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U.S. Reaffirms its Deep and Abiding Commitment to International Humanitarian Law at ICRC Conference
November 28, 2011

Statement by Harold Hongju Koh
Legal Adviser, United States Department of State

31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent

Geneva, Switzerland
November 28, 2011

Good afternoon. On behalf of the United States Government, I thank the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies—especially Federation President Tadateru Konoé and Federation Secretary-General Bekele Geleta,– and the Standing Commission and its Chair, Dr. Massimo Barra, for your outstanding efforts preparing for this important conference.  To President Konoé, let me say that the work of the Japanese Red Cross – indeed of all the people of Japan – in responding to the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami has inspired the world with your courage and strength.

Let me offer a special thanks to the ICRC’s President Jakob Kellenberger, for your outstanding leadership in these turbulent times.  Complex humanitarian emergencies all around the world have made this an especially challenging year for the international community.  The ICRC’s indispensable role as an independent and impartial intermediary and humanitarian partner has proven, time and again, absolutely crucial to addressing complex and unpredictable conflict situations.  That is why the United States so values our relationship with the ICRC and looks forward to our close and continuing partnership.

From the beginning, the United States has maintained tremendous respect for the mission of the ICRC and the work of the Movement as a whole.  We stand in awe of the heroism of tireless Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers around the world as they respond to the crises of the day.  Here today, let me take a moment to convey our deep gratitude and great pride in our own national society, the American Red Cross, for their more than 125 years of humanitarian service. Your work is life-saving and your generosity is global.

As the State Department’s Legal Adviser, I come here today to reaffirm the United States’ deep and abiding commitment to international humanitarian law.  Ten years after the tragic attacks of September 11th, we continue to face real threats.  During the last decade, the United States has learned important lessons, and has worked very hard to ensure that we conduct all aspects of armed conflict – in particular, detention operations – in a manner consistent not just with the applicable laws of war, but also with the Constitution and laws of the United States.  As President Obama reaffirmed in his 2009 Nobel Prize Lecture, “Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct… .  [E]ven as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules…the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war.  That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is the source of our strength.”

The United States appreciates the ICRC’s vigilant efforts to identify strategies to strengthen the implementation of international humanitarian law.  We share the ICRC’s conclusions that international humanitarian law remains the appropriate framework for regulating the conduct of parties to international and non-international armed conflicts, and that those future efforts should focus principally on promoting greater compliance with existing legal frameworks.  Because customary law derives not from aspirational pronouncements, but from State practice, it remains important that the development of international humanitarian law should continue to be led by States.

Because we are committed both to the humane treatment of those detained in the course of armed conflict, and to the effectiveness and legitimacy of a U.S. national security policy ruled by law, the U.S. Government announced earlier this year our support for two additional components of the international legal framework that covers armed conflicts: Additional Protocol II and Article 75 of Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. We have urged our Senate to take action toward ratification of Additional Protocol II as soon as practicable.  And acting out of a sense of legal obligation, my government has committed to treat the fundamental humane treatment principles set forth in Article 75 as applicable to any individual it detains in an international armed conflict.

I am also pleased to report that the United States has fulfilled the pledge it made four years ago at the 30th International Conference – namely, to ratify five treaties that promote respect for international humanitarian law and enhance humanitarian protections during armed conflict:

•The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of an Armed Conflict;

•Amendment to Article 1 of the Convention on Conventional Weapons; and,

•Three CCW protocols: Protocol III on “Incendiary Weapons; Protocol IV on “Blinding Laser Weapons;” and Protocol V on “Explosive Remnants of War.”

As we noted last week, the United States regrets that the just-concluded Fourth Review Conference of the CCW failed to adopt yet another key protocol, on cluster munitions, which for the first time, would have placed the major users and producers of cluster munitions under a legally binding set of prohibitions and restrictions.  Had such a protocol been adopted, we believe it would have been complementary to, not competitive with, the important Oslo Convention on Cluster Munitions.  Indeed, had the draft protocol been adopted, it would have prohibited a greater number of cluster munitions for the United States alone than the Oslo Convention has prohibited for all of its member states combined.  But even without the new protocol, we continue to move forward. The United States is determined to continue as a world leader in addressing the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions and other explosive remnants.  Since 1993, the United States has provided more than $1.9 billion to mitigate the threat from explosive remnants of war in 81 countries.  And the United States resolves to implement its own voluntary policy to prohibit by 2018 the use of cluster munitions with more than a one percent unexploded ordnance rate, and to encourage other countries to take similar steps.

In closing, Mr. Chairman, the United States Government is pleased to participate in this 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent because we share your unshakeable commitment to humanitarian values and international law. War does not silence law. Nor do we consider these Conventions quaint or outmoded.  To the contrary, the Geneva Conventions are as vital today as when they were first conceived.  That is why the United States will always be your staunch partner in this critically important ongoing effort to ensure the implementation of the laws of war in furtherance of our shared humanitarian values.

Thank you.