Opening Statement by Deputy Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim at the Eleventh Annual Regional Seminar on the Implementation of International Humanitarian Law, 23 August 2011, OR Tambo Building, Pretoria
Honourable members of official delegations from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and other participating countries;
Mr Gherardo Pontrandolfi, Head of the Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross for Southern Africa;
Other members of the ICRC staff present, from this region and Headquarters;
Colleagues, distinguished guests;
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I feel honoured and privileged to address you this morning on behalf of the Government of South Africa and to welcome you to the 11th Annual Regional Seminar on the implementation of International Humanitarian Law.
During the coming days you will be reviewing progress made in the signing, ratifying and implementation of relevant international instruments of the Geneva Conventions; commitments that our respective governments endorse in the promotion of International Humanitarian Law. For South Africa these issues are very important, as is evident in the fact that South Africa has ratified/acceded to most of the instruments of International Humanitarian Law, as well as our work and contributions to the various peace keeping missions on the continent. Perhaps this is also evident in the fact that we are co-hosting this regional seminar with the ICRC for the eleventh time! However, we recognise that there are still elements that we would need to work on, as you will see in our country statement later during the Seminar.
Before continuing, I deem it appropriate to recognise, at the outset, the important work that Mr Pontrandolfi and his team, as well as other visiting members of the ICRC, have undertaken in ensuring that this Seminar again takes place. As the ICRC is the custodian of IHL, it is just natural that we co-host this Seminar with them, which resonates well with our country’s foreign policy ideals of contributing to the resolution of conflict on the African continent, in an effort to create a stable and prosperous Africa and a safer world. Therefore, in pursuing our vision of a better world, we are motivated by the consideration that justice and respect for international law should guide relations between nations, of which IHL plays an important role.
Ladies and gentlemen,
One of the most important purposes of International Humanitarian Law is to protect civilians during armed conflicts, to minimise casualties. In this regard, South Africa is on record for unequivocally condemning both deliberate attacks on civilians and the loss of life as a result of the indiscriminate or disproportionate use of force, which is a gross violation of international humanitarian law. However, we are still living in an era where not enough is done to protect civilians and too many transgressions of IHL still takes place. Various United Nations and other international organisations report regularly on the transgressions of IHL and the impact this has on stability, peace and economic growth.
It is therefore indeed befitting that one of the key themes for this seminar is the protection of children in armed conflict, more so because the world is still faced with a situation where children are still recruited as soldiers and millions of these children are badly affected by the aftermath of conflicts. Stable societies cannot be built where children younger than 18 are forced to engage in armed violence and conflict; robbing them of their childhood and also exposing them to so many problems associated with psychological suffering, amongst others. It remains the responsibility of governments to promote and ensure the protection of children affected by conflicts.
It is in this regard that South Africa supports activities being undertaken within the framework of the African Union, United Nations, ICRC and other organizations concerned in addressing the challenges of children affected by armed conflicts. This is also evident in our support for the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolutions on the protection of children affected by armed conflict. South Africa's involvement in the resolution of conflicts and peacekeeping missions on the Continent is also at the core of its attempts to address the challenge of children affected by conflicts. In addition to the ratification of the AU Convention on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, South Africa ratified the UN Optional Protocol to the Rights of the Child in Armed Conflict in 2009. As further evidence of the importance we attach to the rights and well-being of children, the current President of South Africa on 09 May 2009, established the Department of Women, Children and Disabilities, to particularly focus on the rights of these previously disadvantaged groups.
It is our view that the protection of civilians, including children in armed conflict must remain a priority of the UN system. Finding a common solution to the protection of civilians would need the cooperation of each and every Member State. We also believe that the protection of civilians will be better addressed in partnership with regional mechanisms and that strengthening dialogue and cooperation between the Security Council and regional organizations would contribute to tackling common security challenges and ensuring speedy action on the ground.
Lastly, let me just also state that within the debate of the protection of civilians, it remains vital to reflect on the necessity to allow safe and unimpeded access to the vulnerable. Just in the past few months we have again seen that if aid organisations are not allowed access to affected communities, those communities are not only traumatised, but are placed in desperate positions, with their basic rights of access to food and water being denied. Providing essential services on the respected humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartially and humanity remains critical when addressing the protection needs of civilians.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Accordingly, may I extend our gratitude to the ICRC for their commitment and support to Africa in our quest to promote and implement International Humanitarian Law for the betterment of our African continent. The ICRC has been one of our critical partners on the Continent for so many years, helping us to improve the lives of those affected by wars and natural disasters and has also been at the forefront in assisting the restoration of the dignity of victims of wars and armed conflict. Its Regional Delegation has over the years assisted our governments in the ratification of IHL treaties, and with advice regarding the incorporation of IHL into national legislation and into IHL training for our military and police officers, as well as providing services to restore family links for civilian victims of conflict. You might be aware that I, myself, was a beneficiary of these services offered by the ICRC during the Apartheid years.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Member States on the African continent have shown a steady support for ratifying international instruments pertaining to IHL. However, we all acknowledge that more can and should be done. In this regard, I remain convinced that the effective implementation of IHL enhances a rules-based international system, which directly ensures the protection of civilians against breaches of IHL and impunity, and ultimately contributes to the creation of a better world for all. We therefore need to ensure that all relevant role-players are properly sensitised to and advised about the importance of IHL, not only during times of conflict, but also during times of peace. Lastly, we should also continue to publicly express our dissatisfaction about serious violations of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law and remain unwavering in our resolve to bring to justice the perpetrators thereof.
Dr Kellenberg, President of the ICRC highlighted in a statement in 2009 during the commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of Geneva Convention, that the polarisation of international relations and the humanitarian consequences of what has been referred to as the "global war on terror", has posed a huge challenge for proponents of IHL. This, and the proliferation and fragmentation of non-state armed groups, and the fact that some of them reject the premises of IHL, remains a challenge today, particularly as IHL is tested as an adequate legal framework for the protection of victims of armed conflict.
Dr Kellenberg finally concluded that the essential spirit of the Geneva Convention – to uphold human life and dignity even in the midst of armed conflict – is as important now as it was more than 60 years ago. It is a sentiment that the South African Government still shares and I also believe it is something that you as participants also believe in, hence your participation here today. We should remain committed to the promotion of the ideals and principles contained in international humanitarian law, as this is in the interest of all of us.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In conclusion, let me thank all of you for your dedication and I hope you have an excellent stay in South Africa and I wish you all the best during the duration of the seminar.
I thank you.