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Pakistan: more war always means more victims

15-05-2009 Interview

The latest fighting in Pakistan's North-Western Frontier Province (NWFP) has caused civilian casualties and massive displacement. Hundreds of thousands have fled in recent days. Tens of thousands inside the conflict areas are in danger, not only from the fighting but also because they are virtually cut off from basic health care, food, water and sanitation. ICRC head of delegation Pascal Cuttat explains the organization's response to the crisis.

  © REUTERS    
  A young bomb victim lies bandaged in a Peshawar hospital in the North-Western Frontier Province.    
  © REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood    
  A couple fleeing military operations in Buner arrive with their infant at a police checkpoint near Takht Bai.    
  © REUTERS/Mian Kursheed    
  Civilians packed in a vehicle flee a military offensive in the North-Western Frontier Province.    
  Pascal Cuttat, head of ICRC delegation in Pakistan    
     Is the current crisis different from other recent crises in Pakistan?  


The conflict between the government and the Taliban has escalated rapidly over the last two weeks and has generated a humanitarian crisis. Over 500,000 internally disp laced persons (IDPs) from the Swat, Dir and Buner districts have now joined another 500,000 who had already left their homes in Bajaur and Swat in the preceding months, bringing the total number of IDPs to over a million. The geographical extent of the conflict zone is now wider. The number of troops deployed is larger. Consequently, the impact on the civilian population is much greater. The ICRC has never seen so many people affected within such a short timeframe in the recent history of Pakistan. More war always means more victims.

 What differentiates the ICRC from other humanitarian agencies currently responding to the crisis?  


One important point is that under our mandate and our principles of neutrality and independence, we speak to all parties and make representations to all parties whenever necessary. Over the last year, the ICRC has established solid lines of communication with both the armed forces and insurgent groups. Today, in the midst of a crisis, this is allowing us unique access to those in charge of operations on the ground – on both sides. This privileged access allows us to be present in the conflict zone – we entered Buner on 13 May, the first humanitarian organization to do so – and to help people in areas few other agencies can reach. This is our real strength. Another significant difference is the added value of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, in this case our partnership with the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS), a highly competent local organization that has been able to rapidly mobilize its staff and volunteers in many of the affected areas.

 What is the role of international humanitarian law in this conflict?  

The protection of civilians and their right to assistance in such difficult times, as stipulated under international humanitarian law (IHL), are at the core of the ICRC's mandate. As always when a conflict erupts, we have reminded all parties to the conflict of their obligations under IHL. In particular, we have reminded them of their obligation to respect and protect civilians and people no longer taking part in the hostilities, and to so conduct their operations as to spare civilians the effects of the fighting. We will continue to remind the Pakistani forces and the armed opposition of these obligations and to make representations aimed at enhancing the protection of civilians whenever necessary.

 Given its mandate, its reliance on neutral and independent humanitarian action and its network of contacts in the region, how can the ICRC best help people affected by the crisis?  


Major efforts – by, among others, the Pakistani government and the international community – are under way to assist IDPs in North-West Frontier Province. We are carrying a fair proportion of this workload by providing water, sanitation and health care in PRCS-run camps. We talk to everybody involved. In addition, we will be endeavouring to help people who are not in the spotlight today simply because it is more difficult for aid workers and journalists to reach them. I’m talking about the weak, the wounded and the sick who remain in conflict areas. They include people who have lost contact with their families because they had to flee the war so suddenly.

 What are the ICRC's operational objectives for the coming weeks and months?  


We aim to respond swiftly and efficiently, so as to bring health care, food, water and sanitation to those most in need, and to preserve the dignity of all civilians affected by the conflict.

 What role will the PRCS be playing?  


The PRCS is a crucial partner for the ICRC. To give one example, the PRCS has just delivered food and other essential assistance to more than 13,000 people in the conflict-hit areas of Malakand and Lower Dir, distributing the aid in several IDP camps it runs with the support of the ICRC.

The ICRC works very closely with the PRCS at all stages, from the planning of operations to implementation. We are part of the same Movement and we are in this together.