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Central tracing agency and protection: extract from ICRC Annual Report 2009

19-05-2010 Informe de actividad

The Central Tracing Agency and Protection Division provides strategic support and professional expertise to field operations in three areas of activity – protection of the civilian population, protection of people deprived of their freedom and restoring family links; the latter also covers activities relating to missing persons and their families.

In 2009, the Division participated in the ICRC’s new rapid deployment mechanism in the course of three missions to Indonesia and Pakistan.

Protection of the civilian population 

The ICRC seeks to protect civilians from the effects of armed conflicts and other forms of violence and to secure respect for fundamental rights by weapon carriers and the authorities concerned. It conducts activities that aim to make the authorities aware of their responsibilities and work to fulfil them. Other activities aim to reduce the vulnerability of people exposed to specific risks, especially children, women, the elderly and disabled, and the displaced. These activities are not mutually exclusive.

In 2009, the Central Tracing Agency and Protection Division reinforced its capacity to consolidate, in coordination with other divisions at headquarters, rapid multidisciplinary support for delegations preparing special reports on the effects of hostilities, or law enforcement operations, on the population. This proved instrumental in improving the quality of data collection and reporting during and after the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip and after violence broke out in Guinea during an opposition rally in September. The Division also actively supported the efforts of delegations that revised their context-specific guidelines for protection work (principally Colombia and Sudan).

The Division finalized guidelines regarding activities for separated and unaccompanied children. These guidelines present, in a single document, the p rotection and assistance activities the ICRC can implement in favour of unaccompanied or separated children, including former child soldiers. They are based on a review of existing practices and lessons learnt.

Early in 2008, the ICRC initiated a broad consultation process to establish professional protection standards. It created an advisory group to steer the process that includes representatives of Amnesty International, the British Overseas Development Institute, Interaction US, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), the Jesuit Refugee Service, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), OHCHR and UNHCR. From the outset, the advisory group agreed that an effective protection response requires the right professional competences and that it is therefore necessary to define common professional standards encouraging both new and experienced protection practitioners to adopt a professional approach that optimizes the results of protection activities and mitigates their potential harmful implications. A first consolidated draft was presented to a wider audience during the first quarter of 2009. Based on the copious feedback received, the document was finalized with the help of the advisory group during the summer. The resulting booklet was finally presented to a wide range of protection practitioners in November 2009 during a workshop in Geneva, Switzerland, and distributed.

People deprived of their freedom 

The main objective of ICRC work to protect people deprived of their freedom is to prevent or put an end to summary executions, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, inadequate conditions of detention, the severing of contact between detainees and their families and disregard for fundamental judicial guarantees and procedural safeguards. ICRC visits are a means of collecting first-hand information about the treatment and living conditions of detainees. Trained ICRC staff visit places of detention, talk with the authorities concerned, hold private interviews with detainees/internees and prepare an overall analysis of their findings. ICRC findings, assessments and related recommendations are discussed confidentially with the authorities at the appropriate levels, and ICRC visits are repeated in a process that is held to strict professional standards.

In October 2009 the ICRC convened 24 prison experts from around the world to discuss prison cell space. The meeting was part of an ongoing effort to come up with standard references for cell space, develop recommendations for prison authorities and discuss their implementation with experts and practitioners. The topics included recommended accommodation space for both normal and emergency conditions, measurement of overcrowding and occupancy rate, specifications concerning ventilation, water supply and sanitation, and variations that take account of the specific needs of women. The experts agreed on the need to establish minimum metric figures, which may vary according to the detention context. The ICRC is working on such minimum figures, while taking on board the pragmatic rationale underpinning them.

Training in detention-related activities was restructured, enabling delegates continuously to refresh their knowledge through a range of consolidation courses on detention matters, according to their experience. In September, 23 experienced delegates attended one of these courses, enhancing their understanding of prison systems, overcrowding, the prevention of torture and the promotion of respect for judicial guarantees.

