Martin Amacher the Head of International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Yemen to the Yemen Times:”We go on because we know people need us and rely on us” [Archives:2005/870/Reportage]

August 22 2005
Martin Amacher, head of the delegation of the  ICRC
Martin Amacher, head of the delegation of the ICRC
Assistance for Sa
Assistance for Sa’adah regions (water filters and construction material): Assistance trucks arriving to Marran
Interviewed by Amel al-Ariqi
Yemen Times Staff

The International Committee of the Red Cross ICRC is a neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian organization. It has been active in Yemen since autumn 1962. From that time onwards, the ICRC has been offering its services to Yemeni society: providing substantial aid to the Yemeni Red Crescent YRC, promoting international humanitarian law, giving assistance, and during certain periods, visiting detained persons. To highlight the role of ICRC internationally and nationally, Amel al-Ariqi of the Yemen Times has met Martin Amacher, head of the delegation of the international committee of the ICRC in Yemen and carried out this interview. Mr. Amacher is working as an ICRC delegate for 11 years, among others in Sri lanka , the Palestinian territories, as a deputy head of Regional Delegation in Kuwait, which covers the Gulf Countries, in Afghanistan and Georgia. He has become the head of delegation of the ICRC in Yemen in May 2003

In your years of work in Yemen how do you assess the ICRC's intervention in humanitarian issues in Yemen throughout its years of operation?

The ICRC has progressed in all domains such as cooperation with the Yemeni Red Crescent Society YRCS, detainees' protection and assistance as well as re-establishing family links, promotion of the International Humanitarian Law IHL, and assistance particularly in the field of orthopedic treatment to land mine victims and other patients.

The ICRC's operations in Yemen progressed rapidly sine 2003. It carried a pilot project with the Yemeni Ministry of Education for an educational program that aims at enhancing awareness in secondary schools about the humanitarian law and basic humanitarian values. This program is now being implemented in 32 Yemeni schools all over the country. Since June 2004, the ICRC has pursued talks with the Ministry of Interior and the Political Security to gain access to all detention places under their jurisdiction. In December 2004 the Yemeni parliament has, following recommendations of (among others) the ICRC, adopted an executive law for the 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personal land mines. ICRC and YRCS in accordance with their mandate have assessed humanitarian needs and assisted people affected by armed confrontations that took place in 2004 in Saadah governorate.

Talking about the Saada conflict, can you tell me about ICRC's role in offering assistance there, and is it right that you weren't allowed to enter Saadah during the conflict ?

In mid-September, immediately after the end of the conflict, the YRCS with the support of the ICRC has undertaken a first distribution of non-food relief items to 200 needy families in Marran area. In late November 2004, the Yemeni authorities gave their green light to YRCS and ICRC to assess the humanitarian needs. From 19 to 24 December 2004, a joint team of YRCS volunteers and two ICRC field officers accompanied by five volunteers of the Civic Democratic Initiatives Support Foundation CDF visited the affected villages and interviewed families. The team also visited other areas of Saddah province where displaced persons from Marran have found shelter. In May 2005, a team consisting of three ICRC staff members and 20 YRCS volunteers have distributed 2000 water filters to households in Marran and provided construction material for the repair of 84 ponds that were destroyed by this conflict.

Concerning the second part of the question, we didn't enter Saadah during the conflict because of security reasons. As I am a Head of Delegation of ICRC in Yemen I have my responsibility to ensure that no body is hurt or injured. We are an impartial and independent organization that has no link with any party of any conflict. We have to take safety procedures in consideration to insure the safety of our staff. So we tried to talk to the conflicting parties persuading them that we are a humanitarian organization that assists victims of conflict regardless of their affiliation.

Dose the domination of the tribal system pose as an obstacle to your work in Yemen?

We don't consider the tribal system as an obstacle. The tribal system is a fact in Yemen is a part of Yemeni society. For example in Marran we talked to local sheikhs of tribes in order to facilitate our mission there.

How about your emblem, do many people think that it has certain symbolization?

Yes you are right. Many people think that the cross in the emblem is a Christian symbol but that is not right at all. ICRC is based in Switzerland, a country that is known for its neutrality, so the founders of the ICRC were inverting the colors of the Swiss flag, which is a white cross on red ground, so it become a red cross in white ground. We face this misunderstanding not just in Yemen but also in others countries so we keep on explaining that the emblem of ICRC is non-religious and signifies neutrality.

Who are your main partners in Yemen? In which capacity?

ICRC works closely with the Yemeni Red Crescent YRCS enhancing their capacities to enable them to perform their tasks and provide their services to citizens in the best possible quality. In 2004 and 2005, training sessions were held to increase the YRCS' capacity to make the principles of the Red Cross-Red Crescent Movement and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) known, and re-establish links between refugees and their families abroad. The two institutions held in April 2005 a seminar on the protection of war victims in Islamic law and international humanitarian law in Aden and as I mentioned before YRCS and ICRC worked together in assessing the humanitarian situation in Saadah following the armed confrontations in summer 2004.

There are other partners of ICRC in Yemen, among them the National Commission on International Humanitarian Law and Educational Research and Development Center, as well as NGO's such as Civic Democratic Initiatives Support Foundation CDF and Woman's Center Against Violence.

Why are you interested in promoting the IHL and who are your target groups?

We totally believe the dignity and the physical and moral integrity of human beings must be safeguarded in wartime. Therefore ICRC endeavors to promote IHL, which includes fundamental rules and humanitarian values that call for providing the protection and the assistance to victims of war and internal violence.

