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ICRC stretched to the limit in 2005

Krähenbühl says the ICRC will continue to press the US for access to all detainees Keystone

The director of operations at the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) tells swissinfo that 2005 has been a "very demanding" year.

Pierre Krähenbühl said natural disasters, armed conflicts and visits to around 2,400 prisons in nearly 80 countries had prompted a record response from the Swiss-run organisation.

swissinfo: It has been a terrible year in terms of humanitarian disasters – the aftermath of the tsunami, famine in Africa, the continuing crisis in Darfur, Hurricane Katrina, the South Asia earthquake. How difficult has it been for the ICRC?

Pierre Krähenbühl: It’s been a very demanding year with a very significant and broad operational surface worldwide.

The ICRC has first and foremost a responsibility to work in situations of armed conflict and violence, and what struck us during the course of the year was the very diverse nature of the situations that we had to work in.

Our biggest operation was in Darfur in Sudan, where we had large numbers of staff working under, at times, very poor security conditions. We have also been active in countries like Haiti and Iraq where the security situation is also very unstable.

Because of our universal approach to humanitarian action, which means that we don’t choose between Pakistan, Darfur and Haiti, it really has meant a very broad presence in the field, with more than 12,000 people in over 80 countries. In pure human resource terms it has been a year where we have certainly reached record levels.

swissinfo: Sudan is again set to be the biggest beneficiary of ICRC aid in 2006. Are you concerned that the world’s focus has shifted away from Darfur?

P.K.: This happens sometimes and one can hardly blame people in a year that has been so dominated by natural disasters. But we do note at times that it is easier to mobilise sympathy and attention for natural disasters than conflict situations, which are more complex.

One of our responsibilities is to continue to draw attention to these situations, and I think Darfur is one of those cases where if there isn’t the right level of focus there is a real risk for the people.

In the late spring we were seeing more positive signs, but six months on the security environment has deteriorated and more people are being displaced. The message from our teams on the ground is very clear: it is a very delicate environment with many people at risk.

swissinfo: You have allocated SFr97 million ($73.8 million) for Pakistan in next year’s initial budget. Is enough being done to prevent a second wave of deaths over the winter?

P.K.: It is rare that you have to face disasters like the tsunami and the earthquake in Pakistan where so many people are affected at the same time.

Within the first hours and days you have to deploy people and resources very rapidly, and I think we can say with confidence that in the case of Pakistan we have really been able to mobilise very effectively. In Pakistan-administered Kashmir the ICRC has assisted over 200,000 people.

An unprecedented logistics set-up is in place to respond to the people’s needs, but there is a question mark over the winter period. Weather conditions allowing, I think we should be able to manage but it’s a big challenge.

swissinfo: The ICRC has consistently raised concerns about “significant problems” regarding detention conditions and the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Have you made any progress on this with the United States authorities?

P.K.: I think the discussions we have had over the years with the Americans in terms of the detention facilities that they oversee or have responsibility for have certainly led to a number of improvements.

We have taken note in recent months of efforts made on the part of the US to integrate a number of our recommendations and to improve and facilitate the work of ICRC teams.

Taking the example of Guantanamo, there I think we have reached levels that are satisfactory in terms of our working modalities and the quality of our dialogue. But we continue to have differences of opinion on the legal framework applicable to this situation.

swissinfo: Washington recently disclosed that the ICRC is denied access to some detainees. What action do you propose to take to remedy the situation?

P.K.: This issue of undisclosed detention or people held in undisclosed locations has been a concern for the ICRC for some time.

We have repeatedly requested access and notification relating to these people but we have not been able to obtain it to date. We will continue to press the American authorities on this matter.

swissinfo: The US is your biggest donor. Some people might think this buys them a certain amount of leverage…

P.K.: The US has been for many years the strongest donor that the ICRC has had both in terms of the amount and the quality of funding. In 2005 – a year in which there were differences over detention – the US has again contributed significantly, for which the ICRC is grateful.

I can categorically state that there is no interference in the ICRC’s internal decision making on the part of the Americans or any other donor for that matter.

swissinfo-interview: Adam Beaumont in Geneva

The Swiss-run ICRC works mainly to protect the victims of armed conflict and internal violence by providing humanitarian assistance and conducting prisoner of war visits.
It monitors compliance of the Geneva Conventions, which outline the rules of law in times of war and occupation, including the treatment of PoWs.
Switzerland is the depositary state of the Geneva Conventions.

The ICRC is asking donors for more than SFr1 billion ($760 million) to fund its humanitarian work in around 80 countries in 2006.

Sudan remains the organisation’s largest operation worldwide followed by Pakistan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Just over 40 per cent of budget is earmarked for Africa where the ICRC says the situation in a number of areas continues to be a “cause for grave concern”.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR