The ICRC in Latin America and the Caribbean

10-07-2008 Interview

In many Latin American and Caribbean countries, people are suffering the consequences of armed conflict and other situations of violence. In other countries, a conflict may have ended decades ago, but people are still struggling to rebuild their devastated lives. Maria Dos Anjos Gussing, the ICRC’s head of operations for Latin America and the Caribbean, details the organization's efforts to meet humanitarian needs in the region.


  ©ICRC/KRASSOWSKI, Witold / co-e-00299    
  Magdalena department, Colombia, November 2007. The ICRC delivers emergency assistance to an indigenous community which has been displaced.    

  ©ICRC/GUIDOTTI , Gianluca    
  Cité-Soleil, Haiti, 2008. Residents collect water from a fountain installed by the ICRC.    

  ©ICRC/HEGER, Boris / ec-e-00051    
  Quito, Ecuador, April 2007. A Colombian refugee writes a Red Cross message for his family back in Colombia.    

  ©ICRC/MOLINA, Carla    
  Quiché, Guatemala, December 2007. With the support of the ICRC, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Centre handed over recently recovered remains to the relatives of some of those who disappeared during the 1980s conflict.    

  ©ICRC/HEGER, Boris / pe-e-00134    

  ©CICR/HEGER, Boris / bo-e-00044    
  Sucre, Bolivia, April 2007. An ICRC delegate answers questions during a workshop on health in prisons.    

  ©ICRC/DOS SANTOS, Alex    
  Asunción, Paraguay, March 2008. An ICRC representative talks to a detainee at the “Casa del Buen Pastor”, a women’s correctional facility.    

  Caracas, Venezuela, January 2008. Journalists from various media gather at the ICRC’s request to talk about the ICRC’s work and mission and about humanitarian principles.    
Maria dos Anjos Gussing    
     What are the ICRC’s main concerns in Latin America and the Caribbean?  

Our priority is the impact on the population of the various conflicts and situations of organized armed violence in the region.

Our main operation is in Colombia, where we work to protect and assist the victims of the armed conflict.

The aftermath of past conflicts and other situations of violence is also a matter of concern for the ICRC – the needs of people who remain in detention, for example, or the relatives of the missing.

In addition, the organization deals with situations of violence which are not covered by international humanitarian law, but which nonetheless have serious humanitarian consequences. This applies to Haiti, for example, where violence and instability persist. Here, the ICRC carries out a wide variety of protection and assistance activities designed to help the most vulnerable inhabitants of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and to address detention conditions in the country's prisons.

In terms of protection, the ICRC supports governments in the region to help them ratify international humanitarian law treaties and incorporate the rules into their national legislation. It also boosts the capacity of National Red Cross Societies to deal with disasters and situations of violence, and promotes humanitarian principles through a series of programmes aimed at young people, journalists and academic circles.

 What does the ICRC do in Colombia?  

Our operation in Colombia is the ICRC’s sixth largest worldwide, encompassing a wide variety of activities across the country. We respond to the differing humanitarian needs of the victims of the conflict and focus on areas where the needs are greatest. When people are displaced, for example, the ICRC supplies them with food and basic household essentials for the first few months, and works closely with the agencies whose job it is to continue to provide this aid. The organization also improves access to health-care services, offers medical care for the treatment and prevention of disease, directs people to State health-care facilities, accompanies the Ministry of Health to remote areas where security conditions are poor and, with the support of its National Society partners, runs mobile health units.

The ICRC visits detainees in all of the country’s prisons to check on their conditions of detention and their treatment, and endeavours to visit soldiers and police officers held b y armed opposition groups. The ICRC also runs a major landmine programme, involving mine-risk education, risk limitation, and assistance for the victims. It coordinates its activities with other key groups working to prevent incidents and respond to the needs of the victims of landmines and explosive remnants of war.

The ICRC collaborates closely with the Colombian Red Cross, principally in relation to individual emergency assistance for the displaced, the reunification of families separated by the conflict, mine-risk education activities, the dissemination of humanitarian law and Movement activities.

 What does the ICRC do in Haiti?  

The ICRC focuses on protecting and assisting people affected by violence in Port-au-Prince, and engages in dialogue with all armed actors to increase respect for humanitarian principles. In addition, working with the authorities and other international organizations, it endeavours to improve conditions for all detainees held in State prisons. It is mobilizing the authorities and the international community to finance and initiate improvements to prison infrastructure. The ICRC helps the Haitian Red Cross boost its capacity to respond to emergencies and evacuate the wounded in districts prone to violence. The organization also works on water distribution and sanitation projects.

 In recent decades, Latin America has been marked by many conflicts, some of which have now come to an end. What does the ICRC do to address the consequences of these past conflicts?  


The ICRC works to meet the needs in the region arising from past conflicts, helping the relatives of the missing, for example, or monitoring detention conditions.

The organization aims to restore contact between relatives, discover the whereabouts of people reported missing, support forensic teams in identifying mortal remains, and help States introduce legislative and administrative measures to prevent people disappearing in situations of internal violence or armed conflict. It coordinates its efforts with other non-governmental agencies focusing on the same issues.

The ICRC regularly visits people deprived of their freedom in connection with past conflicts: it facilitates contact between detainees and their relatives, and helps the detaining authorities improve conditions in the prisons. In particular, the organization works with the authorities in several countries to improve prison health-care services.

 What does the ICRC do to promote humanitarian law?  

The ICRC advises governments on ratifying and applying the instruments of international humanitarian law. It encourages and helps national authorities ratify international treaties and draw up laws regarding the red cross and red crescent emblems, war crime sanctions, and the missing.

The ICRC works with young people on the issue of violence, and has introduced the “Exploring Humanitarian Law” programme in schools, running training courses for the teachers. It also promotes the incorporation of international humanitarian law into university curricula and organizes seminars for journalists interested in finding out more about the law applicable in situations of armed conflict and about the work of the organization around the world.

The ICRC also promotes humanitarian principles and the working methods of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement via its activities and its collaboration with the National Societies.


 What presence does the ICRC have in Latin America and the Caribbean?  


The ICRC currently carries out its humanitarian work in Latin America and the Caribbean from its offices in nine countries, which cover the whole region. We have had a delegation in Colombia since 1969 and one in Haiti since 1994, which focus on those two countries respectively. There is a regional delegation in Mexico City, which coordinates activities in Central America and in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries; another in Caracas, which focuses on activities in Venezuela, Suriname and the English-speaking Caribbean countries; another in Lima, for activities in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador; and one in Buenos Aires for activities in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. In addition, there are three offices in Guatemala, Port of Spain, and Brasilia. The budget for the whole region in 2008 is 50 million US dollars; in terms of staff, we have 87 expatriate delegates and 407 local employees.