18 - 24 November 1999
Issue No. 456
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Message to humanityBy Fatemah Farag
"I have come to Egypt on a mission of humanitarian mobilisation on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions," said Cornelio Sommaruga, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
A Swiss national born in Rome, Sommaruga assumed his position in May 1987. Perched on the 23rd floor of the Cairo Sheraton, and having squeezed a press meeting into a crowded schedule, the heavy set, amicable Sommaruga began with a brief outline of his Cairo activities, which began on Saturday.
Perhaps foremost in importance was the three-day Arab Regional Conference, held under the auspices of Mrs Suzanne Mubarak and organised jointly by the Ministry of Justice, the Arab League, the ICRC and the Egyptian Red Crescent. The conference was attended by representatives of the ministries of defence, foreign affairs and international cooperation as well as the Egyptian Organisation for International Law, the National Centre for Studies of the Middle East and the International Institute for Higher Criminological Studies. Sommaruga also met with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, and Parliament Speaker Fathi Surour.
"I am responsible for an institution spread all over the world, with 10,000 associates working every day for the respect of humanitarian law in armed conflicts and situations of violence. We work for the immediate protection and further assistance of victims in 30 countries that are at war, many of these in the Middle East. I have had occasions in all my meetings with Egyptian officials to discuss issues relevant to these activities and, in particular, the situation with Israel, Iraq, Kuwait and many others." Sommaruga pointed out, however, that the discussions were not political but "humanitarian".
The distinction is crucial to the ICRC, an organisation whose mandate stipulates that it work through governments and in confidence. "Our work must be confidential and we only report to the authorities responsible. We tell them, 'please improve the situation at hand, we want to be your advisors in doing so.' This strategy has given us access to detainees in Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and the Emirates -- and those are just examples," Sommaruga explained.
But can organisations such as the ICRC afford to remain "neutral" when working with governments which are not only clearly biased but, in many cases, the offenders themselves? "I think it is central that we do not amend our methods of work. The issue is to see that the law is better implemented through the much more aggressive dissemination of humanitarian law. Here, activities such as education and highlighting the importance of collective responsibility are key. I think there will always be situations of difficulty and limitations; despite these, we have been able to visit 200,000 victims this year. In the end, we are in the hands of governments and, if we make public statements, they will reject us. We are convinced the solution will not be to speak out loudly on violations but to convince governments of our aims and gain their trust."
When discussing the activities of the ICRC within the region, Sommaruga did acquiesce that the assistance the ICRC tries to provide to victims is, in many cases, restricted. For example, in the cases of the so-called security zone in southern Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, ICRC activities are continually obstructed by the Israeli government.
In dealing with governments that violate human rights, Sommaruga highlighted the use of tools such as economic sanctions enforced by the United Nations. Asked specifically about Iraq, he responded: "We do not accept what is happening in Iraq and that is why we are working hard within that country. In fact, I will have a discreet dialogue with the secretary-general of the United Nations in a couple of weeks regarding this issue." Earlier, he had pointed out that ICRC assistance to Iraq, which focuses on the rehabilitation of hospitals and water projects, frequently encounters difficulties from the UN bureaucracy, which seems reluctant to provide the necessary authorisations.
Another issue is related to the nature of armed conflict today. In a statement made on Sunday at the Al-Ahram Regional Press Institute, Sommaruga pointed out that, in the wars of the 1990s, "civilians are all too often deliberately picked out as targets. The aim of war is no longer merely to achieve military victory, but rather to change the ethnic make-up of the territory being fought over by directing hostilities against the civilian population."
For the ICRC, this has meant a need to adapt. "For example, the importance of disseminating what we are doing. This diffusion of information is very important in specific regional conflicts. The means of reaching people has been developed. For example, the use of radio, because of the accessibility of the transistor, and music as well as TV and theatre. Also, we have introduced special training which covers not only new staff but senior members of the organisation regarding new priorities and how to behave in certain situations. This is in addition to much more liberty given to heads of delegations to take decisions, especially when it comes to security measures. There are of course the more general aspects, such as emphasising the importance of anti-land mine activities and the behaviour of peace-keeping troops."
As his three-day visit came to an end, Sommaruga said he would take back with him Egypt's renewed support for ICRC activities as well as the new intensity in relations with the Arab League, which has expressed its desire to facilitate the organisation's activities in the region.