The Humanitarian Times

August 12, 1999

 

-TODAY MARKS 50th ANNIVERSARY OF GENEVA CONVENTIONS which established International Humanitarian Law (IHL) to protect civilians & prisoners of war in times of conflict. The Conventions & protocols remain a central organizing idea for related initiatives, such as the landmine ban, the Superfluous Injury & Unnecessary Suffering Initiative (SIRUS), & emerging efforts to address the changing form of conflict as mercenaries, small arms, & weapons of mass destruction proliferate. According to the Geneva Conventions: "Attacks must be made solely against military targets. Parties to a conflict must distinguish between civilians & combatants, & civilians may not be attacked. Weapons & methods of warfare likely to cause unnecessary losses or excessive suffering, or severe or long-term damage to the environment may not be used."

- UN ACCEDES TO GENEVA CONVENTIONS AFTER 50 YEAR WAIT today as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan issues instructions "Observance by UN Forces of Intl Humanitarian Law" which binds UN peacekeepers to provisions of IHL, for example prohibiting ''locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas.''

- DAGESTAN REBELS SEIZED VILLAGES, PROCLAIM INDEPENDENCE FROM RUSSIA during the past week. Russian air & ground forces battle rebel forces in SW mountains, near Georgia. Several thousand civilians are displaced, out of a population of 2 m, comprised of 33 ethnic groups. Newly appointed Russian Prime Minister V Putin, told the Duma that the rebellion would be quelled within 2 weeks. A few miles away in Chechnya in Dec. 1996 six ICRC expatriate health officers were murdered.

- SEVERE FOOD SHORTAGE IN RUSSIA PROJECTED FOR 2nd YEAR IN ROW this year, as drought has reduced grain crops, a spring frost killed sugar beet & sunflowering crops, & now a growing plague of locusts has spread into Russia from neighboring Kazakhstan where locusts cover up to 22 million acres.

- COLOMBIA CONFLICT ATTRACTS INCREASING INTL MILITARY AID as new US anti-narcotics aid to Colombia's govt will exceed $250m, & another $500m is proposed for next year. Coca cultivation has almost doubled & poppy (heroin) production quadrupled in the last 4 years in Colombia.

- ICRC TRACKS MISSING PERSONS & DETAINEES IN BALKANS -- KOSOVO; connecting family members & passing messages. Last week ICRC Pres Sommaruga emphasized the plight of 10,0000s who remain without news of relatives disappeared during conflict: "stability means not just the absence of fighting or the creation of jobs, but is linked intimately with peace of mind and heart."

- ICRC VISITS DETAINEES & MONITORS BORDER STATES IN BURMA under recent agreement with Burma's military dictatorship.

- NICARAGUA'S CERRO NEGRO VOLCANO SPEWS LAVA & ASH, displacing 1,400 locals last week & threatening larger populations.

- LAKE NYOS, W CAMEROON, LAKE STILL HOLDS LETHAL CARBON DIOXIDE (up to 300m cubic meters, from volcanic bed) & threatens locals, concludes a scientific study submitted this week to the govt of Cameroon. 1,800 locals died in 1986 when an earth tremor released the gas.

- TORNADO BLASTS DOWNTOWN SALT LAKE CITY FOR 4 MINUTES YESTERDAY

- INDEPENDENT MONITORING OF ASIAN SWEATSHOP CONDITIONS AGREED TO by 4 major clothing manufacturers, including J Crew & Nordstroms, as part of out-of-court settlement of class action lawsuit; other key manufacturers, including Tommy Hilfiger, Wal-Mart & the Gap have not agreed to settle.

- US DEPT. JUSTICE TERMINATES ASYLUM FOR 10,000 LIBERIAN REFUGEES in a determination that ends the "temporary protected status" this Sept. 28 due to the current peace in Liberia.

 

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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH ICRC HEAD

 

This week ICRC Pres. Cornelio Sommaruga gave the following interview with The Humanitarian Times:

 

- Q: What have the Geneva Conventions achieved in recent decades?

