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Colombia: how the ICRC helped in the release of Clara and Consuelo

18-01-2008 Interview

The freeing of the two women hostages highlighted the ICRC's work in the long conflict in Colombia, which has created millions of victims. Barbara Hintermann, head of the ICRC delegation in Bogota, gives the background to the release operation and to broader aspects of ICRC concern.


  ©Reuters / D. Munoz    
  Barbara Hintermann, head of the ICRC delegation in Colombia    
     What was the ICRC's role in the release of Clara Rojas and Consuelo González?  

In Colombia, organized armed groups take hostages for political and financial gains. In most cases, these hostages are held for weeks, months and years under very harsh conditions. The situation for their families and loved ones is also very difficult. They seldom get news from the hostages and the wait can be extremely agonizing.
The initial attempt to release Clara Rojas and Consuelo González was done under considerable public scrutiny. The government of Venezuela was closely involved in the entire process and an international commission, comprising representatives of seven governments, took part in the initial stages of the attempted hostage release. The ICRC followed these negotiations closely, and acted as a neutral intermediary in facilitating the operation.
Even though Clara and Consuelo were not freed immediately, the ICRC continued to work diligently with all parties concerned to ensure their speedy release. ICRC delegates were deployed to Caracas and San José de Guaviare, in Colombia. The latter served as a launching pad for the final leg of the hostage handover. My colleague in Caracas and myself in Bogotá maintained close contacts with the Venezuelan and Colombian governments, respectively, and worked on the logistical details.

For my part, I met with the Colombian Minster of Defence and the General Commander of the Armed Forces to obtain the necessary security guarantees for the area where the handover was to take place. It was decided that a commission smaller than the initial one would take part in the hostage release and that it would be conducted under the auspices of the ICRC.
"Clara Rojas stated that it was only upon seeing the Red Cross emblem on the helicopters that she was convinced she would finally be freed."
Once we had the general security guarantees, the humanitarian mission, led by the ICRC, moved quickly. Two helicopters, carrying two ICRC delegates and members of the international commission, a nd displaying the Red Cross emblem, took off from San José de Guaviare on the morning of 10 January. The use of the Red Cross emblem was significant in that it provided a sign, visible to all actors involved, that the mission was truly neutral and of a humanitarian character. In fact, Clara Rojas stated that it was only upon seeing the Red Cross emblem on the helicopters that she was convinced she would finally be freed.

 Does the ICRC take part in other hostage releases?

Indeed, it does. In fact, the ICRC has participated as a neutral and impartial intermediary in the release of hundreds of hostages in Colombia, the first dating back to 1980, following the taking of hostages at the embassy of the Dominican Republic in Bogotá. The ICRC maintains regular contacts and a confidential dialogue with all parties to the conflict, including with the FARC-EP, to remind them of their obligations to respect the fundamental norms of international humanitarian law.
As a neutral and impartial humanitarian organization, the ICRC does everything possible to ensure the release of all hostages. In order to ensure the hostages'protection and optimize these handovers, release efforts are generally conducted in a discreet and confidential manner, but in full transparency and with the agreement of all parties involved.
The taking of hostages is prohibited under international humanitarian law, and the ICRC will continue to seek all possible ways to ensure their immediate release. However, the ICRC is aware of the reality on the ground, and that it may take some time before the hostages are released. In its confidential and ongoing dialogue with armed actors, the ICRC insists that hostages, if they are not released immediately, are at least treated humanely and can communicate with their families through Red Cross messages. However, the ICRC has not be en granted access to hostages so far, and has also not been very successful in obtaining the exchange of family messages.
The ICRC delegation in Colombia has five sub-delegations and six offices. Around 60 delegates work in the areas most affected by the armed conflict. This field presence allows the ICRC to establish contacts with most FARC units and other organized armed groups to discuss a variety of humanitarian issues.
The ICRC has also participated in the release of members of Colombia's armed forces being held by organized armed groups. Even though their detention is not as such a breach of international humanitarian law, the ICRC has also offered its good offices to facilitate their release for humanitarian purposes.

 What is the future for these hostages?  

  ©Reuters / D. Munoz    
  Bogota: a woman with a photo of a loved one held hostage.    

Naturally, we hope they will be released as soon as possible. In Colombia, there is much talk about the possibility of initiating a " humanitarian agreement " , meaning demilitarizing a designated area to kick-start talks between the Colombian government and the FARC on the release of hostages and detainees. As a neutral and impartial humanitarian organization, the ICRC can, as it has done in the past, act as a neutral intermediary in facilitating the release of these hostages and detainees.
In the event that such a " humanitarian agreement " were to materialize, the ICRC would certainly have an important role to play. We welcome any initiative aimed at reducing the conflict's humanitarian consequences and improving respect for international humanitarian law.

 What are the other humanitarian consequences of this conflict?  

Colombia's internal armed conflict is arguably the longest conflict in contemporary history. Armed clashes between the State and a variety of non-state armed actors, threats, summary executions, sexual violence, the forced recruitment of children and the use of anti-personnel mines have all had serious humanitarian consequences, especially during the past 15 or so years. These have been extremely detrimental to Colombia's social and human development.
Thousands of people are kept in Colombian state prisons and transitory detention centres in connection with the armed conflict. The ICRC has access to all such detention facilities and delegates speak to detainees and assess their conditions of detention on a regular basis.
As is the case during most armed conflicts, civilians have been the target of most of the armed violence. Thousa nds of people who never directly took part in the armed conflict remain missing and their families and loved ones wait desperately to hear of their whereabouts. Simply not knowing if a family member is dead or alive can have tremendous psychological consequences on an individual.
Colombia's armed conflict has also produced one of the world's largest civilian displacements. According to government and civil society figures, between 2 and 3.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to threats, armed hostilities and forced recruitment. In most cases, internally displaced people are farmers who are forced to seek refuge in Colombia's city slums. The adjustment to an urban setting can be very difficult and in most cases, these displaced people are unable to provide the basic necessities for their children because of their inability to find work immediately.
In fact, the ICRC, in collaboration with the World Food Programme, conducted an extensive study on the socio-economic conditions of internally displaced populations in eight cities that was finalised at the end of 2007. Even though the government has done more over the years to provide medium and long-term assistance to these victims, much more remains to be done. Most internally displaced people continue to live in extremely poor conditions, especially during the first few months of their resettlement.
Internal displacement also has a particular effect on children and women, as well as minorities. Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations are at present disproportionately affected by forced displacement. They have strong cultural ties to their land and being uprooted can be particularly devastating. Children and women have specific needs. More than half of internally displaced people are under the age of 18.
Many departments - administrative regional divisions - are unable to absorb these large numbers of displaced people, and most c hildren must wait some time before gaining access to educational and medical services. Also, many households are headed by single mothers, whose husbands either died in combat or are missing, making their daily struggle to survive even more difficult. Some women are also victims of sexual violence.
The ICRC has been highly responsive to the perennial needs of internally displaced populations. Over the past ten years, the ICRC has assisted more than one million internally displaced people with basic food and non-food aid. The ICRC delegation in Colombia continues to help these victims during the first few months of their displacement. In 2007 alone, the ICRC brought humanitarian aid to nearly 70,000 displaced people. Furthermore, the ICRC strives to persuade and mobilize State and civil society bodies to provide better quality social services and assistance to displaced populations.