Besides regularly supporting field staff carrying out protection activities, the Division also designed a new reference database. This widely accessible tool provides institutional guidance on some 450 topics and serves as a knowledge bank on detention and legal systems and ICRC best practices.

Restoring family links 

Armed violence and natural or man-made disasters may lead to massive population displacement and the separation of families. Working as a rule in close cooperation with National Societies, the ICRC provides services for restoring family links, including reuniting family members. It pays particular attention and gives priority to children separated from their families and those demobilized from fighting forces, as they may encounter specific protection problems.

The family-links network – comprising the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency, ICRC delegations and National Society tracing services – provides essential services to those with needs in this domain. It enables people to communicate with one another and strives to reunite separated family members, to locate missing relatives and to recover and identify human remains. The ICRC acts both in its direct operational capacity and in its lead role for restoring family links within the Movement. As such, it acts as the Movement’s technical adviser in this field and coordinator of the related international response, including in situations of natural disaster occurring outside conflict zones or violence-prone areas.

In 2009, implementation of the Restoring Family Links Strategy for the Movement gathered pace. The strategy, which was adopted by the Council of Delegates in November 2007, aims to strengthen the Movement’s family-links network by enhancing the capacity of its components to respond to the needs of those without news of family members owing to an armed conflict or other situation of violence, a natural disaster or other circumstances, such as migration. In 2009, the Division focused on:

  • the response capacity in case of natural disaster: a pool of 60 international family-links specialists drawn from ICRC staff and National Societies was established for rapid deployment; 45 of the specialists were trained and are ready for deployment under a memorandum of understanding signed by the International Federation and the ICRC; the first field manual on restoring family links in disasters, intended for all components of the Movement, was published

  • the response to specific needs linked to migration: incooperation with National Societies, the guidelines onproviding family-links services to people separated as a result of migration were finalized, complementing theInternational Federation policy on migration

  • assessment of needs: after being field-tested during the year, a needs assessment handbook for ICRC and National Society tracing staff was finalized

Missing persons and their families 

Armed conflicts and other situations of violence often lead to the disappearance of hundreds or even thousands of people. ICRC activities in relation to missing persons include: promoting the relevant humanitarian rules, lending support for the development of appropriate national legislation, helping the authorities set up mechanisms aimed at addressing the issue of missing persons, cooperating with the authorities and the other players involved with a view to ascertaining the fate of the missing, tracing people who are unaccounted for, handling human remains, and providing support to the families of the missing.

In 2009, the Division continued to chair the internal task force on missing persons and their families, ensuring consistency in the ICRC’s humanitarian response in this domain. It organized the first specialized training event dedicated to the issue, highlighting the ICRC’s holistic approach.

Relations with other organizations 

The ICRC participated in various meetings, round-tables and conferences on general and specific protection issues. It also maintained bilateral relations with the main organizations and institutions active in this area.

Within the UN framework, it actively participated as an observer in protection cluster meetings, both in the field and at headquarters. The main purpose of these contacts was to promote the ICRC’s specific combination of an “all-victims” approach and responses to particular segments of the population facing particular risks and/or specific needs, in order to ensure complementarity and avoid unnecessary duplication.

The Division continued to take part in numerous discussions on the protection of IDPs within NGOs or UN fora and in academic circles.

Human resources development 

As in previous years, the Division allocated considerable resources to training to ensure staff members had the tools and methods they needed to carry out protection activities effectively and consistently.

In addition to the new courses mentioned above (see People deprived of their freedom and Missing persons and their families ), two other courses were being developed to enable staff dealing with protection issues to reinforce their skills regarding the protection of civilians and restoring family links. For the first time, the Division also offered a distance learning programme to its staff. With the support of the Ecole de traduction et d’interprétation (ETI) of t he University of Geneva, interpreters were offered an e-learning course on interpreting in zones of crisis and armed conflict. Thanks to the establishment of an ICRC virtual learning portal, the Division envisages proposing further distance learning modules in 2010.