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Myanmar: ICRC humanitarian aid "remains essential" in light of recent events

05-10-2007 Interview

Edith Baeriswyl is head of ICRC operations for East Asia, South-East Asia and the Pacific. She talks of the ICRC's concerns over the humanitarian situation in Myanmar where the organization has had to scale down its humanitarian work over the past two years because of increasing restrictions by the Myanmar authorities.

   

  ©ICRC    
 
  Edith Baeriswyl    
     

 Has the ICRC resumed its visits to places of detention? Has it visited people arrested in connection with the demonstrations?  

    

Since end of 2005, the government of Myanmar has imposed increasing restrictions on ICRC activities, making it impossible for the organization to continue visits to thousands of detainees in line with its usual procedures. It has also prevented the ICRC from conducting independent field visits to conflict-affected areas along the Thai-Myanmar border. This has hampered the delivery of aid to civilians a ccording to strictly humanitarian and neutral criteria.

As a result of these restrictions the ICRC has - since early 2006 - progressively reduced its humanitarian activities to limited rehabilitation support to amputees and mine victims and the funding of a family visit programme to detainees.

 What are the ICRC's concerns in relation to the recent events in Myanmar, and the tense situation that persists – and what can it do?  

The ICRC is concerned with the current situation in Myanmar and its humanitarian consequences on ordinary people.

As tensions began to mount in August, families started approaching the ICRC offices asking for help to find the whereabouts of their relatives who, they said, had been arrested.

The ICRC's response has been to ask the authorities to provide families with information on the whereabouts of their loved ones and to allow the ICRC access to all people who might be in need of its assistance in the current situation.

 A year ago, the government of Myanmar asked the ICRC to close its offices in conflict areas. What is the situation today?  

The ICRC is still present in Myanmar, albeit with a significantly smaller set-up. Its main delegation is in Yangon, its sub-delegation in Mandalay and a rehabilitation centre in Hpa-an. It provides support to detainees, by facilitating their families'visits to the various places of detention. The rehabilitation centre responds to the needs of disabled people and amputees in the south-east of the country.

The ICRC also supports the Myanmar Red Cross in developing its capacities to respond to humanitarian needs that can arise in the country.

 In June this year the ICRC denounced important and repeated violations of international humanitarian law by the Myanmar government. Has anything happened on this matter since?  

On 29 June, in an exceptional step, ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger publicly denounced important and repeated violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) (see press release ) urging the government of Myanmar to address them. The statement shed light on pressing humanitarian concerns and emphasized the responsibility of States in ensuring the full respect for IHL, which is universally binding.

The ICRC has been working in Myanmar since 1986. Over time, we developed efficient working relations with the authorities concerned and carried out humanitarian activities that were essential for the most vulnerable segments of the population.

ICRC delegates conducted visits to detainees in order to assess their conditions of detention and treatment, as well as field trips in sensitive border areas to assess the situation and provide assistance and protection to those most in need. Through the continuous dialogue with the authorities and the steps undertaken by them with the assistance of the ICRC, some important results were achieved.

Being able to deliver humanitarian aid in Myanmar remains essential. The ICRC stands ready, as ever, to resume its humanitarian work provided the government of Myanmar is willing to engage and cooperate in a meaningful dialogue on these substantial humanitarian issues.

 How do you see the future of the ICRC's presence in Myanmar and its capacity to respond to urgent humanitarian needs?  

The ICRC has no intention of leaving M yanmar, as it is convinced of the need for a neutral and independent humanitarian actor working to address concrete humanitarian issues and problems.

The ICRC is therefore not sparing any effort to re-establish a meaningful dialogue with the concerned Myanmar authorities with the aim of obtaining access to those most in need.