ICRC Head: There are humanitarian rules authorities should abide by in dealing with other people. [Archives:2000/37/Health]

September 11 2000

There are humanitarian rules authorities should
abide by in dealing with other people.
International Committees of the Red Cross are found all over the world. They are playing pivotal roles to enhance human rights issues, improving the conditions of victims of wars and conflicts. In Yemen, the committee is playing an essential role in the country since the revolution of 1962. Mr. Alain Lennartz, head of the International Red Cross Committee, came to Yemen two and half years ago and he has still six months till his term is over. Mr. Mohammed Hatem Al-Qhadi, Yemen Times managing editor met with him and filed the following interview:

Q: Could you please shed some light on the background of the committee?
A: At first, I have to stress that the nature mandate of the International Committee of the Red Cross is in times of concrete, where we have really a mandate to protect the victims of conflicts. That is how we came to Yemen in the first place in 1962 when the war between the royalists and republicans started. We started having medical activities to treat the wounded of this conflict. We visited the prisoners each party had made. Of our activities is to look after the wounded and look for the prisoners of war. Basically, what we are doing now is a logical consequence of what we did in 1962 because we have been staying in Yemen since then and unfortunately there has been several wars and complex situations since that time. The last one was in 1994 where we met with prisoners. Meeting prisoners and checking their conditions is also of our activities even during peace time. The prisons that were used in the past were very old Turkish prisons which are not up to the humanitarian standard. We worked together with the authorities to improve the conditions of these prisons in this country. We are still active in that respect for after all this time, I can say we understand each other. The government knows exactly what we are doing and how we are doing that. We have excellent contact with the authorities to work according to our criteria. So what we have been doing is that we visit all the detention centers where people are locked in for some time, lets say three days, etc. If they are kept for more than that these prisoners need minimum standard of conditions to be treated as human beings. They need food, toilets, medical treatment, etc. Their family have to know where they are. These are the conditions that we insist on.

Q: What is the ICRC evaluation of the conditions of prisons here in Yemen?
A: As far as the prisons are concerned, this is an on-going process. But we can certainly say that a lot of efforts have been put by the government to improve the conditions of prisons. New prisons have been built. This has to be put in relation to the means the government has. We have just to make sure that a minimum standard is kept. Now I can tell you that we have not seen malnutrition in prisons.
There is a huge difference between women here and women in the European community for example. Women here are very less in comparison to women there and in comparison to their men. Those who are in prison are imprisoned for moral problems. As we know that if a woman has an affair and her family knows about it, she is thrown out of the family. They are then kept in prisons and very often they came to have babies. After all they are human beings and they have to be looked after.

Q: Whats the role of the ICRC in regard to refugees who flow into Yemen from the neighboring countries?
A: There is a special committee to look after refugees who are also victims of conflicts which is UNHCR. If this committee is active in a country we are not directly involved in looking after the physical conditions of these refugees. It is the UNHCR that has the mandate, get the means from the international committee to do that job.
In certain countries where the UNHCR are not found, we of course do that work. In Yemen, we have only one specific work that is to tracing people and keep family links between refugees and the family back home. This concern in Yemen, especially the Somali community as in Somalia you do not have post offices and postmen to distribute letters. We work to keep the link between refugees and their families.

Q: Are you pursuing any other activities?
A: One of our main activities is psychiatric patients. We paid a visit to a prison in 1995 and saw many psychiatric patients who were simply chained and left on their own in a cell, on their dirt. Nobody was aware of the idea that they can be treated. We started with three sections in three prisons in Sanaa, Taiz and Hodiedah. We have something like 250 patients in these three sections which we together with the authorities look after them. What we did is that we prepared the three sections. Now we are financing the psychiatrists, nurses and, to certain extent, psychologists. On top of that we pay incentives and we encourage volunteers from the Yemeni Red Cross Society and from all sections of the society. We have something like 90 volunteers who are going in shifts in those sections to look after them. The weak part is again the materials since their families sent them to the streets as they are uncontrollable. Besides the government can never give them all the assistance neither can we replace the government as these prisons are governmental institutions. Now we are looking for rich people and businessmen who should have a role in relieving the suffering of these miserable section of society.
I read the article published in the Yemen Times about the miserable condition of the patients in the center in Taiz. It is a fact that these people do not get enough and nice clothes for these patients sometimes turn violent and tear their clothes. They are not always nice men. They need a regular assistance to give them a decent appearance and a decent life which we can not replace. It is something that the government and the society have to do. We can only look after the medical care. When I was in Taiz at the week end I could see some improvement of their conditions. Therefore this is the way it should go.
One thing to note is that in Ibb all the psychiatric patients are kept in prisons. They did nothing wrong. They should not be in prisons, they should be in hospitals. This is something the government has to address and create an awareness that they should be treated in hospitals or simply sometimes by giving them the correct medicine. Then, they will be harmless.
Another activity is the promotion of the International Humanitarian Law which Yemen signed. Yemen is considered to be one of the most progressive and advanced countries in the middle east in terms of humanitarian and human rights laws. The question in that signing these treaties is not enough. It is the enactment of these treaties that counts a lot. People have to know and feel these rights.
There are humanitarian rules that authorities should abide by in dealing with other people whether it deals with enemies from outside the country or inside the country. Therefore, the government should teach these laws to the people.

Q: What is your future plan?
A: I hope that we do not have to increase our activities. That is, I hope that you will never have any serious problems. For the peace time activities, we are consolidating our programs. We are for the time being continuing the program in the psychiatric sections until we are sure that authorities and local organizations can take over and continue our work. We are working together with the authorities that they take more and more responsibilities. However, it is certain that in the coming two years we will be working in that project.
We will also continue to visit places of detention and help the authorities improve them. What we can say as for the prisons is that there is a strong political will to put a lot of effort into improving the condition of prisons.
There should also be a realization that this takes time. Prisons here are not found and the ideal conditions are not found mainly due to the weakness of the structures which we are trying to improve with the authorities. We will continue our activities to promote these rights. We assist the armed forces. We have specialists officers who will come and organize a course for high ranking officials. We have a project to create awareness among children for humanitarian problems by letting them express themselves how they see violence, they can draw it, they can say it.
We want the International Humanitarian law to be taught in university curricula in the faculties of law.
One final thing to note is that the sign of the red cross has nothing to do with religion. The red cross was created as the Swiss flag for the founder in 1863 was a Swiss so as to honor the founder they took the Swiss flag and changed the colors. Out of the white cross of the Swiss Confederation it became the red cross.