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Thursday, Feb. 5, 2009

International Red Cross returns to Japan

Staff writer

It all began with one man's eyewitness account of the atrocities committed in the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in present-day Italy in 1859. What Swiss businessman Henry Dunant saw was the horror of war — thousands of dead and severely wounded soldiers lying on the battlefield without proper medical care.

News photo
Seeking partnership: Yoshinobu Nagamine, chief of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Japan, speaks during a recent interview in Tokyo. SATOKO KAWSAKI PHOTO

Dunant published what he saw in "A Memory of Solferino" and proposed ways to get more help to victims of war. This eventually led to the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

For nearly 150 years, the Swiss-based ICRC has been engaged in protecting the lives and dignity of war victims. The neutral, independent humanitarian body has a staff of about 11,000 in 80 countries, including conflict-ridden areas like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan.

But for the first time in 60 years, the ICRC on Tuesday opened an office in Japan, aiming to build a "strategic partnership" with the world's second-largest economy to engage in international humanitarian assistance, newly appointed Japan chief Yoshinobu Nagamine said.

In recent years, the ICRC has focused on Asia. It set up an office in Beijing in 2005 that has proven useful because it also provides access to the two Koreas and Mongolia.

"It is part of the global strategy of the ICRC to recognize that the gravity has shifted to East Asia in economic and political terms," Nagamine said.

"And these East Asian countries have big potential for becoming an important partner in humanitarian assistance in the future — particularly Japan, because it is one of the countries outside of Europe and the United States that is very likely to share common values, humanitarian values."

One agenda item of the ICRC in Japan is to enhance ties with various ministries, including Foreign and Defense, he said.

Nagamine, 31, will likely coordinate meetings between ministry officials and the ICRC on humanitarian issues worldwide.

The ICRC's activities include advising the Self-Defense Forces on the principles of international humanitarian law in cases where they are deployed abroad.

"It would cover, for example, the treatment of prisoners, international peace cooperation activities in case they are dispatched abroad for peacekeeping operations, and what humanitarian assistance is about," Nagamine said.

The key objective, however, is to promote ICRC activities in Japan.

When Japanese hear the term "Red Cross," most think of the Japanese Red Cross Society, which runs 92 hospitals nationwide and promotes blood donations, social welfare programs and international and domestic disaster relief. But the ICRC and JRCS are separate entities.

The ICRC last had a presence in Japan from 1942 to 1949 in Yokohama. Its mission then was completely different.

"The main role of the ICRC at that time was to visit the Allied prisoners of war in Japan and the several POW camps," Nagamine said.

At that time, the main job of the ICRC delegates was to make sure the POWs were treated in accordance with the 1929 Geneva Conventions, which stipulate that prisoners of war "shall at all times be humanely treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence, from insults and from public curiosity" and that "measures of reprisal against them" are forbidden.

Japan was not a party to the Geneva Conventions at the time, but in 1953 it acceded to the 1949 conventions, which replaced the 1929 treaty.

Although the initial focus of the wartime ICRC was on POWs, the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki dramatically expanded its mission.

A month after the bombings, Dr. Marcel Junod, the Swiss head of the ICRC's Japanese delegation, was the first foreign doctor to arrive in Hiroshima to help the survivors.

He also "managed to negotiate 15 tons of medical supplies from the Allied powers," Nagamine said.

"This reflects the ICRC principle of impartiality and neutrality," Nagamine said. "Although Junod was originally there to visit prisoners (captured by Japan), given the fact that there were some people also in desperate need, he decided to also organize assistance for the other side."

Nagamine himself has been stationed in various countries racked by war and conflict, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan. Some 14 months before coming to Japan, he was stationed in Jalalabad and Kabul, where he made regular visits to Afghan detainees to see how they were being treated by the authorities.

"When we think there is evidence that international humanitarian law has been violated, we go to the authorities and try to work for improvement," Nagamine said. "But we never go public — unless we consider it the last resort."

The young chief explained that the ICRC has "total confidentiality" with the Afghan authorities, adding that ICRC staff can go into detention facilities and have meetings with the detainees without witnesses.

"We don't go public and everything we see over there remains confidential — but instead, that may be the reason why we are granted access to all of the detention facilities," Nagamine said. "For the media and other nongovernmental organizations, it may be frustrating that we don't share information, but that's how it works."

Unlike the delegations in conflict areas like Afghanistan, the Japan office will not be involved in actual operations but will focus on publicizing ICRC activities and different aspects of international humanitarian law.

Nagamine pointed out that many Japanese seem to have more awareness of natural disasters than of war victims.

"Fifty years ago, Japan itself was a subject of aid and protection, and now it is trying to become an important partner," Nagamine said. "Maybe the future challenge for the ICRC is to empathize the Japanese public, (to understand) that there are many theaters of war and many civilians who do suffer, and try to understand what their needs are and what we can do."

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