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Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (IDPs) - Interview: Cornelio Sommaruga, blue hands, Red Cross

Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (IDPs) - Interview: Cornelio Sommaruga, blue hands, Red Cross
Refugees (103, I - 1996)

1 March 1996
Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, talks about ICRC's responsibility for protecting and assisting the victims of armed conflict.

An estimated 30 million people are internally displaced as a result of armed conflict.

As civilian victims of war, they fall under the protection of international humanitarian law - specifically the Geneva Conventions. ICRC, the guardian of those conventions, works closely with UNHCR, whether in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Russia or the Great Lakes.

Refugees recently interviewed ICRC President Cornelio Sommaruga for his views on that relationship, now and in the future.

QUESTION: Recently, UNHCR has been increasingly called on to assist people who have been displaced within the borders of their own countries - sometimes even in war zones. These operations do not fall under UNHCR's mandate. They arise from specific requests by the U.N. Secretary-General or the General Assembly and the country concerned. Has this relatively new activity by UNHCR altered the relationship between UNHCR and the ICRC?

ANSWER: It's important to take a look at the mandates. Under the Geneva Convention, the ICRC is responsible for protecting and assisting the victims of armed conflicts - whether international or civil - not just during the conflict itself, but also following it. This is a very vast mandate, covering not only civilians who are victims of armed conflict but also those who have left their country because of those conflicts, and who are called refugees.

ICRC has clearly given priority to UNHCR in terms of the protection and assistance of refugees, as well as refugee-related issues such as repatriation. In terms of people displaced within their own countries, there can be no doubt: ICRC has a mandate, and intends to carry it out. It is a mandate of protection and assistance for these people, who are civilians, who have been forcibly displaced or have fled because of an armed conflict. And in this area, we agree, there is no general mandate for UNHCR. There are specific initiatives by UNHCR resulting from resolutions, notably by the General Assembly and Security Council.

The main issue for us is to seek a good balance with UNHCR, and to define who does what. We certainly do not exclude the possibility - which is often the reality - that both our agencies may act together to help the internally displaced. Still, such programmes need to be undertaken, not on the basis of individual initiatives, but after mutual agreement. The needs of the victims should be the priority. Those needs are so great that we need the synergy that can result from both our agencies working together.

We have a positive dialogue with UNHCR, at every level. We may not always achieve 100 percent agreement, but we do try to reconcile our differences.

Sometimes UNHCR and ICRC divide the workload by geographical area, as in the ongoing operation to assist displaced Chechens. Sometimes the division of labour is by task, as in Tajikistan, where the ICRC assisted people who had fled to the east of the country, and UNHCR helped return them to their homes (along with refugees who were returning from Afghanistan). Are these demarcation lines rational, and do they work well? Is our coordination sound?

The key is to agree on our collaboration. Geographical division may be a relatively easy way to share the tasks, especially in countries undergoing decomposition, where some regions are in conflict and others at relative peace.

Of course, there can be surprises in such situations. In the autumn of 1991, there was already a large number of displaced persons in what was still the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.This was an enormous problem. Bosnia-Herzegovina was not yet at war, at the time. We set out a balance with UNHCR, and we cooperated on that basis. Then war broke out in Bosnia - but we had cooperated, and we continued to do so. Working together in the same situation was possible only thanks to constant coordination. In fact, that cooperation even gave us the possibility to issue common humanitarian appeals to governments. There was one difference, however: ICRC did not use armed UNPROFOR escorts.

So you do feel that the cooperation between UNHCR and ICRC in Bosnia has been healthy. What are the basic principles that make for sound cooperation?

In Bosnia, as you say, the problems aren't really between UNHCR and ICRC - because the main issue now is return, and our two agencies agree that priority should be given to the displaced persons in Bosnia. We do sometimes have coordination problems with other agencies, however. There's a lot of agitation around Bosnia right now, on the part of many organizations: this can be a positive thing, but can also lead to the risk of overlapping responsibilities and redundancy.

This has led us to insist more emphatically on the necessity of sound coordination. If we want positive results, and if we're serious about coordinating, then, firstly, we need to be clear and transparent with each other. Secondly, we need good communication - we have to talk to each other, in a structured and orderly way. Thirdly, we need mutual trust. We should not assume we would do better than other agencies, in their place. Fourthly, every agency must respect the mandate of every other. Those mandates may need to be precisely defined, if they aren't clear - but once they are defined, they should be respected. Finally, it's not enough to talk: we need to act.

You don't feel that the problem of overlapping responsibilities could be an issue between UNHCR and ICRC?

Obviously, I do sometimes wonder about UNHCR. Where do you go from here? What are UNHCR's future policies? If we have been able to cooperate well till now, it's because, where we may have encountered certain collisions in our respective mandates, we have divided the work. I wonder if this will always be the case, if indeed there are tendencies on the part of UNHCR that may want to assist, basically, civilians in situations that result from armed conflict - wherever they are. I think it's important that we discuss this, because ICRC cannot renounce a mandate that stems from the international community, by the Geneva Conventions.

We can maintain a very good relationship, so long as we are clear with each other. If not, that situation could create frustrations - and this sort of thing is not limited to the upper echelons but permeates down to the field. Both our agencies need the solid cooperation and transparency which exists between our delegations and representatives to continue, in the knowledge that the lines of cooperation are clear, fully discussed and properly endorsed. There are a number of very good examples of cooperation in our recent history, where our joint work has created significant complementarities and synergy.

What are some of those examples?

Tajikistan is a good example. Chechnya: after a few initial hesitations, that operation began to work quite well rather quickly. Somalia, in the difficult years: UNHCR looked after people who were outside the country, and their repatriation, while ICRC looked after the internally displaced.

Bosnia is also a good example: there have been ups and downs, but we have been able to go back, look at the issues, discuss them and correct any problems. I can't cite every case! We have also done solid ad hoc work together in situations like that of the Vietnamese boat-people, where our Central Tracing Agency was very closely involved.

On the other hand, a few years ago, we did not appreciate the idea that UNHCR would establish a sort of subsidiary of our Central Tracing Agency for unaccompanied minors from former Yugoslavia, with a whole separate tracing system. We were very surprised by that. We would have preferred to see synergy created by concentrating our energies on the existing system - improving it, if necessary, but not creating a parallel alternative.

And, in fact, in Rwanda what has happened on that same issue of unaccompanied minors is rather significant. After a few hesitations in the beginning, when everyone seemed to want to take charge of that problem, we reached agreement. The work is being done under the leadership of ICRC and its Central Tracing Agency. Together, we have managed to established files on 100,000 unaccompanied minors, which include the data that will enable us to identify their families. We have united some 12,000 to 13,000 children with their families.

I was present at one of those reunions, in Kigali. It was an extraordinary event. And it was something that we had succeeded in doing together, each agency working in its own area.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (1996)