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Do wars ever end? The work of the International Committee of the Red Cross when the guns fall silent

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 February 2011


Lorsque dans le cadre d'un conflit arme les armes se taisent, suite à un accord de paix ou un cessez-le-feu, débute une délicate période de transition. La situation se détériore, Hen souvent, gravement pour les plus vulnérables, alors que d'autres, qui ne veulent plus être qualifiés de «victimes», luttent pour retrouver leur autonomie et défendre leurs droits. Les besoins des individus sont multiples: besoin de sécurité face aux menaces posées par les ex-combattants, la criminalité et les mines, besoin de protection contre les abus de pouvoir de l'autorité ou la vindicte d'une population hostile, besoins matériels en eau, nourriture, habitat et santé, besoin de vérité et de justice, de reconnaissance enfin.

Faire en sorte que des réponses soient apportées à ces besoins, si possible par ceux qui les éprouvent ou en collaboration avec eux, est le défi auquel le CICR est confronté. La politique dont l'institution vient de se doter pour la conduite de son activité humanitaire en période de transition est le fruit d'une r'flexion approfondie men'e à Genéve, mais aussi dans les Balkans, au Caucase, en Amérique centrale et en Afrique. Quelles sont les obligations des anciens belligèrants en vertu du droit humanitaire? Comment assurer un fondu-enchaîné entre urgence et développement? Où se situent les limites de la politique d'assistance d'une organisation humanitaire? Quelles sont les potentialités du partenariat avec l'État, la société civile et d'autres acteurs de la communauté internationale, dans le respect de l'identite de chacun? Telles sont quelques-unes des questions qui ont été au cœur de cette réflexion.

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Copyright © International Committee of the Red Cross 2003

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1 According to the World Bank, there is a very high risk that the fighting will flare anew in countries which have recently experienced a civil war. In the period immediately following the end of the hostilities, there is a 40% chance of the conflict resuming. Source: <>, in particular a press release entitled “Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and their implication for policy”, Washington, 15 June 2000, No. 2000/419. In the past, the term “peace treaty” was used to designate a political agreement aimed at reestablishing peaceful relations between the belligerents by settling the point of dispute that had prompted the hostilities. Since 1945, however, and in particular since the end of the Cold War, the term has often been used to designate agreements whose principal aim is to obtain a suspension of the hostilities but that do not resolve the dispute.

2 The author, who takes responsibility for the content of this article, has taken certain liberties in considering the ICRC's guidelines, which focus on assistance, from a broader perspective that includes all facets of the ICRC's work in periods of transition (doctrine adopted by the ICRC's supreme governing body, the Assembly, on 12 December 2002 – A 236rev. of 8 April 2003). Her thanks go to the many colleagues at the ICRC, both at headquarters and in the field (notably in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia-Montenegro / Kosovo, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Mexico and Guatemala), who provided input for her reflections on transition.

3 DAC Guidelines: Strategies for Sustainable Development; Paris, OECD, 2001, Box 1, p. 20.Google Scholar

4 The question of the relationship between emergency aid, rehabilitation and development work is discussed in numerous articles and books, such as: DAC Policy Statement: Conflict, Peace and Development Cooperation on the Threshold of the 21st Century, OECD, Paris; Pirotte, Claire, Husson, Bernard and Grünewald, François (eds). Responding to emergencies and fostering development – The dilemmas of humanitarian aid, Zed Books Ltd, London, 1999.Google Scholar

5 Internal source: private message quoted in GEN/CELL co/45 bis, 17 July 2000, pp. 21–22.

6 The notion of victim is accurately described in one chapter of Reconciliation After Violent Conflict, a Handbook, Handbook Series, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Stockholm, 2003, pp. 54–66 (preface by Desmond Tutu).

7 The ways in which women mobilize for peace and how armed conflict changes their role in society are described in Charlotte Lindsey's book, Women facing war, ICRC study on the impact of armed conflict on women, ICRC, Geneva, October 2001, pp. 27–32.

8 These people may be at the mercy of an authority they have opposed or that sees them as enemies or as a threat because of their nationality, ethnic group, religion, clan affiliation or other alliance; as a result they may be exposed to abuse of power or discrimination. Often, the same risks arise for their families and for the local humanitarian practitioners who come to their aid. They may also be people who are exposed to acts of vengeance perpetrated by the population and aimed at them or at the community to which they belong, and who do not benefit from the minimum protection they should be afforded by the forces of law and order.

9 The conditions in which countries emerge from conflict and the range of tasks that musk be performed in a reconstruction process vary from case to case, but the typology of needs before return to normalization is basically the same.

