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HOD of the ICRC Delegation in Azerbaijan: “The ICRC is in favor of holding the meetings of Azerbaijani and Armenian CEPODs regularly if the parties wish”

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Kamala Guliyeva; The interview of HOD of the ICRC Delegation in Azerbaijan Ms Denise Duran with APA

- The ICRC is active in the region for 20 years. How do you assess the ICRC activities during this period? Could the ICRC accomplish its mission in Azerbaijan?

- As you know, the ICRC's mission is to bring assistance and protection to persons affected by conflict and violence. Since the outbreak of the conflict in Nagorny Karabakh, ICRC has worked towards this. Over the years the humanitarian needs of the affected people have changed and ICRC had to change its programs and adapt them to an evolving situation. In the early years, we were engaged in bringing emergency humanitarian support to people fleeing the fighting, to the refugees and IDPs. In terms of protection, the ICRC began offering its services as a neutral intermediary between the parties to the conflict by visiting POWs and Civilian Internees and by conducting prisoner transfers when the parties wished it. There were medical orthopedic, agricultural, mine awareness programs.

In more recent years, although they are still very much affected by the unsettled conflict, people's situation has stabilized. The government as well as many humanitarian organizations offered better living conditions to refugees and IDPs and the active fighting reduced to the sporadic engagements we see across the front line in these years. So, ICRC adapted and began offering the types of service we now engage in.

We have an important program to support vulnerable families still living near the frontline. Here we work with the AzRCS to identify the most vulnerable communities and families. We bring an integrated support package: we offer cash grants to poor households, community infrastructure projects rehabilitating water sources for drinking and irrigation, or other community infrastructure. We identify homes exposed to shooting across the frontline and help these families build protective walls or barriers so that they will be less exposed and better protected. In keeping with our mandate to promote the respect of the rules of war, or International Humanitarian Law (IHL), we monitor the effect of military actions on civilians and make confidential interventions to the parties to the conflict when the civilian population's right to be protected from the direct consequences of military engagements is violated.

We continue to facilitate the transfer of POWs or Civilian Internees between the parties to the conflict. The last transfer from the opposite side took place in Nov 2012 in Gazarkh District . We visit the POWs and CIs during their detention to monitor that they are being treated humanely and to maintain communication with their families.

As you know, over 4000 people are still unaccounted for from the time of active fighting. The ICRC works closely with the State Commission on POW, Hostages and Missing Persons (CEPOD) to register cases of missing persons and to collect as much information on the circumstances of their disappearance in the hope of finding answers for the grieving families. In recent years, the ICRC, together with the AzRCS, collected detailed information on each missing person, information on the circumstances of their disappearance and is in the process, with the CEPOD of entering this enormous amount of information into a database that may one day help to match found or recovered human remains. This year we intend to collect biological samples from the families of missing persons in order to improve the possibility of one day matching exhumed bodies with missing persons. Both of these projects to collect data from the relatives of every missing person are enormous undertakings. For example, we will collect biological samples from about 16 000 persons, since we need to collect samples from up to 4 close family members of the missing person to optimize the chances of a successful match. All of this work is conducted in close collaboration with the authorities and will happen in Armenia , Azerbaijan, and Nagorny Karabakh.

We also visit prisoners held in Azerbaijan's prisons, in keeping with our mandate to monitor that the material conditions in the prisons respect minimum standards and that prisoners are treated humanely.

ICRC promotes the respect of IHL by offering its support to the Ministry of Defense to ensure that the respect of IHL is integrated in the training, doctrines and directives of the military. We promote the respect of this body of law to civilian circles as well, including legislators, academics, journalists and civil society.

With the police and Internal troops, the ICRC promotes the respect of national laws and international policing standards when conducting operations so as to minimize the human consequences of their policing operations.

- Which activities were implemented in 2013 in Azerbaijan by the ICRC?

