Afghanistan: an uncertain future for humanitarian work

18-08-2010 Interview

On the occasion of World Humanitarian Day and in reaction to recent attacks on humanitarian workers, Reto Stocker, the ICRC's head of delegation in Afghanistan, discusses how humanitarian work in the country has evolved and what shape it may take in the future.


  ICRC activities during July 2010

  ©ICRC/ J. Powell / af-e-01560    
Mirwais Hospital, Kandahar.    

  ©ICRC/ M. Kokic/ af-e-00800    
Afghan Red Crescent volunteers teaching school children about the dangers of mines and other explosive remnants of war.    

  ©ICRC/ J. Powell / af-e-01579    
Karte Naw District, Kabul. An ICRC physiotherapist visiting a handicapped patient at home.    

  ©ICRC/ M. Kokic/ af-e-00908    
An ICRC delegate visiting detainees at Kandahar central prison.    

 Mr Stocker, World Humanitarian Day will be celebrated on 19 August. What is the main challenge for the ICRC in its humanitarian work?  

Being close to those in need is the most important and the most challenging aspect of our work in Afghanistan. We can only deliver our services by physically being where it matters most.

Parties to an armed conflict – whether regular armies or armed groups – have an obligation under international humanitarian law, the body of rules that protects those not or no longer fighting, to grant humanitarian organizations access so that they can bring aid to those who need it. In Afghanistan, most places were easily accessible until the military intervention in 2001. Early in 2003, the country became significantly more dangerous for humanitarian personnel, a development that culminated in the murder of an ICRC delegate. That marked the end of humanitarian access as we knew it, and the beginning of a full-fledged insurgency.

By initiating or resuming substantive dialogue with all warring parties, not taking sides and not discriminating among those we set out to serve, we at the ICRC have managed to assist war-affected people in many places – often in partnership with the Afghan Red Crescent Society, which is active in most parts of the country – and to expand our presence in the north and south. The ICRC's humanitarian operation in Afghanistan is currently its largest in the world in terms of resources committed.

 The ICRC often refers to itself as a neutral intermediary in armed conflict. Can the ICRC also help other organizations to deliver important services to people in this dangerous environment?  

Yes, we do sometimes help other humanitarian organizations that have a crucial service to offer but find it hard to deliver it because of the complex and unsafe environment. For example, for some time now we have been helping out with a crucial vaccination campaign by getting parties to the conflict to agree that it is needed and to allow it to go ahead.

International humanitarian law recognizes the need for a neutral and independent intermediary that all parties to conflict can turn to. In precisely that role, we assist in hostage releases, evacuate battlefield casualties, and put families in touch with relatives detained by the opposite side, to mention just a few of our activities.

 Has it become easier or more difficult for humanitarian organizations to reach people in need of aid? In other words, how much of a challenge has it become to obtain access?  

The degree to which we have been able to reach people in Afghanistan in order to deliver crucial humanitarian services   to them has evolved considerably over the years since 2002. Immediately after the 2001 military intervention, many humanitarian organizations were encouraged to integrate humanitarian activities into the overall military and political strategy of stabilization and reconstruction, an approach that we at the ICRC did not follow. That led to some aid agencies being perceived as not having solely humanitarian objectives. As a result, their access to certain parts of the country was hampered.

Recently, however, many humanitarian organizations have sought to distance themselves from the political and military realm, in order to work along purely humanitarian lines while ad opting a neutral and impartial approach. This is a recognition on their part that the only way for humanitarian organizations to operate across front lines is to have exclusively humanitarian motivations and not to take sides. This has led over the past three to four years to greater acceptance of some of the organizations, which, as a result, have had better access.

 Just recently, several medical staff from an international aid agency were killed in the north of the country. Have you considered using armed guards or taking similar measures to protect your staff?  

First of all, there is no such thing as absolute security in Afghanistan – not for us at the ICRC and not for anyone else.

To come back to your question, the answer is no. We do not have armed guards protecting either the offices or the residences used by our 1,600 staff, and we do not use bullet-proof vehicles. We believe that our security derives mainly from the trust and acceptance we enjoy in Afghanistan. Building higher walls around our offices or hiring armed guards would, in our view, be counter-productive and would distance us from – rather than bring us closer to – those we are here to serve.

 Lastly, what's the outlook for the months and years to come? Will the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations continue to be able to reach people who need their help throughout this large and rugged country?  

Two main factors are likely to influence what happens.

On one hand, the degree to which ordinary people and the warring parties come to accept that humanitarian organizations are truly neutral and impartial, that they are performing their tasks for purely humanitarian reasons, will matter a lot.

On the other hand, armed groups and other parties to conflict seem to be proliferating. In our experience, it is easier to reach people in a given place when you have only two or three distinct parties to negotiate access with than when you have a different armed group for each region, district or even village.

Ordinary people, as always, pay the price. More armed groups usually means more violence and suffering, and therefore more need for the aid provided by organizations such as ours. More armed groups also means significantly more difficulty faced by organizations like the ICRC seeking to reach the victims, therefore leaving even more people needing help, and so on. It's a tragically vicious circle. Unfortunately, we are concerned that that is the way things could be headed.