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International Red Cross expands role as ethnic conflicts grow

AUGUST 21, 1995

‘A lot more than food and medicine’

International Red Cross expands role as ethnic conflicts grow


GENEVA-To millions of people all over the world, the flag with a red cross on a white background signifies relief in the form of medical assistance, food, water and urgently needed assistance. But few understand the extent and depth of the work done by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies based in Geneva. The ICRC helps victims of war and of international and internal armed conflict, while the Federation focuses on bringing relief to victims of, natural disasters and coordinates the work of national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

“What people see on CNN is food distribution but this is not our only priority,” said Cornelio Sommaruga, president of ICRC in an interview with The Earth Times. “We protect the lives of detained persons whether they are prisoners of war or people in occupied territories, by giving them medical aid, food and sometimes even infrastructure help like providing sanitation and clean water as in Rwanda.”

The Red Cross concept of humanitarian service was originally the brainchild, of Henry Dunant, a young Geneva businessman who set up an organization called the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded” in 1863. It became the founding organization of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. For more than 125 years, throughout two World Wars and innumerable other conflicts, in times of disaster, disease and famine, the Red Cross has been the leading institution in offering relief and immediate assistance.

“We were in Somalia before the United Nations in 1992,” said Sommaruga. “We fed about two million people in 14 months which amounted to about 170,000 tons of food and it is estimated we saved over a million lives” He added: “I sent a letter to the UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar as early as December 23, 1991, telling him what was happening in Somalia. I later spoke to his successor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali as well but the UN was slow to respond.” Last year alone, ICRC supplied 300,000 tons of food to 50 countries.

The reason ICRC can respond faster to situations than the UN is that it is an independent, private, and nonpolitical institution. Its committee is composed of Swiss citizens and its funding comes from governments, foundations and private individuals. For 1995 it has a
budget of one billion Swiss Francs, or about US$710 million. The US, Switzerland and the European Union are among the important funding countries.

“One area that is of great concern to me,” said Sommaruga,” is the former Yugoslavia. We have a deficit of 40 million Swiss Francs (about USS28 million) for this year. But we wi1l still provide the relief that is needed there. “Our priority is to stay close to the victims.”

By giving donors constant updates on conflict situations, the needs of victims and the financial situation, ICRC manages to keep the flow of assistance going. “I would like to say in general the contribution of the Gulf countries is limited and not what it we could expect,” said Sommaruga .

Apart from food and medical assistance which includes setting up field hospitals and flying surgical teams to local hospitals and helping vaccinate people in areas where epidemics break out as in Rwanda, ICRC also helps to, rehabilitate victims of war. Land mine casualties, and women and children who have had to have a limb amputated are rehabilitated and helped to find work. “We work closely with 30 orthopedic centers around the world,” said Sommaruga.

The ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency is the only service of its kind in the world for locating missing persons, reuniting families, and transmitting correspondence between members of families separated by war and conflict. It transmits over a million messages

“Last year we transmitted around eight million messages,” said Sommaruga, who travels widely to visit field projects. “Our own personnel with local employees go out to search for missing persons. The importance of this tracing service is that we are able to reunite families and children with their parents. In Rwanda and Somalia where the concept of family is much larger we have been able to find homes for thousands of orphans.”