Afghanistan: Humanitarian room for manoeuvre diminishing - ICRC

KABUL, 14 June 2007 (IRIN) - Delivering humanitarian aid and monitoring the situation of civilians in Afghanistan has become increasingly difficult, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told IRIN in Kabul.

"Up till late 2001 the ICRC had access to all conflict areas and was able to mediate in prisoner exchanges, the exchange of remains and the delivery of humanitarian aid," Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan, told IRIN.

"But now we do not have that access," Stocker said.

According to the ICRC, the hardening of views among the warring parties and the intensification of the conflict have reduced the space in which humanitarian workers can operate. Very little heed is being paid to civilian protection.

"There is a lack of will among different groups in the conflict to try to seek dialogue, and it has become very difficult to negotiate," Stocker added.

The ICRC, which is marking the 20th anniversary of its presence in Afghanistan, is in the war-ravaged country to alleviate hardship resulting from the conflict and assist people caught up in war zones.

"Afghans are daily faced with death, destruction, homelessness and destitution," the ICRC said.

Access to prisoners

The ICRC is the only impartial body with access to all Afghan government and international forces' prisons and detention centres in Afghanistan, the organisation said.

Despite allegations of prisoner abuse and torture at US military detention facilities in various locations in Afghanistan, the country's human rights commission has not been able to access these sites.

Neither the ICRC nor the Afghan human rights commission have access to prisoners and hostages held by Taliban insurgents.

"We would like to have regular access to prisoners held by the armed opposition [the Taliban] and to monitor their situation," said Stocker.

Given the Taliban's hit-and-run insurgency tactics, many believe they do not have stable prisons and detention centres in which to keep prisoners.

Videos released by Taliban insurgents show beheadings and executions of individuals on charges of spying and collaborating with the Taliban's opponents.

The Taliban have abducted - in some cases beheaded - noncombatants and aid workers for military and strategic purposes, media reports indicate.

Under the 1949 Geneva Convention and the Additional Protocols of 1977, the ICRC should be able to visit and register prisoners of war; deliver humanitarian aid to civilians during a conflict; train armed forces to respect the rules of war; and act as go-betweens to secure prisoner swaps and release of hostages.

"Geneva Conventions apply equally to all warring parties in Afghanistan and all must comply with the rules of war," said Fareed Hamidi, a commissioner for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), said.

Contacts with Taliban

A senior ICRC official in Kabul tacitly admitted the ICRC had contacts with the Taliban.

"The ICRC has contacts with all sides in the conflict," Michael O'Brien, an ICRC spokesman in Kabul, told IRIN.

However, for ICRC a major challenge is to instill more respect for the laws of warfare in all sides in the conflict, observers say.

"Different armed groups are making our access to conflict areas difficult. We seek protection from all sides in the conflict," Stocker said.