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Colombia – a strategy on behalf of civilians most severely affected by conflict

18-05-2006 Interview

Interview with Juan-Pedro Schaerer, who has just returned to Geneva after three and a half years as head of the ICRC delegation in Colombia

 How would you describe the situation from a humanitarian viewpoint in Colombia at the moment?  

  Juan Pedro Schaerer    

The problems that have confronted Colombia in recent years generally remain unchanged. Since the end of 2005, however, we are seeing an increase in the number of newly displaced people compared with last year. At the moment there are said to be some two million people in Colombia who have been forced t o flee their homes. Displacement at the moment is probably the result both of the political situation – that is the holding of parliamentary and presidential elections – and of an escalation of various operations being carried out by the Colombian armed forces on one side and the guerillas on the other.

We are also seeing a growing number of reports of accidents involving anti-personnel mines, though it remains to be seen whether there really are more accidents or simply whether a greater number are being recorded than before. In any case, one can expect the number of accidents to rise owing to more frequent displacement, and also people returning to homes that they had earlier fled. Most victims are members of the military and police, but increasingly civilians are involved. And over half the civilian victims are children.

Attacks on medical staff and facilities are common and jeopardize access to care for people in rural areas.

Finally, no solution has yet been found to the problem of people held by armed groups, in particular the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Soldiers and policemen have been held for over seven years, and some civilian hostages for up to five years. These people are not able to communicate regularly with their families, and no end is in sight to their captivity.

 What are the prospects for resolving the issue of the hostages and the soldiers and policemen being held?  

It's very frustrating. The ICRC has not been able to persuade the various armed groups to free the hostages – something they should do. Nor has it been able to visit the soldiers and policemen. Nor has it been able to arrange Red Cross messages (brief personal messages to and from relatives) for those held.

Hostage-taking is a serious violation of humanitarian l aw. This situation is unacceptable. And the wait is interminable, both for the hostages themselves and for their families. One positive development was the release in March of two policemen who had been held since last October. When they were released, the FARC agreed for the first time in three years to forward a number of personal messages to people being held by them.

 What effect has the recent demobilization of the so-called "self-defence" groups had on the situation from a humanitarian viewpoint? `

It's too early to judge the long-term effect. The process of demobilizing the various groups is now drawing to a close. Over 30,000 persons have been demobilized over the past two years. The short-term effect on the civilian population has obviously been positive since fewer excesses are being committed against them. It remains to be seen whether the Colombian government will be able to take back, and maintain, its sovereignty over the areas that have been under the control of these groups, and whether it will be able to prevent new groups from arising and seizing those areas once again. And it's also too early to say whether what has been dismantled here is the totality of the so-called " self-defence " groups, or just their most visible components, that is their armed units.

 Why did the ICRC offer its good offices for the recent meeting between the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Colombian government?  

Following two series of meetings in Havana, a visit to Colombia by an ELN military commander was arranged. The lack of trust between the ELN and the Colombian government, and the fears for the personal safety of the ELN representative during his stay in Colombia, prompted the Casa de Paz ( see  

  ICRC News 06/18 ) to ask the ICRC to accompany the commander on his travels. We agreed to this for the purpose of promoting negotiations.

 Since 2004 the ICRC has had a strategy of "priority zones". What is that?  

In early 2002, the political and military situation changed from one in which a negotiated resolution to the conflict was being actively sought to one of military confrontation with very little room for any sort of negotiation. To adapt to this new state of affairs, the delegation drew up a strategy aimed at making it more effective in aiding the civilians hardest hit by the fighting and striving to ensure they come to no harm.

So we have concentrated our efforts on the worst affected areas. We go there more often and we have broadened the range of our services. We're trying to change for the better the situation of these communities, to improve their food security and access to health care, and generally to see to it that they are not targeted in the hostilities. This is more a reorientation of our activities in specific areas than an actual change in our programmes.

We felt it was important for the ICRC to set limits and priorities and to decide, together with other humanitarian agencies working in Colombia, who among us is best able to respond to this or that problem.

Our main concern is to ensure that the civilian population is spared by the hostilities. The goal is maintain a non-stop presence in certain areas and to determine how best to gain acceptance for the principle that the civilian population must remain inviolate in all cir cumstances. One of the best ways to achieve this is to respect and ensure respect for the rules of humanitarian law.

 Have you been able yet to assess how well this new orientation is working?  

Little by little the positive results are being reported by the civilians themselves. For example, in some parts of Cauca where a large number of attacks have occurred, we found that by getting to know the area we were able to respond much more rapidly. And even at the tensest of times we've been able to maintain a dialogue with all those involved in the fighting. This has given us an opportunity to try and influence the conduct of hostilities. When the situation did deteriorate, we've been able to come to the aid of those most in need.

In southern Tolima, which has also been hard hit by the fighting, it's possible that our constant presence has contributed to a greater effort to spare civilians and a gradual improvement in living conditions in the realms of food security, access to clean water and health care.

 What is the ICRC doing for the victims of anti-personnel landmines?  

To begin with, the ICRC and the Colombian Red Cross have set up an awareness-raising programme to prevent mine accidents. For the moment it's available to only a small number of communities, but we hope to spread it throughout the areas most seriously affected by these terrible devices.

As for mine victims, the Colombian system guarantees them everything from first aid through to physical rehabilitation. The ICRC's role is essentially to guide the victims toward the services that can best take care of them. You might call it a counselling service, with the exception of a few cases where the ICRC meets certain expenses not covered by the national system.

Certain problems regarding the level of staff skill have been detected in the system responsible for treating mine victims. Working closely with the Colombian Ministry of Social Protection, the ICRC has arranged to hold training workshops for staff at facilities offering first and second levels of care in the four most badly affected areas of the country in order to teach them how best to give first aid to victims of mine blast and other war wounds.

In the realm of physical rehabilitation, the ICRC has begun this year to support four limb-fitting and rehabilitation centres in various parts of the country by giving them equipment and helping to train staff. Colombian technicians will be sent to the ICRC's regional limb-fitting centre in Nicaragua to receive training in certain special techniques.

 What is the situation regarding implementation of the Ottawa Convention and clearing of mines in Colombia?  

The ICRC is discussing this matter with the various entities involved. Colombia is party to the Ottawa Convention and the government has destroyed its entire stock of anti-personnel landmines. It must still clear the mines from several precisely defined areas. For the various armed groups a long-term process will be needed. They must be persuaded to recognize the Convention's applicability and thus to stop using these weapons. Sadly, for the moment the two main guerilla groups continue to use anti-personnel mines as weapons.

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