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58th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

05-10-2007 Statement

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, address by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Geneva, 1-5 October 2007

Mr Chairman,

On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak at this 58th Session of the UNHCR Executive Committee.

The ICRC and UNHCR have a long history of cooperation. We are firmly connected through our common aspiration, which is to help millions of people in need of protection and assistance. Enhancing operational coordination is a priority item at the regular meetings between senior staff from our two organizations.

Both UNHCR and the ICRC are engaged in promoting and developing legal frameworks, and in highlighting and enhancing respect for the bodies of international law relevant to our activities, including international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law.

Violation of these laws has severe consequences for civilians, and those consequences include forced displacement. When people become IDPs during a conflict, they do not leave their homes by choice – they are brutally uprooted and forced to flee from what are often severe threats.

IHL expressly prohibits all parties to an armed conflict from arbitrarily displacing the civilian population. Furthermore, the rules of international humanitarian law that are intended to spare civilians the effects of hostilities play an important role in preventing displacement. But only if everyone abides by them. These rules are binding on all parties to a conflict – both State and non-State. If arms bearers of every type were made to comply with them, far fewer people would be displaced, and civilians would be spared many of the other consequences of conflict.

Action to ensure compliance with the law must therefore be prioritized, as a matter of urgency. The ICRC, in its capacity as custodian of IHL and as a neutral and independent humanitarian organization, will continue to tirelessly remind all concerned of their responsibilities. But of course, such humanitarian action can only complement political or diplomatic action. It is no substitute.

Article 1 common to the four Geneva Conventions clearly stipulates that all States party to the Geneva Conventions have a responsibility to respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law in all circumstances.

Mr Chairman,

Clearly, IDPs are of primary concern to the ICRC, and ensuring their protection lies at the core of our mandate and our operational priorities. But this must be seen against the background of the ICRC’s efforts to help all victims of conflict and armed violence, and our reluctance to focus on one category of victim at the expense of others.

It is significant that IDPs are increasingly a focus of international humanitarian concern. Indeed, their plight is at the heart of the current reform of UN humanitarian work, a process that the ICRC welcomes. However, the current IDP-focused discourse could imply that those who have not been displaced are comparatively safe, whereas clearly it is not only IDPs who are affected by armed conflict.

There are many reasons for people not to flee an armed conflict, even when staying put may put their lives at risk. Some, such as children, the elderly, the handicapped or the wounded may be physically unable to leave, while others may be unable to move because of the hostilities. In other cases, arms bearers may deliberately prevent people from fleeing the conflict zone. Clearly,'non-displacement'does not equate with either safety or security. As a result, the assumption that IDPs are the categ ory of victim at greatest risk is not always correct.

Furthermore, a preferential concern for IDPs not only directs attention towards one segment of the conflict-affected population, it also encourages us to focus on the consequences of displacement. This diverts our attention from the causes , undermining the potential for preventing both displacement and the many other consequences of IHL violations.

Therefore, in addition to reminding the authorities of their obligations, the ICRC, in partnership with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, provides protection and assistance not only for IDPs but also for host communities and other residents, in accordance with its assessment of needs. Supporting hosts both strengthens their capacity to receive and support IDPs and prevents depletion of their resources. Were we not to support host communities, their resources could be run down to the point at which they too became displaced.

Certainly, we advocate a field-based, coordinated response to the needs of all victims of conflict and violence. But in the view of the ICRC, ensuring compliance with the law is the most direct way of alleviating suffering related to armed conflict. And that includes displacement.

Thank you Mr Chairman.