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Interview with head of ICRC mission in Nagorno-Karabakh

 - It is already 25 years that the International Committee of the Red Cross in Artsakh has been implementing its humanitarian mission. What are the main achievements and needs you have addressed? 

- The overall goal of the organization is to help people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence, to protect their dignity and relieve their suffering. We work based on the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. Our experiencenables us to respond quickly, effectively and without taking sides. We also develop and monitor compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL).   

Since 1992 and until today, the ICRC has been present in the region in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict arrying out humanitarian work  through the Mission in Nagorno-Karabakh, Delegations in Yerevan and Baku.  

Like in many other places, in Nagorno- Karabakh as  well, the ICRC works in three directions: protection of people whose protection is under international humanitarian law, assistance to civilian population and dissemination of IHL. We also act as a neutral intermediary between the sides to the conflict upon their request to solve acute humanitarian issues, for instance, facilitation of operation on the evacuation of bodies of those killed in action from the battlefield, as we did in April 2016. 

Among this variety of activities, many have brought support to individuals or communities. Generally, the very presence of the organisation in this region since 1992 and proximity to the victims of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can be considered an achievement. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the ICRC has been able to address a range of needs of people affected by the conflict. If to go back to the most difficult years of 1990s, when the active phase of fighting was ongoing, then we were present on the ground distributing food parcels, warm blankets, and candles to the civilian population affected by the conflict. We also delivered emergency assistance to hospitals receiving war-wounded. When the active phase of the fighting stopped, hundreds of civilians restored access to water as a result of our activities, we provided some construction materials for people without adequate shelter, mainly internally displaced people who returned to their home communities. Slowly, we switched to programs intended to help villagers living in areas that were most affected by the conflict to become self- supporting again. Thus, we distributed  seeds of potatoes, wheat seed, vegetable seed kits, beehives along with food parcels and food preservation kits to some 5’400 people living in areas that were most affected by the conflict. As the situation slowly went back to normal, the ICRC continued to focus on the remaining needs in relation to the conflict. The big programs on providing material assistance had finished giving space to other programs, such us assistance to primary healthcare structure, construction of safer play grounds in villages contaminated with mines and other unexploded remnants of war, etc. 

In terms of protection activities, we can say that since its presence in the region, the ICRC has been visiting people detained in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. We also have been acting as a neutral intermediary between the sides to facilitate the handover. 

The issue of the people who went missing as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been among the key issues since our presence in the region, and here we would like to see more progress. The ICRC delegations in Baku and Yerevan, as well as mission in Nagorno-Karabakh registered more than 4,500 people who went missing as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from 1990s. Their families suffer, emotionally and economically. They still do not know what happened to their missing loved ones and many of them continue to live between hope and despair. The families have the right to know, and this is an obligation of the parties to the conflict under the international humanitarian law to provide them with answers. The ICRC works with the sides to help them clarify the fate of missing people and meantime help them fulfil their legal obligation. From 2008-2011, the ICRC gathered detailed data about each registered missing person from their family. This data is being processed by the Commissions on Prisoners of War, Hostages and Missing Persons. In parallel, biological samples are collected from blood relatives for extraction of DNA in the hope that they might help to identify remains found during any future exhumations. In 2015, we submitted the list of everyone unaccounted for in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict registered by the ICRC to the sides, asking them to do all they can to clarify their fate. Seizing this opportunity, I would like to emphasize again that the ICRC remains committed to supporting all the concerned stakeholders to deliver on their obligations to clarify the fate of the missing.

As to the dissemination of knowledge about IHL, then this activity has been going hand in hand with all other activities since 1992. 

- In various countries, in particular between the conflicting parties, the ICRC acts as a neutral intermediary as guided by the norms of international humanitarian law. What kind of programs have you implemented to address and raise problems related to the human diminished dignity, provision of the normal living conditions and a number of problems raising from it in the International law court?

-Being neutral and impartial, the ICRC is capable of offering its humanitarian assistance in conflict situations and to affected people. The ICRC also monitors and documents alleged violations of IHL.  These violations include incidents such as the killing or wounding of civilians, or significant property damages. To address such cases, the ICRC maintains its confidential dialogue with the parties to the conflict, highlighting their IHL commitments to distinguish between military and civilian targets, and applying proportional use of force. For the ICRC to be – and be perceived as – truly independent and to be capable to access victims of the conflict, international or domestic tribunals should not be able to compel the ICRC to provide information. Since if such information was used in legal proceedings in favour of or against one of the parties to an armed conflict, this would inevitably undermine the perception of – and trust in – the ICRC as truly neutral in that conflict. Therefore, ICRC does not raise such issues in any international courts; moreover, the ICRC has the privilege not to testify in front of international criminal courts. 

