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Relevance of international humanitarian law

to non-state actors
30-10-2002 Statement
Bruges Colloquium, 25 and 26 October 2002. Opening address by Professor Anne Petitpierre,
Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross

It gives me great pleasure to open, together with Professor Demaret, this third annual
Colloquium on international humanitarian law organized jointly by the College of Europe and
the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

I cannot launch this event, however, without paying tribute to Professor Akkermans, who died
suddenly on 17 June last. Rector Akkermans worked for closer relations between the College of
Europe and the ICRC, investing much personal effort in promoting humanitarian law at the
College, and the ICRC wishes to express its profound gratitude for his commitment.

The Community of States has given the ICRC the mandate to promote knowledge of
international humanitarian law and to contribute to its development. Since its inception in 1863,
the ICRC has conducted activities to promote knowledge and acceptance of international
humanitarian law among the civilian population, both in schools and universities and among the
public at large. Although it attaches particular importance to the effort that must be made vis-à-
vis the armed and security forces, in peacetime as well as in times of unrest or war, that effort by
no means excludes the need to inform society as a whole. The community of diplomats and of
national and international civil servants is also a natural target – indeed a target of choice – for
such activities, since it comprises the people who are most closely concerned on a daily basis
with the development and implementation of the humanitarian rules. However, owing to the
nature of current conflicts and the way they develop, we are having to extend our endeavours to
ever-wider circles.

At the first Colloquium that we held with the Co llege of Europe, in this same place, I expressed
the hope of seeing the ICRC and the College establish a platform for debate and discussion on
the evolution and the future of humanitarian law. To this day that body of law remains the most
effective means of ensuring that the victims of armed conflict receive assistance and protection,
and of limiting recourse to certain methods and means of warfare. I am particularly pleased today
to see not only that are we taking part in the third of these events, but also that every year they
are attracting more interest and stimulating more debate. The topical nature of the issues dealt
with and the quality of the participants are certainly decisive factors in that regard.
In 2001, when we were considering the subject of " The impact of international humanitarian law
on the evolution of security policy " , we saw how essential it is to learn lessons rapidly from the
way conflicts develop. Indeed, humanitarian law is neither frozen in time nor static; it responds
to the practical reality of human suffering in times of armed conflict. It presupposes a constant
debate within the wider context of international law as a whole, and focusing on real conditions
in today's conflicts. Working for its development and ensuring that it is geared to the realities of
conflict is one of the ICRC's major concerns.

The theme chosen by the ICRC and the College of Europe for the 2002 Colloquium, " The
relevance of international humanitarian law to non-State actors " , responds to this concern.
Traditionally States, the sole natural subjects of international law, were the only players on the
international scene. We surely all agree that this is no longer the case today. In all areas of
international relations – economics, ecology, politics, military affairs – non-State actors, be they
infra- or supra-State, have assumed increasing importance and have asserted themselves as
international players that cannot be igno red.

As early as 1949, and then more specifically in 1977, the Community of States drew up rules of
international humanitarian law applicable in situations of armed conflict between a State and a
non-State actor, or between two or more non-State actors. But the role of non-State actors – like
that of States – is different today from what it was in 1949, or even 1977. Our perception of the
phenomenon has also changed. Does this mean that the instruments of international humanitarian
law that we have at our disposal in 2002 are unsuited to the realities of today's conflicts?

This is a question that has been asked by some since 11 September 2001. We have all read the
most diverse – not to say contradictory – theories and hypotheses that have appeared in the press,
in various journals, specialized and otherwise, and in public statements. Some feel, perhaps
understandably, that for reasons of security 150 years of humanist, political and judicial progress
can just be swept away. The negation of such achievements, which represent advances of
civilization, is dangerous for everyone, beginning with those who are concerned about the
constraints imposed by humanitarian law. Such an attitude is in fact the unsatisfactory result of
insufficient reasoning based on a questionable assumption. First, it amounts to neglecting the
vast majority of contemporary conflicts and focusing exclusively on certain security issues in
order to formulate rules purporting to be universally applicable. Secondly, it does not offer any
clarification of the rules of law that are applicable in the various situations.

International humanitarian law has always sought to strike the best possible balance between
legitimate concern for the security of the State and its citizens on the one hand and the
preservation of human life, health and dignity on the other. The same is true today. The problems
relating to the pertinence and implementation of international law in general, and of international
humanitarian law in particular, are constantly changing. The exchange of ideas that will take
place at this Colloquium should give us a clearer picture of the real challenges in today's world,
and – I hope – of the most promising avenues of reflection to explore.

The first part of the Colloquium will be devoted to an analysis of developments and prospects in
the field of international security and the use of force. We shall then go on to examine the place
of non-State actors in current humanitarian law, before concluding this first part with a critical
summary and an in-depth discussion of these issues.

In the second part we shall consider two concrete matters of great importance: terrorism and
collective security operations. As regards terrorism, in line with a debate initiated in 2001 the
speaker will remind us of the legal certainties, but will also draw attention to the fundamental
questions it raises with respect to humanitarian law. Collective security operations, whether
conducted as part of armed anti-terrorist operations or otherwise, also face challenges in terms of
humanitarian law. We shall hear an analysis of those challenges before going on to debate them.

During the third part of the Colloquium we shall see how non-State actors can be bound by the
rules of international humanitarian law. We shall examine the mechanisms in international law
engaging the responsibility of non-State actors before looking at some past experiences which
will certainly provide useful lessons. Finally, to supplement these discussions, we shall review
the tools offered in this respect by treaty and customary law.

I shall be especially pleased this evening to welcome, as guest of honour of the College of
Europe and the ICRC, Mr Robert Cooper, who is Director-General for External and Politico-
Military Affairs at the Council of the European Union. Having been wit h the British diplomatic
service for over 20 years, Robert Cooper has long experience of diplomatic relations, on defence
issues among others. He has also published a large number of studies and analyses which have
earned him the reputation of being the most knowledgeable commentator of our time on strategic

All these contributions will serve as a framework for the discussions allowed for in the
programme, discussions that I trust will be numerous, lively and profound, but above all open.
The value of this Colloquium lies in the quality of the speakers, but also in the diversity of the
participants. It is attended by both specialists and non-specialists, and that is what makes it so

As I have done at previous sessions, but with more assurance on the strength of the experience
gained, I would like to express the wish that this Colloquium become a recognized meeting place
for all those who want the law to remain the only remedial measure proposed by civilization for
the suicidal violence of war.

Anne Petitpierre


International Committee of the Red Cross