The Holy See
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December 2003


1. This 28th Conference takes place in a moment marked by rumbles of war and by an explosion of terrorism of such a magnitude unknown before today. Civilian victims of well reported and of forgotten wars and of their destructive consequences run in the millions. In fact some States and non-State actors try to exploit the desperation of endemic poverty and of extreme social inequality by promoting their private objectives through violent actions.

The world is confronted by a great challenge that raises dramatic questions right at this time when we are examining ways and means to strengthen our commitment to defend human dignity during armed conflicts and other emergency situations and to promote respect for humanitarian law.

In the effort to contain and overcome a wave of intolerable and unbearable violence, the temptation emerges to have recourse to methods of fighting not always respectful of the juridical rules adopted by the international community to ban war as a means to settle disputes and to protect the dignity of the person in every circumstance.

2. Unfortunately, humanitarian law appears at present as if hanging between its weak impact on armed conflicts and its limited relevance on the table of political negotiations. Some Governments are reticent in accepting effective control mechanisms while public opinion seems to become accustomed to violations of humanitarian law as if the painful spectacle of so many victims were leading to resignation instead of prompting a reaction capable of influencing wrong political and military choices.

3. The Holy See looks at international humanitarian law as an important, invaluable, non-negotiable and still relevant instrument: "Its observance or non-observance is a real test for the ethical foundation and for the very reason for existence of the international community" (John Paul II, Address to the members of the International Institute of Humanitarian Law, 18 May 1982). The Holy See will continue to promote appropriate initiatives of Interreligious character to defend human dignity during armed conflicts and to increase respect for international humanitarian law especially through the vast network of Catholic educational institutions.

4. At this stage it is not so much a question of strengthening the normative framework, already significantly developed, but of finding the appropriate ways to make it effectively operational and of encouraging the political will for its global implementation.

A sadly eloquent sign among others of disregard toward humanitarian law is given by the attacks purposely directed against humanitarian personnel who generously serve in the midst of conflicts, in particular by the recent deadly attacks against the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In this troubling context, it becomes imperative to pursue an educational process directed not only at the dissemination of juridical instruments, but also at proposing the teaching of, and formation of conscience regarding the great principles inspiring humanitarian law: the dignity of every human being, the solidarity with victims, the primacy of law over force. In this regard, the Holy See carried out its pledge at the 27th Conference to enhance the formation of Catholic military chaplains in humanitarian law and it will continue to do so.

And to prevent and contain the tendency to privatise the indiscriminate use of force a more determined effort can be undertaken to address the root causes of such a deep dissatisfaction exploding into violence, make them known in the mass communication media, and remedy them.

5. The dignity of the human person is at risk in other contemporary situations of forced displacement, catastrophes, infectious diseases, all generally affecting the poorest segments of the population and especially women and children. No stigma must be attached to human suffering. For this reason the Catholic Church has educational and assistance programmes. For persons affected by HIV/AIDS in 92 countries, the first partner of States in this social area and a sign of hope and a practical witness of their dignity for all these millions of patients.

6. The Movement of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent can count on the partnership and support of the Catholic Church. Collaboration with religious institutions and faith communities will make for a more effective humanitarian action. Religious motivation, we should not forget, gave a decisive push to the work of Henry Dunant, whose inspiration the present Conference carries on today.

* L'Osservatore Romano 11.12.2003 p.2.

L'Osservatore Romano. Weekly Edition in English2004 n.4 p.10.