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Afghanistan: 25 years of humanitarian action

04-05-2006 Interview

The ICRC has been active in Afghanistan for 25 years. Today, more than 1,000 employees carry out a wide array of humanitarian services ranging from visits to detainees to educating women and children about the risks posed by mines and unexploded ordnance. Interview with the ICRC's head of delegation, Reto Stocker.

  What is the situation like in Afghanistan today?  

Afghanistan has seen more than 20 years of conflict. The foreign invasion and ousting of the Taliban regime in early 2002 was a major development and the ICRC qualified Afghanistan as an international conflict until the country's president was democratically elected. Now, the ICRC qualifies the context as a non-international armed conflict. It remains violent, particularly in areas of the south and the east where the burden on the civilian population is increasingly heavy. Not only are funded development plans difficult to roll out over rural Afghanistan but the conflict itself brings a lot of hardship to the people affected.

 What activities does the ICRC concentrate on in Afghanistan?  

We have been present in Afghanistan for the past 25 years which has earned us a lot of credibility with a wide range of stakeholders who have come to know us over the years. We have always concentrated on what I would call the ICRC's core mandate – first and foremost of course detention activities. We are currently visiting 75 detention centres under different authorities including the Ministry of Justice, the Interior Ministry, the National Department of Security and then of course US places of detention in Afghanistan. This is traditional ICRC work -- visiting the detainees regularly, having private interviews with them, reporting in a confidential way and making our recommendations in an ongoing dialogue with different authorities involved in detention in Afghanistan today.

Of course we are also involved in re-establishing family links between those detained and their loved ones. The Afghan Red Crescent Society plays a very active role in this with more than 15,000 volunteers all over the country. We also dare to do things that are relatively new for the organization. We have come to realize that structural problems in prisons and other places of detention remain enormous. There are people chained to windows or doors because the walls of their cells or their compound walls have crumbled and the only way of making sure that people don't run away is to chain them up - for us a very basic human rights concern caused by structural problems. Recommendations about this have been made in the usual confidential way to the authorities concerned. There is a commitment to improve things but what is clearly lacking is a budget. This is why we have decided to work with the Justice Ministry to carry out a comprehensive analysis of the physical state of 33 provincial prisons throughout the country. We will then share the findings with the donor community to raise awareness and try to find donors willing to address these structural problems.

 What about support for medical facilities?   

    

We support both the regional referral hospital in Jalalabad which is catering to the entire population in the east and the regional hospital in Kandahar which is the only regional hospital for the entire southern part of the country. We primarily provide assistance and training for the surgical departments, which have over the past six months treated more than one thousand weapon wounded – a high number that I am afraid is increasing rather than decreasing.

Another closely related area for the ICRC is orthopaedic services, which employ 600 staff, the vast majority themselves disabled. This is a long running programme in Afghanistan and is a backbone of the institution's services in being very widely known, accepted and comprehensive. It provides high quality assistance to around 75,000 beneficiaries, many of them amputees, some polio cases. They receive prostheses and orthoses and remain life-long clients of the ICRC, since a farmer with an artificial limb must have it replaced or serviced every two to three years. Six orthopaedic centres across the country serve this clientele. 

 What is the ICRC's response to the continuing threat posed by landmines?  

    

In collaboration with the Afghan Red Crescent Society, mine risk education is carried out as widely as possible and particularly in remote areas where information about these weapons is not circulated widely enough. A second issue in this regard is mine data collection – thoroughly gathering information on mined areas and types of injury which enables demining organizations to organize and prioritize their interventions and use limited resources to demine the most infested areas.

 How does the ICRC try to ensure the respect for international humanitarian law?  

This has always been a major concern for the ICRC and trying to ensure respect for the basic principles of IHL – the law of war -- has always been problematic in this country. I think we are in the fortunate situation today that there is a very serious commitment to restructuring or even recreating from scratch an Afghan National Army. The ICRC has been asked to introduce international humanitarian law as an essential part of its training. There is a curriculum under presidential decree that IHL is now part and parcel of the training received by young recruits. We also have very good access to the top leadership of the Afghan National Army. 

Of course, the institution is obliged to reach out to all arms carriers but it is clearly much more difficult to conduct a structured and open dialogue with the armed opposition. We try to do what we can but in a security environment that is worsening rather than getting better there are clear obstacles.