Afghanistan + 7 more

Press Conference by International Committee of Red Cross

Protecting and assisting some 3.5 million displaced people in 19 countries around the world was at the core of the mandate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), its President, Jakob Kellenberger told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference today.

By the end of the year, the number of displaced people could exceed 4 million people in large assistance operations, he added.

Describing his meeting this morning with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, he said he had assured the Secretary-General that the United Nations could count on the ICRC's willingness and readiness to coordinate with other humanitarian organizations in the field.

As one of the main actors -- or perhaps the main actor -- providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons as a result of armed conflict, he noted that the rules of international humanitarian law that applied to civilian populations also applied to internally displaced persons. Working in situations of armed conflict to protect and assist people affected by armed conflicts, the protection of internally displaced persons was one of the Committee's main activities.

With the mandate to protect and assist all people not taking part in hostilities, he said the ICRC's principle of "independent and neutral humanitarian action" was not mythological, but rather the means by which to provide the best possible access to people in need of protection and assistance. For example, the ICRC had unique access to more than 300,000 internally displaced persons in Somalia. It also had access to remote and rural areas of Darfur. Much work went into assuring that access, including constant dialogue with all the parties to a conflict.

Asked to explain the relationship between the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), he said the International Federation was a real federation of national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, as well as Israel's national society, Magen David Adom. Its main task was to strengthen national societies and coordinate action in cases of natural disaster.

The ICRC, however, had a specific mandate to protect and assist worldwide all persons affected by armed conflict, he said. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was not an organization, but a movement, composed of all national societies. A solution had been found to the emblem issue of the Israeli society, and the Israeli relief society was a full member of the movement, he added.

Responding to a question on Somalia, he noted that the conflict in that country had resulted in a large number of internally displaced persons, with some 300,000 people having fled Mogadishu and now scattered around Somalia. Seen as an independent and neutral actor, the ICRC was assisting those people.

Regarding Iraq, he said it was necessary to distinguish between refugees and internally displaced persons. Refugees, or people who crossed borders, were the responsibility of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Internally displaced persons, on the other hand, were the main responsibility of the ICRC. In the case of Iraq, refugees were the responsibility of UNHCR. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society estimated that there were some 850,000 internally displaced persons in Iraq, which the ICRC, together with the IFRC, was assisting.

Describing their specific needs, he noted that some internally displaced persons in Iraq lived in camps, while others lived in host communities. Their basic needs included essential household items, shelter materials, food and drinking water. They also often needed medical care.

Asked about the ICRC's stance on Somalia, he said people were often surprised that it had been possible for the ICRC to do its work there, even during the worst fighting at the end of 2006 and in April and May. One of the reasons for its access was that it had not left Somalia since the 1990s. The actors knew the ICRC well. While other humanitarian actors had faced obstacles, the ICRC had a record of independence and neutrality. Being independent and neutral meant not taking political positions with regard to the different actors to the conflict. Neutrality was a tool to gain access to those in need of protection and assistance.

Did the ICRC ever hire local security and employ local militia? a correspondent asked.

Responding, he said the ICRC refused military and police protection. One exception to that principle was, however, when the security risk was not linked to armed conflict but to banditry. In Somalia, the ICRC was working with local authorities in the transport and distribution of goods.

The ICRC's main concern in Darfur was a widening gap between great humanitarian needs and worsening conditions for access, he said in response to another question. While the overall humanitarian situation was bad, access in Darfur, which was roughly the size of Spain, varied. While there had been problems in certain parts of Darfur, in recent weeks access had improved. While Darfur did not have much or very intense fighting, it did have terrible suffering on the part of the civilian population. The problem in Darfur was criminality and banditry.

Asked to describe ICRC's programmes for children, he said it was clear that children had specific needs in situations of armed conflict. In February, the ICRC had taken over an internally displaced persons' camp in southern Darfur, as other humanitarian organizations had left following attacks. Having personally visited the camp in February, he had noted that, of the 130,000 people living in the camp, some 18,500 were children below the age of 5. Specific feeding programmes had been established for those children. As many families were separated during times of armed conflict, family reunification was another large issue for the ICRC.

Asked to be more specific about his meeting with Mr. Ban, he said he had talked about the ICRC's role and its implications for internally displaced persons. He had also discussed the implications of the ICRC's responsibility to struggle for the faithful application of international humanitarian law. He had also outlined the ICRC's main operations, including operations in the Sudan, Iraq, the Palestinian Territories and Israel, Somalia, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Regarding the situation in Lebanon, he noted that the Palestinian Red Crescent society was the main actor inside of the camps, whereas the Lebanese Red Cross was the main actor outside of the camps. The ICRC functioned as a facilitator. To the extent that material support was needed, the ICRC provided that support.

For information media - not an official record