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Kosovo. All Sides Must Let the Red Cross Work in Kosovo

26-05-1999 Article, International Herald Tribune, by Cornelio Sommaruga

Cornelio Sommaruga is President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. This article was published in the International Herald Tribune, 26 May 1999 .

GENEVA - The most urgent thing in Kosovo right now is the need for the creation of a humanitarian space. By that I mean a physical, political and psychological space in which neutral, impartial humanitarian organizations such as the International  Committee of the Red Cross can work.

It is safe to say that the greatest suffering right now of victims caught up in the conflict is among those still inside Kosovo. The condition of the refugees outside Kosovo, while still grim, is stabilizing. Although hampered by the terrain, poor infrastructure and bureaucracy, there is no shortage of aid agencies attending to the needs of the refugees.

Inside Kosovo it is a different story. Hundreds of thousands of people, many living in lamentable conditions outside their homes, have still not been seen by humanitarians. Their plight is the most urgent and the most dire.

This week in Pristina, some of my Red Cross colleagues will tentatively and carefully restart operations that were suspended at the end of March for lack of security. We have assurances from President Slobodan Milosevic of complete freedom of movement. NATO has encouraged us in our work.

The Red Cross has asked both, and the Kosovo Liberation Army, to show the fullest respect for international humanitarian law and for the international protective symbol of the Red Cross. But getting permission to resume our activities is one thing. Being allowed to work as we wish is quite another. What is not clear is how much humanitarian space the combatants will allow.

The conflict in Yugoslavia has been called a humanitarian conflic t (something of a misnomer in my view) fought for humanitarian reasons. The fact remains that as my colleagues in Kosovo test the boundaries of the physical humanitarian space - where are we allowed to work, how much notice do we have to give for movements of trucks? - what we will actually be pushing up against is the military imperative.

Obviously it would be much easier for the Red Cross to work if there were a cease-fire or a complete cessation of hostilities. That is not the reality. But the question remains, given that there is a direct relationship between humanitarian space and the military imperative: How much space will we have to work in to relieve the suffering of civilians?

All of the combatants will have to accept that the work of humanitarians inside Kosovo may make it harder for them to pursue their military goals. That, we believe, is a contribution that they all have to make.

What, therefore, will be the limits to our work? Will there be any no-go areas for military reasons, no matter how many people might be trapped in those areas? These are political and military decisions that have to be made.

My request to all the combatants is simple. Let us see the people of Kosovo and let them see us. Let us help them. I call upon all the combatants to respect the rules and limits of conflicts as set out in the Geneva conventions.

In the coming days, as Red Cross staff in Kosovo start their work, first assessing the needs, then getting supplies to the people most in need, the answers to these questions will become clear.

In 1949, the international community, still reeling from the horrors of World War II, set limits on conflict and rejected the all-out war
approach. Fifty years after the signing of the Geneva conventions and as the 20th century draws to a close, the international community is once again faced with a maj or test of its willingness to make wars less bloody, less brutal and, if they have to be fought at all, more civilized.

Humanitarian space also has a psychological aspect. Chased from their homes, in fear for their lives and unsure as to the whereabouts of their relatives, exposed to the violence of security forces and the effects of air strikes, the desperate civilians in Kosovo have been traumatized. The province has been devastated.

The Red Cross is also working in Serbia and Montenegro to reduce the humanitarian consequences of bombardment there. Working in any conflict zone is hard enough. Kosovo is going to be extraordinarily difficult.

We should not forget the people who are going to have to face these challenges and dilemmas, my colleagues in the field. They will need determination and persuasive powers.

In any war zone there is always a danger that neutral and impartial humanitarians will be manipulated, taken advantage of, allowed access to one side only and not to the other. We are acutely aware of this. But more than that we have an obligation to try, an absolute duty to go to the aid of civilian victims caught up in a conflict. That is our task and our intention.

In the name of International Committee of the Red Cross, I demand that all combatants afford us the space to work. One thing is sure: The Red Cross will be trying its utmost day by day to build up and expand the humanitarian space available to us, kilometer by kilometer, in the name of the victims.