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Pakistan: protection of civilians a priority as violence grows

23-10-2009 Interview

The human cost of violence in Pakistan is continuing to rise. Military operations in South Waziristan and a spate of suicide attacks have resulted in more prisoners, displaced people and casualties, particularly civilians. Humanitarian agencies are unable to operate in Waziristan, where up to 60,000 people are said to have fled their homes. The most pressing needs are protection from violence, compliance with the basic principles of humanitarian law, protection for detainees, access for humanitarian agencies and aid for those in need. An interview with Jacques de Maio, ICRC head of operations for south Asia.

Jacques de Maio, the ICRC's head of operations for South Asia.    
   The Pakistani armed forces are currently undertaking a large-scale operation in South Waziristan. What is your reading of the humanitarian situation in and immediately outside South Waziristan?  

We have to see the current surge in military operations in South Waziristan against the background of past and present armed violence in North-West Frontier Province and the tribal agencies, and the spate of suicide attacks throughout Pakistan. Moreover, one should not forget the intensifying armed conflict on the other side of the Durand Line, in Afghanistan.

In this larger context, what we see now is a sharp increase in the number of civilian casualties, detainees and displaced people. Humanitarian concerns obviously extend to those trapped in the actual combat zones, especially the sick and wounded.

With regard to Waziristan in particular, lack of access prevents us from obtaining an exact picture of the humanitarian needs.

We have heard that up to 60,000 people have fled their homes. These people are relying on local authorities – mainly in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank – on family and on relatives to meet their immediate needs. Those IDPs are additional to the approximately 80,000 people who have left Waziristan in recent weeks and months. All these IDPs are putting an additional strain on the limited resources of host families, a problem that is becoming more acute as time goes on. Pashto solidarity is truly outstanding, but how long can it sustain this stress? And how many people are on their own, without appropriate and timely aid? We don't know.

Last but not least, military and security operations are resulting in the detention of significant numbers of people. There again, we lack the access necessary to monitor their condition.

 No international humanitarian organization seems to have access to South Waziristan. How will the ICRC assist and protect those in need?  

It’s not just South Waziristan that is inaccessible to international aid organizations: the same goes for large parts of NWFP and the FATAs. The reasons are multiple: fighting is taking place, there are mines and improvised explosive devices, and it is a very dangerous environment for foreign aid agencies in general, as demonstrated by the recent attack on the World Food Programme. However, local authorities supported by the UN and local NGOs still strive to respond as best they can. In parallel, the ICRC and the Pakistan Red Crescent Society continue to support IDPs, residents in violence-affected areas and medical facilities. It is obvious that, despite these efforts, more must be done. Winter is coming, which will make the situation even worse, both for the people of the region and for humanitarian operations.

But precisely because of these difficulties, the ICRC is determined to carry on making a difference. Our strengths are our record of meaningful service, our neutrality and independence in deployment and action, our specific mandate under international humanitarian law, and our partnership with the Pakistan Red Crescent.

 Why does the ICRC want to visit all those detained in relation to the violence, and on what basis? What steps has the organization taken in this regard?  

It is imperative to ensure that all people deprived of their freedom are treated in accordance with int ernationally recognized humanitarian principles. Fighters who are no longer participating in hostilities, for instance because they are wounded or have surrendered, must be spared and treated humanely. They must also receive appropriate medical treatment.

Humanitarian law mandates the ICRC to work for the protection of anyone detained in relation to armed conflict or situations of violence. Military and security objectives must be attained in a manner that is compatible with the provisions of IHL concerning people who are not taking part in the hostilities, or are no longer doing so. And that includes people deprived of their freedom.

In Pakistan, our delegates have visited hundreds of detainees in civilian jails, but large numbers of arrests have been made without our delegates being able to check on the condition of the people concerned. We have offered the Pakistani government our services to monitor the treatment of these detainees and to ensure it abides by humanitarian standards. To achieve that, we do of course need full access to all detainees without witnesses, we need to be able to re-establish family links where feasible, and we need to conduct confidential, constructive dialogue to prevent abuses and improve conditions where necessary.

 Is the ICRC currently able to accomplish its mission in Pakistan independently, safely and with the support of all arms bearers?  

Yes and no. “Yes” in the sense that we are able to conduct independent action and do enjoy the support of most of the organizations and communities concerned. They know that we act purely on the basis of actual needs, and that we have no political masters or hidden agenda. This has enabled us, alone or with the Pakistan Red Crescent, to provide direct, independent and substantial aid to half a million IDPs in the form of food, other goods, water, health care, etc. and to ensure that tens of thousands of sick and wounded civilians receive treatment. The field surgical hospital in Peshawar is currently carrying out 100 surgical operations a week, for instance, and we are supporting local, private and governmental facilities in North-West Frontier Province and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas.

“No” in the sense that we do not have safe access to people in the areas worst affected by fighting. The dynamics of violence and insecurity in those areas are such that our deployment there is indeed very limited.

 What are the ICRC’s current priorities in Pakistan – and more particularly in North-West Frontier Province and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas?  

The ICRC's priorities stem from the population's priorities. Right now, their number one priority is protection from the effects of armed violence.

Generally, as far as military operations are concerned, it is a priority that those taking part in the fighting observe the principles of discrimination between civilians and combatants and of proportionality in the means and methods of warfare. Observing these two principles is crucial in order to minimize the impact on civilians, the sick and wounded and detainees. In particular, attacks on civilians are absolutely prohibited.

Secondly, given its specific mandate and sphere of competence, the ICRC considers the protection of detainees a top priority.

Thirdly, aid must get through to those who need it. The ICRC sees effective and unobstructed medical services for the sick and wounded as an urgent imperative, followed by aid for IDPs, including returnees, and for host families.

Finally, it is essential that the ICRC have safe access, so that it can assess the needs and respond to them concretely and independently. International humanitarian law sets the rules, but for the ICRC to fulfil its duty, it needs to be close to the victims of armed violence.

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