World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

Durban, South Africa
August 31-September 7, 2001

Non-Discrimination and Armed Conflict

Mr. (or Madam) Chairperson,

Thank you for giving me the floor.

Allow me to say at the outset how pleased and honored I am to address the Third World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross and to also extend my appreciation to the Government and people of South Africa for hosting it. My statement will focus on non-discrimination and international humanitarian law and outline ICRC's interest and involvement in preparations for the World Conference.

As is well-known, ICRC's action is rooted in international humanitarian law. As guardian of that body of law, the ICRC endeavors to ensure that it is respected by all parties invol-ved in armed conflict, whether they be 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 im-plementation of humanitarian law and making sure that its delegates have access to per-sons in need.

Based on our humanitarian work worldwide we, too, are aware that racism, racial dis-crimination, xenophobia and related intolerance are not just problems that individual na-tions and the international community need to address in peacetime, but just as impor-tantly, in situations of armed conflict. As a number of recent and ongoing conflicts around the world clearly show, the inequality or exclusion of peoples, groups and indi-viduals is one of the root causes of conflict and, very often, one of its consequences.

Bearing in mind its mandate - which is to assist and protect victims of armed conflict - the ICRC believes that the issue of non-discrimination in armed conflict situations should be given adequate consideration in the discussions at this Conference. In order to facilitate drafting work on the documents that the Conference is expected to adopt, we have submitted concrete proposals that I propose to outline in the time at my dispo-sal.

The principle of non-discrimination underlies all of international humanitarian law, the primary aims of which are to protect the victims of armed conflict and to limit the means and methods of warfare. Historically, it was the need to provide aid to wounded and sick combatants on a non-discriminatory basis that motivated Henry Dunant, the founder of the ICRC, to spearhead efforts to draft the first international humanitarian law treaty, the Geneva Convention of 1864. While that Convention provided that there should be no discrimination among combatants based on their nationality, the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocols of 1977 greatly expanded the categories of persons who are protected, and made the enumeration of the prohibited grounds of discrimination non-exhaustive.

Contemporary humanitarian law prohibits discrimination in many specific rules binding on parties to both international and non-international armed conflicts. Thus, article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions applicable in non-international armed conflict - which is the prevalent type of armed conflict today - provides that persons taking no ac-tive part in hostilities and those placed hors de combat must in all circumstances be treated humanely, "without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth or any similar criteria". Common article 3, which reflects cus-tomary international law and has been recognized as an "elementary consideration of humanity", is further elaborated in Additonal Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions.

Many rules governing international armed conflicts also prohibit discrimination. It should be noted, for example, that "practices of apartheid and other inhuman and de-grading practices involving outrages upon personal dignity, based on racial discrimina-tion" constitute a grave breach of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. The principle of non-discrimination is thus a basic tenet not only of international human rights law, but also of international humanitarian law, obliging parties to an armed conflict to treat victims without distinctions of any kind save those based on the urgency and specificity of their needs. To this end, international humanitarian law contains nu-merous provisions aimed at the special protection of women and children who may be affected by an armed conflict.

Based on what has just been said, the ICRC believes that the proceedings and docu-ments of the World Conference should reflect the importance of non-discrimination as a basic tenet of international humanitarian law. We recommend that the Conference call on states that have not done so to adhere, without reservations, to the Geneva Conven-tions and their two Additional Protocols, as well as to other instruments of international humanitarian law.

As guardian of international humanitarian law, the ICRC has a particular interest in seeing that its rules are respected and that respect for them is ensured in all circumstan-ces. Respect means that states have a duty to take a number of legal and practical mea-sures aimed at ensuring full compliance with their treaty obligations, including those prohibiting discrimination. Among the former is the obligation to adopt legislation im-plementing the treaties of international humanitarian law domestically. Among the latter is states' duty to disseminate the rules of international humanitarian law among members of the armed forces and the civilian population, in peacetime and in situations of armed conflict.

Respect for humanitarian law can be achieved not only through preventive measures, but also through efforts to prosecute and punish those responsible for violations. The ICRC believes that appropriate attention in our discussions and in the Conference documents should therefore be paid to the issue of combating impunity for grave breaches and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. We recommend that the World Conference call on states to enact national legislation prohibiting and punishing war crimes and enabling the application of the principle of universal jurisdiction in their prosecution, as provided for by international humanitarian law. The Conference should also urge states to ratify international instruments of relevance to combating impunity for war cimes committed in international and non-international armed conflict, such as the 1998 Rome treaty establishing a permanent International Criminal Court.

Mr. (or Madam) Chairperson,

Allow me to end my address by noting that non-discrimination is a key element of im-partiality, which is one of the fundamental principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. According to its Statutes, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement - of which ICRC is a component -"makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of dis-tress". This means that all individuals are recognized as equal and must be treated as such, and that the needs of victims are the only relevant criterion for providing them with assistance and protection.

In addition, according to the fundamental principle of neutrality, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement "may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in contro-versies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature". The ICRC's activities are strictly based on these fundamental principles and will continue to be guided by them in its work going forward.

Thank you for your attention.