10 Security is analysed here in the narrow sense of the word and not from the point of view of human security, which is a broader concept encompassing protection against disease, hunger, environmental problems, human rights violations, etc. For an analysis of human security in periods of transition, see Leaning, Jennifer and Arie, Sam, “Human Security: A Framework for Assessment in Conflict and Transition”, Working Paper Series, Volume 11, Number 8, Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, Harvard School of Public Health, September 2001.Google Scholar

11 Arms availability and the situation of civilians in armed conflicts: a study by the ICRC, commissioned by the 26thInternational Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (Geneva, 1995)Google Scholar, Geneva, June 1999.

12 Landmines must be stopped: overview 1999, 2nd ed.ICRC, Geneva, November 1999.Google Scholar

13 Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross to the Preparatory Committee for the 2001 Review Conference of the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, 14 December 2000, First Preparatory Committee for the Second Review Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects), CCW/CONF.II/PC.1/WP.1, 11 December 2000.

14 The ICRC has published a book that serves as the basis for instruction in this respect: De Rover, Cees, To serve and to protect, Human rights and humanitarian law for police and security forces, ICRC, Geneva, 1998.Google Scholar

15 The legal considerations set forth in this section are largely based on the work of Anne Ryniker, Deputy Head of the Legal Division, whom we thank for her contribution to this article. Internal source A 1236rev. of 8 April 2003.

16 The protection afforded to people by the law is the topic of a book that highlights the development of ICRC practice, how changes in that practice shaped humanitarian law and the way in which the law serves as a foundation for humanitarian action: Bugnion, François, The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Protection of War Victims, Macmillan/ICRC, Oxford/Geneva, 2003.Google Scholar

17 After the end of the Second World War, about 5,000 visits were carried out to German and Japanese prisoners of war captured in the course of the conflict; at present, visits are being carried out to prisoners being held in respect of the longstanding conflict in the Western Sahara.

18 One particularly large-scale programme involved the repatriation of 247,000 soldiers demobilized in Ethiopia in 1991, when the government was overthrown.

19 Article 118, Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 12 August 1949 (Third Geneva Convention), and Article 133(1), Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 12 August 1949 (Fourth Geneva Convention). Furthermore, prisoners of war and civilian internees who are the object of criminal proceedings or have been sentenced to imprisonment may be detained until the proceedings have been completed or the sentenced served, as the case may be, but they continue to benefit from the protection of the Geneva Conventions and are entitled to visits from the ICRC.

20 Article 6(5) of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II).

21 These people must correspond to the descriptions given in footnote 8 above.

22 Some examples are: the Indochina Operational Group headed by the ICRC in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after the conclusion of the 1973 Paris Agreement; the massive distributions of relief supplies in Cambodia after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979; more recently, various programmes in the southern Caucasus, the Balkans and East Timor.

23 Smillie, Ian (ed.), Patronage or Partnership, Local Capacity Building in Humanitarian Crises, Humanitarianism and War Project, Kumarian Press, Bloomfield, 2001.Google Scholar

24 “Afghanistan: Micro-credit programme for the disabled”, News, No. 03/44, ICRC, 29 April 2003.

25 Martha Minow explores how human beings react to the atrocities they have suffered, witnessed or perpetrated in her book, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness – Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence, Boston, Beacon Press, 1998.Google Scholar

26 See Rule 73 of the Rules of Procedure and Evidence of the International Criminal Court; Decision of 27 July 1999 in Prosecutor v Simiç et al., Case No. IT-95–9, Trial Chamber of the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

27 This phenomenon is described by James Gilligan, M.D., on the basis of his experience as Director of Mental Health for the Massachusetts prison system, in his book Violence, reflections on a national epidemic, Vintage Books, A Division of Random House Inc., New York, 1997.Google Scholar

28 Article 5(2)(d) of the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, adopted by the 25th International Conference of the Red Cross in Geneva in 1986.

29 “Agreement on the organization of the international activities of the components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement of 26 November 1997, Council of Delegates, Seville, 25–27 November 1997”. International Review of the Red Cross, March 1998, No. 322, pp. 159–177 (hereinafter the Seville Agreement).

30 Seville Agreement, Article 5.1(A)(b) and (c).

31 On the role of the World Bank in such situations, see Post-Conflict Reconstruction, The role of the World Bank, The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Washington, 1998, p. 69, and a book that describes how the social fabric is affected by armed conflict: Colletta, Nat J. and Cullen, Michelle L., Violent Conflict and the Transformation of Social Capital, Lessons from Cambodia, Rwanda, Guatemala and Somalia, The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Washington, 2000.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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