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ICRC activities in southern Iraq - interview

02-04-2003 Interview

Tamara Al-Rifai, ICRC press officer in Kuwait city, gives updated information on ICRC activities in southern Iraq: the conditions for visits to prisoners of war, the independence of humanitarian aid and the situation of civilians are among the issues addressed.

  Tamara Al-Rifai, ICRC press officer in Kuwait city, gives updated information on the ICRC's activities in southern Iraq: the conditions for visits to prisoners of war, the independence of humanitarian aid and the situation of civilians are among the issues addressed.  

 1.The ICRC has started its visits to Iraqi prisoners of war detained by the coalition. How many has it been able to register so far and is it expecting an increase in the number of prisoners?  
On 1 April the ICRC had registered 1,000 prisoners of war in camps but it is still currently registering in the south of Iraq. The initial number given by the detaining authorities was 3,000, so this is the number of people that are there according to the camp authorities and 3,000 people at the ICRC will register in this camp. This is the only camp we have visited so far so we do not know about an increase in numbers of some prisoners of war.
 2.Can you describe the activities conducted so far in the camp where the prisoners are being held?  
The ICRC had, at the very beginning, a tour of the entire premises to look at how everything was laid out and then proceeded to the registration of the people. Now, after that the process of int erviews without witness will begin and the process will mean that ICRC delegates will hold interviews with detainees without the presence of the authorities.
 3.When will the ICRC gain access to coalition prisoners held by the Iraqi authorities?  
The ICRC is very actively engaged in a dialogue with the Iraqi authorities at the highest level in order to gain access to the coalition prisoners of war held by the Iraqi authorities, so we are carrying out these dialogues now and we do have a reason to believe that we will not have access at this point.
 4.Is the status of prisoner of war recognized for all combatants captured?  
The ICRC works with notification. So no movement is made inside a war zone without all parties of the conflict being notified of the movement and the number of people and vehicles being moving from the ICRC. So, in this regard, one convoy of two cars left Kuwait and arrived in Basra with no security incident precisely because both the coalition forces and the Iraqi authorities had been notified of the routing. Now another convoy is in preparation. It is planned to leave on Friday, 4 April, the same process has taken place, notification to the coalition forces and to the Iraqi authorities in order for the parties at conflict to provide the ICRC with the security guarantees needed for the convoy to safely reach Basra.
 5.Will the ICRC gain access to all prisoners of war?  
We have heard a lot of reports about the different organizations trying to take aid into Iraq or the military distributing. The ICRC is not in a position to actually comment on the way other people decide to conduct their distribution. However, for the ICRC it is very, very important to stress the independence factor, meaning that ICRC convoys help people move without military escort, without arms and they solely depend on the warring parties who give security guarantee for the movement. It is very, very crucial for the ICRC to be perceived as completely neutral, not taking part and not siding with anybody so, yes, the independence factor is a most crucial one in a situation where the ICRC should not be perceived as siding with somebody.
 6.Will the ICRC gain access to all prisoners of war?  
Yes, the team in Basra confirms that three additional back-up generators are now functioning at the main water station in Basra, meaning that water supplies, water treatment in the city is now flowing, which also means that more water is available to people and in that regard the ICRC has been working for over 10 days on this main water treatment plant that provides clean water not only to the people in Basra but also in neighbouring cities, urban centres. In parallel, the ICRC has begun using water trucks to provide water to other districts in the south such as Al-Jaber near Basra. So at this point the ICRC is still working on rehabilitating water treatment plants and is working on providing water through trucks to other places.
 7.What about the more general problem of the independence of humanitarian aid ? What is the ICRC's position on that?  
Absolutely, I mean the conflict in Iraq is an international armed conflict where the Geneva Conventions apply. We are talking here about the third Geneva Convention, concerning the prisoners of war. According to this text, a person belonging to members of the armed forces of a party but also members of militia or volunteer groups in the armed forces including those of organized religious movements, all of those people are considered to be prisoners of w ar. In the case of the people we are visiting right now, these are people, combatants who were taken as POW in the battlefield, even when they surrender, so there is no doubt that they do have the status of POW and anyway, should any doubt arise regarding their status, those persons do enjoy the protection of the third Geneva Convention until their status is determined by a competent tribunal. So even if there is a doubt, they should be treated as POWs until a tribunal clearly indicates what their status is.
 8.What are the latest reports from Basra as regards the drinking-water situation?  
The worst parties to the conflict are the Iraqi authorities and the coalition forces have declared several times publicly their commitment to respect the third Geneva Convention and in this aspect the ICRC is definitely hopeful to have access to everybody, so the ICRC will salute such a gesture, but we also know that it is in the obligation of all the parties because they are signatory to the Geneva Conventions and it is in their obligation to allow us access.
 9.What can you tell us about the protection of civilians in this conflict?  
The ICRC is extremely concerned about what is happening to the civilian population. We have seen reports about civilian injured. Our teams, our medical teams inside the country tell us that a big part of the victims in the hospitals visited by the ICRC are civilians they include women and children. We are extremely worried about what is happening to the civilian population and in this regard the ICRC reminds the parties of their obligations to respect the fourth Geneva Convention related to the protection of civilian populations. So to draw the difference between who is a combatant and who is not, who is a military service and who is not, who is actively taking part in the conflict and who is not, because everybody has all the places and vehicles and buildings that are not part of the conflict. The civilians are supposed to be protected.

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