”A before and an after in Iraq”
08-11-2003 Article, Tages Anzeiger, by Marlène Schnieper
The Red Cross is “taking a step back” in Iraq. ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger explains why.
Interview from the newspaper Tages-Anzeiger , 8 November 2003, and translated by the ICRC. Article reproduced on this site with the kind permission of the newspaper.
Mr Kellenberger, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been in Iraq for 23 years. It helped the victims of three wars. Now you no longer feel you can let your staff work there freely. What changed?
On 27 October, two of our staff died in a suicide bomb attack on the ICRC delegation in Baghdad. That was the third time we had lost people since spring this year. For our personnel, some of whom have been bringing aid to Iraq for a long time, this was a shock. We were made painfully aware that for a certain group of people being a major humanitarian organization makes the ICRC a target. This forces us to think very carefully about how to fulfil our mission while protecting our staff. In the coming weeks, we are going to have to change the way we work.
On Thursday, a committee of ICRC members discussed changes in your Iraq strategy. What was the outcome?
There was a “before” and there is an “after”. Our post-27-October strategy is based on a number of elements. Firstly, we will continue to avoid militarization. We will not operate from buildings secured by military personnel and we will not use military escorts. Either measure would be incompatible with independent humanitarian work as we understand it. Secondly, we are closing our offices in Baghdad and Basra for the time being, but will remain in northern Iraq. We shall be concentrating on visits to prisoners, restoring contact between members of families, and providing emergency humanitarian aid in the fields of water and medicine.
The ICRC accepted armed escorts in Chechnya. Why do you rule out that option for Iraq?
In December 1996, six ICRC staff in Chechnya were murdered in cold blood. The ICRC withdrew temporarily. However, we have remained active almost continuously since then, via local staff in Grosny. ICRC delegates visit security detainees in Chechnya from the neighbouring republics, but as kidnapping is still commonplace in Chechnya, we have accepted escorts from armed Russian Interior Ministry units for expatriate staff moving around the conflict area. This is a matter of protecting ICRC delegates against banditry, under exceptional circumstances.
The situation would be different if the ICRC hid itself away in bunkers under military guard in Baghdad, and its personnel only ventured out with an escort of Coalition soldiers. That would pos e a pretty major problem.
Is creeping absorption by the superpower not a problem already? President George W. Bush said the US was determined “not to be intimidated” following the 27 October attacks and his Secretary of State Colin Powell told you the ICRC was “needed” in Iraq.
I received calls and letters from many capitals following the attack on our Baghdad offices. Joschka Fischer was just as shocked as Colin Powell. But the ICRC will not allow itself to be swallowed up by any power. It is answerable only to the victims of armed conflict and internal tension. We demonstrate this every day in the 80 countries around the world where we bring help on the basis of neutrality.
The important thing is for the ICRC to have access to victims on all sides, and that means you have to be in contact with all parties to a conflict. Some actors in Iraq are vaguely defined “terrorists”. There is no “Mr Al-Qaeda” for you to contact.
What you say is true. Not only are conflicts becoming less clearly defined, but humanitarian workers are increasingly having to deal with a multiplicity of ill-defined actors. That applies not just to Iraq, but also to Afghanistan, Liberia, the Caucasus and Colombia. Under such circumstances, it is vital that the ICRC be accepted as an independent humanitarian organization.
The ICRC is highly regarded throughout the world. Obviously, that makes it attractive to suicide bombers on the lookout for headline-grabbing targets. Does this affect your information policy?
We have never given out confidential information. When we can present and explain our work, we do. We will carry on communicating as openly as we have done over the past few months. If the security situation so requires, we will modify our information policy.
Fifty percent of ICRC operations involve Moslem countries. Are you taking steps to raise awareness of the ICRC’s mandate in those countries?
All my journeys in October were aimed at doing just that. I met government leaders in Riyadh and Kuwait, and at the Conference of Islamic States in Kuala Lumpur I spoke to people like the President of Indonesia, the Sudanese and Algerian heads of State and the Iranian Foreign Minister. As well as raising specific issues with them, I emphasized that it is precisely in our increasingly polarized and extreme world that the ICRC must maintain its independence.
Is the ICRC emblem seen as a problem in those circles?
I have never heard any comments on those lines from the representatives of governments in Muslim countries. The ICRC’s identity stems from its mandate and principles. The Emblem is there to protect ICRC staff in the execution of their duties. It has done so in most operations so far. In some situations it gives no protection, or is misunderstood. But there is no ques tion of abandoning the Emblem.