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Congo-Kinshasa: "Much remains to be done"

23-02-2007 Interview

Returning from an assignment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where she was head of the ICRC's delegation, Dominique Liengme feels that, despite the stabilization process that is now underway, the country is still in dire need of humanitarian aid.

 Is the democratic transition process in the DRC affecting the ICRC’s level of commitment?  

    

It is true that the first free and democratic elections in the DRC ran smoothly overall, and that the country is in a period of stabilization. Nevertheless, considerable humanitarian needs remain to be met, especially in the eastern part of the DRC. That is why the ICRC is planning to step up its activities this year as compared with 2006. For example, it will continue and even reinforce its limb-fitting programmes and its support for medical facilities. With the help of health-care professionals from the Panzi hospital in Kivu, the ICRC is currently drawing up a protocol for the medical and surgical management of patients suffering from osteomyelitis and osteitis. This new programme will help to improve the treatment of chronic wounds that lead to serious bone infections.

The ICRC's assistance is still needed to restore family links. Although the use of cell phones is growing in the DRC, a significant number of people have no other way but the Red Cross message system to communicate with their relatives. In this regard, I would like to thank the DRC Red Cross volunteers who collect and distribute these messages in the country’s remotest areas; this essential ICRC activity could not be carried out without their help. More specifically, we are continuing to reunite a significant number of children with their relatives and to monitor children associated with armed forces or armed groups, with the help of other humanitarian organizations.

In 20 06, the ICRC also conducted a number of emergency relief operations to assist people who were newly displaced inside the country, mostly on account of military offensives. It should be stressed that the support we provide for hospitals and other health-care facilities helps the resident population as much as it does those persons who have had to flee the fighting. The same is true for our water and sanitation programmes, such as those conducted last year in Katanga, where few humanitarian organizations were able to meet the needs of the resident or displaced population. We are also helping to promote development and economic recovery by assisting certain groups in the agricultural and fish farming sectors.

 Protecting civilians remains at the heart of the ICRC's action  

    

Unfortunately, there is still a need to protect the civilian population in the DRC, where pillaging and extortion are ongoing. For some time now, we have been focusing our efforts on issues like sexual violence, through a number of activities, such as providing counselling and medical and psychosocial assistance for victims, or training Red Cross volunteers to raise awareness of the problem in their communities and guide victims to adequate medical facilities. We also hold sessions for the DRC's armed forces in order to promote international humanitarian law and remind them of their obligations to comply with its rules. In addition, we make oral and written representations to the civilian and military authorities with a view to reducing acts of violence. However, much still remains to be done.

As a neutral and impartial intermediary, we are also in touch with representatives of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which continue to occupy the eastern part of the country. We have star ted to organize awareness-raising sessions on the basic principles of international humanitarian law for groups of combatants. These sessions help to strengthen our working relationship with armed groups so that we can better address the specific challenges involved in protecting the civilian population. The FDLR, like the other armed groups that may be responsible for acts of violence against the civilian population or wounded combatants, must be made aware of and respect their obligations under international humanitarian law.

 How can the ICRC make a difference in a situation where the number of victims is incalculable?  

    

We are making a difference through our presence in the field every day, through our complementary and interdependent protection, assistance and prevention programmes. Our familiarity with the situation and with those involved in it also plays a role. In general, I think that our mere presence helps to discourage violence. Impunity remains widespread but it is a problem that has to be tackled by the government, through greater efforts in this area. We are very active in North and South Kivu, where assistance needs are most acute. The violence in Katanga has now subsided and the situation there should remain stable with the demobilization of the Mai-Mai militia.

 
"Impunity remains widespread but it is a problem that has to be tackled by the government"
 

We can neither confirm nor deny the figures advanced for the number of victims. It is extremely difficult to estimate how many people have suffered from the combined effect of the non-international armed conflict (between the regular armed forces and various armed groups), the internal conflict (between the armed groups themselves), and the other situations of internal violence connected to the presence of foreign rebels. Add to this the decline in public services that has been observed for decades now.

Without a doubt, war, ongoing violence, the displacement of large numbers of people, the poor state of health-care facilities and extreme poverty are factors that have claimed a significant number of victims, mostly civilians. People have died and continue to die especially from diseases that could otherwise be prevented. Our assistance to health-care centres and hospitals, and programmes for improving access to drinking water and fostering economic recovery are part of a whole, and have an impact on the everyday lives of beneficiaries, whether in terms of their survival or overall health.