Northern Caucasus: the security situation remains fragile
The ICRC remains active in the northern Caucasus to help residents and the internally displaced affected by armed violence. Marco Altherr has just completed three years as head of the ICRC delegation in Moscow and gave this interview about the organization's mission in the region.
How are people in the northern Caucasus affected by the current situation and what is the ICRC's humanitarian response?
The ICRC maintains a presence to meet current humanitarian needs and the ICRC's assistance operation in the northern Caucasus remains, in budgetary terms, one of its biggest worldwide. The organization has adopted a dual approach, providing direct assistance to the most vulnerable households while supporting public services and boosting families'income-generating capacities.
The ICRC provides essential household items such as hygiene kits and tents to the most vulnerable people living in central districts of Chechnya as well as to the internally displaced living in Ingushetia and Dagestan. In 2006, the ICRC supported 80,000 people in this way. It also helped improve living conditions by repairing public utilities such as the water supply, heating and sewage systems. The ICRC also supports regional health care structures by providing equipment and medicines to hospitals in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. Through targeted micro-economic projects, the ICRC in 2005 helped over 80 Chechen households start small family businesses, enabling them to reduce their dependence on humanitarian aid. These projects were expanded to include families in Ingushetia and Dagestan in 2006.
The ICRC continues to work with the Russian Red Cross, its leading partner in the northern Caucasus. Among other activities, Russian Red Cross branches assist 2,500 elderly people through home-care programmes in 11 re gions and provide psychological and legal assistance in 14 regions (including Chechnya) to both residents and the internally displaced.
Why has the ICRC been unable to resume its programme of detention visits to those held in connection with the conflict in Chechnya?
In 2004, the ICRC faced problems carrying out its detention visits according to standard criteria applied worldwide; these include the following principles: having access to all persons detained and to all places of detention, the ability to speak to detainees in private and to conduct repeat visits. As a consequence, the ICRC had to suspend its detention visits in September 2004.
The ICRC then entered into discussions with the Russian authorities about how to resume its visits. Negotiations failed due to disagreements on procedures and modalities. In June 2006, the ICRC took a further step. In an official letter sent to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the ICRC president, Jakob Kellenberger, called for ICRC visits to persons detained in connection with the situation in the northern Caucasus to be resumed and conducted in accordance with the standard procedures used by the organization throughout the world. In his letter, Mr Kellenberger pointed out that the ICRC follows its customary working procedures in some 80 countries around the world. He ended by stating that he is prepared to go to Moscow to meet Mr Putin to discuss future cooperation between the Russian Federation and the ICRC.
It should also be stressed that while ICRC delegates do not carry out visits to detainees, the ICRC continues to establish and maintain links between detainees and their families. The Family Visit Programme allows two family members to visit detained relatives once a year. Since the start of the programme at the end of February 2005, 298 families have applied.
Insecurity in Chechnya's neighbouring republics seems on the rise. How much of a concern is this for the ICRC?
The security situation in the Northern Caucasus was tense in 2005 and remained so in the first half of 2006. The ICRC is concerned about the threat of destabilization in the northern Caucasus.
In October 2005, an attack on Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, resulted in a number of fatalities, followed by a series of arrests. This created an atmosphere of unrest and fear among the civilian population in the republic.
In Dagestan, attacks on police forces, including high-ranking officers, continue to take place causing numerous losses among both security personnel and civilians. In Ingushetia, the situation also remains volatile, with increased attacks that targeted mostly federal and local authorities.
In spite of some developments improving the daily life of the population in Chechnya, the future is very uncertain as armed confrontations and attacks continue. Large numbers of armed and security forces are still stationed in and around Chechnya. Arrests are regularly made in relation to the conflict. There are widespread reports about disappearances. The ICRC continues to receive allegations of arrest or disappearance from families and urges the authorities concerned to investigate these cases.
You are ending a three year mission to the Russian Federation: which achievements are the most significant for you? What are you disappointed by?
The ICRC has developed an effective assistance operation in the northern Caucasus, in particular by launching individual micro-economic projects aimed at providing direct and indirect support to vulnerable households. Through its education programmes and active promotion of international humanitarian law, the ICRC has reached large numbers in the main secondary schools, law faculties, military academies and political science faculties of the Russian Federation. That is a significant achievement and this cooperation will continue in the future.
One of the main disappointments is the lack of progress on resuming ICRC detention visits. We hope that the ICRC president's letter to the Russian president will help resolve this issue
In addition, the ICRC still has no news of its Grozny staff member, Usman Saidaliev, abducted from his home in Chechnya in August 2003. I would also remind you that the ICRC has not been told of any progress in the official inquiry into the assassination of six ICRC delegates at Novye Atagi in 1996.