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28th International Conference wrap up

by Didier Revol

Some 1,722 delegates gathered in Geneva from 2 to 6 December 2003 and adopted an agenda for humanitarian action. If the commitments are kept, better respect for human dignity should ensue.

''It couldn't have been worse" was how one ambassador summed up the political environment in the run-up to the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The attacks of 11 September 2001, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had exposed or deepened the cracks in the international community, a situation which did not bode well for the Movement's big event. Some people raised the spectre of the cancellation of the 25th International Conference, which was to take place in Budapest in 1991. None of it happened: a mood of consensus reigned throughout in the hall and corridors of the conference centre.

The number of participants and the representation of several states at the highest level was an indication of the heightened interest in international humanitarian law (IHL) and in the humanitarian work to respond to contemporary situations of armed conflicts, disasters and diseases. "This was the first International Conference of the 21st century, and it came at a time when the world is facing major challenges to peace and security and widespread threats to health. Never before have we had such outstanding attendance," declared the Conference president, Jaime Fernández. At no point did the delegates show any sign of division, adopting all the resolutions by consensus. This includes the Agenda for Humanitarian Action, which focuses on enhancing protection of people affected by armed conflict and reducing the impact of disasters and disease on vulnerable groups.

ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger and Juan Manuel Suarez del Toro, International Federation president, discussing between sessions.
©Christopher Black / International Federation


Legal protection for all

One of the priorities of the 28th Conference was to reaffirm the relevance of IHL in modern-day conflicts and particularly in the context of the "war against terrorism" once it amounts to an armed conflict. The Conference unanimously condemned acts of terrorism. It recalled the relevant protections that IHL grants to persons deprived of their liberty — be they civilians or combatants. It stressed that no one should be considered or treated as beyond the reach of the law and thus being placed in a legal vacuum. It emphasised that the dignity of every human being can best be promoted and safeguarded through a complementary application of, in particular, international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law, as appropriate. Several ways of ensuring better respect for IHL were brought to the fore, such as recourse to the International Fact-Finding Commission — a body created by Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions but unknown to too many states — the strengthening of the ICRC's protective function and the mobilization of civil society.

According to the heads of the ICRC and the International Federation, the 28th International Conference made it possible to consolidate, and even to advance in a significant way, the major issues under discussion: missing persons and assistance to their families; the human costs of the availability, use and misuse of weapons in armed conflicts; reduction of the risk and impact of natural disasters and improvement of disaster preparedness and response; and reduction of the risk and impact of HIV/AIDS with regard to vulnerable people.

In respect of the two first items, the ICRC was generally satisfied with the texts adopted. As Yves-Jean Duméril, advisor in the ICRC Division for Policy and Cooperation within the Movement, points out, "These results are largely the fruit of protracted prior consultations and negotiations. Several international or diplomatic meetings took place before the Conference, which helped to lay the groundwork." For example, the delegates confirmed the validity of all the recommendations of the International Conference on the Missing held in February 2003. This should lead to the implementation of operational measures to better prevent people from going missing, clarify the fate of those who are missing and support to their families.

Geneva International Conference Centre, plenary session of the 28th International Conference.
©Thierry Gassmann / ICRC

The arms issue also got a favourable reception, partly thanks to the adoption the previous week of a protocol to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons on explosive remnants of war. In the agenda, states are strongly encouraged to ratify the protocol and to continue their efforts to eradicate anti-personnel mines. In addition, the ICRC's Initiative on Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity — that was previously endorsed and supported by the Council of Delegates — was carried forward with the drafting of specific objectives. Although not very restrictive, these objectives have the advantage of making states take responsibility to ensure that biotechnology is not diverted for hostile purposes. "In general, we made marked progress on the arms issue," says Robin Coupland, of the mines and arms unit at the ICRC. "Ten years ago, states said that the ICRC did not have the mandate to study the effects of weapons on populations. But by focusing on the public health aspects, we have avoided controversy both at this Conference and in other negotiating forums."

Vulnerable people centre stage

Recognition of policies of disaster risk reduction is another success story of the Conference. Only a few years ago, governments and donors showed little interest in this field. Now it seems obvious that adopting simple measures reduces the scale of disasters, as well as the terrible consequences that populations endure. According to the agenda, states should, among other measures, ensure more effective management of natural resources, put in place early warning systems, enforce building codes, develop public education programmes and monitor the effects of climate change. "Disasters are clearly a development problem," says Eva von Oelreich, head of the disaster preparedness and response unit at the International Federation, "for their greater frequency plunges the most vulnerable people into a state of permanent poverty. Too often we forget that the victims are quite capable of coping by themselves and that by reducing vulnerability we help them to overcome the effects of disasters. I am pleased to note the growing interest of the majority of National Societies and states in the issue of risk reduction."

The fight against AIDS and discrimination against people infected with the disease was also high on the agenda. Bernard Gardiner, head of the AIDS unit at the International Federation, believes that, despite some concessions, the actions proposed in the agenda are very comprehensive and that people living with HIV/AIDS could now have a voice. "Those who live on the fringes of our societies — migrants and intravenous drug users — are the most vulnerable and are ostracized. Our goal is to make states understand that such living conditions favour the spread of the virus. I think that the message got through because we confined the discussion to the field of public health." The Agenda also insists on the need for broad cooperation in the fight against AIDS, including in armed conflicts. "The objective of the World Health Organization's '3 by 5' initiative to treat 3 million people by 2005 will only be achieved on this condition," continues Gardiner. "We must make sure that it is not only the elites who benefit from this campaign. Our partners recognize that the Movement's volunteers are the best placed to assist the most vulnerable people."

The 28th International Conference ended on a high note. The participants signed about 370 pledges, most of which were in support of the objectives of the Declaration and the Agenda for Humanitarian Action. The collective signature of 60 pledges by states and National Societies was evidence of a will to unite everyone's efforts in achieving better respect for human dignity. Through their headquarters and delegations, the ICRC and International Federation intend to assist National Societies and states in putting the objectives of the Declaration, the Agenda for Humanitarian Action and the pledges into practice. It is now up to the components of the Movement to demonstrate their unity and solidarity.


Didier Revol
Didier Revol is an independent writer based in Geneva.

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