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Friday, Feb. 18, 2011

ICRC operating between the lines

Humanitarian group's neutrality allows it to aid needy in war zones


Staff writer

In July 2007, the Taliban took 23 South Korean missionaries hostage in Afghanistan and killed two of them.

News photo
Middle ground: Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross, speaks during an interview in Tokyo on Tuesday. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The other 21, however, were freed by the end of that August following direct negotiations between the rebels and the Afghan government, with the International Committee of the Red Cross also playing a role in their release.

The ICRC is a global humanitarian organization founded in 1863 to provide assistance to victims of war and armed conflict. It has offices in 80 countries and a total of 12,000 employees worldwide, including in such conflict-ridden areas as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq and Sudan.

Throughout its near 150-year history, the ICRC's fundamental role has remained the same despite constantly changing global circumstances, said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the group's director of operations, who was in Tokyo earlier this week.

"The fundamental objective of the ICRC has not changed (since its establishment), which is in situations of armed conflict or organized violence, to be able to help populations that are affected and suffer the consequences of that violence," Kraehenbuehl said in an interview with The Japan Times.

"But throughout the ICRC's history, we have had to adapt to changing circumstances, changing trends and armed conflict, and the changing nature of actors."

Kraehenbuehl was in Tokyo on a four-day visit to meet with various government officials and lawmakers, including Vice Foreign Minister Yutaka Banno and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama. According to the ICRC's Japan office, Kraehenbuehl expressed gratitude for Tokyo's financial aid and personnel contributions, and discussed how to strengthen the "strategic partnership."

The Geneva-based humanitarian group is supported mainly by government contributions, and Japan has been a major donor.

Global security has changed rapidly in recent years, with conflict often shifting from between states to within countries. Kraehenbuehl pointed out that authorities are often in dispute not with one or two antigovernment organizations but with multiple groups, at times as many as 30 to 40.

Ever since the 9/11 terrorism attacks, the security situation for groups such as the ICRC has fundamentally changed, Kraehenbuehl said.

"There were new challenges in terms of security for humanitarian organizations because in some cases there were radical groups who were not sure any more whether the different humanitarian organizations were all neutral and independent or if they were part of a political and military strategy, for example of Western countries," he said.

Current priorities for the ICRC include Tunisia and Egypt, where decades-old dictatorships were recently overthrown amid mass street protests.

According to the director of operations, ICRC staff have been visiting detention centers in Tunisia to hold private interviews with detainees and ensure they are treated properly. And if they have been mistreated, the group consults authorities privately to seek a remedy.

In Egypt, the ICRC is still negotiating with for access to detention centers and is currently focused on providing medical services. Kraehenbuehl expressed understanding toward the Egyptian authorities, who have had difficulty keeping up with the rapidly unfolding events.

"I don't think there is a lack of will to talk with us — it's just a question of whether they wish us to visit or not," Kraehenbuehl said. "They are not legally obliged to let us visit. We can offer our services and they can see whether they want to accept them or not."

The ICRC adopts a neutral and independent stance, having ties not only with the authorities but also with antigovernment organizations and rebel groups. Balancing such a position is not easy, Kraehenbuehl said, but the ICRC needs to stay away from political controversy so it can do its job.

"It's very important for the ICRC to be understood as not choosing one side," Kraehenbuehl stressed. "It is not because we are afraid of having an opinion, but we know that by choosing a side, we would limit the possibility for our work."

The ICRC's biggest operation in 2011 will take place in Afghanistan, where it not only acts as an intermediary for the release of hostages but also visits prisons to make sure detainees are not mistreated.

Through talks with the rebels in the past several years, the group has negotiated access by Afghan government and U.N. medical teams to certain Taliban-controlled areas to vaccinate children against polio.

"It's about building trust because when you work in situations of armed conflict, people, groups and parties look at you and wonder whether what you are saying is really what you're doing," Kraehenbuehl said. "For us, the only way to establish that trust is by talking to everyone and then behaving in a way that is consistent with what we said."

The ICRC's work involves an element of danger, as its members do not have armed escorts, not even from the U.N., so as to maintain the group's independence. Security is therefore a major issue for the ICRC, Kraehenbuehl said, adding that although its members take the utmost precautions, it has suffered casualties — some deliberate, some accidental.

"It is not because you are a humanitarian organization that you are simply protected by some kind of . . . miracle," Kraehenbuehl said. "You have to build trust and to make sure that people believe that when you say something you will do something. And if that trust exists, you are more protected, although it will not protect us against everything."

The humanitarian group has been trying to strengthen its ties with Japan in recent years, the director said, pointing out that it is important for the ICRC to understand the country's global outlook, such as regarding the Korean Peninsula or aid to Africa and Afghanistan. The ICRC was employing a total of nine international delegates from Japan as of the end of 2010, and is trying to recruit more Japanese staff.

The Tokyo office was set up in February 2009 and has been acting as a "support base" for the ICRC's activities in Japan.

"It is important for us to deepen Japan's support because both Japan and Asian perspectives are going to be very, very prominent in the coming decades," Kraehenbuehl said. "And they will be also important in how the ICRC is able to work in the future in different conflict zones."



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