- The ICRC, through a joint project with the British Red Cross and in cooperation with AzRCS volunteers from three branches worked on an integrated support project. In ten villages and one IDP settlement, 511 of the most vulnerable households (2,300 individuals) received conditional cash grants to develop productive activities that suit their specific needs and skills such as livestock, agricultural and small business activities. The grants also included a non-conditional component to cover their immediate household needs.

The project supported seven villages (1553 households - 6986 individuals) through community projects. Such projects consisted of rehabilitation of boreholes to provide water for irrigation; reconstruction of public cultural buildings and kindergartens; construction of public showers and a house: and provision of three ceremonial tents.

In the villages of Gapanly, Gaziyan, in Terter district, and Tap Garagoyunlu, in Goranboy district, eight families (32 individuals) were supported to construct protective walls to make their home safer from shooting across the frontline.

Three unemployed juveniles were supported with a three-month vocational training course and three complementary kits (one welding equipment and two video cameras) in order to enhance their chances to find either employment or develop their own business.

Eleven new water supply structures have been constructed to improve villagers (2,057 residents and 2,400 IDPs) access to clean and adequate water supplies. In the same objective, four water-pumping stations from 2011 projects (2641 residents) have been rehabilitated as well. In order to sustain these efforts all these projects have been carried out in close cooperation with national agencies -including water boards at both national and local levels. The ICRC also initiated an awareness campaign to promote a sustainable usage of water supply systems among the civilian population.

In Azerbaijan some 4000 detailed data questionnaires completed by families of the missing and collected by National Society volunteers and/or the ICRC between 2008 and 2011, continued to be progressively handed over to CEPOD. With the aim of preserving information to facilitate future efforts to identify human remains, to clarify the fate of the missing and to provide their families with an answer, the ICRC launched discussions with the Azerbaijani government on the modalities of a forthcoming collection campaign of biological samples from families of the missing.

At the same time, the ICRC continued its advocacy for a strictly humanitarian dialogue between the concerned parties to clarify the fate of the missing persons, as well as for a comprehensive gravesites mapping effort with the view to enable exhumations to start. Acting as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC furthermore transmitted requests between the parties to facilitate the exchange of information related to missing persons.

4 psychologists and 14 accompaniers from families of missing persons were trained in basic skills for psychosocial support, needs assessment, resource mapping and mobilization, as well as facilitation of support groups. 422 families of missing persons in Baku and Barda had their needs assessed through household survey, and 223 people were assessed for psychological distress, both of which were conducted in partnership with three local NGOs.

Following identification of their specific needs, 158 families received emotional support through follow-up home visits, 17 support groups were formed, through which 130 people (106 women, 24 men) benefited from peer support and structured thematic discussions with therapeutic intent. 135 families were referred to the authorities for their social and legal needs, and 256 families benefited from referrals for free medical services provided by the Red Crescent Society of the Islamic Republic of Iran. To reinforce these referral services, steps were taken to encourage the authorities to enforce the legal rights of families of the missing to access free medical care and socioeconomic benefits. As a part of the support group process, one commemoration event was organized by 71 families in the frontline region. In addition, the International Day of the Disappeared was commemorated in Barda and Baku by the families and the accompaniers.

A few separated family members continued to rely on the ICRC’s family-links services, such as Red Cross Messages containing family news and phone calls, to keep in touch with their relatives, including those held in detention facilities.

The ICRC carried out 23 detention visits to detainees held by the Azerbaijani Ministries of Internal Affairs, Justice, Health and National Security. The ICRC furthermore carried out 12 visits to monitor the conditions of detention and treatment of 5 Armenian civilian internees, and 4 Azerbaijani and Armenian prisoners of war.

Acting as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC furthermore facilitated the repatriation from Armenia of 1 Azerbaijani civilian internee in November 2012. Following detention visits, the ICRC discussed its findings with the authorities concerned, providing recommendations on detainees’ treatment and detention conditions, and submitting written representations as necessary.

