by Hoyumi Yashiro:
Geoff Loane is the Head of Mission for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) UK and Ireland. Previously he was the Head of the Delegation for US and Canada, and worked in the Horn of Africa for 14 years. He has also worked in the Balkans and Middle East. The interview was originally conducted on 18 November, 2013. This is the abridged transcript which has been edited and published with the kind permission of Mr. Loane.
Hoyumi Yashiro: Thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you. As head of the delegation for the US and Canada, you have had experiences of Guantanamo. Can you tell me what you think about the ICRC’s activities and the situation there?
Geoff Loane: We visited detainees in Guantanamo following specific and standard procedures in which we talk to the authorities first, then we see the entire facility, then we see individual detainees on their own. We analyse the situation there and share our finding and recommendation with the authorities.
We look at three main areas in prisons. Firstly, treatment of detainees, to ensure they meet the standards outlined by appropriate legislation and by the Geneva Conventions. Focus areas include the means of interrogation, treatment in custody and facilities. Secondly, we look at the conditions of detention. The important thing is the balance between military necessity and human dignity. Actual living conditions are critically important. The third area is the legal and policy framework within which detainees are held. We share our findings with governments in confidence, without publishing them. We visit half a million prisoners and more than 2000 places of detentions in the world, and Guantanamo is one of those places. Countries like the US say standards are met, so they invite and welcome scrutiny, and they have to live with scrutiny as well.
You also worked in the Horn of Africa. During your time in the Horn of Africa, how would you explain the activities of the ICRC in relation to that part of the world?
The Horn of Africa had conflicts for many decades in different degrees and ways. I worked there for 14 years from 1984. The first challenge there is that main victims are the civilians, who don’t choose to be in the conflicts. Reaching those victims is extremely difficult, and protecting civilians is a huge priority. The second challenge is the respect of humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions are very clear about the obligation of belligerents in terms of making a distinction between combatants and non-combatants. But they often do not respect those rules enough, and the result is that the civilian population suffers. The third area is getting access to the population. There I think the ICRC has enjoyed generally good access. It is complicated because we negotiate with multiple belligerents, multiple armed factions to be able to bring food and health care. The key is always to have access to people.
Can you elaborate on any other difficulties you have encountered in the field?
Yes, a lot. Central is staff security. Other challenges are to do with the consent of the authorities, both government authority and armed groups’ authority. We need their consent and support for our humanitarian action. It’s not always easy to accept third party involvement. The authority has to be confident that we are coming solely to deliver humanitarian assistance for victims.
My job is to delegate to provide the space for humanitarian work to be done, but that means convincing the government and armed oppositions, who have their own priorities. With the governments, it’s easier because the government is structured and understands Geneva Conventions and humanitarian obligations, but the opposition groups are more complicated. They may not understand who we are, they may not trust us fully, and may need to watch us. They do not have any history of working with us. But the field delegations need to have the necessary security guarantees from everybody carrying weapons.
The complex nature of Civil War means humanitarian law is often not respected. What is it like to carry out operations in these environments?
Civil wars are always the most difficult places to work. It’s much more intense, the most difficult place to work. The part of international humanitarian law is much less comprehensive, much less precise and much more general. That’s what the states wanted when they drafted the Geneva Conventions. So we need to be very persuasive about the humanitarian job we undertake. We are appealing to the humanitarian nature of leaders arguing that they have fundamental humanitarian responsibilities towards their people. ICRC operations all over the world are the testimony to leaders’ acceptance of their humanitarian obligation. Human beings cause the problems but there is still credit in helping to find the solution to the problem. But they can do more as well. More can be always done.
Hoyumi Yashiro is a Master’s candidate at the Department of War Studies where she studies Conflict, Secruity and Development. She is an international student from Japan. You can follow her on Twitter @hoyumiyashiro.