CS: "It is very difficult to assess the successes of the Geneva Conventions or of International Humanitarian Law since its failures are easily highlighted & publicized. It is an unfortunate fact that the successes of the Geneva Conventions are by definition invisible since no major event can back them up. The ICRC believes however that each time one of its delegates has access to a detainee somewhere in the world it is because the Geneva Conventions opened the way; and the ICRC assists and hopefully protects over 200,000 detainees each year. One can argue the same for family reunions & for all forms of medical & food assistance given again to hundreds of thousands of people each year. Finally, there is less & less distinction made by States from the perspective of International Humanitarian Law on the distinction between internal & international conflict."

- Q: What additional treaties or conventions does ICRC view as needed?

CS: "Your question is a complex one because it suggests many different things. But essentially, the ICRC does not think that there is any need, today, for any revision to the Geneva Conventions & its Additional Protocols I & II of 1977. Indeed these treaties, ratified respectively by 188, 154 and 147 States contain the necessary humanitarian provisions to cover all conflict situations. There is not a violation committed today that is not specifically banned in the Geneva Conventions and the Protocols; there is no geographical or political montage that escapes their scope. The main problem lies in implementation. In this respect it is most regrettable that the United States of America stands out as the most glaring absence on the list of States having endorsed the two Additional Protocols (the USA is however signatory to the Geneva Conventions), we believe this is an absence that must be resolved as a matter of haste."

- Q: How is ICRC changing as an institution?

CS: "I do not think that the identity of the ICRC, if you mean by that the institution's attachment to its fundamental principles of neutrality, impartiality, humanity & universality has changed. We do not think that the interest of the victims of today's & tomorrow's conflicts would be served by any departure from those principles. Instead, we have tried, over the past years, to find ways to better implement those principles in the field. This means taking into consideration the cultural differences, or should I say wealth, found on our planet & realizing that these cultural differences are in fact vital communication tools which we must absorb in order to continue our work. The key to the ICRC activities & successes, remains persuasion through dialogue. In that sense I believe we have become a richer, culturally speaking, organization."

"After (murders of ICRC staff in) Burundi and Novy Atagi (Chechnya), the ICRC had to review its security procedures and increase measures to safeguard the institution & its staff against any recurrence of such tragedies. But I want to make it perfectly clear that the ICRC was not rash in its decision to continue work in both those areas, it did not consciously decide to play a risky game with the lives of its delegates; the ICRC like the rest of the world was tragically confronted with a set of crimes devised by still unknown assailants though they knew they were striking a blow against humanity."

"The ICRC welcomes the creation of the International Criminal Court, though imperfect perhaps, as a step in the right direction, which is: no impunity for those responsible for war crimes, genocide & crimes against humanity, no matter how "big" or how "small" they are. More important though, the ICRC believes it is up to each State, each army, each authority, each fighter & for that matter each individual to do what is necessary to prevent & if needed, to alleviate, the suffering of others. It is in this sense that the ICRC, together with the City of Geneva & the Swiss Confederation, was proud to have presented to the world the Solemn Appeal of the 12th of August 1999, on the day of the fiftieth Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions: an attempt to rekindle and expand the humanitarian spirit that, in 1949 & before that in 1864, led to what is today the most comprehensive & universal treaty against acts of barbarism."

 

- In honor of the 50th Anniversary, the new ICRC "People on War" project shares victims' own experiences: www.onwar.org. ICRC, which is a treaty-based international organization, exists outside the UN system.

ICRC is the most active agency delivering aid & protection in the worst warzones, often well before the UN is able to come in. ICRC was the largest organization, by far, delivering famine aid all across Somalia during 1992, in the immediate aftermath of genocide in June 1994 in Rwanda, & more recently this past Spring in Kosovo.

 

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ORGANIZATION & PERSONNEL CHANGES

 

- AMERICAN RED CROSS SEES GROWTH & CHANGE as intl relief & dev. assistance has quadrupled to a current portfolio of roughly $170m plus food programs for 1m persons. The new Am. Red Cross President, Dr. Bernadine Healy, dean Ohio State Univ's Medical School., previously headed the National Inst. of Health, served as White House science advisor, & was dep. dir. of the Office of Science & Techn.

Policy. The new VP for intl programs Al Panico also starts this month.

Panico returns to the American Red Cross after leading Red Cross delegations in Africa for much of the 1990s.

