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Somalia: the ICRC advocates the pursuit of neutral and independent humanitarian action

06-07-2007 Interview

In a country which has been ravaged by conflict for more than 15 years and which has witnessed particularly violent confrontations in recent months, there still seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. Pascal Hundt, the head of the ICRC delegation for Somalia, reaffirms that neutral and independent humanitarian action must continue in parallel with any political process to resolve the crisis.


© ICRC / Benoît Schaeffer / so-e-00166 
Thousands of people were forced to flee the capital Mogadishu during the fighting in April 2007. 

© ICRC / Benoît Schaeffer / so-e-00148 
The ICRC supports hospitals performing war surgery. 

 How would you describe the present humanitarian situation in Somalia?  

The situation is extremely complex and it is important not to try to simplify it. The country has been at war for more than 15 years, with violence recurring in bloody peaks. The civilian population has paid a heavy price during the confrontations of these last few months, bringing new suffering after the series of natural disasters that took place throughout 2006.

The situation is aggravated by the absence of public infrastructures: the schools and hospitals are out of operation. The lawlessness and the chronic violence over a large part of the territory have plunged the population into a situation of permanent distress. Finally, the proliferation of the actors of violence does not help matters, particularly as we have been seeing a new phenomenon of insurrection. This relatively recent phenomenon perhaps indicates that an end to the violence in Somalia can only come from the Somalis themselves and that the resolution of the conflict will be a political rather than military one.

Once again, the ICRC calls on all belligerents to apply the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law with regard to the distinction between military personnel and civilians, the humane treatment of prisoners and the wounded and respect for the personnel of humanitarian organizations. Unfortunately, however, we still have difficulty in understanding the complex, varied and ever changing chains of command, while those who bear arms in Somalia have paid little heed to our successive appeals, even when relayed by our many contacts in civil society .

 Does the complexity of the situation in Somalia leave the humanitarian community floundering and out of its depth ? How does the ICRC manage to operate in such an environment ?  

It is true that all humanitarian organizations have to face enormous challenges to bring protection and assistance to the victims of the armed conflict. I would say that the added value contributed by the ICRC derives from our acceptance in the field, an acceptance due to our continuous presence in the country since 1977. Everyone has been able to observe us at work and to see that our actions are conducted in a spirit of neutrality and impartiality. Moreover, the Somalis perceive our neutrality as an apolitical commitment and this enables us to keep up contacts with all the parties to the conflict.

We also rely on a dense network of contacts and partners like the Somali Red Crescent. Indeed, it is clear that, without the latter, we would not be able to understand the realities of the country or to reach as many victims as we do.

 What specific activities does the ICRC conduct in Somalia?  

Every year, we support around 300 projects spread over the entire territory. We are talking here about long-term activities such as rehabilitating existing wells and drilling new ones, recovering agricultural land and improving the production capacities of those who cultivate it. The ICRC also runs a huge programme for the re-establishment of family links in order to help people who have lost contact with their loved ones.

Most importantly, we have the capacity to mount and conduct emergency relief operations designed to meet the humanitarian needs arising from outbreaks of violence or natural disasters. These large-scale operations are intended to bring ab out the rapid delivery of immediate essentials of life to displaced persons, as well as food and water where necessary. For example, following the latest confrontations, we distributed more than 10 million litres of water to the displaced population of Mogadishu, essential items to more than 350,000 people and food to more than 210,000.

Apart from these actions, the ICRC supports a number of hospitals - two of them in the capital - that provide care for the war-wounded. Since the beginning of the year 2007, these facilities have provided treatment for more than 3,000 war-wounded. The teams of Somali surgeons have sometimes had to work round the clock and have delivered care of a very high standard. In addition, the ICRC supports a score of Somali Red Crescent clinics in the centre and south of the country. These are intended primarily for the resident population but they can also provide care for displaced persons.


 Is the ICRC able to carry out its traditional protection mission for the population?  

The ICRC's protection work on behalf of detainees is particularly difficult in a country like Somalia where the rule of law ceased to exist many years ago. In certain contexts, the ICRC may have contacts in the prison administrations and the ministries of the Interior, Justice or Health. Given this background in Somalia, it is much harder for the ICRC to maintain any regular dialogue with the authorities. For the future, it will be necessary to ensure, as far as possible, that this dialogue is structured more in accordance with the expectations, the needs and the capacities of all concerned.

We are doing our best to resolve the problem of those arrested in relation with the conflict but, for the moment, we have no access to them. Despite everything, we keep in re gular contact with the authorities of the country and of the authorities of other countries involved in the conflict. The aim is to obtain access to the detainees, to check that they are being treated in accordance with international standards and that they are able to communicate with their families. However, the security situation is so bad that no really effective action is possible, whether with regard to protection or to detention

 What does the future hold in store for Somalia?  

For the moment, it is impossible to make any prediction. However, irrespective of any change in the general situation, it is our conviction that the humanitarian conditions in the country will continue to be a cause of deep concern for years to come. In tandem with a political process to put an end to the violence, it will be necessary to set in train a process for the re-establishment of public services and infrastructure. All of this will take a long time.

Faced with the existing chaos, many Somalis feel helpless and, given the background of anarchy and violence, it would be an illusion for outsiders to try and formulate any way out of the crisis. The solution has to come from the Somalis themselves, with massive and unified support from the international community. Meanwhile, it is important that humanitarian organizations in general and the ICRC in particular should remain neutral and stay out of the political process. On the one hand, a political process has to be established to put an end to the violence and, on the other, neutral and independent humanitarian action has to continue to alleviate the effects of this violence.