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Colombia: ICRC helps prepare release of persons held by FARC

30-01-2009 Interview

In Colombia, the ICRC is preparing to facilitate the release of six persons currently being held by the FARC. Christophe Beney, the ICRC's head of delegation, explains his organization's involvement in this mission.


Christophe Beney, ICRC's head of delegation in Colombia    
     Why, and since when, has the ICRC been involved in hostage-release operations in Colombia?  

The ICRC has played a crucial role in protecting and assisting the victims of the armed conflict in Colombia, which has lasted for more than 40 years. Our delegates in the field have maintained a confidential dialogue with all parties to the conflict, including organized armed groups, to promote humanita rian norms and to gain access to the areas most affected. The ICRC has been recognized by the FARC and the ELN, the largest armed groups, as a neutral intermediary in operations that have resulted in the release of hundreds of hostages. The first such hostage release dates back to 1980, following the taking of hostages at the embassy of the Dominican Republic.

 What role is the ICRC playing in the ongoing preparations for the release of two civilians and four members of Colombia's armed forces held hostage by the FARC?  

Last December, the FARC announced that they would release lawmakers Alan Jara and Sigifredo Lopez and four members of Colombia's armed forces whom they have held for several years. This is of course very good news not only for the individuals themselves, who have been deprived of their liberty under very difficult conditions, but also for their families, who went through the painful experience of waiting for years to receive news from their loved ones.

In their first communiqué, the FARC first declared that they wanted to hand the six people over to Colombian senator Piedad Córdoba and a newly created Colombian peace commission. In a second press release, they later declared that the ICRC could also take part in the mission.

From the start, the ICRC said that it would be willing to offer its services as a neutral intermediary and that it would work closely with all parties in coordinating the logistical aspects of the operation. The FARC, the Colombian government and Ms Cordoba accepted our services.

It was later decided that for security reasons it would be best if arrangements for the helicopters and pilots were made in cooperation with a neighbouring country. The ICRC therefore engaged a handful of countries in the region in dialogue. It was decided that Brazil would take part in the effort because of its proximity to Colombia and its willingness to make available helicopters and pilots capable of carrying out this complex and sensitive mission.

 What is the status of the preparations, and when and where will the operation take place?  

The ICRC has met on several occasions with Colombia's high commissioner for peace, the Brazilian ambassador, Ms Cordoba and representatives of the Colombian peace commission to discuss logistical and security details. The Colombian government has repeatedly stated it will offer full security assurances.

The dialogue with the government, the armed forces, Ms Cordoba, the Brazilian ambassador and the FARC has been constructive and things are moving along. We will do our best to ensure the prompt and safe release of the hostages and detainees. However, given the complexity of this mission, preparations have to be meticulous and precise, and we need to avoid speculation about when the handover will materialize.

So far, it has been decided that three ICRC delegates, including a medical doctor, will take part in the operation together with Ms Cordoba and members of the Colombian peace commission.

Once the ICRC receives detailed information on the handover site from the FARC, it will ask the Ministry of Defence to issue the necessary security guarantees to ensure the helicopters can land and transport the hostages and detainees to the areas where they will then be handed over to their families. It is absolutely crucial for the security of the operation that this information remain confidential.

 What other activities does the ICRC carry out in Colombia?  

The ICRC maintains a presence in the areas hardest hit by the armed conflict. It has 13 offices, 60 delegates and 270 Colombian employees in the country.

Colombia's armed conflict generates grave humanitarian consequences and the ICRC is attending to the needs of a wide variety of victims. According to official and civil society figures, between 2.5 and 3.5 million people – more than half of them children – are estimated to have been displaced in connection with the armed conflict. Over the past 10 years, the ICRC has assisted more than one million displaced people in the country.

The ICRC remains deeply concerned about ongoing displacement, conflict-related murders, the thousands of people who have gone missing, the taking of hostages, the use of landmines, and the forced recruitment of children. The ICRC has developed a series of programmes to alleviate the victims'suffering. In 2009 it is maintaining its efforts to ensure greater respect for the rules of international humanitarian law, to provide healthcare and rehabilitation services for landmine victims, and to determine the whereabouts of the persons missing as a result of the armed conflict.

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