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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the International Conference for the Protection of War Victims, Geneva, 31 August 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the International Conference for the Protection of War Victims, Geneva, 31 August 1993

31 August 1993

Mr. Chairman, President Sommaruga, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I warmly welcome the convening of this Conference by the Swiss Federal Council and congratulate the International Committee of the Red Cross for its action-oriented report. I would also like to extend my sincere condolences to the ICRC for the recent tragic deaths of three of its officials. These incidents serve, yet again, to underline the urgency of the problem confronting us today.

Since its inception in 1951, the endeavours of my Office have had, as their ominous background, the human convulsions caused by war: first, the liberation struggles from colonial domination, then the international and internal conflicts based on the ideological rifts of the Cold War, and, more recently, a mushrooming of ruthless ultra-nationalistic wars. During the past three decades, war has been the main cause of forced population displacements with which UNHCR has had to contend. More recently, war has also become the environment within which UNHCR has had to provide protection and assistance to refugees and displaced persons.

Mr. Chairman, both the International Committee of the Red Cross and my own Office - the United Nations High Commissioner - have unique mandates to protect individuals. ICRC protects victims of conflicts. UNHCR protects refugees and, increasingly, internally displaced persons who are fleeing war, violence and persecution. Both organisations are faced today with the shockingly frequent and blatant disregard of the most elementary humanitarian principles, many of which are codified.

Internal conflicts, whether in Bosnia and Herzegovina, central Asia, the Caucasus, Somalia or other parts of Africa, display daily images of lawlessness and inhumanity. Civilians are denied access to food, water and medical help. Children are deliberate targets of snipers. Horrendous acts of rape, killings and massive expulsions of minorities - the reprehensible practice of "ethnic cleansing" - continue. We have passed the threshold of what is tolerable in modern warfare, especially as regards the treatment of civilian populations.

Before we attempt to further develop international humanitarian law, we must demand the scrupulous respect of existing principles and instruments. The Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols contain provisions which, if heeded, would go a long way towards reducing human suffering and the uprooting of civilian populations.

Mr. Chairman, respect for international humanitarian law and related legal instruments must be complemented with the strict observance of other basic humanitarian rules. I am referring to such essential principles as unimpeded access to and international humanitarian presence among the affected populations, the non-linkage and non-conditionality of humanitarian protection and assistance, the respect of emblems and, last but by no means least, the security of all staff engaged in humanitarian activities as well as of goods under their custody. Until recently, these principles had, with very few exceptions, been upheld by parties to conflicts on the five continents on which my Office has been called upon to act. In recent times, however, disrespect for these basic operational principles, has become shamelessly frequent. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance, the flouting of these principles is the rule rather than the exception. My colleagues and I find it increasingly hard to accept that humanitarian concern today requires the protection of armour, bullet-proof vests and helmets. Even with these precautions, humanitarian staff continue to loose their lives in deliberate, I repeat, deliberate attacks. This is a sad illustration of the appalling state of affairs which this Conference must urgently address.

Let me solemnly state here that UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations cannot be expected indefinitely to operate in an environment that is not only hostile but blatantly vicious.

What this viciousness amounts to, Mr. Chairman, is the politicization of humanitarianism. On the one hand, humanitarian endeavours must not contribute to delaying, or indeed replacing, political negotiation. On the other, they must not be used as an instrument for the pursuit of political or military goals. Yet, humanitarian institutions are increasingly being manipulated and blackmailed, the aid they provide is being abused by parties to conflicts, for the furtherance of their non-humanitarian objectives.

It is essential that the independent, non-political and impartial nature of humanitarian action be forcefully reaffirmed, preserved, perceived as such and respected by all. We, on our part, have redoubled our efforts to adhere strictly to the fundamental neutral and non-political principles that have governed our policies and programmes, that have given my Office and other humanitarian institutions the credibility without which we can enjoy neither the support of governments, nor the confidence of parties to a dispute.

Respect of humanitarian principles also contributes to an environment in which a just and peaceful solution to the conflict can be pursued. For an organisation like UNHCR, which is mandated not only to protect refugees but also to find solutions to their problem, this is an important, indeed critical, consideration.

Mr. Chairman, allow me to repeat a truism: States have primary and collective responsibility for redressing this wholly unacceptable situation. Their responsibility does not diminish as a result of their non-involvement in, or their remoteness from, a conflict.

All belligerents are ipso facto bound by conventional as well as customary law of armed conflicts and other sources of behavioural norms which have acquired a binding force through universal recognition. This responsibility cannot be over-emphasized. It should also extend to non-State entities, as well as to States which have considerable influence, if not control, over them. No cause, however legitimate, can waive these requirements. No belligerent must be allowed to behave as if it were immune from the imperatives of humanity and exempt from national and international accountability. Aspirants to modern Statehood cannot expect international recognition while flouting the minimum norms on which the law of war is based. How can a people or its leadership seek admission to the community of civilized nations if its practices are nothing but a display of barbarity? The quest of national identity is not compatible with the exercise of unbound hatred and mass felony.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, as High Commissioner for Refugees, let me emphasise that it was as a result of the suffering of the two World Wars that certain cardinal legal and moral values emerged to protect the individual, including the right to seek and enjoy asylum. Those States that are tempted to curb this right should carefully consider the pervasive and unscrupulous nature of military conflict today. If there is legitimate concern over how to manage irregular migratory flows, other means must be found to address it. Norms that took centuries to mature and become codified must not be weakened. Let us all remember, particularly in the industrialised world, that war and its appalling human consequences are not so remote in our own histories. We had wanted, then, for the right of asylum to be more widely recognized and more generously granted to those fleeing from countries that today contemplate restricting that very right. At a time when Europe is once again the scene of conflict, the need for protecting refugees and other victims of war have never been greater.

This is why I welcome this Conference and its objective to strengthen the international commitment to protect the victims. For my part, I commit myself, my staff and the moral and material resources of my Office to promoting and supporting that end in line with my mandate.

In the sixth and final preliminary article of his essay on Perpetual Peace, Kant proclaimed that no State should, in the event of hostilities, employ methods which would, upon return to peace, make the restoration of mutual confidence impossible. The infamy of war, in other words, must not be such as to stain peace and cause irreparable damage to the reciprocal acknowledgement of the former enemy's humanity. This, I believe, is the core of the problem that we must urgently address.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.