- UN SELECTS CARLA DEL PONTE, SWISS, AS CHIEF PROSECUTOR OF WAR CRIMES this week, for 4 year term, replacing Canadian Louise Arbour who now joins Canada's Supreme Court.

-BRADY ANDERSON WAS CONFIRMED AS NEW ADMINISTRATOR OF US AID on July 28 by the US Senate, replacing J Brian Atwood who administered the US Agency for Intl. Development & coordinated intl disaster response for the US for the past 6 years. Anderson, who previously served as US Ambassador to Tanzania, also had worked as assistant Attorney General in Arkansas under Clinton. J Brian Atwood strongly criticized US Congress in his farewell speeches, disapproving of its annual cutbacks in foreign aid funding. Rick Barton, the head of USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives (for post conflict & preventive action), leaves USAID this week to become the Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, working with Madame Ogata in Geneva.

 

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RECENT BOOKS

 

- "WORLD DISASTERS REPORT 1999" BY THE INTL FED OF RED CROSS & Red Crescent Societies (1999 Geneva: IFRC) predicts that coastal flooding will get worse in the years to come, continental inland areas will grow drier & emerging diseases will spread. "As environmentally- triggered disasters become more frequent/destructive & strike countries previously unaffected, many local agencies will need to learn how to access & interact with the intl humanitarian system." The report makes a strong case that flooding is the most damaging of natural disasters & is increasing, with Hurricane Mitch detailed as one example: it was unusual "both for the storm's ferocity and because Mitch wrought its damage through exceptional rains rather than wind. It has already forced a major rethink about hurricanes from meteorologists." Reviewing 2 earthquakes which struck N. Afghanistan in 1998, the report argues they exposed failures in the regional disaster preparedness capacities of humanitarian groups. A chapter traces the history of the SPHERE minimum standards that promote accountability in aid delivery.

- For weekly disaster news from IFRC by email: weeklynewsatifrc.org.

- "CRIMES OF WAR: WHAT THE PUBLIC SHOULD KNOW" by Roy Gutman, David Rief & Ken Anderson (1999 NY: WW Norton) is a unique encyclopedia of explanations of aspects of complex emergencies, each authored by an experienced journalist, including pieces on forced labor, cluster bombs, blockades, incendiary weapons, carpet bombing, sexual violence, paramilitaries, mass graves, prisoner of war camps, & slavery. Sections also explain Cambodia, Rwanda, the Arab-Israeli War, Kuwaiti Oil Fields, & cultural sites. On "Grey Areas in IHL" it writes about cases of "internationalized internal conflict" where intl forces are involved in a predominantly internal civil conflict, and where it is unclear when international or internal armed conflict rules apply.

An ongoing project will amplify this book's work, updating the website: www.crimesofwar.org the purpose of which is to raise awareness of the Geneva Conventions and the Rule of law warfare. (ses also paper 1 / voir aussi article 1) (see also paper 2 / voir aussi article 2)

- "JUDGING WAR CRIMINALS, THE POLITICS OF INTL JUSTICE" by Yves Beigbeder (1999 London: MacMillan Press) gives a balanced, up-to-date & realistic analysis of progress, precedents, & ongoing challenges in exposing & redressing crimes against humanity, including genocide. A very readable book, it explains both the Nuremburg & Tokyo trials & also provides a comprehensive & useful overview of recent truth & reconciliation commissions, intl peoples' tribunals, & recent criminal tribunals for Rwanda & Former Yugoslavia. Despite such great efforts, the author also finds continuing crises: "in the world non-system of voluntary intl cooperation, the intl community appear helpless or unwilling to intervene in order to prevent or stop massacres."

- "PROTECTION IN PRACTICE: FIELD-LEVEL STRATEGIES FOR PROTECTING Civilians From Deliberate Harm" is new monograph from London's Overseas Dev. Inst., by Diane Paul (1999, Relief & Rehabilitation Network) that brilliantly presents & compares recent & historical experience in monitoring, presence, documentation, community watches and other realistic measures to find creative ways to protect vulnerable groups in complex emergencies.

- DEBATE ON HUMANITARIAN POLICY, ACTION & LAW APPEARS in newly re-formatted "The International Review of the Red Cross", a quarterly journal published since 1869 by the ICRC. It now is meant for a larger audience. Contact: review.gvaaticrc.org