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Statement by Mr. Søren Jessen-Petersen, Assistant United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the United Nations Diplomatic Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court, Rome, 16 June 1998

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Søren Jessen-Petersen, Assistant United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the United Nations Diplomatic Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court, Rome, 16 June 1998

16 June 1998

Mr. Chairman,

I should like to thank you on behalf of the High Commissioner for Refugees, Mrs. Sadako Ogata, for the opportunity to address this very important Conference.

In recent years, innocent civilians have increasingly become the primary targets in conflict situations. Defenceless men, women and children are subjected to senseless violence, ethnic cleansing and deliberate starvation by those waging war as a means to achieve their political and military objectives. Tragically, as we meet here, the horrific memories of Cambodia, Yugoslavia and Rwanda are being re-lived. Ten days ago in Guinea Conakry I met Samuel, one of the victims of atrocities carried out by the rebels in Sierra Leone. He told me how after hearing that the rebels had attacked a neighbouring village, he and other civilians fled Waimayna and hid in the bush. However, soon afterwards they were discovered by the rebels who first took a pregnant woman and two elderly men to one side and executed them with machetes. They then ordered Samuel to place his hand on a nearby tree stump. One of the soldiers then took three blows which almost severed Samuel's entire forearm. His limb was cut practically right through but the hand remained attached to the ligaments and skin. The rebels instructed Samuel to warn other civilians what to expect when they came across them. In agonising pain he then headed for the border with Guinea, where UNHCR staff picked him up.

An unknown number of civilians in Sierra Leone have suffered a similar or worse fate. What we are witnessing in that part of the world - just as we saw in former Yugoslavia and in the Great Lakes region before - highlights the critical importance and relevance of a permanent international criminal court.

Mr. Chairman,

UNHCR joins other humanitarian agencies through the IASC to express its support for the establishment of an international criminal court. In fulfilling a fundamental moral imperative - namely ensuring that justice is served - the court will also crucially complement the work carried out by the humanitarian actors. Let me explain.

Mass human rights violations are today a major cause of humanitarian crises, including large-scale displacement. In recent years, the focus of the international community has regrettably been almost exclusively on dealing with the consequences of such crises - by feeding the hungry, curing the wounded, sheltering the homeless. This remains essential, of course, but little has been done to try to tackle the underlying causes of these crises. A permanent international criminal court should, to some extent, redress this imbalance by helping prevent future atrocities and the humanitarian tragedies they create.

At the same time, the court should play a key role in promoting reconciliation in societies emerging from conflict and particularly those in which atrocities have been a prevalent feature. In such situations, UNHCR and its partners are playing a useful role by bringing back together again divided communities around rehabilitation projects. But these efforts alone cannot achieve reconciliation. For many victims, justice remains the most important prerequisite to forgiving and learning to live side by side again with old enemies.

Mr. Chairman,

I would now like to make five specific points in relation to the future role and jurisdiction of the international criminal court, which UNHCR considers to be particularly important:

First, we believe that the court will ensure a more effective implementation of the "exclusion clause" contained in the international refugee instruments whereby individuals who have committed crimes against peace, war crimes or crimes against humanity are excluded from international protection as refugees. It should do so by providing more authoritative guidance on the interpretation of the clause and by making sure that those "excluded" are brought to justice. Failure to achieve the latter in a timely way can have very serious consequences - as our experience in (ex-) Zaire shows;

Second, in the present context in which civil war is more prevalent than war between states, the court's statute must also cover war crimes committed during internal conflicts. Crimes carried out during civil war are just as heinous as those committed in international conflicts - and must not go unpunished;

Third, UNHCR would urge that the court include in its jurisdiction the following as war crimes: one, armed attacks against civilians, including in UN-declared "safe areas". In Bosnia Herzegovina we witnessed some of the most shocking examples of this; two, denial of humanitarian assistance as deliberately starving out vulnerable populations to weaken, demoralise or pressure the "other side" is particularly reprehensible; three, forceful displacement with the deliberate aim to achieve ethnic homogeneity in a given geographical area; and four, laying of anti-personnel mines. Such mines are often used to prevent those who have been forced out of their homes from going back - thereby consolidating "ethnic cleansing". Refugees who dare to return face the risk of being killed or maimed;

Fourth, attacks on humanitarian workers. This is a matter of the gravest concern to all humanitarian agencies - and not the least to UNHCR. Over the last six years, over 140 UN civilian staff have been killed in the course of duty, and a similar number taken hostage or imprisoned. Today, Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR Head of Office in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, is completing his 138th day in hostage detention. In a context where humanitarian staff are increasingly called upon to operate in the midst of conflict, everything must be done to protect them if they are to continue to fulfil their functions effectively. Including attacks against humanitarian workers in the jurisdiction of the international criminal court would represent a very important step in this direction;

Fifth, because of the nature of its work, UNHCR is too often the unfortunate witness to atrocities. We are committed to co-operating as much as possible with any future court in sharing information which may help to bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice, as we have done with the existing Tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. At the same time, we have a responsibility to protect our staff and safeguard our operations, on which many lives depend. For this reason; it is important that any court provide adequately for witness protection, non-disclosure, and inviolability of UN records.

Mr Chairman,

As the UN Secretary-General reminded us yesterday, the over-riding interest must be that of the victims. Earlier this month when I met Samuel and other victims of atrocities in Sierra Leone, I promised that I would take their story to Rome. Your action at this historic Conference is the first step towards stopping the cycle of violence against such innocent victims and on their long journey towards rebuilding their lives.

Thank you.