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Libya: ICRC still committed to respond to needs of the population

15-08-2012 Interview

Following repeated attacks against its premises in Benghazi and Misrata, the ICRC is temporarily suspending its activities in the east and centre of the country. The ICRC's incoming head of delegation, Ishfaq Muhamad Khan, explains how the organization is responding to the situation.

Why is the ICRC suspending its activities in Benghazi and Misrata?

After five security incidents targeting our offices and staff in the two cities in less than three months, we had no other option but to temporarily suspend our activities in the east and centre of Libya. The most recent attack, early on 5 August in Misrata, was particularly appalling: our residence was directly and repeatedly hit with heavy weapons by an unknown group. The security of our staff is a priority for us.

We regret that we had to take this decision, especially as this means that we will not be able to respond to the humanitarian needs of the Libyan population in those areas for a certain period of time.

Do you know who has been targeting you?

A group claimed responsibility for two attacks in Benghazi, the first of which occurred on 22 May when a rocket-propelled grenade was launched against our office building. However, we have no information about the other three incidents.

We do not want to speculate or draw hasty conclusions. The authorities are aware of and concerned by the situation and are conducting their investigations. Also, the ICRC is not the only entity being affected by a recent deterioration of the security situation in Libya. In such a complex situation, it might be a combination of factors that have led to these incidents.

It is important for us to understand why this happened in order to be able to take whatever measures are necessary for us to be accepted by all.

Why does the ICRC appear to have become a target?

In recent months, there has apparently been a flare-up of misunderstandings and mistrust. "Foreign organizations" are being eyed with a certain degree of suspicion. We know that some in the country don't see the difference between the ICRC and what they perceive to be "Western agencies"; they may be suspicious about us. The ICRC's presence is still new, and despite a broad and highly visible humanitarian response during the conflict, several months down the road some people may have forgotten what we have done or they may wonder what we are still doing in the country.

In addition, there tends to be a misperception about what the ICRC logo represents. As it features a cross, the ICRC is sometimes wrongly seen as a Christian organization. We need to explain that the emblems of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have no religious significance. As an example, in Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world, there is a Red Cross Society rather than a Red Crescent Society. One of the main purposes of these emblems is to clearly identify humanitarian staff, buildings and vehicles and therefore to protect them. In Afghanistan, Palestine and in many other conflict zones where we have had a long presence, our red cross emblem is well recognized by the population and the numerous armed groups, and it helps us to move around and to enter dangerous or sensitive areas. In Libya, for the time being, this is not the case.

At the end of May, the "Brigades of the Captive Sheikh Omar Abdulrahman in Libya" accused the ICRC of carrying out proselytizing activities in the country and, more concretely, of distributing Bibles to internally displaced Tawargha people in Benghazi. How do you respond to these accusations?

We firmly deny them. The ICRC is not involved in any kind of political or religious activities, neither in Libya nor in any other country in the world. The ICRC is a neutral and impartial organization with an exclusively humanitarian role. We do our utmost to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to provide them with assistance, no matter who they may be. How could we achieve such humanitarian goals if we were taking sides?

The ICRC is totally distinct and independent from the United Nations and any State or faith-based organization. It employs people of many nationalities and religions and works in more than 80 countries all over the world. Most of our operations currently take place in predominantly Muslim countries, many of them in the Arab world, because that is where the need for humanitarian aid is currently greatest. In Libya, we now have 130 national and 50 expatriate staff.

It is clear that needs were immense during the conflict, but why is the ICRC still in the country now?

Many humanitarian consequences persist long after an armed conflict comes to an end. In Libya, let's think about the thousands of people who went missing, about the people who have been displaced, the sizeable number of migrants and vulnerable minorities, as well as the thousands of people detained in connection with the conflict. In addition, violent clashes still occur in the country, sometimes causing numerous casualties.

The ICRC is present and active in Libya with the full consent of the country's authorities. A memorandum of understanding was signed with them at the end of March 2012.