The ICRC distributed, on an ad hoc basis, orthopaedic support, clothing, hygiene, educational and recreational items. The ICRC furthermore facilitated the re-establishment and maintaining of family contacts through the exchange of family messages, family parcels, short oral messages transmitted through the ICRC by phone and, in the case of foreigners, direct phone calls.

The ICRC continued promoting Azerbaijan’s prison TB program as a model in the region by organizing study tours for foreign government officials, such as the ones conducted for high-level officials from Turkmenistan and for penitentiary service delegations form the Philippines or Kyrgyzstan. A documentary film on the fight against TB in detention was produces to be used as a training tool for other countries hoping to emulate the success of the program in Azerbaijan.

During the World Economic Forum in Davos the president of Azerbaijan and the ICRC president discussed humanitarian issues. These included the ICRC’s role as a neutral intermediary, its work concerning detainees and missing persons and humanitarian access to conflict-affected people.

All meetings with the authorities, including the de facto authorities in Nagorny Karabakh, focused on these issues, including during a round-table attended by the authorities of 13 districts along the Line of Contact and the international border with Armenia.

The Azerbaijani parliament continued working with the ICRC towards ensuring the protection of cultural property and the rights of the missing and their families through legislation. Parliament adopted some amendments to Criminal Code about violations of IHL norms during armed conflict.

The Judicial-Legal Council invited the ICRC to present IHL related topics as a part of training for 76 future judges.

39 officers also attended 3 five-day training seminars conducted by a regional ICRC expert on armed and security forces. Attendants of Strategic Courses on Security and State Administration conducted in the Military College for the representatives of different state bodies were also briefed about the ICRC activities and basics of IHL.

Cooperation with Ministry of Internal Affairs continued. Two workshops on international policing standards were held in November and December 2012 including 24 police officers and 24 military servicemen of the Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The workshop for journalists organized by the ICRC in 2012 enhanced media coverage of ICRC activities and the accuracy of their reporting, thereby helping to raise public awareness of humanitarian issues, both in the country and abroad.

The AzRCS and ICRC work together in fields such as the dissemination of IHL and the Movement’s Fundamental Principles, restoring family links, weapon contamination, disaster preparedness, first aid, including printing of new first aid manuals. The National Society worked with the British Red Cross and the ICRC in responding to the needs of people affected by conflict, including IDPs along the frontline. 12 staff and volunteers from AzRCS’s local branches participated in Economic Security training. The Goranboy branch received a new vehicle, making it easier for staff to reach conflict-affected communities.

The ICRC provides support to the AzRCS in developing and updating their conflict related contingency plan that aimed at strengthening preparedness and response capacity of the NS. Mobile disaster response teams of the AzRCS were trained in carrying out emergency needs assessments.

The NS increased fund-raising activity and installed on-line donation through its web page.

The AzRCS in partnership with the ICRC continues close collaboration with the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) and collection of data on mine incidents and assessment of needs of families that lost breadwinners in the result of mine incident. NS staff from 12 local branches in war-affected regions participated in weapons contamination workshop by the ANAMA, ICRC and AzRCS. During 2012 with the support of the ICRC, the AzRCS provided assistance to 13 vulnerable mine victims' families who lost breadwinners in the result of mine explosions.

- How many POWs and hostages were released under the ICRC auspices within 20 years?

- About 700 POWs or Civilian Internees have been transferred home with ICRC's support as a neutral intermediary.

- How many missing persons are registered by the ICRC? What is the difference with the list of CEPOD?

- By the end of 2012, the ICRC had registered 4'627 cases of people still unaccounted for as a result of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, with 4,191 cases of missing persons being handled by the ICRC in Azerbaijan, including Nagorny Karabakh.

The difference with the CEPOD list relates to the different criteria the two organizations apply when registering cases of mission persons. For the ICRC, a case for a missing person can only be opened by a family member. CEPOD's criteria allows registering a missing case even without the direct involvement of a family member of the missing person. ICRC and CEPOD are working towards reconciling the lists.

- How many POWs and CIs are kept in Azerbaijan and Armenia now? When was the last visit to them?

