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12 August 1999

12 August 1999

Calls for End to Impunity, States that United Nations is Committed
to Ensuring Respect for International Humanitarian Law

The following is the text of the address given by Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions:

“I am pleased and honoured to join you in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. Our meeting today, and the progress in the codification of international humanitarian law over the last fifty years, are vivid testimony to the continued significance of these Conventions to the conduct of armed conflict.

While the United Nations Charter may be seen as a reflection of our experience, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights an expression of our ideals, the Geneva Conventions have for half a century represented humanity's determination to ensure, even in the midst of war, a minimum of respect for humanitarian principles.

However, in this final year of the final decade of a century of war, genocide and immense suffering, we do not meet in celebration of the respect for these conventions. We cannot say that civilian populations have been spared in the conflicts of the last decade. And we should not believe that the next fifty years will require any less determination and commitment on our part to limit the suffering of civilians in war.

Indeed, the ethnic wars of the 1990s have been characterized by the abominable practice of making civilians the very targets of warfare, in campaigns of genocide and "ethnic cleansing."

It is not, therefore, merely a question of protecting civilians in armed conflict, but of protecting them from armed conflict. These flagrant violations of international humanitarian law -- the wholesale expulsion of an entire people from their native land, summary and arbitrary executions, mutilation, rape, forced displacement, denial of the right to food and medicines -- have taken place not as the effect of war, but as the essence of warfare.

Where we fear conflict, we must seek to prevent it. Where we witness conflict, we must seek to end it. And where we help end conflict, we must seek to prevent its recurrence. To these sacred duties of the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions have added the obligation to respect international humanitarian law.

By making palpable the concepts of accountability and individual criminal responsibility for war crimes, the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have invested the Geneva Conventions with new life and new relevance.

But they have done more. They continue to remind us that in every conflict where civilians are targeted -- whether in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Kosovo or Sierra Leone -- there are violators and there are victims. The creation of the International Criminal Court is further evidence of the commitment to ensuring global justice, and it is my hope that its statute will be ratified swiftly and universally.

As the United Nations enters a new century, our commitment to ensuring respect for international humanitarian law and ending the culture of impunity will be at the heart of our efforts to promote peace and security. As we do so, we will continue to find guidance, inspiration and courage in the principles of the Geneva Conventions.