Chad: the ICRC's independence in humanitarian action explained

29-02-2008 Interview

The head of the ICRC delegation in Chad, Thomas Merkelbach, outlines the basic position of the ICRC and its dialogue with all bodies, civilian and military, including the European military force being deployed.

 What is neutral and independent humanitarian action?  


 Humanitarian action aims to relieve the suffering of people affected by conflicts and other situations of violence. It is not a political venture, hence the need for humanitarian workers to clearly position themselves outside the field of political debates. The principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality have guided the action of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement since its beginnings. They contribute to building acceptance and confidence with all armed groups and communities involved in all situations of violence, which is essential for the ICRC's action. These principles allow the ICRC to help people affected by armed conflicts on all sides. The priority must always be ensuring we have unrestricted access to the affected population without distinction.  


 How does that concretely translate into humanitarian action in Chad?  


 The situation in Chad is quite complex. Civilians confront a multi-faceted problem: an internal conflict between government and opposition forces, as happened in the capital N'Djamena recently, as well as recurring inter-community violence and cross-border raids.  


 This instability disrupts the social and economic fabric of communities and the prevailing insecurity affects their day-to-day lives. In such a fragmented and contested environment, it is important that our efforts to bring unconditional assistance to civilians in-need, are not compromised by misconceptions about our motives. The credibility and transparency of our actions are our only protection in the field.  


 In Chad generally, but more specifically in eastern Chad, ICRC operations address the needs of the whole population     affected by the conflict and other situations of violence. We look not just at the needs of displaced people but also at those villages who host them and which carry an extra burden. Their resources, such as water, land or firewood become stretched when they have to deal with a sudden population increase. We strive to develop activities that respond to the different needs of affected populations in order to, among other things, avoid contributing to protracted displacement or to increasing tensions between displaced people and their hosts. People who rely on cattle breeding do not have the same needs as those who make a living by trading grain for basic items. Those who are displaced do not necessarily require the same type of assistance as those who are their hosts.   


 What does the ICRC do to help people return home?  


 Displacement is a temporary condition and it is important for us to talk with the authorities and community leaders about how we can each play a role in facilitating and supporting a safe, lasting return for those who have been forced to leave their homes due to insecurity.  


 Safety is obviously the primary concern for returnees. In this respect, the ICRC works to maintain a dialogue with the authorities who are responsible for security by drawing their attention to problems. However, there are also other considerations, which influence people's decision to return home, such as whether their homes and villages are still standing or whether they will have access to water, sanitation, health services and schooling. If this is not the case, they may think twice about going back home. The ICRC works to provide the right sort of assistance in the right place at the right time, including in areas hosting the displaced and in their home villages.  


 How can the ICRC protect the civilian population in Chad?  


 The ICRC's approach is based on maintaining a constructive humanitarian dialogue with the authorities and any other party to the conflict to sensitize them on the plight of the civilian population and to remind them of their responsibilities under international humanitarian law (IHL). The latter includes for all actors involved to take all necessary measures to spare the civilian population from dangers arising from the fighting and to respect them as well as their property. For this dialogue to be possible and to contribute to an environment where civilians' rights are upheld, trust and confidence are elements of key importance.  



 On the other hand, the ICRC provides emergency assistance in the first phases of displacement, as was the case after the violence in Tierro and Marena at the border with Sudan in March 2007. Our teams were present in the field and regularly assessed the living conditions of the population. In coordination with the communities themselves, ICRC delegates also worked to develop responses to specific needs, such as those of herding communities, whose way of life risks being disrupted by the recurring violence and tensions in eastern Chad. Being present in the field regularly with the affected communities is contributing to their protection.  


 What is your point of view on the deployment of European military forces in Chad?  


 The deployment of the European force, EUFOR, was decided during a political process involving the European Union, the United Nations and the Chadian government. The ICRC did not take part in that process, but it goes without saying that where applicable international law needs to be respected at all times. Additionally the clear distinction between military and humanitarian action needs to be understood by everyone involved, including military forces. The ICRC will not be asking EUFOR to protect its staff or installations.