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Speech: The European Union at the front of protecting International Humanitarian Law

European Commission - SPEECH/14/90   03/02/2014

Other available languages: none

European Commission

Kristalina Georgieva

EU Commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response

The European Union at the front of protecting International Humanitarian Law

The European Union at the front of protecting International Humanitarian Law - Palais D'Egmont, Brussels

29 January 2014

I want to first wholeheartedly thank Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders for hosting us in this fabulous setting and ground for this very big topic. And also to express my respect to Belgium for being the first country to take to heart the issue of the International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

I am always very honoured to be speaking with President Maurer of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). We work very closely together and unfortunately this year the need for the Red Cross in the world is not getting smaller, it is getting bigger. And Madame Joris, congratulations for the forthcoming 150 anniversary of the Belgian Red Cross next week, and thank you for hosting us.

Sadly we deal with a problem which over the last years has become worse. Tragically, with more numerous non-state armed groups and more of them turning radical, we see more frequent attacks against health care workers, against hospitals, against ambulances, and that means less access to health care for millions and millions of people who need it so much. Syria provides the most significant example today of blatant disrespect for IHL.

Deputy Prime Minister Reynders spoke about it very passionately. He has been championing the engagement of Europe on this topic. We are time and again calling for both parties of the conflict, actually all parties of the conflict, given the multiplicity of fighting groups in Syria, to stop occupying health facilities for military purposes, shooting at ambulances, killing doctors. It is so sad to see that these calls so far are falling on, mostly, deaf ears.

Unfortunately Syria is not an exception. We see violence against doctors and nurses spreading in so many places, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Northern Nigeria, Somalia, Central African Republic (CAR).

I was in CAR visiting the centre of the country, in Kaga Bandoro. A tsunami of looting had passed through, not sparing the local hospital. The generator had gone. The medical instruments: gone. All medicines down to aspirin: gone. Even the mattresses were stripped from the beds.

And of course people were so scared that very few dare to go to this hospital. There was a woman just giving birth, and I will never forget when I asked how she was feeling. Normally you would hear from women after birth such words as "I'm tired" or "I'm happy". She said: "I'm hungry". No food in the hospital. The ICRC ambulance stripped down to metal and then burned. The ICRC staff bravely stayed. They are still there. Their compound has not been looted although their vehicles were.

The dangers against healthcare translate into terrible consequences for the local populations. It is not by chance that CAR has official life expectancy of fifty year but actually, people say, it is probably forty-seven. And it's not by accident that twenty percent of the kids born in this country die before they turn five. So we are talking not only about the immediate impact of violence against healthcare workers on the sick and wounded who are not getting aid; in addition, there is a long-term impact from the destruction of a healthcare system, such as the destruction that has been happening in Syria and the CAR.

In the European Union, we hold IHL dear to our hearts, as it comes on the background of our own tragedies, of the worst we lived through. So for us IHL is not just a legal concept. For this reason, you will always see the EU at the forefront when we talk about IHL.

We are the only regional group that has adopted guidelines on promoting compliance with IHL. We adopted them in 2005. We updated them in 2009. And we very strongly support the initiative of Switzerland and ICRC to establish a regular forum for discussions on IHL. We think this is so necessary in the world we live in.

Secondly, we always stand up to protect IHL at the United Nations and in other forums. Every resolution of the United Nations General Assembly on humanitarian matters would have the Europeans arguing strongly in favour of incorporation IHL into the text.

Third, we engage in advocacy and support campaigns like the "Health Care in Danger" campaign. We also have campaign of our own. One of the first things I did when I joined the Commission was a big campaign "Don't shoot at the humanitarian worker" and we relentlessly promote an understanding that humanitarian workers, health care workers included, are in higher danger that United Nations peacekeepers.

Fourth, we fund health care in emergencies. We are one of the strongest supporters of the work of ICRC, MSF and the UN organisations. But we also fund very specific projects that bring to the centre the issue of risk for health care workers. For example in Afghanistan we are funding a € 5 million programme with ICRC which includes the protection of health facilities. In the north of Mali, we funded UNOCHA to be able to provide healthcare during curfew hours, so that people could get assistance during the night.

And last but not least, in recent years, we have engaged in building understanding of IHL in our military operations, especially EU training missions. In Somalia the EU training mission includes special training of the new Somalia forces in IHL. Similarly in Mali, the EU Training Mission has an explicit focus to the Malian forces to fight, but also to protect civilians, to understand that IHL is mandatory and needs to be taken seriously.

Let me finish by saying that we, the EU, are always ready to share our experience with others. In the context of the domestic normative framework, you will hear the Belgian experience, but also hopefully that of other member states. We are all on this planet in one tiny little boat. And we cannot say to each other: "your end of the boat is sinking, mine is okay". We have to all work for humanity to succeed, to survive all the risks that are pressing on us.

Thank you and good luck in the next three days of work.

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