Afghanistan: Promoting dialogue through neutrality
On 29 August 2007 the last seven Korean hostages still held by the armed opposition in Afghanistan were released. Olivier Jenard, the ICRC’s deputy head of operations for Central Asia and the Sub-Continent, comments on the organization’s role as a neutral intermediary in the release of the 21 hostages.
The ICRC is often spoken of as a neutral intermediary. What does that mean, in concrete terms, in this case?
It’s simple, really. We were contacted shortly after the crisis began by the Korean delegation in Afghanistan, which was looking for a reliable way of communicating with the Talibans, who, for their part, expressed a desire that we serve as intermediaries so that negotiations could start. We therefore offered our services, while emphasizing to those concerned that our role would not involve taking a direct part in the talks.
We brought the two parties into contact so that they could agree on the overall framework of the negotiations and on practical details laying the basis for a first meeting to actually take place.
The ICRC then proposed a venue – the premises of the Afghan Red Crescent in Ghazni – that was acceptable to all parties. The main reason for this choice was that it was situated in a province that was accessible to the negotiators from both sides.
The very presence of ICRC delegates made the site neutral. All arms carriers in Afghanistan, including government and foreign forces, were notified by the ICRC that the meeting would be held in this precise location. The negotiations therefore proceeded with the agreement of all and in full transparency.
Finally, the ICRC facilitated the transfer of the hostages and their handover to the Korean authorities in accordance with the provisions of the negotiated agreement.
What real advantage is there in neutrality?
Offering our services as a neutral intermediary is part of the ICRC’s mandate. Through our work over the decades in behalf of all victims of armed conflict in Afghanistan, without regard to which side they are on or where they come from, we have become well known, credible, and respected by all parties, with whom we remain in constant dialogue.
Other organizations might have done what we did, but, clearly, we were the obvious choice to the parties concerned to serve as an intermediary during the crisis. Our neutrality provided the basis for dialogue to take place and helped people to calm down. We are very happy about the way things turned out and about the release of the 21 hostages, even though we must not forget that two hostages were executed.
Some hostage-taking incidents in which the ICRC was called in to help ended in tragedy. How do you explain the successful outcome in Afghanistan?
Let’s be modest. In this particular case, the negotiators on both sides were aware of the limits of what the ICRC could do, and they understood its role as a neutral intermediary. There were of course difficulties, since the negotiations went on for some 20 days. The only thing that matters, however, is that the crisis is over and all turned out well for the hostages.
We served as a catalyst. This case demonstrates once again that neutral and independent entities are a necessity in a world that is ever more polarized and divided. Over the past months the ICRC has been active in its role as a neutral intermediary in Colombia, Ethiopia and Niger.