The ICRC in Asia and the Pacific: ambitious goals
The Asia-Pacific has become increasingly significant to the ICRC not only because of its large deployment in Afghanistan, but also due to other operational priorities and, not least, its ambition to cement humanitarian partnerships across the region.
The ICRC maintains delegations in 8 countries across the Asia-Pacific with additional regional delegations based in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi, Suva and Tashkent.
The region's budget for 2004 fell 18 per cent compared to the previous year, a reflection largely of altered operational activities in Afghanistan, where the prime focus has shifted from assistance to the civilian population to protection of those held in relation to the conflict by the US and Afghan authorities, including those at the facilities of Bagram and Kandahar.
The goal of these visits is to ensure that the conditions of detention are humane and conform to international standards and norms.
Changing requirements and security questions
There are two main reasons for this change of operational direction, explains the ICRC's Delegate-General for Asia and the Pacific, Reto Meister.*
" Beforehand, we were looking at a war-struck country that was also badly affected by droughts and the displacement of civilians. Today Afghanistan is in a phase focusing on stabilization and reconstruction and therefore the needs of the civilian population have evolved. In addition, harvests have been good in 2002 and 2003. "
The second cause for the rethink, however, is one faced more and more by humanitarian workers in different parts of the world the world. Security guarantees, says Meister, are not sufficiently reliable for ICRC staff to circulate freely in many parts of the country, in particular in the south and south-east.
In addition, assistance delivered by the military, some of it politically motivated, is muddying the waters for actors involved in strictly independent and neutral humanitarian action.
A long-standing but important facet of the ICRC's programme in Afghanistan is the prevention and treatment of mine injuries. Over the past 15 years, the ICRC has provided medical assistance to almost 60,000 victims, delivering orthopaedic services and support for those affected to reintegrate into society.
The ICRC also manages mine mapping activities allowing it to make people more aware of the areas most plagued by anti-personnel mines and providing important knowledge for partners engaged in mine clearance.
To illustrate how the ICRC works in the region, Meister chooses two countries, Nepal and Myanma r, to exemplify the organization's modus operandi.
In Nepal, he states, both the government and the Maoist insurgents fully accept the ICRC's presence as a neutral intermediary.
" This acceptance allows us an extensive field presence and good working contacts with both parties to the internal armed conflict, allowing us for example to be involved in the release of prisoners by the Maoists. The ICRC's good offices have been sought and accepted by both parties. "
In delivering emergency assistance to civilians, a close working relationship with the Nepalese Red Cross has been developed – a pattern that is repeated with other National Societies.
In Myanmar, the ICRC's presence has enabled it to make first-hand observations regarding the respect for international humanitarian law and to hold a confidential dialogue with the military authorities to formulate recommendations to bring their behaviour into line with the rules of conduct for such a conflict.
" One example illustrates the impact that such a dialogue can have, " says Meister, " Following interventions regarding the recruitment of minors, " the authorities have very recently strictly prohibited their forced recruitment into the armed forces. " The ICRC, he says, will now monitor the implementation of this decision.
The role of Kuala Lumpur
The ICRC's regional delegation in Kuala Lumpur provides crucial support to all six delegations in East and South-East Asia in the realm of the dissemination of international humanitarian law (IHL).
This includes the training of military and police officers, the integration of the law of armed conflict into educational modules, tactical and operational instructions for police forces and armies, cooperation with universities and ministries of education to include IHL in the curricula of law faculties and the inclusion of the principles that underpin IHL into public school education for teenagers.
Kuala Lumpur also offers an advisory service to governments to assist them in incorporating IHL at the national level and maintains a network with the local and regional media, think-tanks and regional organizations such as ASEAN.
Meister says the support offered by Kuala Lumpur is invaluable.
" Its purpose is to ensure that international humanitarian law is known to as many segments of Asian society as possible and that the ICRC itself is seen as a trustworthy partner on issues related to security and humanitarian action. "
The work carried out by Kuala Lumpur guarantees that the aim of embedding knowledge and respect for IHL in Asia is carried out in full respect of local traditions and the sovereignty of states.
It is a goal that will be strengthened by the opening of a regional delegation for East Asia in Beijing – a major priority for the ICRC.
" We have received assurances from the Chinese leadership that such a p resence would be welcome, " explains Meister, " and we are presently in the course of negotiating the modalities regarding the establishment of our permanent delegation in that country. "