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Afghanistan: ICRC maintains neutral, independent, humanitarian assistance

06-11-2009 Interview

Despite a recent attack on a guest house in Kabul housing United Nations personnel, the ICRC is continuing its efforts to help Afghans affected by the armed conflict. The organization’s neutrality and independence, intensive dialogue with all sides and the trust of ordinary Afghans are enabling the ICRC to provide aid where it is most needed. Reto Stocker is the ICRC’s head of delegation in Afghanistan. He explains how the ICRC continues to work in this challenging context.

 Will the recent violence towards humanitarian workers affect the ICRC operation in Afghanistan and the organization's ability to assist Afghans?  

Before coming to your question let me just say that the ICRC condemns all attacks on civilians and that clearly includes last week’s attack on UN staff. The attack was an unacceptable violation of international humanitarian law.

Turning to your question: the ICRC will not withdraw any staff, and we will continue to operate in the country as we did before last week's attack. In fact, we have been gradually expanding our operations for several years to reach more people suffering because of the armed conflict, and we now have more than 1,500 Afghan and expatriate ICRC staff in Afghanistan. The main reason we can still operate in Afghanistan, even though the conflict is spreading and intensifying, is that as a neutral and independent humanitarian organization we operate free from political, military, ideological or religious affiliations. Our security comes from the trust and acceptance we enjoy amongst the people of Afghanistan and the parties to the conflict.

 Will the ICRC be looking at the use of armed guards or similar measures to protect its staff?  

The ICRC has never used armed guards to secure its offices or residences in Afghanistan and none of our vehicles are escorted. Again, we believe that security for the ICRC as a humanitarian agency comes chiefly from the trust we have built up by operating on the basis of purely humanitarian considerations. If you add the acceptance as a neutral and independent organization the ICRC enjoys amongst the affected populations and the parties to the conflict, you have the key elements we rely on for our security and for our continued access to many parts of Afghanistan. This being so, the use of armed guards would be counter-productive. However, I would like to add that during the 30 years the ICRC has been in Afghanistan, access to people affected by conflict has rarely been as difficult as it is today. In order to travel in dangerous areas, the ICRC consistently notifies its road movements to all parties to the conflict.

One thing is clear: wherever there is armed conflict, there is no such thing as absolute security, for anyone. And that includes the ICRC. We too have lost staff in Afghanistan.

 Does the neutrality of the ICRC mean that it communicates with all parties to the conflict?  

Absolutely. That is part of the ICRC’s mandate. We are in constant dialogue with the armed opposition and with international and Afghan security forces. When we see anything that appears to be a violation of international humanitarian law, we raise our concerns with the party concerned. What is equally important is that we act as a neutral intermediary between the various warring parties. This has enabled us to help secure the release of hostages, as in 2007 when the ICRC was approached to facilitate the release of 21 Korean hostages. The position of neutral intermediary also enables us to retrieve the bodies of fighters and return them to their families, or to arrange for a pause in fighting where there has been an outbreak of disease, enabling us to evacuate people and deliver aid.

Since late 2007, we have regularly been mediating between the Afghan ministry of public health, the WHO and the armed opposition, getting security guarantees that enabled the ministry and the WHO to carry out a polio vaccination programme without having to fear being targeted.

We remain faithful to our mission of alleviating the suffering of people affected by armed conflict. Today, that includes the vast majority of Afghans, as most of the population is affected, either directly or indirectly.