Brazil: mitigating the effects of armed violence

16-09-2011 Interview

The ICRC has been in Rio de Janeiro since 2008, working to reduce the impact of armed violence in urban settings on the population. It operates in seven of the city's neighbourhoods: Cantagalo/Pavão-Pavãozinho, Cidade de Deus, Complexo da Maré, Complexo do Alemão, Parada de Lucas, Vigário Geral and Vila Vintém. Stephan Sakalian, head of the Rio project, explains how and why the ICRC is taking action.

The media often portray the situation in Rio de Janeiro as a "war." Does the ICRC share this view?

What we're seeing in Rio de Janeiro is urban armed violence, which doesn't amount to  an armed conflict for the purposes of international humanitarian law despite armed clashes between drug traffickers and the militia, police and armed forces. Sadly, this violence is not limited to Rio de Janeiro, but is also prevalent in other large cities where social inequality is marked and where highly organized and armed gangs operate.

How is the population affected by this urban armed violence?

In certain parts of the city, the inhabitants have been continually exposed to armed violence for decades on end. There is a great sense of powerlessness among both those directly injured and those who frequently witness violence on their doorstep. While the wounds are not always visible, the day-to-day battle with stress and anxiety, and the death of loved ones, or the fear of losing them, certainly take their toll.

Medical personnel and schoolteachers working in these neighbourhoods are faced with difficult and sometimes dangerous situations, which make it impossible for them to do their jobs properly. The inhabitants are therefore deprived of access to a whole range of public and private services and are unable to exercise some of their basic rights. As a result, they feel neglected and powerless.

Why is the ICRC working in Rio de Janeiro?

Given its over 150 years' experience of helping victims of war, the ICRC is in a strong position to assist those affected by armed violence. We believe that we can use what we've learned to help improve the situation for urban dwellers, even in Rio de Janeiro, where there's no armed conflict going on.

What is the ICRC doing to help?

We're focusing our efforts on the most socially vulnerable and on those who are most exposed to violence. Among other initiatives, we are training people in first aid, improving access to health care, promoting mental health care and supporting teenage mothers and their children. We've also launched a schools project entitled "Creating humanitarian spaces." We're in regular contact with the police, armed forces and armed gangs to encourage them to limit the impact of armed violence on the population and to ensure that we can safely reach those in need. We also visit detainees. (See text box for more information.)

I should point out that we carry out most of this work in cooperation with the national authorities, public institutions, the Brazilian Red Cross and local non-governmental organizations.

What has been the outcome of the ICRC's work?

The ICRC is well accepted by both the inhabitants and the armed groups in the seven neighbourhoods where it works every day. Teachers in the schools we've visited feel better able to cope with the day-to-day struggles their work entails, as do the health-care workers who have taken part in our workshops.

One of our aims was to boost the community's capacity to cope with daily violence. We wanted to get people thinking about the consequences of armed violence, to raise awareness of the problem, and to try and break the silence surrounding it by helping people to overcome their fear and shame. In many cases, we've seen violence lose its taboo status and become something that people can talk about and therefore deal with more easily. The first-aid programme has had more tangible outcomes: over 300 people have received community-based training and can now help their relatives and neighbours if the emergency services are late in arriving.

Another of our priorities was to establish links between the different institutions operating in these neighbourhoods. For example, we've facilitated discussions between health
authorities and the police on the need to ensure that medical personnel can carry out their activities unhindered. We've also encouraged teachers and students to discuss violence and how to better protect schools.

Is the ICRC in contact with all armed groups?

To reduce the impact of the violence, it is important for us not only to help those affected, but also to talk to all weapon bearers, regardless of whether they belong to the police and national army or to armed gangs. Working on the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence, we approach armed groups to raise their awareness of the consequences of armed violence and to ensure that they assume their responsibilities in this regard. As a matter of priority, we talk to them about the need for medical personnel and schoolteachers to carry out their work in safety, for the injured to receive urgent medical attention, and for the dead to be handled with respect.

How does the ICRC make sure that all armed groups accept its presence?

We make it very clear to all inhabitants, leaders and institutions in the area who we are, what we are doing and why. This makes it easier for the armed groups within the communities we're helping to accept our being there. We try to keep in regular contact with the armed gangs in order to share our concerns with them, while also holding a dialogue with the security forces. However, it takes time to build up the trust necessary for a constructive dialogue. As always, the ICRC treats these discussions as confidential, and we never publicly disclose the sensitive matters we address with our interlocutors. Confidentiality is a fundamental working modality that enables us to safely reach the people affected by violence.


The ICRC in Rio de Janeiro

The ICRC is active in seven neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro: Cantagalo/Pavão-Pavãozinho, Cidade de Deus, Complexo da Maré, Complexo do Alemão, Parada de Lucas, Vigário Geral and Vila Vintém.

Delivering first-aid training

In close cooperation with the Brazilian Red Cross, the ICRC provides first-aid training to the Red Cross volunteers and to inhabitants of neighbourhoods that emergency services have difficulty reaching because of the armed violence. These courses prepare people to go out and train others in the community. Participants learn basic techniques for dealing with firearm wounds, accidents at home and on the road, and other emergencies.

Creating humanitarian spaces

The ICRC has developed a programme to encourage teachers and students to discuss humanitarian principles, respect for human life and dignity, self-protection in situations of risk, basic first aid and violence prevention. These topics are introduced through workshops included in school curricula. Entitled "Creating humanitarian spaces," the programme was created in 2009 together with the Rio de Janeiro state education authority, and is aimed at students in public middle schools.

Facilitating access to health care

In cooperation with Rio de Janeiro's health and civil defence authority, the ICRC facilitates access to health care for communities affected by armed violence. Among other initiatives, it advises staff from the municipal family-health programme on safe behaviour.

Promoting mental health care

The ICRC works closely with staff from the family-health programme to alleviate the emotional distress of those affected by armed violence, through group therapy and other mental health services. By encouraging people to support one another, these activities help integrate violence-scarred individuals into the community.

Supporting teenage mothers and their children

In cooperation with the family-health authority, the ICRC organizes home visits and group sessions for teenage mothers and mothers-to-be. The aim is to promote the healthy development of their children and to make it easier for them to get the medical and psychological attention they need. The ICRC also endeavours to ensure that their home environment is better protected against the threat of armed violence and the effects of poor social conditions. It trains public-health professionals to support these young mothers and their children over the long term.

Engaging in dialogue with security forces and armed gangs

Part of the ICRC's work is to hold a dialogue with the police on the importance of respecting human life and dignity. The aim is not only to promote and strengthen the ICRC's own activities and programmes, but to ensure that international human rights standards are incorporated into the teaching, policies and training of the armed forces and police. Through this approach, the ICRC promotes greater awareness and better understanding of human rights, as well as greater respect for the international standards governing the use of force and firearms by the police. It is also a way of sensitizing the police and security forces to humanitarian values. The ICRC also seeks to establish direct contact with armed gangs in order to discuss humanitarian issues with them.

Visiting detainees

The ICRC cooperates with the civilian police authorities in lockups in Rio de Janeiro state to ensure that detainees there are treated with dignity and humanity. ICRC delegates visit these detention centres frequently to monitor conditions and to speak confidentially with the detaining authorities, with a view to resolving any humanitarian issues that have been identified.



Stephan Sakalian