As to our assistance and other programs, then I would like to focus on the current ones. Residents of Talish village, who remain displaced following the escalation of the conflict in April 2016, have been continuously benefiting from our support. Initially, the assistance was in the form of monthly cash for those who did not have regular sufficient salary. This cash assistance was intended to help them buy food, hygiene items, communication and transportation as well as meet other urgent needs. Subsequently, since April 2017, we transitioned to other types of assistance. The idea was to help them become more independent by creating livelihood opportunities and sustainable sources of income. Thus, the ICRC initiated a food production project for displaced families from Talish, which enabled them to grow vegetables for the whole year and produce seeds for the next year. In addition, the ICRC supported collective small income-generating projects such as beekeeping, cattle breeding and pig breeding. In such cases, we provide money to purchase fodder and livestock, while people construct a shelter to keep them. All these projects of course include only those displaced families who wish to participate. The ICRC also organised trainings for them to help them manage their projects and keep accurate financial records. 

We also assist victims of mines and unexploded ordnances of war. Since 2012, 275 households have benefited from various small income-generating projects, 14 people received cash to cover their urgent needs and 31 mine victims and their family members have improved their housing conditions. Vulnerable elderly living alone are also among our beneficiaries. More than 270 of them receive a monthly supplement to their pensions from the ICRC, enabling them to maintain minimum living standards. 

This is to name some of our socio-economic assistance activities. Apart from this, we work with families of missing people; there are around 400 such families in Nagorno-Karabakh registered by the Mission. To many of them we provide comprehensive support by offering psychosocial assistance, identifying various health, legal or economic needs and supporting their solution. As already mentioned, we also visit detained people to monitor conditions of their detention and their treatment, and we help them maintain contact with their families.

- The humanitarian programs of the organization naturally involve problems related to social support, first aid of the people in difficult situations and other issues of vital importance. What have you recorded in this sense?

- As a rule, it is Red Cross or Red Crescent National Societies that deal with first aid component. In the absence of a National Society in Nagorno-Karabakh, the ICRC helps the Service of Emergency Situations of Nagorno-Karabakh improve their first-aid capacity by providing training opportunities to their respective personnel. This year we’ll provide the trained teams with necessary equipment and teaching materials, so that they can transmit the knowledge and skills to others. In addition, this year together with the Service of Emergency Situations, we plan to train key members of some villages located in vicinity to the line of contact on first aid skills. 

- ICRC organizes various seminars. Who are involved in those seminars and specifically what is the aim of them? 

- Indeed, we organize various courses and seminars as well. Throughout its history, the ICRC has collected huge experience in many areas such as treating of wounded, management of the dead or training in international humanitarian law. We are on the ground also to share this knowledge and help structures strengthen capacity of their personnel enabling them to respond properly in conflict-related situations. In some cases, we sponsor their participation in non-ICRC training. The training can be in the form of seminars, workshops, etc. For example, last year we organized a course on Emergency Room Trauma, a war surgery seminar for some selected medical specialists of Nagorno-Karabakh and a training on dead body management. We also organized a workshop for media professionals to highlight the importance of accurate coverage of humanitarian topics and protection of journalists under IHL. As the guardian of IHL, the ICRC actively promotes and disseminates knowledge about this branch of the law among militaries, academics and young researchers. We do believe that by integrating the knowledge we increase the chances that the norms of the law will be respected.  

- During those 25 years what was the biggest achievement of the organization in Artsakh? Was it possible to solve problems arisen as a result of the conflict (conflict related problems) with the norms of the IHL in our country? What projects are you going to implement in future?

 - I would like to reiterate that the ICRC’s biggest achievement  - and  privilege - is its continuous presence in this region, dialogue with the sides on humanitarian issues, and very importantly, access and proximity to people who suffer  from the consequences of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Generating respect for the law is indeed a long and complex process; however, if IHL were not respected, many of our projects could not be made possible. There is one thing that I would like to emphasize as well - we work for people and with people. With this respect, the words of appreciation that we hear from the parents when they receive a Red Cross Message from their detained son and happy eyes of a mine victim when he realizes that he again can become a breadwinner for the family due to the income-generating project supported by the ICRC are part of the achievement. As to the plans for future, we will continue working based on the principles of neutrality and impartiality, to assist people affected by the conflict for as long as there will be the need.