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Iraq: conditions improve for ICRC humanitarian work

03-02-2011 Interview

Back from a recent visit to Iraq, Pierre Krähenbühl, the ICRC’s director of operations, shares his analysis of the humanitarian situation and discusses the ICRC’s main concerns.

Iraq is in the news almost every day... You spent a week in the country, from 9 to 15 January, to gain a first-hand impression of the situation there and of the ICRC’s activities. How would you describe the situation?

Let me first point out that it is more difficult now than it was just a few years ago to keep the spotlight on the humanitarian situation in Iraq. There is a certain confusion in the way Iraq is perceived by the general public and even by the political community in the outside world. People think that Iraq has moved on, and so their concerns lie elsewhere now. As far as my own views are concerned, I was struck during my recent visit by how different the situation was in the various places I went to. In certain areas, the authorities are moving ahead strongly, and there is clear economic development going on. But in other places, the lives of many Iraqis have not changed for the better. Civilians continue to be exposed in their daily lives to the unpredictability of suicide attacks and other armed violence – especially, but not only, in Baghdad and in the disputed areas (roughly the areas that extend from Mosul to Khanaqin). It is unacceptable that attacks deliberately target civilians, in contravention of humanitarian law. Several hundred lives are lost every month. That may be far fewer than the monthly totals of a few years ago, but it's still more than the casualty numbers currently being reported in Afghanistan. It also explains why the ICRC's operation in Iraq is its second largest this year, after Afghanistan.

The ICRC visits detainees in Iraq. Recently, the question of ICRC access to certain places of detention run by Iraqi authorities was raised in the media. Are there any outstanding issues? Are there places you don’t have access to? What progress has been achieved?

Currently, the ICRC is visiting around 33,000 detainees in 82 places of detention across the country: 30,000 of them are in 35 facilities run by central ministries of justice, defence, interior, and labour and social affairs in various parts of Iraq; 240 detainees are held under US authority at Camp Cropper (Baghdad airport), and around 3,000 detainees are in places run by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

We are still seeking better access. The issue is partly related to that of the overall security situation. The ICRC does have security concerns. Certain areas are too dangerous to go to for the moment. But it is also true that we still have no consolidated agreement with the Iraqi government on visits to detainees. We have been discussing such an agreement since 2008. The good news is that a draft document has reached the level of the Council of Ministers. So, at the highest level, the ICRC has been able to express its interest in conducting visits. The government has recognized the ICRC as the organization that should perform this task. In my recent meetings with high-level officials within the foreign ministry, I called for the agreement to be signed, as it would consolidate the basis for our visits. I hope that the issue will be tackled as swiftly as possible. I’m rather optimistic that it will be.

Are there places of detention you still don’t have access to?

While access has been improving in various parts of Iraq, we don’t know how many places in all remain beyond our reach. The level of engagement with the ICRC varies from one place to another. The authorities have opened quite a number of facilities to the ICRC, allowing us to monitor conditions of detention and the treatment of detainees, and respect for legal safeguards. However, it’s important to know that there are places we do not yet have access to.

There are a number of places the ICRC has asked to have access to. In some places where we did have access, we had to interrupt our visits because they could not take place in accordance with our standard working procedures. And one mustn't think that wherever we do succeed in visiting detainees, the situation is fine. It takes time to improve things. We have to work on it.

Do ICRC visits really make a difference to the detainees?

They most certainly do. The fact that we go to these places, monitor treatment and provide recommendations makes things happen: the authorities take things up and make concrete changes on the basis of our recommendations. I was struck by how many people I met who mentioned how important it was to them to receive Red Cross messages, or to be able to visit a detained relative when the ICRC was organizing visits for families to Camp Bucca and other US detention facilities. Our visits are also very important for detainees who might not otherwise be granted legal safeguards. Being able to make repeat visits is particularly important.

Even if the ICRC has access to a place of detention, that is not a guarantee that things are as they should be there. Visits have to be repeated so that there can be improvement over time.

