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Pakistan: protecting detainees a priority

06-10-2009 Interview

The humanitarian situation in northern Pakistan remains precarious. In addition to being able to help civilians affected by the fighting, the ICRC absolutely must have access to people detained in connection with army and police operations. ICRC head of delegation Pascal Cuttat explains.


  Pascal Cuttat, head of the ICRC's delegation in Pakistan    
     What is the current humanitarian situation in North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas?  

Fighting in the two provinces has driven over two million people from their homes in recent months. Most have returned, but many are still displaced and destitute. The situation remains unstable in parts of Buner, Swat and Dir. People from these areas are still staying with host families outside the zones affected by violence.

The lack of security, shelter and medical care are the biggest worries for people in areas where fighting continues. These people are unable to support themselves as they normally would. They’re surviving, thanks to typical Pakistani solidarity – but only just. Where violence is continuing, it’s impossible for economic life to resume.

And then there’s Waziristan. It’s hard to know what’s happening because there are no aid workers on the ground there, but we estimate the number of displaced people in Waziristan at 80,000. In the absence of security guarantees for our personnel, access to this region remains extremely difficult. However, the ICRC has opened an office in Bakkhar, to support its operations in North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.


 What problems are returnees encountering?  

It’s hugely difficult to resume normal life, especially in the economic sense. The conditions just aren’t there in many cases. Farmers can’t return to their fields. The fighting interrupted essential services, such as health, electricity, water and schools. These are still out in certain areas.


 Is fighting still forcing people to move?  

In isolated cases, yes. The situation varies from one region to another, and can change rapidly. In Swat, for instance, people who had fled several months ago and then returned have had to abandon their homes once again because of fighting. And certain regions, such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, are experiencing hostilities for the first time. Just recently, thousands of people had to take to the roads in Khyber Agency, near Peshawar.


 Is the ICRC able to visit everybody detained in connection with the fighting?  

  © Reuters    
  Grandfather and granddaughter fled fighting in the Swat valley. Now they wait for the bus that will take them from Karachi back to their village.    

No. One of the ICRC’s top priorities in Pakistan is to visit these people as quickly as possible, and in accordance with our u sual criteria. We have already been talking to the authorities about starting these visits as quickly as possible. A large number of people have been arrested or captured during the offensive the Pakistani army has been conducting in recent months, and it is essential that the ICRC be able to visit them in the places where they are being held, in order to verify their conditions of detention. The ICRC wants to do what it does all over the world, which is to conduct confidential dialogue on detention issues with the authorities and act rapidly wherever necessary.

Distributing food and water to civilians, providing them with shelter, distributing seed and tools to farmers and helping look after the sick and wounded are crucial, of course. The ICRC is doing all of this in Pakistan today, in close cooperation with the Pakistan Red Crescent Society. But detainees need the protection of the ICRC. We will continue to press for access to the places of detention concerned, and to all detainees.


 In a context such as today’s Pakistan, is it possible to conduct neutral and humanitarian action of the sort the ICRC normally undertakes?  

In such a complex, politicized situation that is difficult – and even dangerous. We therefore reiterate the need to respect human life and dignity under all circumstances and to respect strictly neutral, independent, humanitarian action, which helps and protects everyone affected by violence, regardless of who they are or where they come from. It has often been said, but it bears repeating: there are no such things as " good " and " bad " victims.