Afghanistan: reflecting on another decade of protecting the vulnerable

03-10-2011 Interview

Katja Gysin, after completing a two-year assignment with the ICRC in Afghanistan, looks back on the 10 years of the current conflict and the changes that have taken place in the organization's work carried out for detainees and other people protected by international humanitarian law.

What are the major challenges that the ICRC has encountered over the past 10 years in its activities for people entitled to protection under international humanitarian law?

Our work first had to adapt to the new situation on the ground, the new government, and many other issues. That, for sure, was a challenge. But I think over the years it has gone smoothly.

One of the major challenges was to build up a dialogue with the international forces, and especially the US forces. We started from scratch in 2001 in Afghanistan, and in 2003 in Iraq. We had to develop a whole operational dialogue with a new interlocutor.

In the beginning the ICRC was at one end of the spectrum and the US was at the other so it was really a process of finding out how to meet in the middle. That took quite some time.

Conducting dialogue with both the international community and the Afghan government to bring them together as far as possible was also quite a challenge for the ICRC, especially at the start. In 2001, the ICRC was working in the context of an international conflict and occupation, which then became an internationalized non-international conflict following the establishment of the Afghan Transitional Authority in June 2002, paving the way to have a sovereign government.

But I think today, our dialogue is at a very good level with all those concerned on a number of relevant issues.

Right from the beginning, we engaged in dialogue on detention with the Afghan authorities. We achieved access to detainees in Afghan detention places step by step and have made substantial progress in these ten years. The Afghan authorities thoroughly understand the advantages of having the ICRC visit their places of detention, not only because we can deliver assistance and help improve water and sanitation, but also because of our protection work. We can advise them on how prisoners should be treated, and how they should go through the judicial process. We have maintained a confidential dialogue with them on areas in which we have identified deficiencies. There is still a way to go, but we have made progress.

With the International detention authorities, I think there was some understanding, but it took more time for them to know the role of the ICRC -- to realize what it is we want to do, and need to do, and how our work can be beneficial for the detainees, and for themselves.

The most difficult challenge, given the circumstances, has been with the armed opposition. It’s not as if they have a fixed detention facility that you can go and visit it. For us -- and for them -- it was, and still is, a security concern. We did make visits to detainees last year, and again this year, but only when opportunities arose. On the other hand, discussions with them about the treatment of detainees have been ongoing.

What have been the major successes of the ICRC’s detention-related activities?

I think we have been quite successful in mobilizing the international community concerning detention, given that the Afghan prison system needs a lot of support. We can help those who are interested, to understand what are the main specificities characteristics and needs of the Afghan prisons, and where and how they can assist. We have made assessments of conditions in all the provincial prisons, so we have tools that can help to bring good results in the cooperation between international stakeholders and the Afghan administration.

Regarding the ICRC’s Family Links programme, which helps families and their detained relatives keep in touch through video telephone calls and family visits, I would not want to say that it has been a complete success. But I think it is something that is useful, and very much appreciated both by detainees and their families. After many years during which families were not allowed to see their detained relatives at the US detention facility at Bagram airbase, we were able to put in place a system in 2008 whereby they could reconnect with each other through video conference links, and also through family visits.

In my role as an ICRC protection delegate, I do have to say, though, that the authorities have an obligation to allow detainees and their families to keep in touch. The Family Links programme makes perfect sense, both for the families and for the detainees, it’s a great programme, but the goal is that the detaining authorities should do it themselves, and not that the ICRC does it for them.

What will be the priorities for the ICRC’s detention-related activities as responsibility is transferred from the international forces to the Afghan authorities?

The Transition process that is underway now has two angles from a protection perspective. The first concerns the conditions of detention when prisons are handed over the Afghan authorities. There are issues at stake about the sustainability of those conditions, about how the prisons will be run, and what the future of the facilities will be. Secondly, there are legal issues involved when detainees are transferred from administrative detention into a criminal detention system.

The biggest challenge for us now is whom do we speak to, and about what. And about who has the obligation to take charge of which issues. You have an environment in which there are both international and Afghan detaining authorities in the same place. Which of them is ultimately responsible for ensuring that detainees are treated correctly, that they get their food, and showers and clothes and can have contact with their families? It is essential to ensure that it does not end in a ping pong: "It's their responsibility, no, it's their responsibility."

It is difficult for us, and it is difficult for the detainees. If you are in detention it is good to know who is responsible for you, and who is there to respond to your requests. And that is not always so easy.

Then there is the broader issue of security – where responsibility for security is being handed over from international to Afghan forces, and also to more local initiatives. We are developing our dialogue on the conduct of hostilities with the parties to the conflict, the Afghan army and police, and also with recently-formed local militias.

There are general concerns about what security will be like when there are more and more armed groups out in the field. How much control will there be? How much oversight? To whom are these groups accountable? Who will hold them to account for what they are doing? I think there is still some work for the ICRC to do regarding the dialogue we have had over the past few years on these issues; and in developing it with these new groups, reminding them of their obligations under international humanitarian law.

What you are saying is that there are responsibilities on both sides?

Absolutely. Article 1, common to the four Geneva Conventions says that all parties to the Conventions not only have to respect international humanitarian law themselves, but they also have to ensure that there is respect by the other parties. So, the closer the working relationship is between two countries – and here in Afghanistan many countries are involved – the more scope there is for them to have an influence through training, mentoring and financing to make sure that the other party is ensuring respect. Therefore, they have responsibility both for their own conduct, and to ensure that the other party is also respecting the law.  

What has been the most satisfying aspect of your mission in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has been a huge challenge for me because of the work and the size of the delegation; because of what we all do, and the sheer scale of the issues involved. It's also been extremely rewarding. It's been a mission where you are at the pulse, where things are happening and the country is changing.

The issues are not the same as when I first came here two years ago. And they also change from day to day. You can come in on a Sunday and think that your week will look like this, and then by the same evening you will find it has completely changed! You really have to be on your toes. But I think it's a mission where the work we do can shape things, and have an influence. You really feel you are part of what is happening, and not just knocking on doors and saying the same things and nothing changes.


Katja Gysin 

Katja Gysin

Kandahar, central prison. An ICRC delegate talks to a security detainee in the juvenile section. 

Kandahar, central prison. An ICRC delegate talks to a security detainee in the juvenile section.
© ICRC / M. Kokic / v-p-af-e-00904

Sar-i Pul prison. Part of the kitchen built by the ICRC. 

Sar-i Pul prison. Part of the kitchen built by the ICRC.
© ICRC / L. Ponchon / v-p-af-e-01354

ICRC office, Kandahar. Relatives talk to a detainee via a video telephone link. 

ICRC office, Kandahar. Relatives talk to a detainee via a video telephone link.
© ICRC / K. Holt / v-p-af-e-01782