ICRC tries to promote IHL by providing advice, training and legal counseling to the government and the legislator bodies on issues of ratifying IHL instruments, and adapting the national legislation to the ratified treaties. Also by giving advice and support about introducing humanitarian principles and the basics of IHL into the curricula of schools, universities and training and educational institutes of the army and security forces.

What have you done in Yemen regarding land mines- anti-personnel mines?

The ICRC started a teaching and training program to upgrade the skills of technicians of two state-run orthopedic centers in Sana'a and Mukalla, using ICRC technology and experts to produce artificial limbs. Two ICRC ortho- prosthetists arrived in Yemen in February 2003 to implement the program in conjunction with the Ministry of Health at the new Mukalla center, as well as to follow up on progress at the Sana'a workshop, which has originally been founded by the ICRC in the 1960s. During January-June 2005, the Mukalla workshop delivered 35 prostheses and provided 273 orthoses to patients while in the workshop in Sana'a produced 54 prostheses and 82 orthoses and medical shoes.

Could you tell us about the Red Cross letters and maintaining family links project?

ICRC tracing services help refugees in Yemen locate and restore contact with family members in their home countries. The Red Cross Message RCM service also enables Yemeni families to restore ties with relatives held in US detention in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Since April 2002 until June 2005, 2080 RCM were exchanged between Yemeni detainees there and their families at home. 2,775 messages were exchanged between refugees in Yemen and their families. 317 among persons in relation to the conflict and crisis in Iraq and 11 others among persons in relation to the conflict in Afghanistan.

From your regular visits to Guantanamo Detention camp, how do you assess the situation there?

The ICRC has been visiting detainees held at Guantanamo since January 2002. There are currently about 540 detainees from roughly 40 countries. By February 2005, the ICRC had facilitated the exchange of more than 15,000 Red Cross messages between the detainees and their families.

For many detainees at Guantanamo Bay more than two and a half years have passed since their arrest. The ICRC has always mentioned that those detainees remaining in Guantanamo Bay should either be charged and tried, released or be placed within a legal framework that governs their continued detention. On 28th June 2004, the United States Supreme Court ruled that 14 Guantanamo Bay detainees could file for rights of habeas corpus-that is, challenges to the legality of their detention- in US federal courts. This decision has opened the door for other detainees at Guantanamo Bay to challenge the legality of their detention in US courts. The ICRC closely follows developments in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. The ICRC believes that the uncertainty about their fate has been a contributing factor to the mental and emotional health problems among the detainees at Guantanamo Bay observed by its delegates and reported by other sources.

As an international organization your mandate instates neutrality, how do you mange to maintain that in complicated situations, such as Guantanamo and other conflicts?

Neutrality is a fundamental critical principle. ICRC maintains a dialogue with all warring parties and act as an intermediary between them, at the same time remaining detached from all political issues related to conflict. Therefore, we think that the parties of any conflict we are working in have to accept our neutrality and let the ICRC reach the victims and help them. Nowadays it is difficult for us because there are parties who do not wholly accept this basic idea of neutrality.

Regarding Guantanamo, the role of the ICRC an as independent and neutral humanitarian organization with a mandate conferred on it by states, is to regularly assess the conditions of detentions, the treatment of detainees and respect of their fundamental judicial guarantees. The ICRC offers observations and makes recommendations for improvements-where appropriate – in the course of its ongoing dialogue with the US authorities. While the ICRC monitors the situation at Bagram, Kandahar and Guantanamo Bay, the responsibility for ensuring that persons held there are indeed treated in accordance with IHL and other applicable bodies of law lies with the US authorities.

The ICRC regularly discusses its findings concerning Guantanamo Bay with the military authorities in the camp as well as with the appropriate US representatives in Washington. While the ICRC has felt compelled to make some of its concerns public, notably regarding the legal status of the detainees, the primary channel for addressing issues related to detention remains its direct and confidential dialogue with the US authorities. The question of the legal status of the persons detained by the US at Bagram, Guantanamo Bay or at so-called undisclosed locations, as well as the legal framework applicable to them remains unsolved.

But there is an accusation that you knew about the offences and torture that have been practiced against the detainees for example in Abu Ghreib prison?

As I told you our role is to assess the conditions of detentions, the treatment of detainees and respect of their fundamental judicial guarantees. We are working in a confidential way. But confidentiality dose not mean complicity. Our responsibility is not to speak publicly, our role is to report to the involved authorities to solve and correct the situations.

When the scandal of Abu Ghreib came up, the confidential report of the ICRC was to the press and was published in the Internet. We insist that this report was not leaked by the ICRC, and we were against the publication of this confidential report. But as this had occurred without us playing a role, it showed that ICRC had in fact complied a report on what had happened there, on the basis of what the detainees told us, and sent this report to the US authorities with recommendation to stop such behaviors. Later this report became one main reference document of the American senator who inquired into the Abu Ghreib scandal. The public opinion has to understand that we have a particular way to say our things that don't reach the public for good reasons.

Nowadays ICRC's workers who are supposed to protect victims are themselves subjected to risks. How do you work under such circumstances?

ICRC has a very good reputation as an impartial, impartial humanitarian organization that aims to help people. These principles attract people to work with us. However nowadays providing security to our workers becomes a challenge. But still in many countries where we work people trust us and that is very important. For example Palestinian grandma trusts that the Red Cross, she can take a bus of the ICRC to go visiting her grandson in an Israeli jail. Despite the risks that we face in our work, we go on because we know people needs us and rely on us.