How are visits going to detainees held under US authority?

All in all, considerable progress has been made since 2003. President Obama’s executive order of September 2009 concerning ICRC access is among the steps we consider very positive. The US has become far more transparent about the persons it is holding. Steps have been taken to notify the ICRC of every person arrested. The ICRC is satisfied with the current level of engagement, notably with the Department of Defense.

Officials at the Department of Defense seem determined to provide us with an overall view of and access to the people being held in Iraq and Afghanistan (most of the people now being held by the US are in Afghanistan). Of course, we will never be in the position of being absolutely certain that we have been notified of every single person held at a given time. But significant steps have been taken to ensure greater transparency.

How is the ICRC managing to carry out its work in Iraq? You said that in certain parts of the country the security situation remains a major concern. How are you dealing with this?

We had to adapt our activities to the reality of the security situation. Five of our staff members were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2005. For a long time, we had to rely heavily on our national staff to perform many of our tasks. This has changed very significantly. Most of our 700 staff, including some 100 expatriates, are now based inside Iraq. They operate without armed escorts.

We are focusing our efforts on helping those who particularly need our help, such as women who head households. Often they are widows, and they are almost always in a critical situation, isolated in their own communities. We don’t want to view them only as “victims”; many of them have strong views on how to improve their situation. We help them to generate some income so that they can cover their expenses and give their children proper care. They are entitled to benefit payments under Iraqi law, but making a claim is a complex process. We try to get them registered and to guide them through the bureaucracy so that they obtain the benefit.

The ICRC is also maintaining its support for medical services. There have been improvements in this area too. For years, we delivered supplies directly to hospitals, but now the government does this for the larger facilities. Last year, a directive was issued by the Ministry of Health not to accept any further foreign aid. It worked: the main medical facilities have ample stocks and manage them properly. Now we concentrate on supporting primary health care in the disputed areas – instead of focusing on the larger facilities we are now helping some of the smaller ones.

In addition, a training project to strengthen emergency services in Iraq is being carried out by the ICRC in coordination with the Iraqi Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Health of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Sulaimaniya Emergency Hospital and Al Sadr Medical City in Najaf. Since the project began, over 350 doctors and nurses from seven governorates have been certified in trauma management, infection control and teamwork.


Photos

 

Pierre Krahenbuehl

Baghdad. Wathba pumping station. The station manager and an ICRC engineer inspect valves supplied by the ICRC when the organization renovated the installation. 

Baghdad. Wathba pumping station. The station manager and an ICRC engineer inspect valves supplied by the ICRC when the organization renovated the installation.
© ICRC / M. Greub / iq-e-00905

ICRC office, Basra. ICRC staff provide information to the families of people in US custody. 

ICRC office, Basra. ICRC staff provide information to the families of people in US custody.
© ICRC / M. Greub / iq-e-00826

Fort Suse, Sulaymaniyah Governorate. An ICRC delegate visits detainees and distributes Red Cross messages.  

Fort Suse, Sulaymaniyah Governorate. An ICRC delegate visits detainees and distributes Red Cross messages.
© ICRC

ICRC physical rehabilitation centre, Erbil. A patient learns to walk on his artificial leg. 

ICRC physical rehabilitation centre, Erbil. A patient learns to walk on his artificial leg.
© ICRC / M. Greub / iq-e-00803

Sadr Hospital, Najaf, Najaf Governorate. Doctors and nurses take part in training organized by the ICRC. 

Sadr Hospital, Najaf, Najaf Governorate. Doctors and nurses take part in training organized by the ICRC.
© ICRC / M. Greub / iq-e-00870

Amadiya District, Dohuk Governorate. A woman with an animal supplied by the ICRC as part of the organization's programme to support people in need. 

Amadiya District, Dohuk Governorate. A woman with an animal supplied by the ICRC as part of the organization's programme to support people in need.
© ICRC / M. Greub / iq-e-00856