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War highlights importance of telecommunications

The ICRC made mobile phones available to civilians during the Iraqi conflict. ICRC/Sohlberg

The recent war in Iraq showed that Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are becoming an essential tool for protecting civilians and aid workers during times of conflict.

This content was published on November 28, 2003 - 14:30

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), satellite phones, radio and the internet are continuing to help save lives inside and outside the country.

“When our team in Baghdad remained behind after the bombing started, they had to have radio communication with us,” Antonella Notari, a spokeswoman for the ICRC, told swissinfo.

“The internet and telephones didn’t work so they used radio receivers and transmitters to contact us and each other about the situation on the ground and any dangers they saw coming,” she added.

Telecommunications and the internet are also being used by the Geneva-based organisation to put families in touch with their missing loved ones.

Iraqi families

For example, during the war in Iraq, the ICRC helped thousands of Iraqis contact their families abroad, using satellite phones.

“They could call for one minute, anywhere in the world, to tell their families they were safe and well, and to give them a first bit of news,” explained Notari.

The humanitarian agency also maintains a website, called “Family Links”, that aims to put relatives in touch with each other, following conflicts in countries such as Iraq, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Bosnia Herzegovina.

Thousands of people have registered on the website to say they’re looking for someone or to announce that they’re alive and well, according to Notari.

A similar message programme, which uses the internet and community radio broadcasts, is also helping to reunite separated family members in Angola, some of whom have not been in touch for decades.

Pros and cons

One of the downsides to the growing success of telecommunications, however, is that they are increasingly being used by rebel and terrorist groups to help carry out their activities.

During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the private radio station Radio Tele Libre Mille Collines (RTLM) incited Hutu militia to slaughter Tutsis.

Senior figures at the station have gone on trial at the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda, charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.

“Mostly what we see is that certain groups will use information technologies to spread their instructions, their messages and their ideology,” Notari told swissinfo.

“Meanwhile, the ICRC tries to use the internet to teach people about international humanitarian law and the basic principles of humanity… but it would be an illusion to think that we can counteract the use of ICTs by certain groups,” she added.

Despite this negative aspect, however, Notari believes the use of ICTs in humanitarian work will continue to grow as they become cheaper, more widely available and easier to use.

“There is a large potential for development of how telecommunications are used to help threatened populations,” she said.

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva

In brief

The ICRC uses satellite phones, radio and the internet to help save lives inside and outside conflict regions.

These technologies have become an important tool for protecting civilians as well as its own employees in war zones.

The humanitarian agency also maintains a website called "Family Links", which aims to put relatives in touch with one another following conflicts.

The ICRC uses the internet to teach people about humanitarian law.

The organisation expects the use of ICTs to become widespread in its work as costs decrease and as the technology becomes more widely available.

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