• Send page
  • Print page

Partners in Prevention: Regional EU Conference on Conflict Prevention - Helsingborg, Sweden, 29-30 August 2002

30-08-2002 Statement

Statement by Jacques Forster, vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross




 Panel I - Common values  


It is a privilege for me to address the topic of conflict prevention in the context of a Regional EU Conference, at the invitation of the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Sweden. Indeed the Swedish Government has constantly demonstrated a very strong commitment to integrate conflict prevention in the foreign policy of the EU. This commitment was particularly remarkable d uring the Swedish Presidency of the EU, which led to the adoption of the Göteborg EU Programme for the Prevention of Violent Conflicts.

The fundamental values of the EU as formulated in the Göteborg Programme adopted in June 2001 " The international community has a political and moral responsibility to act to avoid human suffering and the destruction of resources caused by violent conflicts. The European Union is a successful example of conflict prevention, based on democratic values and respect for human rights, justice and solidarity, economic prosperity and sustainable development " , are very much in harmony with those of international humanitarian law which aim at preventing and - if that has failed - alleviating human suffering in situations of armed conflicts. This reflects the fact that Europe has played a major role in the genesis and development of IHL. It is also very consistent with the core purpose of the EU, as conflict prevention was indeed both at the origin and the driving force of the construction of Europe and today of its enlargement - a project designed to promote reconciliation, stability and peace.

Although these values have gained formal recognition in international relations almost sixty years ago, as witnessed by the UN Charter, their role has significantly increased in the past ten to fifteen years. The main elements that account for this evolution are: the availability of information on situations in which populations suffer; the global consequences of local or regional conflicts and tensions (through for example the displacement of populations) and the forceful promotion of these values by influent international actors (some governments, international and non-governmental organisations). These common values represent the ethical basis of globalization and is thus an important component of global governance.

At the international level, the will to have these values respected can however be influenced by other more traditional considerations such as State sovereignty or national interests. In concrete situations therefore, the balance of interests between the need to ensure respect for fundamental common values and other considerations will dictate the outcome. However, when governments commit large-scale violations of human or minority rights on their own territory, they might find it increasingly difficult to counter international reprobation merely by invoking the principle of State sovereignty. In this respect we can only hope that historical tragedies such as the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda not only force us to be aware of past errors, but that they also make it impossible for us to remain inactive should such tragic events occur again.

The fact that the common values referred to in the Göteborg Programme have gained universal acceptance, does not unfortunately preclude conflicting values being invoked to justify the use of violence. This was tragically demonstrated last year by the September 11 terrorist attacks which have shocked the world's conscience and dealt a blow to fundamental values of human society. No cause can justify the deliberate use of violence against civilians and the perpetrators of such crimes must be brought to justice.

It is precisely in circumstances when armed force are used that the common basic universal values embodied in international humanitarian law (IHL) must be upheld, whatever the circumstances, whatever the justification for resorting to the use of armed force. There are no " just " or " unjust " wars in terms of international humanitarian law: human beings, because they are human beings, are entitled to the protection of the law. The life and dignity of civilians must be respected and protected in any circumstances; detained persons must be treated in accordance with the provisions of the law whatever the villainy of their crimes.

For all those concerned by the prevention of conflicts, the major challenge today is to ensure respect for fundamental common values. Yet, understanding and accepting them is necessary but not sufficient. What is required is to develop a sense of ownership of these values, i.e a feeling of responsibility for their respect. Accountability, which constitutes an important component of " good governance " , is thus a key element in this process including accountability to the people affected by conflict who have the right to be protected by the international community when national authorities are either unable or unwilling to do so. The development of a culture of accountability avoiding double standards is a key element to put into practice the responsibility to prevent which lies at the heart of the EU Programme for the Prevention of Violent Conflicts.

With regard to the prevention of armed conflicts, ICRC's main role is to urge States to adopt the necessary measures and, when appropriate, to supply them with information and analyses to help them assume their responsibilities in a more pertinent way. Owing to the constraints imposed by the principle of neutrality, the ICRC cannot play a role in political negotiations aimed at averting an imminent armed conflict, but it can on occasion make a significant contribution through preventive humanitarian diplomacy, its good offices and creative use of its role as a neutral intermediary. Teaching IHL can also make a contribution - however modest - to conflict prevention. Indeed, although this body of law applies to conflict situations, it conveys a powerful message on the value of human dignity which can   encourage individuals and groups not to resort   to violence to settle disputes.

At times of tension within a country, the contacts maintained by the ICRC with all concerned pa rties   also seek   to promote a culture of dialogue and facilitate contacts between them. Furthermore, ICRC visits to persons detained in relation with the tense situation can also be conducive to easing tension.

When peace initiatives fail and conflict breaks out, the preventive effort does not cease entirely but is transformed into a drive to promote respect for international humanitarian law. Its development, dissemination and implementation all form an integral part of protection of the individual. By spreading knowledge of humanitarian law and monitoring its application, it is possible to avert or at least limit abuses and prevent their recurrence. Preventing violations of its rules protects people, their well-being and their dignity.

Ensuring the respect of basic humanitarian values during a conflict can also have a positive impact on reconciliation and on the way peace is built. It may facilitate the resumption of dialogue between the parties, the conduct of the necessary negotiations and eventually, the restoration of peace. The prompt release and repatriation of prisoners of war at the end of active hostilities can, for example reduce tensions . Dealing decisively with the issue of the missing is also critical to the reconciliation process, as is fighting impunity. Promoting reconciliation requires rapid action to address humanitarian needs, to rehabilitate infrastructures and basic services, in other words to facilitate return to normal life. Respect for IHL as well as rapid and determined action at the end of a conflict can thus also prevent the resurgence of conflicts.

This brief presentation of ICRC's role in conflict prevention clearly was meant to indicate how closely the European Union as well as other main actors ( OSCE, Council of Europe, UN) can work together wit h the ICRC, notably to promote common values embodied in IHL, in the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The world-wide network of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies can contribute to make this co-operation more effective. This co-operation corresponds moreover to important objectives of the Plan of action adopted in 1999 by the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent calling upon the Components of the Movement to co-operate with States to promote IHL and to take new initiatives " to reduce discrimination and violence in the community " . It goes without saying that the ICRC is very eager to increase its co-operation and build an effective partnership with the EU as mentioned in the Göteborg Programme.

We, the panellists, were requested to be concrete and action oriented within the framework of already agreed principles and modalities for co-operation. Allow me therefore to launch an idea based on the shared commitment of the Member States of the EU, as parties to the Geneva Conventions, to promote and make known the norms of IHL in peace time as well as in times of war. The armed and security forces are of course the main traditional target audience for training in IHL. We feel however that it is of the utmost importance to ensure that young people understand the need to respect human life and dignity at all times and to provide them with the basic knowledge of IHL necessary to apprehend current events from a humanitarian point of view.

To achieve this objective, we have developed an educational programme for young people called " Exploring Humanitarian Law " which could be introduced in schools of the Member States. The implementation of this idea could provide a relevant and timely answer to disquieting manifestations of intolerance and violence which also affect young people. It could also strengthen the links between the European institutions and the younger segments of the civil society in an endeavour of great significance not only for Europe, but for other regions as well. Should this idea capture your interest, the ICRC would of course be very interested to pursue the dialogue with relevant authorities to develop the concept.

In conclusion, I should merely once again stress how important it is for the ICRC to build on the solid basis of the values we share to work together concretely to prevent human suffering in situations of tensions and in conflict prone areas.