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Côte d’Ivoire: helping the wounded, visiting prisoners

23-12-2010 Interview

The situation in Côte d'Ivoire following the recent presidential elections is becoming increasingly tense. Treating the wounded remains the top priority, but the needs of detainees and separated families are increasing. Boris Michel, the ICRC's head of operations for North and West Africa, describes the humanitarian situation and the organization's response.

How many people have been killed and injured? What has the Red Cross been able to do?

Since 26 November, volunteers from the Red Cross Society of Côte d'Ivoire, supported by the ICRC, have treated more than 580 people, of whom almost 300 serious cases were evacuated to the nearest medical facility. We also delivered blood to Abidjan's five main hospitals and supplied 12 dressing kits to nine medical centres, each kit being sufficient to treat 100 casualties.

Up till now, Red Cross volunteers have not had to transport any bodies. This is done by the national body responsible. This means that we can't say how many people have died, although the media have given figures of over 100.

Apart from caring for the wounded and evacuating them where necessary, the ICRC is currently locating and treating people who have been arrested, ensuring that the population are respected and restoring contact between family members. We are currently building up our response to these needs.

A number of sources have reported "increasing violations" of human rights, especially abductions, illegal places of detention and even extrajudicial executions. What is the ICRC doing about these issues?

The ICRC is concerned about these allegations of human rights violations. We are listening to the persons affected and, with the consent of the families or the victims themselves, we undertake constructive and confidential dialogue with those responsible, with a view to their taking corrective measures where required.

People who have been arrested must be treated in accordance with national and international law. In particular, all forms of ill-treatment and infringements of their dignity are prohibited, under all circumstances. Detainees must be allowed to receive aid, to correspond with their families and, where possible, to receive visits from their families. The ICRC is in touch with the authorities concerned with a view to continuing its humanitarian visits to all these persons, in accordance with its standard operating procedures.

In an increasingly polarized context, will the ICRC be able to continue its work?

The purely humanitarian role of the Red Cross is generally well understood in Côte d'Ivoire. So far, our work has not been hindered by the parties concerned or the population; on the contrary, they have been supportive. We are continuing to step up our efforts.

Its neutrality allows the ICRC to work, and to help vulnerable people. A sound understanding of this principle is crucial to the maintenance of dialogue with all sides. In the present situation, we obviously emphasize our independence, especially vis-à-vis the United Nations system. Nonetheless, we do continue to coordinate our response with the humanitarian agencies of the UN and those NGOs still present.

Many thousands of Ivorian refugees have already arrived in Liberia. What are their needs? How is the ICRC coordinating its assistance with other humanitarian agencies?

Currently, the ICRC is focusing on the restoration of family links between refugees in Liberia – including a number of unaccompanied children – and their families in Côte d'Ivoire. The other priority is to improve these refugees' access to water and sanitation, particularly by repairing water points and latrines.

For the ICRC, the important thing is to ensure that these people, who are living with host families in remote areas, receive the aid they need. Our teams in Monrovia, working with the Liberian Red Cross, have made a number of visits to the border in order to evaluate the situation and we are in regular contact with the HCR, which is responsible for registering refugees. The ICRC is also coordinating its activities with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which will support National Societies helping these people if required. We are active in other neighbouring countries, particularly Guinea, as the situation requires.