At the authorities' request, the ICRC is providing guidance, training and technical advice on how to account for missing persons. Families of missing persons have the right to know what happened to their loved ones and the ICRC seeks to ensure that their needs are addressed in a non-discriminatory way. The situation of many displaced people and migrants still requires special attention. That's why we, together with the Libyan Red Crescent, are maintaining our effort to help them. At the same time, we continue our visits to detainees in order to monitor the treatment they receive and the conditions in which they are held. Any issues that arise are discussed only between the ICRC and those in charge. After having cleared cities such as Ajdabiya, Misrata, Bani Walid and Sirte and other areas of Libya of almost 11,000 explosive remnants of war, we are now working with the Libyan Red Crescent to raise awareness of the dangers of these devices and coordinating efforts with the Libyan authorities to ensure that clearance work continues.

Unfortunately, there has been a resurgence of fighting and other violence in places such as Al Kufra, Sabha and the Nefusa mountains. Several times, the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Defence, or the groups involved in the fighting, have asked us to help evacuate the wounded. Violence also forces people to flee their homes in search of safety, so we must maintain our ability to provide assistance for the displaced.

Last but not least, the Libyan authorities have asked the ICRC for technical guidance and support in incorporating international humanitarian law in national legislation and military regulations and training manuals. In June, we signed a memorandum of understanding on this subject with the Libyan Armed Forces, and since then we have been reviewing the army's teaching curriculum. Over the coming years we expect to provide the country's army officers with training in international humanitarian law.

What measures is the ICRC taking in response to the security threat in Libya?

Firstly, all field movements in the east and centre of the country have been suspended, while we continue to try to determine who was behind the incidents and why exactly we were targeted. However, we have not formally closed our offices in Benghazi and Misrata and we hope to be able to resume activities in those cities as soon as conditions allow. Meanwhile, activities in the west and south continue.

Secondly, being accepted and well perceived by the Libyan population, authorities and leaders and by all armed groups offers the best protection of all. In order to achieve this, we will intensify our dialogue and communication with all concerned, focusing as a matter of priority on parts of society that have or could have misperceptions about us.

It's very important that we continue all our work in Libya. Our sole objective is to alleviate the suffering of people in need. We remain fully committed to achieving that aim.


Photos

Ishfaq Muhamad Khan 

Ishfaq Muhamad Khan
© ICRC

Al Jalaa Hospital, Benghazi, Libya, 27 February 2011. Libyan doctors and nurses treat a patient in the trauma ward. 

Al Jalaa Hospital, Benghazi, Libya, 27 February 2011. Libyan doctors and nurses treat a patient in the trauma ward. In 2011, the ICRC deployed four field surgical teams to help Libyan surgeons treat war casualties.
© Getty Images / ICRC / G. de Moustier / v-p-ly-e-00011

Benghazi harbour, Libya, 24 June 2011. A young woman receives a call from a relative just after disembarking from the ICRC-charted boat that had transferred her and hundreds of others from Tripoli after the conflict separated them from their families. 

Benghazi harbour, Libya, 24 June 2011. A young woman receives a call from a relative just after disembarking from the ICRC-charted boat that had transferred her and hundreds of others from Tripoli after the conflict separated them from their families.
© ICRC / R. Waudo / v-p-ly-e-00104

Washka, 100 kilometres west of Sirte, Libya, 27 September 2011. A child receives food during a joint ICRC/Libyan Red Crescent food distribution. 

Washka, 100 kilometres west of Sirte, Libya, 27 September 2011. A child receives food during a joint ICRC/Libyan Red Crescent food distribution.
© ICRC / v-p-ly-e-00222

Al Kufra Airport, Libya, 21 June 2012. Following fighting in Al Kufra, ICRC staff carry a casualty from an ambulance to one of two aircraft that the Ministry of Health had made available. 

Al Kufra Airport, Libya, 21 June 2012. Following fighting in Al Kufra, ICRC staff carry a casualty from an ambulance to one of two aircraft that the Ministry of Health had made available.
© ICRC / Y. Elshalwi