- Today, there is an Armenian CI family of 5 persons held in Azerbaijan and 1 Azerbaijani POW held in Armenia.

ICRC last visited the Azerbaijani POW on March 27 and the Armenian CI family on 07.02.2013 They exchanged family news and the ICRC delegates met with the families of the detained/interned persons after the visit to give them moral support.

- Which projects are being implemented in Azerbaijan currently? What are your priorities for the coming 20 years?

- Our current activities are in continuity with the activities of 2012 with no major changes.

ICRC hopes to continue and deepen its role as a neutral intermediary between the parties. This depends on the wishes of the parties and their progress on humanitarian issues that ICRC could offer support on. The exchange of information regarding missing between the Armenia and Azerbaijani CEPODs is ongoing and ICRC would like to accelerate this if possible. Among other options, a meeting of the two CEPODs conducted under the auspices of the ICRC is something we are always willing to facilitate.

In the coming years, ICRC hopes that the parties will be ready to discuss humanitarian issues of mutual concern and is available to support them.

- According to information given by CEPOD, Azerbaijani POWs kept in Armenia are subject to moral & psychological pressure, to slander that they will be arrested upon their return to the Motherland. As a result of such pressure 8 Azerbaijani military servicemen preferred to live in the 3rd country against their will. Have you revealed any fact proving this during your visits?

- ICRC visits places of detention in order to verify the humane conditions of detention and treatment of the POWs and/or CIs. We also maintain the connection to their families during the time of their detention through the exchange of family messages and by having the ICRC visiting delegates meet with the families after the visits take place.

What ever the ICRC learns during its visits to POWs and CIs is treated in a confidential manner. We report our recommendations only to the detaining authority so that they may take measures to improve the situation, if needed.

According to the relevant bodies of international law, people have the right to request refugee status and to not return to their country of origin. This decision belongs to each individual to make and is treated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

- The ICRC is preparing a new project to achieve essential improvement in clarification of the fates of missing persons. Which activities will be done in the frame of this project?

- Yes, the new project plans to collect biological samples from the families of the missing in order to prepare to do DNA matching with any possible exhumed gravesites. The government has given its approval for the project to begin in 2013. The ICRC will work closely with the CEPOD and the Forensic Institute. There has been discussion on collection of blood samples or buccal samples, and finally buccal samples will be collected through a pilot project for 100 families. This will allow all the stake holders to assess the quality of the DNA collected through the buccal swab. After that we will decide to go ahead with buccal swab collection for all the families, or we will change to collecting blood samples. The collection of buccal swabs is logistically simpler that collecting blood and would considerably simplify the process, if it turns out to be a viable method of collecting and storing DNA samples. This method has been used in several situations before and looks promising.

- All families suffering from the conflict and those who lost their loved ones are waiting for the launch of this project. When will the agreement on the blood sample collection be signed between the ICRC and Azerbaijani Government?

- We have agreement on the start of the pilot phase of the collection of biological samples in the form of buccal swabs and it will start this year. Like to collection of detailed questionnaires, this is an enormous project logistically speaking. Collecting the questionnaires took over 3 years. Collecting biological samples will also take some time. This data will be added to the existing data on each missing person case. When exhumations begin, this information is expected to help in matching deceased persons with the family members so that the families may know the fate of their missing loved one.

- The ICRC was discussing the issue of mapping the gravesites with the Governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia. In which stage are these negotiations currently?

- The ICRC has offered its support in gravesite mapping and preservation and remains ready to help.

- Azerbaijani CEPOD has already begun searching for such gravesites in the country. How many graves were found up to now? Is the same procedure implemented in Armenia? How many graves were found there?

- The CEPOD keeps the ICRC informed of its activities but it is not up to ICRC to give information on CEPOD's work.

- Could the ICRC become an intermediary for the meeting of Azerbaijani and Armenian CEPODs?

- Yes. The ICRC is available to support such a meeting. The last meeting took place in 2005 and we are in favor of holding such meetings regularly if the parties wish.

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