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President Kellenberger: interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung

21-12-2005 Article, Süddeutsche Zeitung

The ICRC president talks about the organization's role in visiting US places of detention, its activities in Africa and the part it has played in responding to the South Asia earthquake and the tsunami.

 Note : This article was published in the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" on 21 December 2005 and is reproduced here with the newspaper's kind permission.  


 SZ: Mr Kellenberger, the US is sending prisoners it suspects to be terrorists to secret locations. What did the ICRC know about this?  


Kellenberger: I am very surprised that the problem of secret detention facilities is being discovered only now. Already in January 2004 we expressed our concerns about there being an unknown number of people held in undisclosed locations to which we had no access. But the public hardly noticed at the time.

 SZ: What action has the ICRC taken?  

Kellenberger: We are engaged in dialogue with the American government.

 SZ: And with the Europeans? They also had some knowledge of the prisons.  


Kellenberger: On this topic we deal mainly with the Americans. We want to visit all people held in connection with the so-called “war on terrorism.”

 SZ: Dialogue does not seem to have produced many results.  

Kellenberger: There have be en results, but it is true that we do not have access to all prisoners. The number of those we cannot visit is probably very small. The ICRC visits thousands of detainees in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq. We visit Guantanamo every three months for four or five weeks.

 SZ: Despite the ICRC’s actions, the prisoners are still stuck there. Do you find this frustrating?  


Kellenberger: If we allowed ourselves to be frustrated because we cannot accomplish everything as quickly as we would like then we could simply stop working. ICRC visits to Guantanamo have not been useless. We have achieved some things. Concerning the prisoners’ legal status, however, we have not narrowed our differences with the Americans.

 SZ: The ICRC denounced the torture in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison after the situation became public as a result of an indiscretion. Shouldn’t you have done something much earlier?  


Kellenberger: Months before a confidential ICRC report was made public – which incidentally happened without our consent – we brought about improvements in the conditions of detention through our discussions with the Americans. We make our concerns public only in the event of serious and repeated violations of international humanitarian law where numerous confidential discussions with the authorities have not achieved their purpose.

In addition, our own staff must themselves be able to attest to the violations, and a public denunciation must be in the best interests of those deprived of their freedom. We have to uphold strict rules of confidentiality, for there is always the risk that “going public” could result in our no lo nger being allowed to visit prisoners and help them communicate with their relatives. We are never opportunistic, however. In confidential talks we speak plainly.

 SZ: Doesn’t the policy of discretion result in a new category of detainees, namely those at the mercy of the arbitrary exercise of power by the State?  


Kellenberger: We are insisting that all prisoners have a right to a clear legal status. International humanitarian law must apply to prisoners in armed conflicts. On this point too we are conducting a dialogue with the US.

 SZ: The ICRC is financed by donations. The US gives more than any other country. Do you fear for your budget?  


Kellenberger: No. The US assesses the ICRC on the basis of the effectiveness of its humanitarian work.

 SZ: Using what criteria?  


Kellenberger: Our donors look at how quickly we can take action after a disaster and how effectively we can help people affected by conflicts. Last year we visited over 2,400 prisons in 80 countries holding nearly 600,000 inmates.

In Darfur, Sudan, we are among the few humanitarian organizations still working in areas where security conditions are poor. In 2005 we have provided drinking water for 600,000 people in Darfur, emergency supplies for 300,000 and food for 100,000.

 SZ: Africa is the focus of most of the ICRC’s work. Why are there so many conflicts there?  


Kellenberger: One big problem is that, for too long, the international community took too little notice of Africa. Many African States are economically, socially and politically very fragile. If the world does not urgently invest in peace, the risk is great that as soon as one conflict ends another will erupt. It also seems very important to me that there be improvement in the governing classes’ sense of responsibility to their own people in many African States.

 SZ: Is the international community doing enough?  


Kellenberger: The West recognizes that it is important to be involved. But still more ought to be done.

 SZ: What, for example?  


Kellenberger: Political institutions – and infrastructure, health care, education and the economy – must be strengthened or set up. Civil society must be made robust, so that it does not fall under the control of people who have no interest in peace. That takes time. The authorities, too, must take action in the countries concerned. Private corporations can likewise be effective when they are socially committed.

 SZ: The ICRC itself has recently received donations from companies.  


Kellenberger: You are referring to our new Corporate Support Group, which it is important to keep in perspective. Seven Swiss corporations are contributing three to four million Swiss francs yearly to our total a nnual budget of one billion francs. Even in future, the ICRC will receive 80 to 90 per cent of its funding from States and the European Commission – which makes sense, since the community of States has conferred certain duties, such as those relating to prisoner welfare, on the ICRC. We want to diversify our sources of funding, however. And we want to exchange know-how with the companies, for example about information technology, logistics, management and human resources development. The ICRC, with 12,000 staff, is itself a relatively big organization.

 SZ: The ICRC also wants to enlist corporate donors from outside Switzerland. That angers National Red Cross Societies and private organizations, since they all compete for donations.  

Kellenberger: I haven’t yet heard anything about anger. However, we will not expand the Corporate Support Group without prior consultation with the National Red Cross Societies. It is true that smaller organizations are strongly dependent on private donations. More than ever before, humanitarian organizations must be able to prove to donors that they deliver what they promise. Those that can need not be concerned about funding.

 SZ: Does the ICRC receive adequate funding?  


Kellenberger: Yes, but we must achieve our aims.

 SZ: What are the aims for 2006?  


Kellenberger: We want to have access worldwide to people affected by armed conflict who require assistance and protection. There are a very few places, such as parts of Afghanistan and Iraq, where we cannot go. It is my desire that we should carry out our activities in these areas too. Measures promoting greater respect for international humanitarian law are also important.

 SZ: The tsunami disaster in Asia occurred nearly a year ago. What is the situation there now?  


Kellenberger: I cannot give a sweeping assessment. In the first months after the disaster, the ICRC provided emergency aid in Aceh and in the north-east of Sri Lanka, which are conflict areas where we were already on the ground. Other organizations, including National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, are involved in reconstruction efforts.

 SZ: And how about the earthquake-affected areas in Pakistan and India? Many aid organizations have complained that they are not receiving adequate support.  


Kellenberger: I cannot speak for others. Thanks to its presence in the region the ICRC was able to take action quickly. It has focused its aid activities on the Muzaffarabad area in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. It is conducting its medical activities there in close cooperation with the German Red Cross. The ICRC has set for itself the goal of meeting the basic needs of 200,000 people – about a quarter of the area’s population. To date we have helped 180,000 people. We should be able to provide this support even during the winter. But the need for aid remains huge.

Interview: Judith Raupp