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Accountability in the 21st century
by Jean-François Berger


A hundred years after Henry Dunant was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, how can we develop humanitarian law and action so as to respond more effectively to the suffering caused by the conflicts that beset our increasingly fragile and overpopulated planet?

While the events of 11 September and their aftermath continue to rock the world order, some important questions are clamouring for a response. What are the new faces of war? How can we better protect the victims of conflict? And, in present and future crises, which of the various actors involved - political, military, economic, media-related or humanitarian - are willing to be accountable for what?

These issues were high on the agenda of the Conference on Humanitarian Action and Law held on 27 and 28 November 2001 at the National Assembly in Paris. This unusual gathering on the theme of our increasing interdependence was organized jointly by the ICRC and the French Red Cross, with the support of Médecins sans Frontières, Médecins du Monde, Handicap International, Action contre la Faim and Première Urgence.

The National Assembly and the French ministers of foreign affairs and defence also contributed to this unique event. More than 40 participants enlivened the debates. Red Cross, Red Crescent presents some of the highlights:

Raymond Forni
President of the French National Assembly

"It is the responsibility of democratically elected parliamentary assemblies to ensure respect for that to which they owe their legitimacy: the inalienable rights of the human person, be it on our own doorsteps when, sadly, poverty and exclusion strike some of our fellow citizens, or farther afield, on the front lines of conflict, when innocent people become the victims of wars they did not want. It is the rightful role of humanitarian organizations to call upon us, elected representatives or citizens, to take action and to stand firm against such unbearable and unacceptable suffering. (...) The law is often our only weapon, but it is an effective one. (...) The new world disorder into which humanity has been plunged since 11 September requires closer dialogue and consultation between parliaments, governments and humanitarian organizations."

Raymond Forni

Jakob Kellenberger

Jakob Kellenberger
President of the ICRC

"It seems to me more useful and more exacting to assume a limited responsibility than to declare oneself responsible for everything without actually changing very much. (...) The attacks of 11 September in the United States and their consequences (...) raise the question of accountability. (...) In broader terms, who is accountable for what in ensuring that such attacks do not recur? This can have far-reaching implications, ranging from accountability in the area of security to education and accountability for ending the perpetual cycle of poverty in which hundreds of millions of people are trapped... Closer to home, who is accountable for what in ensuring that international humanitarian law is respected within the framework of the response to the 11 September attacks? The parties to the conlict must respect these rules. Added to this is the obligation of the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions that are not party to the conflict to 'ensure respect' for the Conventions in all circumstances."

Marc Gentilini
President of the French Red Cross

"The Red Cross message has never been more pertinent. (...) Non-discrimination, tolerance and respect for cultural diversity are values that we must proclaim ever more loudly in the face of barbarity and war in all its guises, so that we can better assume our responsibility of assisting all the victims. (...) In times of war and disaster, it is up to the political and military authorities to create the security conditions enabling humanitarian actors to reach the victims and to provide them with logistical support."

Marc Gentilini

Amadou Toumani Touré

Amadou Toumani Touré
United Nations (UN) Special Representative for Africa, former president of Mali

"Humanitarian action must not operate to the detriment of prevention and the search for political solutions to conflicts. Humanitarian assistance has to be distributed fairly, or it risks fanning tensions between different ethnic groups. Increasingly, it must incorporate a development perspective. (...) Humani-tarian agencies also need to adopt a more cohesive approach through mutually agreed codes of conduct. This will avoid having too many crocodiles in the same swamp!"

Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier
Lawyer for Médecins sans Frontières

"I think it is very important, when talking about accountability, to know whom we mean and what type of responsibility each actor is capable of assuming. Shared accountability presupposes that we must sometimes resist taking collective responsibility of the kind that manifests itself in coalitions and coordination, a current major trend in humanitarian action. We must recognize the contradictory nature of this tendency to 'globalize' humanitarian action and, in the interests of efficacy, define specific - yet interlinked - responsibilities."

Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier

Alain Pellet


Alain Pellet
Professor of Law at Paris X-Nanterre, member of the UN's International Law Commission

"Accountability is the very essence of the law, this law which is always one step behind a crisis... The turmoil we have witnessed in recent years has shown that a lapse of accountability in international law can have severe repercussions. Indeed, in the most serious cases, states and the international community can henceforth seize the bull by the horns and demand an end to such lapses, as they did, for example, in Kosovo. By bringing the perpetrators of the most serious crimes to justice, the International Criminal Court is also making it known that the battle against impunity is making headway."

Jacques de Naurois
Director, institutional relations, Total Fina Elf (a multinational oil company)

"Businesses are entering into a dialogue with humanitarian organizations. Some of them are incorporating the concept of development into their missions. (...) In regions where insecurity prevails, we are trying to work on the basis of a code of conduct establishing ethical criteria."

Jacques de Naurois

Hubert Védrine

Hubert Védrine
French Minister of Foreign Affairs

"We live in a hard world, and it is not getting any easier. The major upheavals we are experiencing preceded 11 September: nation states are losing their monopoly over international relations as the media and civil society grow in importance. This is the reality which determines the accountability of the actors.

"Today, the international game is played out in 189 countries, the UN, international organizations, a host of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the big corporations. Governments view accountability in terms of intervention. Intervention is provided for in Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, subject to the agreement of the permanent members of the Security Council. (...) We have made progress in that we can now no longer really oppose taking international action when intolerable suffering is taking place. However, we must not throw the sovereignty of states out of the window, for that would open the door to the warlords. We must stick to legitimate intervention governed by self-imposed criteria established by the Security Council. (...)
"NGOs need to be more transparent and multinationals need to integrate ethical principles into their practices."

Text edited by Jean-François Berger.
Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent.



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