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In Somalia, ICRC Demands Hospitals Serve All Wounded, While Working With "Local Authorities"

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, June 12 -- As the residents of Mogadishu have fled the shelling of their neighborhoods, the International Committee of the Red Cross has "had better access than other" humanitarian groups, ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger told reporters at the UN on Tuesday. The access is explained, he said, by both commitment and neutrality.  "We have never left Somalia since the beginning of the Nineties," he said. "And we are not taking political sides."

            Earlier this year, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia Eric Laroche argued openly for taking sides with the Transitional Federal Government, which came from Baidoa and took control of Mogadishu in the wake of Ethiopia's tanks. At the time, non-governmental organizations such as Action Contre La Faim questioned Laroche's call to support the TFG's police. [These police are reportedly paid with UN system money.] "If I am wrong, you can judge me later," Laroche said at the time.

            Months later, the fighting in and flight of displaced people from Mogadishu only grew worse. Even UN agencies, notably the World Food Program, found their access to deliver aid curtailed, including by the TFG. As Mr. Kellenberger diplomatically put it on Tuesday after meeting with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, "There were obstacles for some humanitarian actors."  ICRC's "neutrality is a tool," he said, "the best change to get access to those in need of protection."

Mr. Ban and Mr. Kellenberger: who's more neutral, in Somalia and elsewhere?

            Outside a briefing of the UN Security Council by Ethiopia's foreign minister on April 27 of this year, a representative of the Somali TFG told Inner City Press that the World Food Program had been paying militias that, he said, were opposed to the TFG.  On Tuesday, Inner City Press asked Mr. Kellenberger if ICRC pays for protection, and how that might implicate neutrality.

            Mr. Kellenberger, after saying "I cannot answer," recounted that recently the new TFG health minister visited him in Geneva.  "I said to her, we want to be sure that in hospitals that ICRC supports, all wounded with be cared for and helped." And that, Mr. Kellenberger said, is neutrality. "It does not mean that we are without feeling," but rather that "we are not taking political sides," he said. Video here, from Minute 15:06 to 20:58.

            Mr. Kellenberger propounded a "principle of ICRC -- we don't accept military or police protection in the context of armed conflict." There is one exception, he said. "If the security risk is not link to the armed conflict," as in the case of banditry.

            Since the TFG in Somalia calls its opponents not only terrorists, but also bandits, it might seem that ICRC's exception has been applied in Mogadishu. Mr. Kellenberger said only that ICRC works closely "with local authorities with the transportation and distribution" of aid. Which local authorities?

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540