked me to outline the ICRC's views on the progress made in the Council since its debate on the protection of civilians was launched last year. I shall do so with the modesty advisable in general in life, for a greenhorn in particular.

First of all I would like to stress how much we appreciate the growing importance that the Security Council attaches to the protection of civilians in times of armed conflict. The mobilization of the international community on this issue inevitably hinges on the Security Council's awareness of its urgency.

The Secretary-General's excellent report and the numerous recommendations it contains also go to the heart of the matter and raise very pertinent questions.

Furthermore, it is most encouraging that the Council is disposed to establish a monitoring mechanism and that the major humanitarian agencies are associated with this initiative, which guarantees that the debate will not remain a virtual one. Security Council resolutions contribute to creating a culture conducive to the prevention of violations and the cessation of impunity for the culprits. We can but welcome this trend. However, such appeals will rapidly become empty words unless they are accompanied by practical and concrete measures intended to improve protection of the physical integrity of individuals.

Last September, in his report to the Security Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the Secretary-General drew a clear distinction between " Recommended measures to strengthen physical protection " and " Recommended measures to strengthen legal protection " . I find this distinction useful and necessary, for we are all too aware of the limitations of legal protection alone. Speaking for a humanitarian organization that is present and active on a permanent basis in practically all situations of armed conflict, I would like to add in all modesty that this active presence and the will to maintain dialogue and contact with all parties to the conflict constitute an essential factor for protection.

The Secretary-General's recommendation that the Security Council consider the imposition of appropriate enforcement action in the face of massive and ongoing abuse was made in the context of a debate which became acutely pertinent following the action of NATO forces in the Balkans. Here I would like to share with the members of the Council a concern of the ICRC which has to do with the weight of words. The term " humanitarian " has often been misused. We have heard talk of a " humanitarian war " or even " coercive humanitarian countermeasures " , to cite only a few of the expressions that create dangerous confusion as to the respective roles and responsibilities of political actors and humanitarian organizations.

The question here is not the validity of coercive action in extreme circumstances. Such action is often a last resort and necessary to protect the civilian population. Indeed, it may be essential in situations where there are large-scale and systematic violations of human rights and humanitarian law. The States party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions have undertaken not only to respect but also to   ensure respect   for the rules set out in those Conventions.

Coercive measures should be envisaged only in extreme cases. The Security Council has numerous other means at its disposal for enhancing the security of populations, ranging from preventive deployment to the dispatch of peace-keeping or peace-consolidation forces. The Council is to be commended for making provision, in the mandate of certain missions, for measures designed to protect civilians who are in immediate danger of physical violence. These innovative developments demonstrate the will to take concrete action.

In the ICRC's view, the important thing is to distinguish between political and military action aimed at addressing the causes of conflict from humanitarian action aimed at addressing its effects. The law governing the right to use force, or jus ad bellum , must therefore remain clearly distinct from humanitarian law automatically applicable in the event of military operations, or jus in bello . The legitimacy of the cause being defended can in no circumstances exempt a military operation from the obligations laid down in international humanitarian law .

We have noted, however, that peace-keeping operations are taking on an increasing number of humanitarian aspects. This trend entails certain dangers. In situations where peace is still fragile, United Nations troops may have to use force, which can create the impression that they are party to the conflict. This can cause them to be denied access to certain regions and thus to some of the victims. In general, the ICRC believes that coercive action – apart from affording protection for civilians – should create conditions that allow humanitarian agencies to operate, but without being associated with such action in any way. Being associated with coercive action would jeopardize the work of humanitarian organizations by undermining their credibility and their acceptance by the parties to the conflict. It is the confusion between different modes of action that is causing us concern and appears dangerous. To each his own: the use of force is the domain of the military, and relief activities the domain of humanitarian agencies.

I would not like to conclude without saying a few words about the sanctions which have been at the centre of the Council's debate this week. The ICRC has always been concerned about their humanitarian implications for the civilian population. It cannot but express its appreciation, therefore, for the decision to establish a working group on the matter, notably with a view to taking full account of the consequences in humanitarian terms.

Mr President,

It is essential to strengthen all aspects of complementary action if we are to bring about tangible improvement in the protection of civilians. In this regard I feel that firm resolve on the part of the Security Council to take bold political decisions and create the conditions necessary for the humanitarian organizations to preserve their indispensable independence will guarantee effective implementation of our   shared   objectives

Thank you, Mr President.

Ref. LG 2000-055-ENG