Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



Following are Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s remarks at the ministerial working session hosted by the Government of Switzerland to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Geneva Conventions in New York, today, 26 September:

It is a great pleasure for me to participate in this very meaningful occasion celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the Geneva Conventions.

The adoption of the Geneva Conventions in 1949 was an attempt to defend our common humanity amid the inhumanity of war.  They are a powerful assertion of human dignity over the forces of violence and disintegration.  They enshrine in law the idea that even when barbarism seems all around, human rights must prevail.

Born out of the horrors of the Second World War, the Conventions are meant to protect the wounded, the sick, the shipwrecked at sea, prisoners of war and civilians in time of armed conflict.

We continue to face grave challenges in ensuring respect for this body of law.

Throughout the world, even as we speak, ordinary men, women and children are being killed, maimed, raped, starved, imprisoned and forced from their homes.  At times over the years, such acts have been committed on a massive scale, with chilling efficiency and intent.

Victims suffer, not because of gaps in the law, but because international humanitarian law is not respected or enforced.  We have seen law and order break down.  We have seen institutions undermined.  We have witnessed acts we pledged not to allow, taking place before our eyes.

We must do better.  This sixtieth anniversary is a time to consider what more we can do.

Madame [Micheline] Calmy-Rey, I thank the Swiss Government for hosting this timely and important meeting.

Mr. [Jakob] Kellenberger, I pay tribute to the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross.  We at the United Nations work closely and effectively with the brave and dedicated men and women of your movement.  Upholding the values of international humanitarian law lies at the heart of both our organizations’ global missions.

Primary responsibility for implementing international humanitarian law lies with the parties to conflict.  But all States have an important role to play.

The United Nations is an integral part of this picture.  By virtue of its legitimacy, universality and global presence, it is uniquely placed to assist Member States in ensuring respect for international humanitarian law, to intervene when violations occur, and to hold perpetrators accountable.

Many United Nations organs have made important contributions, including the International Court of Justice, the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

Just last week, the Assembly adopted, by consensus, its first resolution on the responsibility to protect – a major advance as the international community seeks to strengthen its efforts to protect the world’s peoples from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

The Security Council, for its part, has had a number of major successes, in particular in established international and other United Nations-assisted criminal tribunals that have broken new ground, both in defining the law and in enforcing it.  These ad hoc steps showed a new determination to act against impunity for serious violations.

Now, with the establishment of the International Criminal Court, we have a permanent capacity for justice.  Already, the activities of the Court and its Prosecutor have helped to end conflict and bring antagonists back to the negotiating table.

The presence of United Nations peacekeeping operations can itself serve as a deterrent.  The Council also increasingly gives such operations a mandate to protect civilians.  Such mandates are not limited to civilians in “imminent danger”.  Securing locations where civilians are at risk, creating conditions for humanitarian access and supporting the safe return of refugees and internally displaced persons also strengthen protection.

The international community needs to ensure that peacekeepers can actually fulfil such mandates by giving them the necessary authority and specialized military, police and civilian resources.

We must also focus more attention on compliance with international humanitarian law by non-State armed groups.  Unpalatable as it may be for some States, engagement with such groups is critical.  The United Nations must be able to talk to all warring parties, including armed groups.  Failure to do so is always likely to mean more, not fewer, civilians killed and wounded.  I urge Member States to accept this necessity.

We know from experience that regular engagement, monitoring and reporting creates a culture in which both States and non-State groups are increasingly being made aware of the need to respect international humanitarian law.

The United Nations and its peacekeeping operations are themselves bound by international humanitarian law.  I call on States contributing troops to United Nations operations to ensure that their personnel are trained in the relevant principles and rules.

The debate on how to “reconcile” peace and justice or how to “sequence” them has lasted more than a decade.  Today, we have achieved a conceptual breakthrough:  the debate is no longer between peace and justice but between peace and what kind of justice.

Voices that denied the need for justice seem to have disappeared.  There is now growing support for the idea that justice must be factored into post-conflict strategies in order for peace to be sustainable.

Alongside this and other advances, however, there remain serious challenges in pursuing accountability.  Some situations which, by any objective analysis, would have warranted some form of action by the Security Council, have faced serious obstacles or languished entirely.  This has eroded the Council’s credibility.

There is a need to address this problem, and to bring some consistency to the effort.

The work of my Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict suggests one direction in which we might move.  The Special Representative requires no special additional mandate to investigate and report on the plight of children in armed conflict.  The Office casts a wide net.

At the same time, the treatment of children in armed conflict is only part of our responsibility to protect civilians and to ensure respect for international humanitarian law generally.  Our umbrella must be wider still.  That requires an evolution in our approach.

There is a need for more systematic and consistent engagement by the Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.  And there is a need for more transparency in general, if we are to ensure accountability.  I look forward to your views on how we might achieve these goals.

There have been laws of war through the millennia.  The values and principles consolidated in the Geneva Conventions 60 years ago, and then amplified by the 1977 Protocols, were a major advance.  Now with almost universal ratification, the Conventions enjoy global acceptance — though not always the implementation we must see.

Our challenge, as ever, is to translate those principles into real-time protection.  Protection is vital.  But let us also do more to prevent such violations, and to re-build societies in which law and order are respected.

I look forward to continuing our work to uphold the laws and values that we hold so dear.

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For information media • not an official record